The Magazine

Al Gore's Scarred Psyche

America has gotten over Florida, but he hasn't.

Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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THESE POLITICAL PLOYS having been none too effective, Gore then rolled out his publicity blizzard, at the wrong moment and in the wrong way. Defending his crown as the least lucky man in the country, he launched his grievance revival just as his target--Bush the Usurper--came off the best week of his life. Bush made history for his side by winning seats in his first midterm elections, he won a 15-0 vote in the Security Council, and, in the eyes of all but the most entrenched diehards, settled the question of his own legitimacy by attaining the mandate he had failed to win earlier. Another blow was delivered in Florida, the very scene of the crime. From December 12, 2000, Democrats had looked ahead two years to the midterm elections when they would have the president's brother in their crosshairs. All the voters done in by the chads and the butterfly ballots would flock to the polls to obtain satisfaction. The party elbowed Janet Reno aside and poured barrels of cash into Florida. Jeb Bush was toast. Jeb Bush was history. Jeb Bush was . . . reelected by a 13-point spread. Turns out the outrage was not all that endemic. If Florida works as an issue, it seems to work best for Republicans.

"Do you remember where you were in 2000 when they stopped counting the votes?" Gore kept on asking his audience. Actually, few people want to hear any more about Florida at the end of 2000, and they wanted still less to be hearing about it after September 11, 2001. On September 11, we lost more than 3,000 people, going about their own workaday business, and there is still a huge crater in lower Manhattan. Just weeks after the first anniversary of this disaster, the Washington suburbs fell prey to two snipers who killed ten people, injured three others, and for more than three weeks made millions of people fear for their lives. The day after the snipers were captured, Paul Wellstone and five others were killed.

At this less than propitious moment, the Gores started a book tour and unleashed on the nation the tale of the woes and injustices they have had to endure during and since the 2000 election. These included having to buy their own mansion (a $2.3 million white house in Nashville), stand in line at the airport, and buy their own stuff in the stores. The two big kickoff interviews--a prime-time confession with Barbara Walters, and a long piece by Liza Mundy in the Washington Post magazine--focused on their wounded feelings and treated the Gores as a passel of invalids, in recovery from some dreadful ordeal.

Gore let the women and children make the zingiest charges. Sweetly, Tipper said over and over that the mean Supreme Court had stolen their victory. The Gores' older daughters, Kristen and Karenna, told Barbara Walters how beastly it was to be cooped up in the vice presidential mansion while protesters outside expressed displeasure at their father's attempts to disenfranchise absentee voters in Florida. Said Kristen, "We felt sort of like . . . trapped in this . . . you know, little house, with all of these people yelling mean things." No one could predict that the midterm elections would finally legitimize Bush, and knock the props from under Gore's claim that the 2000 result had been very bad for this country. But a defter politician would have figured out that the country had turned a very sharp corner on September 11, and left the culture of self-pity behind. This is no longer Bill Clinton's America. Talking is out and doing is in; Oprah is out and Rudy is in, and the daytime TV sensation is Pentagon briefings. The Gores do not shine in Don Rumsfeld's America. They merely seem whiney, and strange.

The feel of the Gore books--"Joined at the Heart" and "The Spirit of Family"--is ancien régime. It is about families--and, you guessed it, feelings--and comes from the era when Bill Clinton's big theme was school uniforms, and faith-based institutions were the biggest things on the president's mind. (For a time before he turned populist, Gore tried to run on a "livability agenda," addressing the pressures of stressed-out suburbanites with such things as a national phone number to help drivers avoid traffic jams.) And for a while, when the Dow stood at 11,000, and terrorists did their dirty work in faraway countries, this sort of thing appeared important: George W. Bush, let us remember, was reading to children when the towers were hit.