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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Since then, Bush has spent much less time in school rooms, and more time in war rooms. Gore, however, is still in the nursery, pondering the pressures of children and work. This emphasis, another relic of a long-gone era, is not likely to take him too far in this one. "Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Americans seem less interested in a president who will understand their ordinary stresses than one who will protect them against extraordinary dangers," writes Ronald Brownstein in the Los Angeles Times. "Gore's Time Has Come and Gone," he titled his column. Cruel, and astute.

And then the Gore Tour became sharper and shriller, under the stress of bad news. Time's Karen Tumulty interviewed Gore three days after the midterm elections, and it is striking how strident he was. Bush's policies, he told her, were "catastrophic," "horrible," even "immoral," and were "taking the country to a very bad place." Of course it might be that Gore was strident because Bush had triumphed; that the success of his rival was too much to bear. Then came more bad news: The books were not selling. Then came a CBS/New York Times poll, that put his favorable ratings at . . . 19 percent. After this came the notorious interview with the New York Observer, in which a Nixonian Gore blamed a press infested with Republican "fifth-columnists" for blasting his hopes. If 2002 is bringing Bush what he did not get in 2000--the wholehearted support of the public--it is also bringing Gore what he did not get last time, which in his case is wholesale rejection. And this time, he cannot blame the Court.

GORE'S VIEW OF HIMSELF is that he is a victim, and in one sense he is right. In her Washington Post profile, Liza Mundy let us see a man she labeled "OtherGore," a serious man with a great thirst for knowledge and intellectual ambitions. OtherGore teaches a course at Fisk College and Middle Tennessee State University, where he immerses himself in research on families. He also hosts a seminar at Harvard, where he and a clique of like-minded professors discuss global warming, information technology, and the theory and nature of speech. In this world, OtherGore seems as happy and fluent as PoliticalGore appears stilted and strained. In a better world, Gore would be spending his life in rooms with these people, discussing the things that interest him and bore most politicians. But it was his bad luck, which for a long time seemed his good luck, that he was born to two well-placed and fiercely ambitious political players, who saw him from his birth as a possible president, and who told him his role was to lead.

It would perhaps have been better for Gore if he had lost big at the outset, so that he could have gone on to his true métier and calling. But the curse of Al Gore is that he always looked too good on paper, and when sheltered by others seemed to do so well. He won his father's old seats in the House and the Senate as the appealing young Harvard grad-veteran son of his father, and he was elected vice president as the gravitas partner of Bill "Slick Willie" Clinton, a flighty and weightless political natural.

It was only when he ran on his own that his weaknesses were glaring. In 1988, and then again in 2000, he proved unable to do what George W. Bush had done easily--assemble a loyal and competent team that could work well together, plot out a strategy, and stay with a theme. This set Gore up for the 2000 debacle, when he entered the field with a strategic edge and managed to lose through his poor political instincts, such as his decisions in crucial debates to try to bully and hector his rival. It is likely that Gore always seemed like an ugly campaigner because he was a poor one; like an amateur actor who over-emotes, pulling faces and screaming, when the lift of an eyebrow would work very well. His attacks and his pieties were both overdone, and both made voters uneasy. The political Gore never seemed real, because the real Gore was never political. And this real Gore has never been in public view.

Gore seems a man of impressive abilities, who is achingly stupid in politics. He is the man who in 1996 decided to give his "no controlling legal authority" press conference to damp down charges of fundraising malfeasance, and thought he had done a good job. He is the man who decided to give a six-Kleenex speech at the 1996 Democratic Convention about how his sister's death in 1984 from lung cancer had made him an obdurate foe of the tobacco industry, even though he was still bragging about his role as a tobacco grower as late as 1988. He is the man who stood beside Bill Clinton when he was impeached, and called this disgraced figure one of our greatest American presidents. He is the man who thought it was smart to pay Naomi Wolf $15,000 a month to make him an Alpha Male dressed in earth tones; who thought it was a good idea to roll his eyes and sigh loudly in the first presidential debate in 2000; and who then went against the advice of all of his consultants to stalk over to Bush and hover above him, to the bemusement of everyone watching. (Gore later thought he had won the debate.)

This is not the record of somebody born to be president. This is the profile of somebody born to work for a think tank. "The only way to make sense of Al Gore," wrote Marjorie Williams when he lost in 2000, "is to see him as a man for whom politics is an ill-fitting trade, adopted under the duress of family legacy. . . . Politics has always had, for Gore, the quality of a second language, learned by the class grind not naturally gifted in this area, mastered by rote and sheer force of will." Add to this the agonizing conditions of the 2000 election--the closeness, the doubts, and the margin of error--and you have for yourselves a terrible story, as Gore tries over and over to make things turn out different and better, and by trying makes everything worse.

Like Gore or not, this is an unbearable story. "Do you remember where you were when they stopped counting the votes in 2000? Do you remember how you felt?" he keeps asking. It is clear enough now that he will never forget it, that in the dark night of his soul it is always still 10:01 in the evening of December 12, 2000. The wound, as it seems, is in him, not in his country. And it seems now it will never heal.

Noemie Emery, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is writing a book, "Great Expectations: The Lives of Political Sons."