EVERY DAY, it becomes more and more obvious that a dreadful wrong has been done to Al Gore. No, not the outcome of the 2000 election, though that would have been gruesome for anyone. The election was a tie, each side had grounds to complain about one court or another, and each had reason to believe that some fluke had cost it an unknowable number of votes. In the end, the bad luck on both sides probably worked out to the same kind of tie that prevailed in everything else having to do with that election, but it was inevitable that the loser would be sentenced to a lifetime of gut-churning anguish. There is a story that after his 49 state wipeout in 1984 Walter Mondale asked George McGovern how long it took him to recover from his 49-state wipeout 12 years earlier; McGovern told him he would let him know when he did.
But the real wrong done Gore was less that he lost than that he had had such a dreadful time doing it, and may have had a bad time for much of his life. David Remnick at the New Yorker has developed an intriguing small sideline profiling politicians who could have been president but slipped up and lost everything, his previous takes being Gary Hart, who could have been president if not for the Monkey Business; and Mario Cuomo, who might have been president if he had run in 1992, but who, when Remnick got to him, was reduced to hosting an unlistened-to talk show.
Remnick's >latest riff, in this week's New Yorker, is about Gore, who might have been president if several Florida ballots had been printed differently, or he hadn't backed gun control (goodbye Tennessee and West Virginia), or Bill Clinton hadn't fooled around with an intern, or he hadn't screwed up the debates. Gore is now back in Tennessee (a state that rejected him), where he seems to be making a new career out of grievance, feeding off of contacts with people who assure him he won and was cheated, and venting his rage against Bush. But behind the story of a man who may have lost by a fluke is the story of a man who spent his whole life in the wrong occupation, and lost in large measure because he never fit into the one he was in. What comes through in this piece is what has come through in others--such as Nicholas Lemann's four years ago in the New Yorker, and Liza Mundy's two years ago in the Washington Post: Gore possesses a high degree of the kind of intelligence that is no use whatever in politics, and none of the talents that are, either. He seems born for the world of think tanks and schoolrooms, of dissertations and seminars, of endless digressions about this and that.
In one soliloquy, as Remnick tells us, Gore mentioned in sequence, "the brain-imaging center at New York University, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess by Leonard Sclain; Broca's Brain by Carl Sagan . . . the lack of research on the relation between the brain and television . . . Gutenberg and the rise of print . . . David Sarnoff; the agricultural origin of the term 'broadcast' . . . an article on 'flow' in Scientific American; the 'orienting reflex' in vertebrates; the poignancy and 'ultimate failure' of political demonstrations as a means of engaging the aforementioned public sphere."
This is not how presidents are given to spending their time. "One tries, and fails, to imagine the current president alluding to the author of Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action," Remnick says, snottily. But one tries and fails to imagine FDR or JFK doing this either, much less Colin Powell, and/or John McCain. As for the real things that engage real politicians--the dynamics of power among states and people, how to move people, how to frame and sustain a large message--Gore has no sense whatsoever. But his parents, who did, were determined he ought to be president, and raised him from infancy with this goal in mind. If his dynamic sister had been born a boy, she might have fulfilled their ambitions. It was his extremely bad luck she was not.
As the world knows now, a reluctant John Kennedy was dragooned by his father into running for Congress, was elected, and spent the next few years doing little, and lamenting his fate. But then something odd seemed to happen: he came to love politics, and discovered he had a great gift. "Fascination began to grip me," he said in 1959, when he was running for president. "I saw how ideally politics filled the Greek definition of happiness: 'A full use of your powers, along lines of excellence, in a life affording scope.'" It seems fair to say that no such "fascination" ever came to grip Albert Gore.
"Politics was a horrible career choice for him," an aide said to Remnick. "He finds dealing with other people draining. . . . He should have been a college professor or a scientist or an engineer." He began his political career by making a terrible speech and throwing up later, and things did not get better: he would be stiff and robotic in campaign appearances, and his public smiles "seemed a form of pain." He won easily when he ran as his father's son for his father's old House seat, won easily when he ran as his father's son for his father's old seat in the Senate, and won of course in l992 and l996 when he ran with Bill Clinton. But the one time he ran on his own, in his l988 run for president, his campaign was a catastrophe, in which he never failed to make the wrong choice. In 2000, he ran without his father or Clinton, and made all the same errors. His parents had raised a boy with no feel for politics to believe the presidency was something he owed them and that was owed to him by the universe, and the stage was set for a human catastrophe. A perfectly good policy wonk, who could have had a rapturously happy life in the depths of a think tank, was turned instead into a failed politician, who will bear a great wound to his death.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.