The Red and the Black and the Veep
Why is Stendhal's The Red and the Black Al Gore's favorite novel?
Sep 25, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 02 • By DAVID FRUM
IN HIS PURSUIT of the presidency, Al Gore has acquired something more than a new wardrobe -- he's acquired a new reading list.
In a softball interview broadcast on September 11, Gore told Oprah Winfrey that his favorite novel was The Red and the Black, by the French writer Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal. Last November, Gore told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times the same thing. But Gore's literary tastes have not always been so exalted. Back in March 1988, during his first presidential run, he told the Chicago Tribune that his favorite novelist was James Michener.
Well, tastes change. People grow. But as always with Gore, there's something odd about this latest growth spurt.
Most of Gore's tastes are solidly mass-market. He told Oprah that his favorite musical group was the Beatles and that his favorite quotation was a line from a Bob Dylan song. In 1988, he told the Chicago Tribune that his favorite album was Bruce Spring-steen's Born In The U.S.A. and that his favorite films were E.T., the sentimental 1960s antiwar movie King of Hearts, and Local Hero. (Only Local Hero got his nod on Oprah's show.) While these tastes would fit nicely alongside a partiality for James Michener, they don't square well with an enthusiasm for early 19th-century French literature. (For what it's worth, Amazon reports that the books most often bought by Spring-steen enthusiasts include a mystery novel, Eric Alterman's fervent biography of The Boss, and the heart-warming true story of Lance Armstrong. The musical tastes of purchasers of The Red and the Black, on the other hand, run to Antonio Vivaldi and John Coltrane.)
In fact, the mismatch between Gore's new literary taste and his taste in movies and music is so glaring as to raise the question whether he might not be polishing up his resume a little. For by amazing coincidence, Gore is not the first politician to cite The Red and the Black among his favorite novels. Forty years ago, John F. Kennedy gave Hugh Sidey a list of his favorite books. It featured two works of fiction: From Russia with Love and The Red and the Black.
So maybe Gore was striking a Kennedyesque pose. But it's at least equally possible that he read the book and genuinely identified with it. And why shouldn't he? Its hero, after all, is a man very like himself.
The first time we meet Julien Sorel, he is being abused by his over-bearing brute of a father. To escape him, Julien agrees to enter a vocation chosen by the old man that he himself despises: the priesthood. What Julien really wants is to be a soldier, like his hero Napoleon, but he first grudgingly and then enthusiastically follows his father's orders.
To adapt to his distasteful career, young Julien consciously makes hypocrisy the foundation of his character. He vows "never to say anything unless it seemed false to himself." And so he falls in with the conventional opinions of the powerful men around him, worthless as they are. Indeed, as the narrator of the book observes -- and as Julien would agree -- "public opinion . . . is as stupid in the small towns of France as it is in the United States of America."
Julien is not exactly a villain. He's not cold-blooded enough and, truth be told, not competent enough either. "Though he thought himself very cautious, all our hero's first steps . . . were blunders." At one point, he even seriously considers a good friend's advice to give up on his dreams of glory and earn an honest living for himself: "Just remember that, even financially speaking, it is better to earn a hundred louis in a sound timber business, where you are your own boss, than to get four thousand francs from any government, be it King Solomon's."
From time to time, he feels pangs of very genuine regret for his cynical way of life. At a party in Paris, he meets Count Altamira, a grandee exiled from the Kingdom of Naples for leading exactly the kind of liberal revolution for which Julien secretly longs. In the end, however, Julien realizes that so bold a course is not for him. He "simply lacked the audacity to be sincere." Instead, he climbs through society by playing on the credulity of the women around him, seducing the wife of his first employer and the daughter of his second. When the first mistress interferes with his projected marriage to the second, he shoots her. She survives, but he is sentenced to death. At his trial, he denounces the injustice of the society that condemns him.
You can see why this book would appeal to John F. Kennedy, not one overmuch impressed by middle-class morality. But what does it mean that it speaks to Al Gore? Can it be that this conscientious man -- a veteran, a devoted husband, a good father -- really sees himself as a Romantic antihero, forced to seduce, manipulate, dissemble, and lie, contemptuous of the blockheadedness of the people he deceives? ("The great misfortune of small towns in France," the narrator notes, "and of governments by election, like that of New York, is that you are never allowed to forget that fellows like M. de Renal" -- Julien's first employer -- "exist in the world. In the midst of a city of twenty thousand inhabitants such individuals mold public opinion, and public opinion is a terrible thing in a country that has a constitution.") And if Gore does harbor such secret thoughts, can it be that he was using Dowd and Oprah to give us all some kind of fair warning that he is inwardly even weirder than outwardly he seems?
David Frum, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of a history of the 1970s, How We Got Here.