Al Gore: The real story

Democrats got what many of them appeared to think was a wonderful Christmas present last week when Al Gore took himself out of the presidential race.

Well, as some great prophet once said, be careful what you wish for. Want to know something you aren’t ever likely to see in the mainstream media? There are, believe it or not, many thousands of people who greatly admire, even adore, Gore, and who are in deep mourning because he isn’t running for president.

Don’t believe me? Then take a look at, just one of several fan Web sites for the man commonly thought not to have any fans. This one’s server crashed because of the sheer volume of hits it got from people upset he was not running.

You never would have guessed that anybody would miss Al Gore — at least from the way his non-candidacy was covered. Mostly, it was made to seem like the Democratic Party had been liberated from the dead hand of the past, and millions of joyous citizens were now free to flock to the likes of John Edwards and Howard Dean.

Whoopee. The new front-runner, by the way, is a senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry, a man with a controversial Vietnam record and a notoriously icy personality. Then there is Joe Lieberman, and a bunch of people like Dean, a country doctor turned governor of Vermont, and Edwards, a freshman senator from North Carolina, who are known only to the more pale-faced devotees of C-SPAN.

One of these folks may suddenly catch fire, inspire us all, etc. But the fact is that the former vice president is the Democrats’ only major-league player. If we are still, as seems likely, in our pseudo-war muddle a year from now, the voters aren’t likely to find a country doctor or anybody else without considerable foreign policy experience credible.

Which probably means carrying about six states.

I admit that I am, yes, essentially an admirer of Al Gore, and have been for a long time, ever since I met him at an arms-control conference in Atlanta in 1985. He was thoughtful, non-ideological and knew his stuff.

Later, I came to actually know him, when I was the politics editor of a Tennessee newspaper and he was a fairly new U.S. senator. Once, he invited me to dinner, and I started telling him that I didn’t think much of his wife’s crusade to post warning labels on rock ’n’ roll records with questionable lyrics.

He sized me up, and slyly asked how much I knew about modern music. “Do you think they’re talking about the Beatles singing ‘Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?’” He had his office send me some delightful songs about cutting up women’s vaginas and using them for toilet paper. I was still shakily against censorship, but got the point.

What impressed me was his desire to share knowledge. After he wrote his book, Earth in the Balance, he came to an editorial board meeting and painstakingly and compellingly explained his concepts, even drawing figures on a blackboard.

Yes, he was a little stiff, though less so in private than in public. Should that have bothered us so much? Do we really want a president we could imagine taking to the bar?

One of my favorite memories of him was at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. Would the delegates like to see him do the Macarena? he asked. They roared, and he stood stock-still. “Would you like to see me do it again?” he asked.

That brought the house down. Actually, he has a considerable sense of wry humor, usually lost on the media. Once, accused of claiming to have invented the Internet, Gore said that he had also stayed up all night inventing the camcorder.

He should have stubbornly stayed true to himself. Tragically, he appears to have been Bulworthed by consultants and advisers during the last campaign, and early on seemed to be flailing around in search of an identity; hence all the alpha man and earth-tones nonsense. He took some positions that seemed pandering.

Yet the real villain of the election was the national press, which was far rougher on Gore than on George W. Bush. Why this happened was no mystery; the press does, indeed, tend to vote more “liberal,” since its members know something about the world. But their notion of fairness causes them to be harder on those like themselves. Then too, frat boy Dubya successfully charmed many of the boys on the bus.

So the fact that Gore could be pedantic and annoying was treated as an equal to the fact that Bush was terribly ignorant about most policy matters, especially anything to do with foreign affairs, and usually didn’t care less. Toward the end, Bush actually accused Gore of thinking Social Security was “some sort of federal program.”

Despite the press, the voters chose Gore. But in the greatest irony, the election was close enough to be stolen because a lot of people, repulsed by Monica Lewinsky et al., refused to vote for Gore, one of the very few politicians never accused of marital infidelity. They lined up with the military men who bizarrely preferred Georgie the draft-dodger to the man who enlisted and was sent to Vietnam.

Well, at least for this election cycle, we won’t have Al Gore to kick around anymore. Incidentally, his surprising announcement didn’t really surprise me. For the last month, Al and Tipper had been making the rounds of the talk shows in what many thought was a pre-campaign swing. I watched him one night, and he was completely different. He was relaxed, warm, witty, even charismatic. He seemed happy; seemed comfortable with himself. He seemed, in short, totally sane.

No wonder he didn’t want to run.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail comments to [email protected]
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