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The Man from Nowhere

August 17, 2000

How do you know a real Washington insider? He’s someone who has seen the charming side of Al Gore. Those who have spent private time with Gore swear he has one, and now and then it makes a fleeting public appearance, only to vanish immediately.

But he can’t seem to project it at will. He comes across as the eternal grad student, droning theses and dropping names. It’s nice to have a vice president who has heard of Descartes, even if he joins rather too glibly in tiresome Descartes- bashing. But the private Gore seems to have no connection to the public Gore. The tip of the iceberg bears no relation to the submerged mass.

Gore is a practitioner of rote politics. He feels he has to adopt his party’s orthodoxies as well as his president’s kaleidoscopic positions. For him politics has always been a set of mechanical gestures, leaving no scope for self-expression. He has suppressed the inner man so long — since youth, actually — that he’s not there when he needs him. Habits of insincerity have taken their toll, and the problem is compounded by his self-consciousness about his stiff appearance.

It’s further compounded by his awkward groping for a self. He hires consultants to help him become an Alpha Male, he changes his wardrobe for effect, and when word of these efforts leaks out he only looks ridiculous. He needs professional help to seem natural, but nothing seems to work. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

[Breaker quote: In 
search of a self]Bill Clinton has that swing; George W. Bush has a touch of it. Reagan had it, John Kennedy had it, Franklin Roosevelt had it — these were men who loved a crowd, even if the crowd was an invisible and inaudible radio or TV audience. They could sense the immediate reactions their words would produce. What need had they of pollsters and focus groups? They had something better: humor.

If you can’t laugh with people, people are likely to laugh at you. As a humorist, Al Gore is perilously close to Mike Dukakis. He has something of Dukakis’s deracinated quality: he seems homeless, not in the current sense of destitute, but simply in lacking any smack of having come from a real place.

Gore, the son of a senator, grew up in a Washington hotel, and it shows. Most of his contact with ordinary people apparently came from calling room service. He never acquired the earthiness of his (technical) native state, Tennessee. He talks about the earth a lot, but only in abstract ideological terms; he doesn’t seem to have made its acquaintance by personal contact.

Despite his flagrant inconsistencies and occasional bald lies, Gore has an obvious distaste for politics. In fact he probably fights dirty because he can’t conceive of politics as an elevated calling; he figures that if you’re going to descend into it, you may as well go all the way. At least Bill Clinton enjoys the sport of it; Gore fights with the cruelty of a man who is deathly afraid of a fight and feels he must win or die. Because he deems politics unworthy of him, he employs unworthy tactics.

It’s always painful to watch a man who is out of his element. The truth is that Gore doesn’t belong in politics; and though the fact may be to his credit, he dutifully chose — or rather, imposed on himself — a political career anyway. And like so many men who are naturally unsuited for politics, he was oddly suited for the vice presidency. Presidential candidates seek running mates who won’t upstage them, as a rule.

It’s interesting that Gore has departed from this rule by choosing a running mate who would upstage him. The most exciting act of his career was his selection of Joe Lieberman for his ticket, as if he hoped that Lieberman would draw attention from himself. If that was his intention, it worked.

One thing is certain: this campaign isn’t going to be much fun. Gore will be suffering all the way, it will be painfully obvious to everyone, and he may decide to make it unpleasant for others too.

Joseph Sobran

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