Deconstructing Al

The former Veep comes alive with a no-holds barred attack on the "War President" and his cabinet

There’s Al Gore,” said the guy behind the bar who was pouring my drink at the Washington State Democratic Convention in Tacoma.

“Where?” I asked. The former vice president looks large on TV and I had expected to spot him easily above the crowd of partying Democrats, but in real life he’s not that tall. His bodyguards however, are, so I tacked toward a pair of immense men in dark suits and between them finally glimpsed Gore’s familiar profile, moving slowly like the prow of a noble ship through a gathering tide of admirers.

Gore was in no hurry. He seldom is anymore. He’ll stop to sign his autograph, talk to your wife on your cell phone, pose for a photograph with you and your kid. A young woman thrust her digital camera in my hand and asked me to take her picture with Gore, who stood patiently while I fumbled with my drink in one hand and the camera in the other, trying to hold both steady as I aligned the tiny viewfinder.

All told it would take him 25 minutes to reach the speakers’ dais in the banquet hall. It was a rock-star kind of pace, one more in character for an Elvis like Bill Clinton. “Does it always take this long to get him somewhere?” I asked one of the bodyguards, who was trying to open a path through the crowd with his long arms. “Yes,” he said, as Gore’s ship hove to again, and the human waters closed around him.

At New York University 10 days before, in a speech variously termed “searing,” “fiery,” “blistering,” he had called for the resignations of Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, and other members of President Bush’s “war” cabinet. “We simply cannot afford to further increase the risk to our country with more blunders by this team,” he shouted, and for those few riveting minutes out of an hour-long speech, he was lambasted by conservative commentators. Perhaps lambasted is too mild a word.

John Podhoretz: It is now clear that Al Gore is insane.

Charles Krauthammer: Well, it looks as if Al Gore has gone off his lithium again.

Robert Novak: (Gore) gained credence with the huge lunatic wing of the Democratic party this week when he did this imitation of Howard Dean shouting.

Even some on the other side of the political spectrum were backing away, as if he were burning too hot for comfort. Said Time columnist Margaret Carlson, “That looked like Gore channeling Howard Dean in Iowa. It’s not a good performance.” After asking House Leader Nancy Pelosi “what sort of message” her own biting criticism of President Bush sends to U.S. troops, the Iraqi resistance, and al-Qaeda, Tim Russert switched the subject to the “tone” of Gore’s speech. “Well, we all have our own style in these things,” Pelosi demurred.

Two things were striking about the reaction to Gore’s speech. First, it was driven by spin (Was Gore nuts? Was he helping Kerry or hurting him?) instead of substance. There was little mention of the particulars of the sweeping indictment of the Bush administration’s “incompetence” and its compromise of democracy at home and the United States’s moral authority abroad.

Second, for all the fixation on tone, it was clear that none of the pundits actually witnessed much of Gore’s. The NYU speech, sponsored by, resembled for the most part a professorial lecture, delivered with more restraint than obvious passion. The sound bites came in the middle, in a rhetorical crescendo familiar to anyone who’s ever heard a stemwinding politician, or a Southern Baptist preacher. Gore didn’t sound crazy—unless righteous indignation is now a form of insanity.

In the country of William Jennings Bryan and Bob LaFollette, of Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone—a nation with a colorful tradition of vigorous populist speechmaking—when did a raised voice on the stump become so . . . discomfiting? And why weren’t the Democrats picking up the talking points of Gore’s speech and running with them? Almost alone on the op-ed pages, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert talked about what Gore actually said: “It has always been easy to make fun of Al Gore. But if there’s any truth to the thunderous criticism he’s turned loose on the Bush administration this week, it’s time to dispense with the jokes and listen seriously to what the man is saying.”

That didn’t happen. Within a few news cycles, the Gore message was gone, and by the second week of June, it was buried deeper than Ronald Reagan. But the implied message from the media lingered on. It went like this: The man who won the popular vote for the presidency and is still the titular leader of his party, whose warning against the rush to war in Iraq (months before it was echoed by Howard Dean) has proven spectacularly prescient, who vowed to act according to his conscience instead of the polls and, strangely, gives every sign of doing just that—in other words, the Al Gore of Democrats’ dreams—merits little serious consideration in our public discourse.

On the night of June 5 in the packed ballroom at the Tacoma Sheraton, the current Democratic theme song (“I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”) blared from the sound system as Gore made his slow entry. I fell into conversation with a 22-year-old delegate who said he was “outraged by the administration” but thought it “inappropriate” for Gore to voice his outrage so strongly. “It was unbecoming,” Nick Schrock told me. “I don’t think it’s good for the party. It’ll be on the news and people in mainstream America will associate Democrats with that and be alienated.”

I wondered if the former vice president would be mindful of such criticism and pull his punches. When he rose to speak, he sounded at first like he’d wandered into a comedy club. He opened with a Seinfieldesque lament about having to tool around in a rented Ford Taurus after losing his Air Force Two privileges. Gore has been delivering these self-deprecating lines for three years now and his timing is impeccable. But when he recalled being asked what he would do differently if he “had it to do all over again,” the room quieted.

“Well, I would have kissed Tipper longer,” he said, deadpan. “But she was struggling.”

Then he segued into a version of the speech he had given in New York. He pulled no punches. George Bush, he declared, “is the single worst president in U.S. history,” a “moral coward” whose administration displays contempt for dissent, cloaks its actions in secrecy, and tries to “eliminate any restraints on absolute power.” Once again Gore was trying to connect the dots, linking Bush’s disparate policies—on Iraq, on the economy, on the environment—to a consistent pattern of governance that erodes democracy and sounds a lot like creeping totalitarianism.

A good fire-breathing stump speech roils the blood, and it was easy to forget Gore isn’t running for anything. The delegates rose to their feet time and again, applauding and cheering, forcing him to shout above the din. He was preaching to the choir, of course. And it’s exhilarating to see anyone on top of his game. But who would have thought it would be this particular man, at this time? At the midpoint of the year 2004, what are we to make of the rebirth of the Politician Formerly Known As Al Gore?

“It doesn’t surprise me,” says David Maraniss, co-author of Gore’s biography, The Prince of Tennessee. “For one thing, I think Gore was greatly released by not having to be president. Who we’re seeing now is closer to the real Gore instead of the wooden one we saw on the campaign trail.”

According to this take, now that he has nothing to lose, Gore has returned to his populist roots, the genuine source of his political convictions. They nourished his father, the maverick senator from Tennessee whose opposition to the war in Vietnam cost him his Senate seat in 1970. Driving to Tacoma from Seattle, I had heard Gore Vidal musing about the family legacy on public radio’s Democracy Now:

It wasn’t until I watched, to my amazement, my cousin Albert Gore give that wonderful speech up at NYU . . . I’m making no pun, but the Gore blood was at last rippling. We are a political family and we go back to the beginning of the country, and we were the founders amongst the founders of the old party of the people, which means we are original populists, and we came into public view during reconstruction after the Civil War… and suddenly Albert, who could put me to sleep in the year 2000 when he was running … Suddenly, there he is up there at NYU. And he sounds like a President we didn’t get.

But wait—isn’t Gore always re-inventing himself? Dissembling? Flipping and flopping? That’s the other take on Albert Arnold Gore, Jr., one that’s been promulgated and reiterated over the past dozen years. In case after case, it has been shown that Gore got a bum rap for lies, exaggerations, or reversals that he either didn’t make or were the sort of minor inaccuracies common in politics. It didn’t matter. Once established, such a “metanarrative”—the overriding story line which the chroniclers of news are hard-wired to seek—becomes a defining, and in some cases, distorting force. It’s now clear that Al Gore is one of those cases.

In the annals of media analysis, the reviling of Gore is one of the strangest chapters. There’s widespread acknowledgement that many reporters, especially in the print media, deeply dislike Gore; that stories were written which misstated or skewed facts to his disadvantage; that during the 2000 election, reporters tended to be harder on him than Bush. (According to data gathered by the Pew Research Center, the negative-to-positive ratio of Gore’s campaign coverage in early 2000 was twice as high as Bush’s.)

One of the most egregious examples—Gore’s alleged claim that he invented the Internet—was repeated in the media for years after it was shown he made no such claim. “It’s no surprise that GOP operatives would willfully misinterpret a statement from a Democratic presidential candidate. What’s amazing is that the press went along with it so uncritically,” wrote Eric Boehlert in a 2001 article in Rolling Stone. Admitted Time’s Margaret Carlson during the campaign:

“You can actually disprove some of what Bush is saying if you really get in the weeds and get out your calculator, or you look at his record in Texas. But it’s really easy, and it’s fun, to disprove Gore.”

Why such glee at Gore’s expense? No one seems to know, but his personality invariably gets the blame. While his friends are said to describe Gore as warm and funny, reporters seem to know a different Gore: aloof, nerdy, holier-than-thou and a bit hapless. One of the themes of Maraniss’s book is that Gore is the kind of guy who gets nailed for throwing spitballs even when everybody else in the classroom is throwing them too.

“To me, that’s just a cop-out. It’s kind of an excuse as to why this mysterious process is going on. They (reporters) always take themselves out of it and pretend that they’re not doing it,” says Bob Somerby, a D.C.-area comic and college roommate of Gore’s whose Web site has obsessively documented the spin on Gore since 1998. Somerby believes hostile media coverage, not campaign missteps, cost Gore the election. “They hate him—they hate him even more in the mainstream media. They misbehaved incredibly during the last campaign. No one really understands yet how amazing that campaign was.”

All during 2000, the issue of sincerity dogged Gore like toilet paper stuck to his shoe. Reporters place a high value on “authenticity” but they are easy enough to fool, often mistaking a politician’s innate capacity for cunning for being “real.” Bush’s penchant for giving reporters nicknames is an effective example of that cunning. Media handlers know that journalists are exceedingly human— meaning insecure, lazy, and vulnerable to flattery. (As a reporter for many years of my life, I can say this with impunity.) They also know reporters move in packs, like wolves, and are always subject to the discipline of the pack and of their editors, who in their day roamed in packs, too.

According to a Pew survey, half of all journalists mention peer pressure as a reason to avoid covering otherwise newsworthy stories. George Orwell’s observation in 1948 that the literary intellectual “lives and writes in constant dread—not, indeed, of public opinion in the wider sense, but of public opinion within his own group” easily applies to, say, today’s Washington press corps. In the fevered climate of 24-hour cable and Internet news, journalists and their editors know at all times what the competition is reporting, and events become history (meaning old news) in a flash. Nothing—not even inaccuracy—earns more disdain in the business than pursuing or re-evaluating a story that has acquired the fishy taint of “old news” because by definition, that’s not news at all.

This is partly why second acts are difficult to pull off in American politics. Not because the public’s memory is so long, but because the story line, for many reasons, is so resistant to change. And because some public figures are not permitted that freedom.

“It’s possible to change your mind and be credible, but with Gore, it’s almost temperamental,” says Will Saletan, political writer for MSNBC’s Slate. “It doesn’t feel authentic. Gore for all these years has been a moderate with his finger in the wind … a lifelong Democratic Leadership Council apparatchik. The rap on him was exactly that he re-invents himself. He cannot turn away from the DLC without validating that rap on him.”

Translation: Gore is by nature a phony, and everything he does is inauthentic, so he should just … go away. People like Gore, Saletan says, are unsuited for the presidency. “Take (House Majority Leader) Tom DeLay. He presents a lousy face for the party, he’s a vile person. He’s much better suited to where he is now, not running for president . . . . If the person is a bad messenger for issues and ideas, he should get out of the way.”

A more straightforward explanation is that Gore is the opposite of phony—he’s simply a terrible actor. In fact, everyone agrees that Gore is nowhere near as “nimble” as either Clinton or Bush. “Clinton can have a million reinventions,” says Maraniss. Not Gore. “He’s not a natural campaigner or even a politician in some sense. He’s a good guy funneled into the wrong place by expectations. If he had followed his own heart, he’d probably be a professor.”

Maybe. But the heart is a complicated organ. And the books of history and mythology are full of Seabiscuit-type tales of men and women who overcame their innate limitations and staunched their wounds, who returned to us from the abyss of defeat, despair, dangerous ordeals. We love those stories. Is it possible that one of them is unfolding before us?

We have only sketchy details of Albert Arnold Gore, Jr.’s personal and political journey since the breathtaking election of 2000. For the first year, he taught college, vacationed with his family, licked his wounds, watched the Bush administration closely. By September 2001, Gore was ready to get back in the game with a critical speech he planned to make in Iowa. Then the World Trade Center towers fell, and Gore bit his tongue. Six months later, he found his public voice in a speech to a Democratic gathering in Nashville. The voice was subdued, supportive of Bush on the war against terrorism, critical of his economic and environmental policies.

By September 2002, that voice had changed. Before the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Gore challenged the rush to invade Iraq, noting that Bush had pulled a bait-and-switch from the war on terrorism. He said pre-emptive war posed a dangerous break from past foreign policy, and that the failure to build the international coalition Bush’s father had raised for the first Gulf War meant, among other things, that U.S. taxpayers would be stuck with an astronomical bill. While most in
his party were sti
l dithering, Gore became the first Democrat of national stature to speak unequivocally:

No international law can prevent the United States from taking actions to protect its vital interests, when it is manifestly clear that there is a choice to be made between law and survival. I believe, however, that such a choice is not presented in the case of Iraq.

It was a sober, carefully crafted speech. Yes, as a senator, Gore was one of the few Democrats to support the first Gulf War, but that war was different, and here were the reasons why. No, he wasn’t saying the United States should ignore imminent threats to its security, but that Saddam Hussein didn’t pose such a threat and there were better ways of dealing with Iraq without compromising U.S. security or moral authority. The language was precise, but an ordinary person listening to Gore’s arguments could easily follow his reasoning.

Conservative commentators exploded with gibes about Gore’s hair (Sean Hannity), his manhood (“Al Gore, Wimp” read the editorial headline in the New York Post), his “moral infantalism” (George Will), and demeanor (“He’s sweating profusely, right? He seems very angry at different points in his speech. He doesn’t look presidential”—Hannity).

Everywhere in the media, discussion of what Gore actually said was supplanted by why he might have said it. Prevailing wisdom characterized the speech as politically motivated—never mind that polling showed two-thirds of the American public favored war against Iraq. There was much brow-furrowing over how Gore’s views on the first Gulf War jibed or didn’t jibe with the position he was taking now. (Note: They jibed.)

As Eric Alterman wrote in The Nation, “Something about Al Gore brings out the worst in people and nowhere is this truer than in the so-called liberal media …. It’s hard to know how much of the coverage of Gore’s delineation of the many fallacies of pre-emptive war against Iraq was driven by the pundits disliking his message and how much was driven by Gore-hatred per se.” He added:

Personally, I never really liked Gore, and he’s not my choice for 2004. But he sure galvanized Tom Daschle and other Democrats to face up to a frightening juggernaut for war they would have preferred to duck for the sake of re-election. Naderites take note. It was not “smart” in the Washington sense. It was not strategic. But damn it, it was brave. The victim of a stolen presidency demonstrated why democracy matters. The more media chicken hawks sink their tiny beaks into his ass, the more—just this once—I admire his courage.

Apparently the public did, too. By late 2002, Gore’s poll numbers were far ahead of those of Kerry, his closest rival—though, ironically, Gore told people he was no longer taking cues from pollsters or political advisors. Two months later Howard Dean led the antiwar revolt at the Democratic National Committee, and when Gore endorsed Dean in December 2003, he too surged ahead in the polls. Dean now says that boost led to his undoing because it galvanized his opponents—a statement that with time may morph to fit a more familiar story line: Gore’s a political liability, not a plus.

Gore bowed out of the 2004 presidential race on December 15, 2002, surprising many. He was leading Kerry by 39 to 13 percent, a formidable margin. Gore is a born competitor; why did he quit? A clue may lie in an unusually candid interview published in the New York Observer on December 2, quoting Gore’s reaction to a New York Times op-ed piece suggesting that his new spontaneity was a ruse.

When people write a line like one that I read this morning—quote, “People do not change,” period, end quote—well, there’s a difference between learning from experience and self-reinvention,” Mr. Gore said. “People do change, particularly in America. If you don’t learn from the experiences you have in life, then you’re not trying very hard, and if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not human….

During the past three years, Gore has become the most articulate voice of the opposition party, wielding rhetoric like a sword. For a notorious policy wonk, he speaks with surprising clarity and feeling, often using biblical language—as does Bush—to claim the moral high ground. Like the law student and journalist he once was, he ranges far and wide for sources; in his NYU speech he cited Freud, De Sade, Lincoln, and an army specialist at Abu Ghraib prison who was quoted as saying he loved “to make a grown man piss on himself.” In an age when public eloquence is usually the work of professional speech writers, Gore appears to be the author of his own. More than anything, the speeches reveal how much language itself matters to Gore, not just as a means to communicate, but to express his outrage and bring order to his own thinking. If you’re driven by a need to connect all the dots, you’d better find the words to do it.

Lately Gore has added a new coda to his speeches, reminding audiences that he accepted the Supreme Court’s decision to stop the ballot-counting in Florida not because he agreed with it, but because he believes that this is a nation of laws. He adds, “I did not at that moment imagine that Bush would, in the presidency that ensued, demonstrate utter contempt for the rule of law and work at every turn to frustrate accountability . . . .” The ellipses poses a question—does he now wish he’d done things differently? Isn’t that just like Gore?

You could deconstruct that coda to mean that Gore is trying to have it both ways: giving lip service to the “rule of law” while fanning the anger of those who still feel robbed by the Florida decision. That would fit the story line. But Gore has paid, as anyone with an ounce of awareness knows, far more than lip service. He did sit down and shut up after the Supreme Court acted; he did put aside that speech after 9-ll; he did swear allegiance to his commander-in-chief even when some in his own party were gagging.

How about this? Maybe Gore actually means what he says, no more and no less. In the world we’re living in now, that’s a novel thought.

As I left the Sheraton ballroom after Gore had spoken, a man saw the press pass on my neck and stopped me. His name was Ross Hunter; he’s a 42-year-old Microsoft millionaire and state legislator who lives in Bill Gates’ neighborhood. “How do you write something like this up?” he asked.

“What are you going to say?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“All this, I don’t know, this energy.” He made a sweeping gesture around the noisy ballroom, and words seemed to fail him, an odd predicament for a politician. “See, I didn’t get into politics for this, um, excitement. I got into politics because I wanted to fix things.”

“So how do you fix things without getting people excited?”

“I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that out.” He handed me a Re-Elect Ross Hunter flyer. “That was a great speech. The best speech I’ve ever heard him give. I want to give a speech like that. Why wasn’t he like that in 2000?”

Some things can’t be faked. Whatever it was Gore was selling—moral indignation, populist energy, a new clarity of Democratic purpose—everybody in this room wanted some. This was a man finally, magnificently comfortable in his own skin, even as George W. Bush, a continent away, seemed to be shrinking in his.

Gore was writing his own story line, and seemed to know, for once, exactly what he was doing. Deconstruct that.

After a long period of self-imposed exile in Seattle, Brenda Bell will return to Austin in the fall.

Brenda Bell is an Austin journalist and a former reporter at the Austin American-Statesman.

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Published at 12:00 am CST