One morning in late September 1998, a few days after the day on which the House Judiciary Committee had made the nation a Rosh Hashanah gift of Clinton’s grand jury testimony, I went to the White House to talk to a man now contemplating the fact that he was about to be handed, and possibly sooner rather than later, an un¬pleasantly limp baton.
The vice president’s office shares a reception area with the pres¬ident’s, and on this morning members of the Congressional Black Caucus, led by Maxine Waters, were arriving to meet with Clinton. The Black Caucus had recently appointed itself the fairness referee in the president’s impending struggle with Congress, and if they had been wearing mood badges that morning, every badge would have displayed the same message: Comfort Level Extremely High. The African-American public is almost united in its contempt for the charges Starr chose to bring against the president, and this has put the black congressional leadership in the unusual position of being able to take a stand on principle without giving up an inch of political ground. If the president pulls through, they will have earned many favors. If he falls, they will be there to pick up some of the pieces. Charles Rangel, the longtime Harlem congressman who sat on the House Judiciary Committee that voted articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon, was slapping backs and growling with genial pleasure, like a politician inside his own local clubhouse. The thought occurred that Charles Rangel always gives the impression of a politician inside his own local clubhouse. But the manner seemed to fit the moment.
Several nights earlier, Gore had introduced the president at a blacktie dinner sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, and I had watched him on C-SPAN, doing some homework on the famously inscrutable Gore body language. He has, as a public speaker, only two dials on the console: pace and volume. To convey gravity, he slows down; to convey urgency, he gets louder. Clinton purrs; Gore declaims. In his address to the Black Caucus, he ended by listing, at about volume nine, the positions to which Clinton has appointed African-Americans during his administration. It was, in¬deed, a long and impressive list, and it accomplished the desired end of bringing the audience to their feet. When Clinton’s turn at the podium came, he was, by comparison, muted, long-winded, and a little dry, as though the only thing on the minds of everyone in the room must be the pros and cons of pending empowerment-zone legislation. “Just doing the job the American people elected me to do” was the message implied by the performance. One could see the division of labor for the midterm campaign ahead.
Once we were inside the vice president’s office and the door was closed, the world of the Black Caucus and the Starr report seemed shut out. The vice president said that he was glad to have the chance to discuss serious subjects; so much of his time was being taken up by what he called “all these political events.”
Physically, what strikes you first about Gore is the solidity. He has the frame of an athlete, but the upper body is heavy, and the complexion is unexpectedly pale. The mask is, indeed, a mysterious feature. He inflects with his face, rather than with his voice. He grimaces, as though he were putting a kind of facial English on the words, and though the effect seems self-conscious, it brings out a certain ruggedness. You see the muscular Gore, the superachiever, the star quarterback who is also captain of the debating team and is invited on Sunday afternoons to have tea with the dean. But in repose the face sometimes goes completely flaccid, the eyes become hooded, and you see the Vulcan side. The light for the hard drive is on, but there is no message on the screen.
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Like the face, the manner sends disparate signals. The initial impression is of mildness; the demeanor is formal, the aura is tepid. The system has clearly been designed to avoid wasteful heat loss. The second impression, though, is of a certain stubbornness, and a certain capacity, carefully walled off, for impatience. This is, after all, a man who ran for president when he was forty, something that requires not only unusual self-discipline (not to mention self- importance), but an unusual willingness to demand self-discipline of others. One imagines that Gore has trained himself so well to live within the narrow definition of what a politician must be today in order to survive that he has little tolerance for ordinary fecklessness. He could, by his appearance, be the head of an extremely prosperous nondenominational church, a man of God who sits on the boards of corporations, and for whom a degree of personal rectitude that would be pretty much inconceivable for most of us is just part of the job description. When I explained that my assignment was to capture the essence of his thought, the vice president laughed self- deprecatingly. “I wish you luck,” he said. But he did not seem displeased.
Still, I said, I wanted to know his answer to a political question first: Why has the Clinton-Gore administration been the object of so much animosity? It is, after all, basically a centrist, pro-business, pro-defense administration; it adopted a Republican welfare plan and it balanced the budget without losing the support of traditional Democratic constituencies. These were precisely the policies the new genome was supposed to produce. But the halo of electability had not been transformed into a halo of leadership ability. The Whitewater story broke in the Times even before Clinton had taken the oath of office, and his presidency has endured ever since a political and journalistic inquisition the essential effect of which, whatever the justifications, has been to place its legitimacy on permanent probation.