The Mind of Al Gore

In the summer of 1992, after he was assured of the Democratic nomination for president, Bill Clinton took a room at the Capitol Hilton, in Washington, and set about the business of interviewing potential running mates. Al Gore was then in his second term as a senator from Tennessee. Gore had run for the Democratic presiden¬tial nomination himself four years earlier, on a platform (boiled down to its crudest political elements) of electability. The basic ar-gument of his campaign was that a Democrat could not win the presidency unless he was a white Southerner. Gore lost the nomina¬tion, but he did not lose the argument. George Bush, a Connecticut Yankee, defeated Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, by running as a Texan. The lesson was not lost on the Democrats. Bill Clinton rose from the ashes of Michael Dukakis.
According to the account in Bob Woodward’s The Agenda, Gore’s vice-presidential interview lasted three hours. Afterward, Clinton told his staff that he was pleased by their compatibility and was inclined to offer Gore the spot. In the context of a transaction usually governed by the political consideration known as “balance,” this was not the obvious choice. Putting Gore on the ticket, the Bush campaign would say when the selection was announced, strengthened Clinton’s chances in Arkansas. Why Gore? one of Clinton’s advisers, Paul Begala, asked him. “I could die, that’s w’hy,” Clinton said.
Well, that was one possibility. It has become a little hard to re¬member, thanks to the short-term, not to say the micro-term, mind¬set of his administration, in which every movement seems to be scripted by the morning’s poll results, that Clinton ran for the presi¬dency with the intention of doing something more than simply clinging to the office. But he did. He wished to change the DNA of the Democratic Party, to shed its associations with big government, interest-group politics, and agnosticism about “values.’’ And in this matter he and Gore thought exactly alike. Their shared commit¬ment to genetic engineering had led them, long before that summer, to enter into a mutual nonaggression pact. Clinton remained neu¬tral in the 1988 primaries to help Gore’s chances against Dukakis, and, according to Woodward, Clinton would have stayed out of the 1992 primaries as well if Gore had decided to run. In 1989, though, Gore’s son was struck by a car and almost killed; the event led to a period of intense family introspection, and Gore was still not ready, three years later, to take on a national campaign. The door was opened for Clinton, and he walked through like a conqueror.
By choosing Gore as his running mate in 1992—by, in effect, doubling the Southernness of his candidacy—Clinton was casting himself off from the party of George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Mario Cuomo. He was placing all his chips on the future. And he won the bet. The selection of Gore gave the campaign a huge bounce in the polls coming out of the convention, and it never looked back. As the Bush people had predicted, Gore helped deliver Arkansas; he also helped deliver California and Michigan. And in the end, the McGovernites went along, too. After all, they had no place else to go.
In short, Gore has always been Clinton’s designated successor. He is the ideological heir, the legacy-bearer, the anointed’s anointed. “I could die”: if anything were to happen to Clinton, the genetic code would not be lost. Gore would know what to do. And if noth¬ing happened to Clinton, if Clinton made it through his terms of office, then Gore would carry on the work for another eight years, and the Democratic Party would be saved for a whole generation. In accepting the vice-presidential nomination at the 1992 convention, Gore told the delegates that he finally had the job of his dreams: he was the warm-up act for Elvis. In his own mind, he must have been imagining the day when it would be said that Elvis had been the warm-up act for Al Gore.
Mortality does not seem to be the gravest threat right now to the grand design of Clinton and Gore. The gravest threat is what it has always been: Clinton. The trouble with Clinton is that he is, in the considered and no doubt heartfelt words of George Bush, a bullshit artist. A bullshit artist is not the same thing as a liar (though this may seem like the kind of distinction a bullshit artist would make). Clinton always sounds like he is trying to please everyone because he is always trying to please everyone. That is the basis of his ap¬proach to government. And since he can’t always please everyone, he often finds himself obliged to warm the truth a little. This is not because he wishes to deceive you; it’s because he wants you to know that his heart is in the right place. He cannot bear to be the bringer of bad news—which is why it is fully believable that he did not tell his wife the truth about Monica Lewinsky (or, for that matter, tell Monica Lewinsky the truth about his wife). He thinks that even though the situation may not be 100 percent copacetic right this minute, everything will be fine in the long run, so why cause unnec¬essary pain? Monica will be happy with her new job at George, where she will find another celebrity to flash her underwear at and forget all about Bill; Bill will spend more time with Hillary; Ken will self-destruct. He truly is the man from Hope.
It is the sour and rather pathetic irony of his career that Clinton is now in the position of having to defend himself against the charge that he is a liar by arguing that he is only a bullshit artist. He wasn’t good (to paraphrase Lyle Lovett), but he had good intentions. The success of this argument will be politically determined. From the perspective of the grand design, though, the danger is that Clinton’s personal weakness, his tendency to let his intentions vouch for his actions, will discredit his politics, v/hich are the politics of compro¬mise and coalition-building. Reaching out will come to seem indis¬tinguishable from pandering, and the so-called Third Way—the path, which Clinton is credited with blazing and which most of Eu¬rope is now supposed to be trying to follow, between welfare-state liberalism and free-market conservatism—will look like an empty formula for political survival. And if Clinton goes down, can Gore rise from his ashes?

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