The Breakfast Table

Presidential Zoology

OK, I confess: I completely agree that polls are a crock this far ahead of an election. I’m just trying to boost myself out of the political lassitude in which the events of the past year have mired me. It’s impossible to become truly excited about a presidential election this far ahead of time, unless there’s something wrong with you or you chair a state party in Iowa.

But I do find myself quite interested in Gore, just as a person who’s coming up on the climacteric toward which his entire adult life has steered him. I think Gore’s a pretty impressive guy–smart, intellectually serious (if not supple), someone who cares very much, on the whole, about what he sees as right outcomes. And I like his leaning toward self-scrutiny, even if it’s a little ponderous. About a year ago, I wrote a long profile of Gore for Vanity Fair, and when I had my obligatory feet-up, beer-in-hand, off-the-record meeting with him during a flight, he truly surprised me. It wasn’t only that I had the reaction I was meant to have (gee, he seems like a nice guy when he lets his guard down); I thought he took more conversational risk than any pol I’ve ever interviewed. (Not that I can repeat what he said, obviously, so it wasn’t that kind of risk.) But I still can’t figure out whether he wants to be president too badly or not enough. Mostly I concluded that the Boring Thing is really a kind of willed absence on his part–the way he removes his real self from an endeavor that he’s fundamentally unsuited to.

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about our love-hate relationship with presidential ambition. What It Takes, as Richard Ben Kramer has pointed out so voluminously, is someone with rhino-hide egotism, drive, and need. But a lot of voters–at least a lot of Democrats, and certainly a lot of political reporters–have an endless craving for the conflicted candidate, one with the Stevensonian ambivalence and tragic imagination that are now on display in Bill Bradley’s campaign (well, the ambivalence, at least). Bill Clinton, of course, is a Rhino; Paul Tsongas and Bob Kerrey and Bruce Babbitt were all Ambivalents. George Bush was a Rhino who sometimes pretended to be an Ambivalent; but Gore is an Ambivalent who’s pretending to be a Rhino. (A footnote: Being a Rhino is, of course, one of those necessary-but-not-sufficient deals. This means you, Lamar Alexander.)

I think people sense this about Gore, and that it’s part of his problem. (I’m not just talking about Washington people, of course, among whom it is now axiomatic that Gore “can’t take a punch,” “has a glass jaw,” “may not have it,” whatever it is. Mostly those are people annoyed at the prospect of an unexciting primary season.) Another theory I have about Gore is a variation on the idea that when Clinton drives through a car wash with the top down, it’s Gore who gets wet. I suspect Clinton has given the coup de grâce to the theatrical conventions of our politics–the school of the nice-looking guy in a dark suit at a podium, gravely wrinkling his brow as he intones about Family and apple pie. These conventions were, of course, already under seige as the last irony-free zone in America; Clinton has only accelerated their demise. But there’s Gore, a poster boy for conventional style, who until recently looked like a good candidate to squeak into office under the old dispensation.

That’s it for today. At least one other member of my family is now standing (the most demanding one, of course–my 3-year-old daughter. Did I say demanding? I meant free-spirited.)