Ballot Box

The Quayling of Al Gore

If to “bork” means to tar someone as a political extremist, and to get a “lewinsky” means, well, you know, then to “quayle” someone means to make some personal limitation seem so overwhelmingly ridiculous that the victim becomes a permanent national laughingstock. The question of whether Dan Quayle was, in fact, significantly denser than a lot of other politicians (I’d argue he was only somewhat denser) became irrelevant in the face of an entertaining cliché. Try as he might, Quayle couldn’t get anyone to take him seriously as a presidential candidate, because all that the national press corps and the national joke-writing corps wanted from him was material that confirmed his dumbbell stereotype.

The same thing appears to be happening to Quayle’s successor as vice president. In Al Gore’s case, the drubbing is for a slightly more vague constellation of qualities such as dullness, starchiness, aloofness, pomposity, condescension, privilege, and political klutziness. There’s an element of truth to these criticisms. But by becoming a shtick, the observation of these qualities threatens to obliterate not only Gore’s corresponding virtues but also any hope of his becoming president. Every minor misstep that Gore makes becomes grist for the Gore-abuse mill. And whatever Gore does to try to correct these flaws, whether it’s playing along by mocking himself or trying to demonstrate his authenticity and ordinary-guy-ness, only digs the hole deeper. When Gore hires a bunch of inside-the-Beltway political hacks and pretends there’s no contest for the nomination, he’s a risible Washington stiff. When he upends his campaign, yanks off his necktie, and engages his opponent, he’s a risible Washington stiff trying to be what he’s not. (For an argument that Gore’s makeover may be taking, see William Saletan’s “Frame Game.”)

Here are a few examples of what Gore is up against, culled from The Hotline over the last few days.

Jeff Greenfield of CNN: “There is that problem that Gore has always had as a candidate, and so that when he doesn’t wear a tie–and this may be unfair, but I don’t think so–you have the sense that somebody, some clothing-engineer-consultant, said, ‘Al, you know, use–we need the softer tones,’ and then they take a focus group: ‘You like the shirt buttoned or not?’ ” (Imus, 10/14)Howard Fineman of Newsweek: “He’s sort of turning himself into a combination of Walter Mondale and Dick Gephardt, the lunch-bucket, street-corner Democrat–the guy who grew up on Wisconsin Avenue.” (Hardball, 10/13)R.W. Apple of the New York Times: “Now, he says, he is trying to ‘let it all hang out.’ The very phrase sounds unnatural coming from a man whose shoes are always polished, whose hair is always combed, whose shirts and suits are always crisply pressed. All? He doesn’t even let his shirt-tail hang out.” (New York Times, 10/11)Jay Leno of the Tonight Show: “The folks in Nashville are thrilled that Al Gore has moved his campaign headquarters back there. … Because with him there, that automatically qualifies them for disaster-relief funds. … Now, did you see Gore yesterday? He asked people to join his new, this is what he called it, his new, ‘rip-tootin’ campaign. … If you believe he is going to win with that slogan, you’re either ripped or you’ve been tootin’.” (10/7)

On the campaign trail, this mockery translates into a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dynamic. Take Gore’s endorsement yesterday by the AFL-CIO. Had Gore failed to secure this prize, the story would have been played as “more woe for the troubled Gore campaign” (or possibly, “last straw for troubled Gore campaign”). Gaining the endorsement, however, merely made Gore into Walter Mondale II, a Democratic establishmentarian whose ability to lock up the party’s offiical interest groups won’t translate into rank-and-file enthusiasm. Here’s how Peter Jennings played the AFL-CIO endorsement on ABC last night: “In Los Angeles, good news–mostly–for Vice President Gore, depending on how the political media spin it, in part.” Memo to Peter Jennings: You are the political media.

But there’s a silver lining for Gore: If the public really demands candidates with a flair for schmoozing, smooth talk, and ersatz empathy, then “Clinton fatigue” must be something of a myth.