The Earthling

Reality-Based Television 

And so that’s what I’m focused on—not the contest, but our democracy. … What is at stake here is not who wins and who loses in a contest for the presidency, but how we honor our Constitution and make sure that our democracy works as our founders intended it to work.
                                                                                  —Al Gore

I was at first skeptical of Gore’s claim of high-minded indifference to whether he occupies the most powerful office in the world. But then a friend of mine in the Gore campaign—I can’t disclose his or her identity—shared with me the following transcript of an Election Night conversation between Gore and campaign chief William Daley.

GORE: “So, how do things look?”

DALEY: “Well, California’s in the bag, and I’m optimistic about Washington and Oregon, so it looks more and more like the whole thing hinges on Florida.”

GORE: “And what’s your sense of things down there?”

DALEY: “Well, actually, I’ve, um, I’ve got some concerns.”

GORE: “You mean … you mean you think the final tally may not honor—”

DALEY: “Exactly. I’m worried that the final tally may not honor our Constitution. And if that happens, then … [voice trails off] “

GORE: [slowly, ruefully] “—then democracy won’t have worked as our Founders intended it to work. [pause] I hate it when that happens. [longer pause] Somebody get me Warren Christopher on the phone, pronto.”

Sorry to belabor the joke. But I think it raises an important question: When will Al Gore  adjust to the fact that we are now several decades into an age of cynicism that shows no signs of abating? These days even genuine high-minded sentiments face credibility problems. Manifestly false ones don’t have a prayer.

This is a problem for politicians in general. (There’s been as much nauseating sanctimony from the Bush camp as from the Gore camp.) But for Gore it is an especially big problem because it is one reason he didn’t unambiguously win the election in the first place. Synthetic, gooey righteousness was a major contributor to the overall impression of Gore falseness that turned many voters off. In the first debate with Bush, Gore said that, although he had opposed the Vietnam war, he joined the Army and went to Vietnam “because I knew if I didn’t, somebody else in the small town of Carthage, Tennessee, would have to go in my place.” I guess I can’t quite rule out the possibility that this is true—that Gore is morally superior to 99.99 percent of human beings. But I’d bet that most people watching the debate doubted Gore’s claim and that many were put off by it. Given how close this election was, it is not crazy to think that if Gore had just edited that one remark, he’d now be president elect.

And it’s not as if this sort of editing is rocket science. Suppose that Gore, instead of making the public statements excerpted at the outset of this article, had said the following:

Obviously, I want to win this election. And if the preliminary count in Florida had been in my favor by a few votes instead of against me by a few votes, I probably wouldn’t have been chomping at the bit for a recount. Still, what I’m asking for here is something any American, Republican or Democrat, should want: to record the expressed will of American voters as clearly as possible. If the clearly expressed will of the voters is not for me to be president, then I’ll congratulate George W. Bush and leave the stage. And he will have been strengthened by the removal of all doubt about his entitlement to the office. 

What would be the downside of talking like this? None that I can see. And the upside? Gore would get points for a bit of self-deflating candor, for admitting to being human, for actually seeming human, which is not something he always manages to do.

This is the riddle of Al Gore. The alterations he would have to make to become a much more likable figure seem so minor: Just delete a pompous phrase here, throw in a wry, self-deflating line there, and take to heart one simple acting lesson—Quitoveracting! (Compare Gore’s thespian skills to those of a true pro—Ronald Reagan—and you’ll find Reagan’s facial expressions are much more subdued and realistic, though in truth no more genuine.)

In a way, this is the good news for Gore. The thing that kept him from being a wildly popular candidate can be changed by good coaching. In contrast, to correct Bush’s big flaw— his mind—would take scientific tools that don’t yet exist.

Everyone says that in private Gore comes off as much more genuine and human. It’s true. (He came to lunch at the New Republic back when I was a staffer there.) So how did the public Gore become encrusted in a plastic façade? My guess is that it all started years ago when he was accused of being a wooden speaker—stiff, uncomfortable, uninspiring. He seems to have responded by becoming more theatrical, more affected. But in general—and especially in an age of cynicism—people would rather have a wooden president than an obviously plastic one. Maybe, with a little help from the Florida Supreme Court, Gore will still get the opportunity to give them their wish.