Frame Game

Clinton, Gore, and Darwin

The argument over who lost the 2000 presidential election is heating up again. No, not the argument between Al Gore and George W. Bush. This time the beef is between Gore and Bill Clinton. In an article by Vanity Fair writer Marjorie Williams (a.k.a. Mrs. Chatterbox), Gore’s friends and former aides say Clinton ruined Gore’s shot at the presidency by having sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. Clinton’s friends and former aides reply that Gore blew the election by running away from Clinton’s record of prosperity. Let’s settle this. They’re both right. Gore would have won if Clinton had kept his pants on. And if Clinton, after dropping his pants, had been put up as the candidate, he would have won anyway.

To see how these two views can be reconciled, look at Clinton and Gore the way Charles Darwin would. How did they survive all the way to the White House? Clinton got there by escaping all the jams he’d gotten himself into: Gennifer Flowers, the draft, Whitewater, Troopergate. Gore got there by staying out of jams in the first place. Separately, each of these strategies worked. Together, they risked disaster. Beginning in 1995, Clinton got into the biggest jam of his career, the Lewinsky mess. Sure enough, in the impeachment fight and the 1998 congressional elections, he got out of it. But Clinton, having reached his constitutional term limit, wasn’t running for president. Gore was. And just as Clinton had no record of avoiding jams, Gore had no record of escaping them. Gore died a Darwinian death: He was put in a jam by Clinton and couldn’t get out.

Everyone knows that Darwin postulated “survival of the fittest.” But we forget the corollary: Fitness can be forced on an organism only by a struggle for survival. In The Origin of Species, Darwin explains how a creature that is spared mortal peril fails to develop the ability to save itself:

It has been asserted, that of the best short-beaked tumbler-pigeons a greater number perish in the egg than are able to get out of it; so that fanciers assist in the act of hatching. Now, if nature had to make the beak of a full-grown pigeon very short for the bird’s own advantage, the process of modification would be very slow, and there would be simultaneously the most rigorous selection of all the young birds within the egg, which had the most powerful and hardest beaks, for all with weak beaks would inevitably perish …

In The Descent of Man, Darwin extends this logic to humans:

Since we see in many parts of the world enormous areas of the most fertile land capable of supporting numerous happy homes, but peopled only by a few wandering savages, it might be argued that the struggle for existence had not been sufficiently severe to force man upwards to his highest standard. … It even appears from what we see, for instance, in parts of S[outh] America, that a people which may be called civilised, such as the Spanish settlers, is liable to become indolent and to retrograde, when the conditions of life are very easy.

What would Darwin make of Clinton? On the one hand, Clinton had a weakness for unhealthy temptations, symbolized in the Vanity Fair article by Milky Way bars. Specifically, Williams reports that Gore knew Clinton had a “zipper problem.” On the other hand, this weakness repeatedly put Clinton’s career in mortal jeopardy. Every year, lots of politicians get into trouble for taking sex or money. Only those with superior talent for stonewalling, spinning, changing the subject, and winning back popular support survive. Clinton, by escaping such peril many times, demonstrated the greatest talent of all. He was the pigeon that could crack the egg.

Gore never had to break out of the egg, because he never got into it. He lacked Clinton’s formative weakness. “Gore’s much more disciplined,” a former staffer to the vice president tells Williams. Clinton ducked and feinted his way around the Vietnam draft ad hoc; Gore pre-emptively enlisted in a position safe from combat. Clinton showed up late for appointments; Gore showed up on time. Clinton reneged on commitments and talked his way around them afterward; Gore kept his commitments. Clinton eased his way in and out of relationships without much thought; Gore, according to a former Clinton staffer, “always worked to have a relationship” with his boss. Clinton wandered; Gore stayed focused and demanded that decisions be made. “Get with the goddamn program!” Gore famously told Clinton during an episode early in their administration.

But when the program collapsed, Gore couldn’t improvise. He had never been forced to explain why he had evaded service in Vietnam, why his voice was on tape engaging in naughty banter with a lounge singer, why he was running late, or why he had said yesterday the opposite of what he was saying today. For Gore, connection to others didn’t come or go easily; he had to work at it. Clinton was “an unusually good liar,” in the words of Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb. Gore wasn’t. The most fascinating suggestion in Williams’ piece isn’t that Gore despised Clinton’s inability to stay out of trouble. It’s that Clinton despised Gore’s inability to transcend it. As one staffer puts it, “The more stupid shit Clinton did, the more disapproving Gore got. And Clinton’s attitude was ‘Yeah, buddy, and when you can do what I do, then you can stand in judgment of me.’ “

The one mess in which Gore thoroughly immersed himself—the 1996 fund-raising scandal—illustrated the same traits that had generally kept him out of peril. Clinton’s shenanigans were personal and gratuitous. Gore’s transgressions—the Buddhist temple event and the phone calls to donors from his office—had been represented to him as part of his job. “Gore was in trouble because he had done what he’d said he’d do—dialing at least 45 donors from his desk—while Clinton had ducked the phone calls assigned to him,” Williams observes. The words that immortalized Gore’s role and crippled his candidacy—”no controlling legal authority”—weren’t part of the original scam. They were uttered and repeated a dozen times by the besieged vice president in a disastrous attempt to control the damage. The problem wasn’t that Gore was corrupt. The problem was that, having finally been implicated in a scandal, he had no idea how to ease his way out.

The point isn’t that a scandal-plagued career would have taught Gore how to escape or transcend blame. Darwin didn’t believe in such direct adaptation. The point, as Darwin would have put it, is that a crisis earlier in Gore’s career would have exposed his poor recovery skills and finished him off. Such inexperience is hardly shameful. But politically, it is perilous, just as unfamiliarity with European diseases was perilous to the tribes that inhabited North America in the 1600s. Clinton brought Gore a disease that Gore couldn’t handle. Having sex with an intern in the Oval Office? Lying about it under oath? Lying about it again, emphatically, to the whole country? A better rationalizer, a more charismatic seducer, might have won back the people’s trust. Not Al Gore.

Could Clinton have done it? He survived impeachment. He won congressional seats in 1998. Most people who saw his speeches during the 2000 campaign thought he made Gore’s case far better than Gore did. What hurt Gore most wasn’t the direct shame of the Lewinsky scandal, but his inability, in view of that scandal, to run on Clinton’s economic record. Gore’s pollster, Stan Greenberg, tells Williams that Gore couldn’t have run on Clinton’s record because “our research showed” that by reminding voters inadvertently of Clinton’s misbehavior, “when Al Gore went out running on [Clinton’s] record, he performed more weakly.” Notice the key word: Gore performed more weakly. Gore couldn’t get voters to focus on the good rather than the bad.

Clinton could have done it. He had extricated himself a dozen times before. Gore was “envious that Clinton had gotten off scot-free” in the fund-raising scandal, an associate tells Williams. “We all know people like that. They never came to class, then they’d write a brilliant thesis and get an A. … You always think, Oh, it’s going to catch up with guys like that. And somehow it never does.” Not fair, but true. Darwin would understand.