While Al Gore made his formal announcement that he would not run for president on CBS’s “60 Minutes”Sunday evening, he effectively announced it the night before on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” when he appeared bare-chested in a hot tub with a decidedly unmasculine version of a Joe Lieberman doppleganger. Although funny, that appearance was several magnitudes less presidential than Bill Clinton playing a saxophone with sunglasses back in the 1992 election cycle. Actually, Mr. Gore showed more talent as a light comedian through out the show than he has as a politician over the last three years. He certainly acted more convincingly than Leslie Stahl on CBS the next evening, pretending to be surprised by Mr. Gore’s announcement. (Mr. Gore said he informed “60 Minutes” of the decision the day before the interview.)
An even better acting job was carried out by Washington’s pundits and network newsreaders the next day. Suddenly, the error-prone politician became Saint Albert. Leading commentators wrote: “A good and generous thing that former vice president Al Gore did for his party.” “Gore becomes a stronger and more important Democratic spokesmen for not running.” While none of us, nor even the non-candidate himself, may be aware of all the psychological factors that went into such a career-ending decision, on the surface there were three obvious reasons: Tipper didn’t want him to run again, DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe was squeezing potential Gore contributors not to pony up the dollars for Mr. Gore, and his recent flurry of media activity had not gained him much media respect.
Contrary to some expectations, this is pretty much the last we will see of Mr. Gore. Initially, his policy speeches will be cited briefly in political potpourri columns. After a few months, only obscure and rabid Internet sites will bother to report his considered opinions. Within six months, even pathological Gore haters will succumb to the boredom of reporting non-news stories. Those of us who have kicked him around over the last 10 years will miss him. Even second-rate pundits and political opponents could land a few blows on him. He was a slow moving 6-foot-4-inch human bull’s eye wandering through the murderer’s row of Washington politics and journalism. Elderly wildebeests on the African savanna provided more evasive targets. But there was something endearingly authentic about his inauthentic efforts to express his newly authentic selves.
But if he couldn’t add anything to the Democratic presidential campaign, he surely subtracted a lot. He was the only broadly known, broadly supported Democrat in the field. Moreover, as a former vice president he (along with obscure Vermont Gov. Howard Dean) held the only offices from which a presidency has sprung in the last 40 years. The last sitting senator to get elected president was Jack Kennedy in 1960. Since then, only sitting presidents, sitting or former vice presidents or sitting or former governors have gained the prize. Indeed, since 1960, out of 20 men who have gained the Democratic and Republican nominations, only three have been sitting senators Barry Goldwater, George McGovern and Bob Dole. And they all lost by historic landslides (Mr. Goldwater and Mr. McGovern got less than 40 percent of the vote. Mr. Dole eked out 40.8 percent.)
While history is not destiny, it suggests that a sitting senator or congressman is poorly positioned to ride in on a white horse and make the inevitably winning promise to “fix the mess in Washington.” Executives such as presidents, vice presidents and governors seem to be able to be seen to stand above the petty politics of legislators. Ronald Reagan was even able to get re-elected, still running against the Washington over which he governed. And yet, with the exception of the obscure, ultra-liberal Gov. Dean, all the remaining Democratic hopefuls are legislators either senators or soon to be former minority leader Dick Gephardt.
White House politicos may be bragging today that they will miss Mr. Gore because they knew how to beat him. But over half the country has already voted for Mr. Gore once. If things don’t go too well for President Bush in the next 18 months, Mr. Gore well might have been the only candidate in the Democratic field with the perceived experience, stature and national familiarity to take advantage of such a contingency. Democratic professionals in Washington may be expressing genuine relief that Mr. Gore has withdrawn from the race.
But both parties’ pros may have it wrong. I wonder whether they will still have those sentiments in the fall of 2004, when the Democrats are saddled with a liberal, non-southern Senator who has been sullied by two more years of hard and heavy legislative logrolling the only national Democratic heavyweight having left the ring. This is a bigger event than it is currently reckoned.