Al Gore is between engagements, as they used to say of out-of-work vaudeville troupers, and since he has decided not to run for president here’s another suggestion for him: He ought not to run for television, either. Anyone who watched “Saturday Night Live” knew in his bones and brains that he wouldn’t announce for president 24 hours later on “60 Minutes.” They don’t make hours that long.
Poor Al was abysmally self-satirizing on Saturday night, ripping the last shreds of dignity from his profile in attempted comedy. On “Sixty Minutes” he showed why he was so bad at mocking himself. His wooden sing-song marked him as too insecure in his public persona to do satire. Satire has to be close to reality, but not quite reality. The chuckles and laughter in his conversation with Lesley Stahl on Sunday night were those of a private person struggling to be free of public life, a man trapped in a Procrustean bed built by a father who raised a son to be president.
Al Gore the private person is actually warm in his casualness, displaying a lively sense of humor engaging with family and friends. He’d be a lot more fun to watch SNL with than on. His skit with the therapist Dr. Stuart (feel-good-about-yourself ) Smalley, played by Al Franken, appears in retrospect like a dress rehearsal for his interview on “60 Minutes.” The therapist forces the vice president to face the mirror to tell how he’s come to terms with failing to be president: “I don’t have to be the most powerful man in the world,” Al Gore tells the mirror: “All I have to do is be the best Al can be. Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me.”
The following night the man with feet of cliche tells Lesley Stahl he’s wrapping it up to bring “closure on this.” He’s been there, done that: “Well, I’ve run for president twice, and there are many other exciting ways to serve.” Oh, there are, there are.
Farce should be left to the professional comedians; ludicrous moments for public men in real life come with the territory. Think Bob Dole falling off a podium, Bill Clinton pointing a finger and saying what he didn’t do with that woman, Monica Lewinsky. In fact, we should call a moratorium on presidential candidates having to do television comedy shows to show they’re human. We can see that in the course of a campaign.
Democrats made fun of Ronald Reagan because he had been an actor. But he had a natural public image with a lighted-hearted sense of humor, a demeanor that deftly conveyed zingers. Johnny Carson once wondered out loud whether President Reagan had any old one-liners he could use.
Bill Clinton was a good performer too, a political song-and-dance man, but his smoothness merely underlined his sleaziness: You could never quite trust the man who felt our pain in public and sullied the Oval office behind our backs. Al Gore was his straight man, Stan Laurel to Oliver Hardy. That cost him the election.
But more to the point, comic talk shows like “Saturday Night Live” simply aren’t appropriate venues for portraying presidential candidates entering the fray or leaving it. Al Gore, naked with crispy chest hairs, bonding in a hot tub with a guy who looks like Sen. Joe Lieberman, may be a funny idea as a parody on “The Bachelor,” the reality television show, but it’s tasteless as parody on Al Gore’s quest for a vice president. Lesley Stahl calls SNL one of the ritual stops on the presidential campaign trail “one of the stations of the cross” but that should end. (The fact that Al had the highest SNL ratings since Britney Spears only proves my point.)
SNL’s writers can only imagine the tasteless comic fun they could have had with presidents in our past, if only they had stooped to conquer with vulgarity. George and Martha as a bickering couple, with the wife urging her husband to take the crown, take the crown. Thomas Jefferson, denying rumors that he keeps a slave mistress, with a half-dozen little boys in blackface who look like him scurrying underfoot. Abraham Lincoln, showering expensive dresses on Mrs. Lincoln, scolding her for extravagance. Franklin Roosevelt, proving he’s fit to run for a fourth term, rolling crazily on stage in a wheelchair, whopping it up. Lyndon Johnson, holding a press conference in his bathroom (where, in fact, he actually did occasionally talk to favorite reporters).
The comics always have enough ammunition for viciously and sometimes hilariously satirizing the foibles and buffoonery, mistakes and mendacities of our public figures. A wise candidate, even a former candidate, ought to leave the action to the people who get paid for it. Conventional wisdom says that when a politician becomes a figure of ridicule he’s finished. Even when he does it to himself.