Has ambition ever been so naked?
Al Gore's betrayal of his own former running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, as he endorsed Howard Dean has provided one of those rare moments of political clarity: Gore will do whatever it takes to (a) become president; (b) exact revenge against the Clintons.
Forget the war in Iraq; forget Bush's foreign policy; forget Dean's platform. Al Gore is for - and about - Al Gore.
It was all over his face as he and Dean held hands following their surprise announcement. No one was in love in that picture. And why would they be? They're mutual users, the tit-for-tat brothers, a marriage made in political purgatory.
Gore "loves" Dean for what Dean can give him. A Supreme Court nomination. A Cabinet position. Another vice presidency? And Dean loves Gore for bringing him the establishment credibility he needed.
What makes this folie a deux so entertaining, of course, is that Gore deeply wants the man he endorsed to lose. Gore's endorsement is the kiss Fredo gets before his little boat ride with Michael Corleone's hitman.
If Dean loses, then Gore is set for 2008 and ready to take what he surely believes is his due. Being secretary of state in the Dean administration wouldn't be the worst thing to happen to Gore - that was Florida 2000 - but it would fall short of what he wants.
Gore has every right to endorse whomever he wants for his own good reasons. But he may have made a critical mistake in betraying Lieberman so publicly - and without apparent remorse - consequently defining for many Americans that certain something that always bugged them about Gore. Not his legendary woodenness or his occasional exaggerations, but his extraordinary Me-ness.
Obviously, politicians are a different breed of animal. You have to have a high degree of grandiosity to enter the fray and a thick enough skin to withstand the slings and arrows. And at some point everyone risks buying his own myth. Gore seems to have bought his, and along with it, possibly the farm.
Despite all the political maneuvering that obviously went into his secret agreement with Dean, Gore overlooked something that may have left him critically wounded come 2008. It's one of those old bugaboo "traditional" values that many Americans nonetheless still hold dear, as much for its rarity as its importance.
Gore didn't have to endorse Lieberman, whom he once considered the best man to succeed him as president. He didn't have to withhold his endorsement from Lieberman's opponents. But he did have to call his old pal and tell him in advance of his intentions.
That would have been the gentlemanly gesture. The decent thing. The least he could do. But Gore did less than least, calling several hours after the world, including Lieberman, already knew of his endorsement through the media.
Gore's backhand doubtless stung all the more in light of Lieberman's own loyalty in declining to run for president until Gore had made his own intentions clear. Only when Gore declared he wouldn't run in '04 did Lieberman declare himself.
Posting comments on his Web site about the Gore endorsement, Lieberman has taken the familiar high road:
"I was proud to have been chosen by Al Gore in 2000 to be a heartbeat away from the presidency - and am determined to fight for what's right, win this nomination and defeat George W. Bush next year.
"I have a lot of respect for Al Gore - that is why I kept my promise not to run if he did. Ultimately, the voters will make the determination and I will continue to make my case about taking our party and nation forward."
Ironically, part of the reason Gore picked Lieberman as his running mate in 2000 was because of the Connecticut senator's reputation as an honest, honorable and principled man. Gore needed Lieberman, who had been an outspoken critic of Bill Clinton's marital vagrancies, to help cleanse him of the Clinton taint.
Without question, Lieberman lent moral stature to Gore's presidential bid, imbuing the ticket with an air of decency from which Gore benefited.
By his betrayal of Lieberman, Gore may have squandered his moral equity and exposed his ambition for what it is: All about Al.