The truth about Gore

Maggie Gallagher

10/3/2000 12:00:00 AM - Maggie Gallagher
Poor Al Gore.

Here he is with a surging economy, a president at his beck and call, a kissable wife -- and that pesky challenger George W. Bush is now pulling ahead again in national polls.

How can voters be so ungrateful to the Human Pretzel who has bent so far over backward to be anything they asked?

Gore tries to convince us that character doesn't matter, that honor is just another word for the right five-point policy plan. In selling us this, he is telling us just how far the corruption of Clintonism has eaten into his own soul.

The essence of Clintonism, as a political strategy, is not moderation or triangulation. Its hallmark is the new operating code that the truth doesn't matter -- indeed, that it doesn't exist. Clintonism assumes that memory of most Americans for politics is so short that you can just tell the public anything polls say they want to hear. So what if you said something else yesterday? So what if you need to say something opposite tomorrow? Truths are made to be broken. As long as you sound right, in the moment, that is all that counts. If you can fool 51 percent of the people every four years, it's enough.

Before Clintonism, a politician who felt the need to change his abortion position for political reasons might say, for example, that he was now passionately pro-choice. A Clintonist like Gore simply asserts that he was always pro-life. Gore can shamelessly claim his drug benefits plan stops the "big drug companies" from "overcharging seniors" AND that his new plan won't impose price controls that depress new medical developments. Contradiction? No truth, no problem. His mother-in-law doesn't actually, really, truthfully pay more for her arthritis drug than the dog? Who cares about the facts; we're talking policy!

Before Clintonism, a vice president might be embarrassed to publicly call for a policy (releasing the strategic oil reserves) he had publicly rejected as useless a few months before. But even knowing the oil release will cause at the very most a temporary drop in prices doesn't stop Gore. Jeopardize long-term national interests for a temporary, short-term political gain? To a Clintonian, in October, it's a no-brainer.

Al Gore wasn't always like this, of course. The thing is, corruption corrupts. Clinton lied to the public, lied under oath, and then (worst of all) sent high government officials out to persuade the public that perjury isn't a serious crime. When party leaders rallied to his defense, they transformed Clintonism from the personal code of one man into the governing philosophy of the Democratic Party. At least, Al Gore's Democratic Party.

I wonder if he ever leans back on the late-night plane and lets his mind wander on what might have been. What if the Democrats had stood up for truth and decency? What if, more in sorrow than in anger, as the evidence of perjury and obstruction of justice mounted, Al Gore and other leaders had gone to the president and told him, quietly, but firmly, for all the good he had done, some conduct just could not be excused?

Al Gore would be flying Air Force One today. Al Gore would be the incumbent, alpha leader of this roaring economy. He'd still have his attractive policies, which he could run with instead of trying to hide behind. Character could matter. He'd have clean hands, a clean slate and a clean conscience.

Instead I imagine Al Gore, muttering late at night amidst the sleeping reporters, "Must it be, Spirit!?" (which is how Harry Stein describes his own nightmare vision in "How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy"). "Am I doomed to forever look upon perjury and gross amorality and yet see nothing? Am I so besotted with my own goodness that indecency need only be on my side and it will be defended?"

Goodbye, Al. Win or lose, we hardly knew ye.