I don't pretend to know what kind of guy Al Gore is apart from politics -- assuming any aspect of his personality is not tied to politics -- but concerning politics he has a real dilemma.
Gore's public persona is utterly repugnant, especially in a debate. Meaning no offense, he is arrogant, condescending, pedantic, petulant, childish and rude. Yet when he suppresses his combativeness he loses his verve and is utterly ineffective. It's as if his negative qualities are too tied to his political personality to be separated from them.
I am sure that Gore and his handlers are beside themselves because the campaign strategy templates they developed from the primary against Bill Bradley aren't working against George Bush. A completely different dynamic is operative in a general election than in a Democratic primary.
When Bradley was rapidly gaining on Gore in the polls, Gore abandoned any pretense to decency and civility and went for Bradley's jugular. He made things up, distorted Bradley's positions, accused him of being insensitive to blacks, and then brazenly denied he was lying when Bradley confronted him. In those debates, Gore, playing dirty, eviscerated Bradley.
What price did Gore pay for his shenanigans? None, at the time. He was rewarded with a spectacular bounce in the polls, and Bradley was toast. When political opponents and a non-watchdog press give a candidate a pass for his misbehavior he is likely to continue with it. So we shouldn't be surprised that Gore did just that -- until Wednesday night.
Gore must have been shell-shocked by the reaction to his insolence in the first debate and the media's relentless exposure of his tall tales. But before you pat the media on their backs, remember that Gore so often and so conspicuously stretched the truth that they would have had nothing to report about him had they censored stories about his mendacity.
Gore had two major challenges going into the second debate. First, he had to erase the image of mean-spiritedness that he richly earned in the first debate. Second, he needed to make sure -- at all costs -- that he didn't get caught in any more embellishments or lies.
Unhappily for Gore, he didn't achieve the humanness and affability that he sought. He had tried on so many new "Al Gores" during the course of the campaign, there seemed to be no "Al Gores" left. What remained was a listless, impotent and neutered warrior.
Gore's performance reminded me of a character in a recent drama skit at church. The character was caustic and sarcastic. Every time he uttered a biting remark, a buzzer sounded and the scene started over -- and so on, until the character got it right. The message concerned second chances. Don't we all wish that we could take back some of those hurtful things we do or say -- erase them and get a clean slate?
This was precisely the predicament Gore found himself in after the first debate. He was so sheepish in the second debate that it was almost as if he were terrified that the buzzer would go off at any moment. He obviously spent more mental energy on avoiding the buzzer and attempting to project likeability than he did on debating the issues.
His fear was most acute in the final moments when Jim Lehrer asked him whether he was going to continue to portray Bush as a bungler. Gore said he didn't use language like that. When Lehrer protested that his campaign was running ads to that effect Gore quickly replied, "I haven't seen those," then tried to catch himself, just as the internal buzzer went off in his head.
Of course he knew about those ads. I saw Fox News' Jim Angle grill him on the same thing a few days earlier. As I witnessed that silent buzzer, I realized forevermore that Gore's misstatements are intentional. It's just that last night, they weren't in the game plan.
I'm by no means cocky about what will happen from here on out. Gore's no dummy -- and even though he has boxed himself in between nastiness and inauthenticity, the Bush people must not underestimate his ability to regroup. The next debate will be enormously interesting, if for no other reason than to observe just how Gore attempts to walk this tight rope between alienating people and putting them to sleep.