Aching to be President

Posted: Nov 01, 2000 12:00 AM
As the campaign draws to an end, the question of character slowly makes its way to the foreground. After the one-thousandth exchange on Social Security and medical care and education, the public gets around to recognizing that the Social Security trust fund IOUs are a government obligation and will be redeemed; something or other about prescription drugs is going to happen, whoever wins; and children will, under varying stresses and strains, get educated -- or won't. That's why the public is increasingly interested in questions of character.

The focus of the Gore offensive is on the shallowness of George W. Bush. The Gore people are saying that Bush is "inexperienced." That means, at a formal level, that he hasn't had high-ranking Washington job experience, but the public is encouraged to go on to believe that the kind of experience he lacks is genetically denied to him.

The misgivings about Al Gore have to do with character, and have most recently emphasized his unruly behavior in the television debates, together with his penchant for dramatizing his own life and experience. It is mostly this that has been specifically singled out for criticism, the capacity simply to improvise stories that illuminate those aspects of his life that would most attract admiration.

But more important than that has to be his hunger, his aching, irrepressible hunger, to achieve the presidency. He was certainly warned by his counselors not to interrupt after the first debate, not to insist on the last word. He could not control himself. That consuming desire to score can bring on lapses in taste that even presidential candidates should be denied.

Herewith Tucker Carlson observing Mr. Gore on the road, for The Weekly Standard. Next on his schedule: an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show. Nothing much more needs to be said about Oprah than that she is enormously influential and therefore it pays to be nice to her. Well, we should be nice to everybody, whether they are influential or not. But Gore arrived at Oprah's studio having spent who knows how many hours studying up about her. He knew the call letters of the radio station where she worked as a teen-ager, if you can believe it.

Gore was making one of a series of stops, but his knowledge of Oprah's background was akin to a biographer's examining the early days of Abraham Lincoln. The vice president recited the name of the televison station Oprah moved to from her radio days. It gets worse: "I remember specifically one crime scene we went to together. I was at the newspaper. You were with Channel Five." It is not recorded whether Oprah remembered the time she covered a routine crime scene with other reporters, including Al Gore. That was, after all, 25 years ago.

Gore, we learn, had been coached even beyond recalling the name of the media stations Oprah had worked for. She likes human-redemption stories, and Gore confessed that until his son was hit by a car and injured, he had been "a little bit of a workaholic." Meaning? He is no longer that, he has been redeemed, and that means more time with wife and children.

Whereupon Oprah was furnished with a pretaped segment that she put on the air. It showed Gore and Tipper cuddling on a couch, reminiscing about their marriage. "I gave her a bracelet a few years ago," Gore told Oprah, "with an inscription on the inside of it: 'To the bravest person I know.'" Tipper looks lovingly at him, and Gore goes on: "The feeling that we have for one another is deeper and more intense now even than during the first romance."

People do a lot to become president. But there are things self-respect is there to intercept. It isn't to deny the genuine intimacy of the relationship to question whether it should be disemboweled for Oprah and her legions.

I was driving a distance last Feb. 1 and the radio station reported Gore's victory in the New Hampshire primary over Bill Bradley. He was at his campaign headquarters hotel and was given the microphone. In the car, we awaited the usual formalities. But Gore could not be stopped. He spoke as though drugged on an elixir that he knew would carry him from New Hampshire through the remaining primaries, to the convention through the campaign, depositing him, as surely as the Earth rotates about the sun, in the White House on Jan. 20, 2001.

This isn't self-confidence with Mr. Gore. It is a kind of mania. And it is a dislocation that warrants the serious interest of serious voters.