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Viewpoint: His Struggle To Get Real

Who is Al under the wooden veneer? Sooner or later he'll have to find out

Time cover

By Andrew Ferguson

(TIME, September 22) -- Among Washington journalists who have covered him--and especially among those who covered him as a Congressman and Senator, before he slipped into the cocoon of the vice presidency--the line on Al Gore is nearly unanimous. In private the Vice President can be an inordinately charming fellow: informal, enthusiastic, self-deprecating, with the kind of knowing wit that many baby boomers admire. But switch on a TV camera or get him in front of a crowd, and a mysterious alchemy transforms him into solid oak. This is the Al Gore the public has come to know--something akin to the robotic Abe Lincoln at Disneyland, only less lifelike.

The strange disjunction between the private and public Gores stymies his friends, frustrates his advisers and puzzles the press. To one degree or another, all politicians suffer from it, of course. For most of their waking hours they have learned to smother their natural impulses, lest the videotape capture some untoward wisecrack or a flirtatious glance. They know the landscape of American politics is littered with the carcasses of colleagues who tried, with disastrous results, to be a normal human being.

The most appealing politicians are the ones for whom the disjunction is not so severe--who let a bit of their natural appeal shine through. This can come in handy in tight spots. Ronald Reagan's undoubted insouciance helped him escape blame for the unconventional accounting practices of Oliver North. John F. Kennedy's sense of ironic detachment--common to rich kids since the time of Prince Hal--allowed him to slip out from under the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs. And Franklin Roosevelt's inborn aristocratic bearing led his public to assume during the Depression that he knew what he was doing, even when he didn't, which was often.

Gore surely knows this. He went to Harvard, after all. From childhood, his life has been consumed by politics. The son of a Senator, he was born and raised in D.C. and grew up appearing in his father's campaign commercials. ("Son," Dad said in one, "always love your country.") He learned early the benefits of pretense. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Gore's response to any problems of personal image making has been to pile further layers of artifice atop his already artificial public persona. At every appearance nowadays he uncorks a couple of self-deprecating gags about his wooden demeanor; he delivers them--surprise--woodenly. He has made gimmicky, scripted appearances on late-night TV. Far worse, however, he has taken a cue from his boss and dived headlong into the politics of moral exhibitionism--trying to convince the public that he feels its pain by exposing his own. When asked recently what he had learned from the President, Gore replied, "I've learned a great deal about empathy... I've learned to recognize the feelings in myself."

The most famous example of this came last August, at the Democratic Convention, when Gore delivered the most hair-raising address by a major American politician since Richard Nixon wrapped his long-suffering wife in a "good Republican cloth coat" and invoked his daughters' dog Checkers. Halfway through the speech, railing against the evils of tobacco advertising, Gore told the story of his only sister's horrible death from cancer. "I knelt by her bed and held her hand," he shyly confided to the thousands of strangers gathered before him in the vast sports stadium. "All I could do was to say back to her, with all the gentleness in my heart, 'I love you.'"

It didn't help matters when, in the following days, reporters recalled Gore's acceptance, even after his sister's death, of campaign contributions from tobacco interests or his effusive paeans to the nobility of tobacco growing. Gore's speech was a disaster not merely because it was tasteless. It called into question the very quality it was intended to display: Could anyone who really loved his sister exploit her death so shamelessly? The anecdote was meant to show us a man of fathomless feeling, moved to furious indignation by the needless death of a loved one. But the impressions actually conveyed were rather different: insincerity, cynicism, even heartlessness.

"If you can fake sincerity," goes the old saying, "you can fake anything." The most generous interpretation is that Gore can't fake it. Perhaps the convention speech was simply a sign of political ineptitude--a politician fumbling his way through the Clinton era's new ethos of synthetic empathy. But now, for the first time, Gore is in a tight spot. Political skills are what he requires above all. So far his reaction to the fund-raising scandal that presses in on him has been Clintonian: sly evasions, followed by legalistic denials, followed by endless revisions and emendations. But Gore is not Bill Clinton. Of course, this begs the larger question of who Al Gore is. Sooner or later, for better or worse, he'll have to find out, and then so will we.





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