Monday, October 15, 2007

Al Gore and his aversion to toxicity

Al Gore’s fans are dreaming if they actually believe that he will choose, at this late date in the campaign calendar, to parlay his Nobel Prize into another White House bid. Notwithstanding the requisite buzz, he doesn’t need that kind of grief.

He has long indicated that he has little appetite for the toxicity of modern politics. He undoubtedly remembers the 2000 presidential debates, when the media dwelled on his audible sighs, and he remembers the campaign itself, when he was successfully painted as a serial liar. (George W. Bush had a line in his standard stump speech about how Gore once claimed to have invented the Internet - but that was the actual lie, because Gore had only claimed that as a senator during the ‘80s he had taken the “initiative” to develop the technology. Which was the actual truth.) And he'd rather not be reminded how he outpolled Bush on election day by 543,000 votes, only to lose the presidency when a 5-4 GOP-dominated Supreme Court stepped into a state dispute and stopped the crucial recount.

Speaking of toxicity, Gore can’t even win the Nobel Prize without taking retaliatory heat from conservatives who can’t abide the notion that he has been vindicated. Witness Bill Kristol’s predictable quip yesterday on Fox News, where he sought to discredit Gore and the Nobel Prize in the same sentence (“It’s a prize given by bloviators to a bloviator for nothing”), although he was quickly topped by conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who – big surprise – used the occasion to question Gore’s patriotism (the Nobel committee awards its prizes “to people whose politics are either anti-American or anti-Bush”).

But, as a candidate, his foes on the right would’ve been the least of his problems. His primary headache would have been Hillary Clinton.

Taking her on would be tough enough just in terms of the horserace; she is lapping the track at the moment, Barack Obama and John Edwards both having failed to slow her momentum. Even if Gore felt a strong urge to take a late plunge, his prospects for toppling such a well-financed, well-organized frontrunner would not be promising. Indeed, a Gore ally said as much to CNN last Friday.

And, horserace aside, taking on Hillary would immediately alter the Al Gore media narrative. Right now, he is “Al Gore, seer and international icon.” If we was to challenge Hillary for the nomination, the story would quickly become “Al Gore, politician, seeking to settle old scores and avenge his grievances with the Clintons.” That’s a giant step off the pedestal.

It has long been known – and I did a few such reports of my own, back in ’99 – that Al and Hillary were never the best of buddies. The vice president and the First Lady dueled for influence in the Bill Clinton White House for most of the ‘90s, and guess who generally won. Gore was also overshadowed when he ran for president in 2000, because Hillary at the time was making her initial Senate bid, and she soaked up most of Bill’s time, attention, and fund-raising energies. A new Vanity Fair article points out that between June and December of 1999, Bill staged 20 White House events in order to boost Hillary’s political profile, while staging only one event to boost his vice president.

In June of that year, I spoke with ex-White House aide David Gergen about Al and Hillary, and he spoke of “a natural friction” between the two. He said, “As long as the Clintons remain on the stage, it’s difficult for Al Gore to be on the stage, too.”

Little has changed since. Gore has come too far, in terms of rehabilitating his image and reputation, to want to risk it now by crowding the Clintons on the political stage and resurrecting the “Al versus Hillary” media narrative.

The same problem will complicate his impending decision about whether to endorse one of the current Democratic candidates. As an “outsider” who yearns for a new political paradigm, he would probably lean toward either Obama or Edwards, both of whom are painting Hillary as an establishment insider who would ultimately do little to change the Washington fundamentals. But, if he does tender a non-Hillary endorsement, his decision still risks being dismissed as sour grapes from a guy with grievances against the Clintons. And I have long felt that political endorsements are overrated, anyway. I seem to recall that Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean, on the eve of the ’04 primaries, didn’t exactly sway the Democratic grassroots on the issue of Dean’s electability.

Nor am I convinced that Gore can use his Nobel status to put his environmental issues front and center in the 2008 campaign. The public generally applauds his efforts, but the overriding concerns are still Iraq, the economy, and health care. And no Democratic candidate is so anxious for a Gore endorsement that he or she will agree to endorse the Gore plan for combating global warming (a political suicide agenda that would hit Americans in their wallets).

It would appear, therefore, that Gore’s best option is to continue to lead his current life, with the expectation that he would play a strong educational role in any ’09 Democratic administration. Given the traumas that he was forced to endure seven years ago, that’s not such a bad deal.


Speaking of political toxicity, emailers have been asking me lately why I have neglected to comment on Rush Limbaugh’s denigration of antiwar Iraq veterans (whom he has derided as “phony soldiers”), particularly in the wake of the conservative attacks on, for its “General Betrayus” denigration. Today, I address the whole issue in my latest newspaper column – although I doubt that my perspective will please those who are caught up in this game of rhetorical tit-for-tat.


And for those of you who prefer the national game - that would be baseball, of course - today I offer something completely different, a freelance obituary on the New York Yankees.