The agony of Al Gore

With his presidential hopes on the line, if only he could have said a single unrehearsed, from the heart, spontaneous, risky, convincing thing.

By Joan Walsh

Published November 28, 2000 8:11AM (EST)

Poor Al Gore. He woke up Nov. 8 and instead of being the president, he'd become Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day." Every morning, CNN's eternal "Election 2000" coverage must seem the nightmarish equivalent of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe," which Murray woke up to each morning, its still-no-president-elect refrain as grating as Sonny's whine.

But in the movie, the secret of enduring the same endless day is to finally surrender, to stop trying to move into the future or rig the day you're stuck with to get everything just right -- that old Zen trick of living in the moment. If only Gore had taken a page from the movie when he went on TV Monday night to win support for his uphill battle to keep Gov. George W. Bush from seizing the presidency, when Gore got more votes nationwide and almost certainly won Florida, too. If only he'd said a single unrehearsed, from the heart, spontaneous, risky thing.

This "Groundhog Day" interregnum has been tough on the country but instructive, even entertaining. We've learned so much about the men who would be our president. Bush is a sore maybe-winner who breaks out in boils from stress, sulks in private about losing the popular vote and blames his brother Jeb for making a mess of Florida. In a pinch, he turns to Daddy's fixers, Dick Cheney and James Baker and other retreads, who look none the better for the passage of time since the first Bush presidency.

Baker is especially grim, angry and incredulous that at his age and station in life he has to put up with the ugly mess of democracy. He and Cheney and the callow W. reek of entitlement, of a sense that they shouldn't really have to fight for the right to run the world, because they inherited it. It should be a slam dunk for Gore to convince Americans that with all the shoddy and downright shady balloting all over Florida -- in Seminole, in Miami-Dade, in Palm Beach -- something dark and dangerous to democracy went on down there, and we need to take the necessary time to sort it out.

But Gore, who aides say really, really believes he won, has absolutely no idea how to convince the American people of the righteousness of his cause. The night Bush campaign co-chairwoman and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris certified the Florida election results, with the support of the pro-Bush election canvassing commission (can this really be legal?), Gore pushed the hapless Joe Lieberman in front of the cameras to challenge Bush's attempted election theft. It took the would-be president a full 24 hours to make his own case to the American people -- and he failed.

Did he spend the day making sure there were enough flags behind the podium (I counted six)? Practicing finger-wagging? Deciding when to smile? Did focus groups vet his tedious list of whose votes matter: "the poor as well as the rich, the weak as well as the strong, women and men alike, citizens of every race, creed and color, of whatever infirmity or political temper." All that practice, all day long, and he couldn't find a way to say, "This is America -- when votes are cast we count them" without sounding like a hectoring first-grade teacher?

This surreal "Groundhog Day" limbo is teaching us one crucial lesson about our political life: Our institutions work; our leaders don't. Once you've impeached a president, it's a short walk to the current mano a mano over the election, particularly the GOP's big lie that a candidate who's trying to get an accurate count is trying to steal the presidency.

On CNN the other night some talking head diagnosed the Democrats' problem as simply the fact that "there's no Newt Gingrich," no immediately recognizable, easily caricatured villain with whom to scare the American people and rally the faithful. That's not exactly true: They're all Newt Gingrich now, every Republican leader, from bland New York Gov. George Pataki to former elder statesman Bob Dole. In his great New Yorker profile of the Clinton years, Joe Klein depicted Dole as a GOP moderate trying to preserve some bipartisan comity in the Senate against the red-meat ravings of Gingrich, Sen. Trent Lott and House Whip Tom DeLay. Now the kindly Viagra pitchman has reverted to his attack dog youth, making every kind of ugly claim against the Gore campaign, and he should be embarrassed, because he knows better.

But Gore is completely overmatched by his opponents. His condescending, singsong delivery of a bland speech Monday night was so inadequate to the gravity of the moment it was almost insulting. He lacks President Clinton's ability to connect deeply with his audience and remind them what's at stake. He's said to want the presidency desperately, but no yearning came through, and no outrage either, even when his electoral predicament truly is outrageous.

Luckily, the courts will finally decide this election, not the so-called court of public opinion that the TV wags were trying to read Monday night as they scrambled to figure out how bad Gore's speech was. In the unlikely event Gore becomes president, thanks to a wise judicial answer to the messed-up Florida vote, it will be because Bush lost, not because Gore won. Three weeks after Election Day, our current deadlock, the voters' inability to pick a president given the awful choice before them, seems more like wisdom than folly. Maybe, just like Bill Murray, we should learn to love this limbo -- especially considering the alternatives.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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2000 Elections Al Gore