Finally, Wednesday night, after 36 days of partisan bloodletting, one judgment was unanimous: Vice President Al Gore gave the best speech of his political life, conceding to President-elect George W. Bush. It was earnest, it was moving, it was funny. The head shaking and finger wagging were mostly gone. He was self-deprecating and dignified all at once. He was, well, presidential.
The reaction was immediate, overwhelming. Chris Matthews of MSNBC's "Hardball" was uncharacteristically speechless, fighting to collect himself, almost in tears. It was real and sham emotion at the same time: What was Matthews so sad about? His own role in demonizing Gore, the winner of the popular vote, as the guy trying to steal the election? The fact that the better man clearly lost? Whatever the reason, Matthews lost it, praising Gore's "immaculate conception" before correcting it to "concession," and waxing giddy over the Democrat's "sublime masculinity." (Let's not go there.)
Nobody else quite matched Matthews' over-the-top tumble for Gore, but whatever the motives, the pundits finally reached consensus: Gore was great. He spoke from the heart for the first time, and he connected with his audience. He joked about calling Bush to concede: "I promised him I wouldn't call him back this time," a jab at his Election Night concession retraction. It was endearing.
Gore was finally likable because, in defeat, he could be himself. He almost seemed relieved -- and he should be. He desperately needed to lose. He really never has: The Tennessee scion's been on the fast track to the big time since college, from his 1976 congressional race through his Senate victories, with a speed bump in 1988 when, barely 40, he fumbled the Democratic primary. Four years later, he was a heartbeat away from the presidency and a shoo-in to succeed President Clinton.
And then he failed. But failure is exactly what Al Gore needed. He needed to fail at his exquisitely triangulated, focus-group-tested, platitude-ridden campaign from hell. He needed to fail at balancing Tony Coelho and Donna Brazile, big drug companies and their sick victims, Democratic donors and the dispossessed.
He needed to go home to Tennessee, the home state he lost Nov. 7 (costing him the election) and mend some fences, as he put it, "literally and figuratively." I've always cringed at the thought of the lonely senator's child exiled from Tennessee, alone at Washington's Fairfax Hotel. The upbringing his Republican opponents always depicted as cushy and effete always struck me as forlorn. Let him go back to Tennessee now, leave Washington for a while, survey his options and count himself a lucky man.
Gore is truly lucky, because he never could have governed the country after this election debacle, for two reasons. The first is that right-wing Republicans are far better organized, and far more effectively vicious, than their Democratic counterparts on the left. The right knows how to savage its enemies; the left goes after the closest targets it can find on its right: guys like Gore. (Let Antonin Scalia remind purist Ralph Nader voters why the Supreme Court mattered.) A Gore victory in the wake of this bitterly contested race in Florida would have enraged the Trent Lotts and Tom DeLays of the world beyond reason; we'd have had four years of impeachment.
The second reason Gore's lucky he lost is a problem with Gore himself -- the falseness and detachment that led him to show us three Al Gores in the three debates. It was arguably his worst blunder after Oct. 3, when he peaked in the polls. Gore simply does not have the charisma, the power, the emotional reach to heal the partisan divide right now. Despite his history of bipartisanship in the Senate, he's become a hectoring, polarizing figure. He might have shown us unexpected greatness as president, worked bipartisan magic we couldn't predict. But the Al Gore who has campaigned since last year -- the guy who marshaled teams of lawyers this last five weeks but never mobilized the American people behind his just election contest -- was not likely to have succeeded in the shrill and hate-filled Washington that would have greeted his election.
Will Bush? It's doubtful. But if he's serious about reaching out to Democrats, as he has in Texas, maybe. Bush has one other thing on his side: the charm and charisma of a one-time loser -- a guy who, for all his silver-spoon advantage, fought to be more than his family's black sheep, struggled with alcohol and addiction, and is actually most likable when talking to the down and out. The Bush who comes alive at halfway houses and juvenile halls, inner-city schools and drug treatment programs has a shot at being an unexpectedly decent president. The smirking frat boy of the "major league asshole" campaign days -- and the incredible shrinking president-elect we saw during the post-election stalemate -- certainly doesn't.
Only by losing could Al Gore win. At worst, he'll leave Washington and find a new career; at best he'll come back in 2004 rested and ready. Maybe he'll challenge California Gov. Gray Davis, who's already claiming the front-runner's mantle, as an insurgent. Maybe he'll leave politics for good. Someday he'll thank Bush for this defeat. Let's hope the rest of us will.