The new, improved Al Gore tells Salon he suspects demonizing Saddam was a Bush campaign ploy -- and explains why it took him so long to speak out.

Published November 23, 2002 11:04PM (EST)

Before Al Gore begins taking heat from his political opponents, he has plenty of answering to do to his past supporters. Gore's reemergence on the national stage this month has brought enthusiastic crowds to book signings, but it has also unleashed some pent-up anger from formerly friendly quarters.

In a Nov. 4 article, the New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg criticized Gore for leaving the national stage after he conceded the presidency to George Bush. "He fell silent. He did not accept -- and apparently did not perceive -- the responsibility that his popular-vote victory had laid upon him," Hertzberg wrote. "At a crucial moment he essentially left voiceless those who had placed their trust in him." And The New Republic opined that Gore's speech criticizing the administration's Iraq policy "consisted of neither honest criticism nor honest opposition. Rather, it sounded like a political broadside against a president who Gore no doubt feels occupies a post that he himself deserves." (The Iraq speech did signal something of a departure for Gore. In the Senate, Gore was one of the most hawkish of Democrats when it came to Saddam Hussein. And it was with Gore's support that the Clinton administration formally adopted the U.S. position of regime change in Iraq.)

His latest bombshell, which he dropped this past week as he and wife Tipper toured the country promoting their book, "Joined at the Heart," was a rather startling shift on healthcare policy. During the presidential campaign, Gore attacked former primary opponent Bill Bradley for making universal healthcare coverage the centerpiece of his campaign. But last week Gore told a crowd in New York that he had "reluctantly" come to support a plan for universal coverage. Gore says he supports a "single-payer system," but one very different from the Canadian system, in which the government pays for and provides health coverage. Gore has provided the vaguest of outlines for the plan, saying only that his plan would have to be "privately run and offer Americans choices." Beyond that, he has not spoken about his healthcare plans in any detail, promising to flesh them out after the new year.

And that has started the sniping from more expected quarters. An aide to Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., scoffed that Gore's new embrace of universal healthcare coverage was simply a ploy to help Gore appeal to liberals in the Democratic primaries. But even a former Gore pollster, Harrison Hickman, sniffed to the Wall Street Journal this week, "He needs to do something different to capture people's attention ... On the other hand, if he does something different, then people will say, 'There he goes again.'" Is Gore ready for a new round of combat? He says that this time around, he's going to stick to his guns and "let the chips fall where they may." Polls show him as the clear front-runner among prospective Democratic candidates, but he insists that he has still not made up his mind about 2004 and is just trying to sell a few books before the holidays. Gore spoke to Salon from his hotel in Seattle in-between book signings.

First you go into isolation for a while. Now you're everywhere. How long before the criticism that you're overexposed?

[Laughs.] Well, you're the first one to ask that one. Congratulations. No, I don't know the answer to that. Maybe the holidays will intervene.

It does speak, though, to the Catch-22 you were facing after the election. Clearly, some wanted you to form a sort of government in exile and others wanted you to go away.

It was about 51-49, I think. But I needed the time off, and I think the country needed the break from politics, also.

Looking back, do you think that your absence deprived your supporters of a voice?

Possibly so. I can see that point of view. I would do the same thing over again for the same two reasons that led me to make that decision the first time around. I felt like after the divisive campaign and the 36 days and the questions many were posing concerning the legitimacy of the new president, I just felt that where the country was concerned it was better for me to leave the stage, at least for a while. You know, 150 years ago when Andrew Jackson took a different approach, it was a different country and a different time. Now with the U.S. as the acknowledged leader of the world, and so much riding on presidential leadership, I did not feel it was responsible for me to run a rear-guard guerrilla campaign for four years to try to undermine the legitimacy of the president. I don't think that's good for the country.

But also, on a more human level, I needed some time off, and after a quarter century in politics, I wanted to get some financial security for my family, and I wanted to get away from the public spotlight for a while. And for those who disagree with that decision, I respect the disagreement. I understand it came at some cost, and that's just the way it is. I would make the same decision again.

You've said were planning to take a more vocal role last fall but were derailed by Sept. 11.

Yeah, and unfortunately for the country we had this horrible attack on us. Obviously in the aftermath of that, I reevaluated the speeches I intended to make in September 2001.

I wanted to ask you about the speech you made in San Francisco about the administration's policy toward Iraq. Does the fact that the administration has now received approval from the Security Council change your critique of the administration's policy?

I commend the president for changing the policy, at least the stated policy, and investing heavily in the United Nations, getting a unanimous vote in the Security Council, even Syria's vote -- I think that's an impressive accomplishment. I don't know what that really means for our policy, because apparently the rest of the world reads the resolution differently from the way we do, and it's unclear whether Secretary [of State Colin] Powell's temporary victory in the internal combat will prevail next week and the week after. You just don't know with this administration. But still, I think that this is a positive change.

I still disagree with the policy, however, on other grounds. I think that building an international coalition is a good thing. In San Francisco, I said that if you're going after Jesse James you need to organize a posse first, and I noticed in the newspaper this morning the president said in his remarks that he feels good to have organized a posse. But I think there's another significant factor that is a big problem for the country. He has lost focus on the war against terror. His decision, for whatever reason, to roll out a new product line after Labor Day, in the words of his chief of staff, and focus on a brand-new war in the run-up to the election had significant consequences.

Just look at what's going on now. FBI sources are telling the newspapers that the agency has lost focus. The CIA officials are telling the newspapers that precious resources needed for the war against terrorism are being diverted to war against Iraq. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said publicly that we're losing ground in Afghanistan. The director of central intelligence said al-Qaida's reconstituted itself and poses just as dire a threat to us right now as they did in the weeks immediately prior to Sept. 11. Osama bin Laden is back on the cover of Time magazine making regular threats to kill us.

And instead of directing the war against terror in a single-minded, focused way, the president has spent the last several months campaigning against Saddam Hussein, beating the drums of war, running ads against people like [Sen.] Max Cleland, [D-Ga.,] accusing him of being unpatriotic even though he lost three limbs on the battlefield. And two things have resulted from that: The Republicans have won both houses of Congress, and the nation has lost ground in the war against terrorism.

And you think this was a campaign ploy?

I don't know what it was. I can't look inside their hearts. I have my suspicions, but I don't know what the motivation was. When the president's chief of staff was asked, he said, Well, you don't roll out a new product line until after Labor Day. Look at that metaphor: What does that imply? It implies that the war against terrorism was the old product line and it didn't have the kind of zing that they needed during the election campaign.

And you think al-Qaida poses a more immediate threat to the United States than Saddam Hussein.

I do. And I think that it is extremely misleading for the president to convince the country that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are virtually the same thing, to use his phrase. They're not. It's a little bit like the old story about the guy who lost his car keys, and he was looking for them on the street corner under the street lamp, and a friend came by, tried to help him, and said, "Where'd you last have them?" And he said, "When I got out of the car, over in that field across the street." And his friend said, "Well, why are you looking for 'em here?" and he said, "'Cause the light's better here."

Osama bin Laden turned out to be difficult to locate, and they know roughly where Saddam Hussein is.

During your speech on the economy, you hedged on your position on the tax cut. Do you now support freezing or rolling back the tax cut?

Well, I've always supported it. I said repeatedly last year that we ought to rip up the president's economic plan and start over from scratch. I'll tell you what was going into my thinking that day. The whole point of that speech was a proposal that the president come to the table, and sit down with the Democrats, and come up with a new economic plan, because the current one is failing so badly. In my thinking, in terms of that speech, it was inconsistent to invite the president to put everything on the table and then go taking things off the table. In retrospect, I think I overestimated the force of the internal logic in that proposal and underestimated the political context in which the proposal was made. I believe that their whole plan ought to be repealed, but as a practical matter, what ought to be done now is stop the forthcoming additional tax cuts to the top brackets and focus additional cuts on the middle class. We should have a smaller tax cut overall, and include new investments in infrastructure, and research and development, and education and job training. We also ought to repeal the elimination of the inheritance tax because only the top 2 percent ever pay it anyway. And the amount of money involved is astounding.

To go back into deficit and freeze spending on everything from social programs to nuclear anti-terrorism effort to finance a much bigger silver spoon for the next generation of the ultra-wealthy strikes me as insane.

When can we expect details of your single-payer healthcare plan?

Next year. There are a lot of different ways to do it. I favor a plan that's privately run and one that provides choice to Americans.

And yet you criticized Bill Bradley during the 2000 campaign for embracing single-payer healthcare as his central issue.

My plan will be completely different. His plan is not what I'm proposing, nothing like it. His recommendation was to give a cash subsidy so that people could go buy plans from insurance companies without any limitation of what the insurance companies could charge or what they were required to offer. I don't want to get into criticizing his plan all over again, but it was sure as hell different from what this is.

But you expect healthcare to be a central issue for you?

Whether I'm a candidate or not, absolutely. The current system is collapsing, and the National Academy of Sciences just reaffirmed that this week.

What other big policy pronouncements can we expect in the near future?

Well, right now we're focused on the unfinished business at hand, the book tour: "Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family."

I wanted to ask you about changes within the party, namely the rise of Nancy Pelosi [the Democrat from California who rose to the post of House minority leader].

I love Nancy Pelosi.

Do you think that her election as minority leader symbolizes a shift to the left, as some have interpreted it?

No, I don't think so. There are 435 members of Congress, and they all have different constituencies and different views. Only a few are elevated to leadership positions, and when they become leaders, they speak for the entire caucus, and that's what she'll do.

But already, there's been some criticism that she used kid gloves with the president over the war in Iraq on "Meet the Press." Do you think that's simply a function of not wanting to criticize an American president with the country possibly on the brink of war?

No. I didn't see the appearance, but I'm guessing the fine line she was worried about was not that, but rather what I was referring to just a minute ago: a need to speak for the entire caucus. She has new responsibilities.

So you think those views are the views of Democrats on the war in Iraq?

You know, two-thirds of the Democrats voted against the resolution in the House.

Two years ago, you said that Sen. Joe Lieberman, [D-Conn.,] was the second-best choice for president. If you don't run, would you support his candidacy?

[Laughs.] That's a great way to phrase that question. You know, in the event that I decide not to run, I would want to make a fresh assessment of who I might support, but I'm not at that point. I'm going to sit down and decide whether or not I'm going to be a candidate over the holidays.

Right. It's probably a moot point anyway.

Might be. Might be.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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