The best gag during Al Gore's stint as host for "Saturday Night Live" came when the former vice president of the United States sat naked from the waist up in a hot tub interviewing Joe Lieberman (played by Chris Parnell), recreating, a la "The Bachelor," the selection process for his 2000 running mate.
The sketch, with its perfect caricatures of the "contestants" -- a slavish John Edwards (Chris Kattan) and a boorish John Kerry (Seth Myers) -- showcased a strange, new Al Gore. How best to describe it? He seemed less like an android than ever before.
It had the reckless feel of the best political appearances on "SNL," from Jesse Jackson's angry reading of "Green Eggs and Ham" to John McCain's recent crack at a Streisand medley. Jackson and McCain, though, are self-styled mavericks who challenge convention, rather than strive to seem presidential. When McCain belted out an off-key "Evergreen," he had already said that he never planned on another presidential run.
Gore, meanwhile, had seemed back on the campaign trail.. Watching him demurely tangle arms in a champagne toast with Parnell's Lieberman while soaking in a sudsy bath, anyone who has ever watched five minutes of "Meet the Press" had to be thinking: This is hilarious, but does he think this makes us wish he was leading the war on terror? At the same time, my Salon colleague Jake Tapper was at a party thrown by an ex-Clinton official, and the crowd gathered around the TV. At the sight of the topless Gore, the wife of an Edwards adviser immediately pronounced: "That's it. He's not running."
Sure enough, word would spread within the news cycle: Gore was out. On "60 Minutes," he told an incredulous Leslie Stahl that "I want to contribute to ending the current administration," but that "my best way of contributing to that result may not be as a candidate this time around." He could have compared his favorability numbers with Bush's (19 percent to 65 percent, according to a recent New York Times poll) and figured his best chance would be in 2008.
But it sounds like other Democratic Party members had taken a look at those numbers, the dismal sales of his book, or maybe the hostile reviews of his recent reemergence in the public eye by even liberal commentators, and concluded that the public that had given him the popular vote two years ago didn't want him around much. He told Stahl that he thought "there are a lot of people within the Democratic Party who felt exhausted by . Who felt like, OK, I don't wanna go through that again. And I'm frankly sensitive to that -- to that feeling."
So should that make you feel sad? If you like Al Gore mostly because he is not George W. Bush, whom you really really hate, well then go ahead, feel sad. (Minutes after the news broke, a spam e-mail to members of the media urged us to consider: "Was Gore Threatened?") Supporters will also point out that in recent months Gore seemed the only Democratic leader willing to get his hands dirty, loudly questioning a possible war with Iraq, and going after Trent Lott when Tom Daschle and fellow Senate Democrats looked the other way.
But critics, including -- maybe especially -- those on the left, could just as eagerly claim it was all more posturing, that Gore could play the heartless, bloodless pol as well as anybody. He was the guy, after all, who used his keynote speech at the 1996 Democratic National Convention to melodramatically recount the tragic death of his sister Nancy to lung cancer -- and advance his ticket's popular attack on the tobacco industry. He was the guy who, having won the popular vote, took 18 months to come out swinging against Bush. Certainly Gore was unfairly savaged sometimes, but that never made him a saint. He tried to manipulate the media as much as anybody; he was just really bad at it.
Maybe that's why he was so good on "SNL" -- freed from the ugliness of campaigning, he could relax, be comfortable in his own skin. In the second-best sketch, played with "The West Wing" cast, Gore becomes unnaturally attached to the Oval Office set. Ultimately, Martin Sheen, Allison Janney and the rest of the cast fail to lure him away and leave him sitting at the fake presidential desk, until someone finally turns the lights off on him.
It seemed a little maudlin and overstated at the time, but now it suddenly seems poignant. And that doesn't seem like a bad way to go out.