The myth that Al Gore is a boring man is one of the greatest achievements of Clintonian spin. Al Gore is not boring. He is weird. In fact, he is one of the weirdest dudes in the long run of American politics. But what nobody seems to have figured out is how his penchant for outrageous lies, race-baiting and bizarre exaggerations is related to his apparent boringness.
George W. Bush — who often talks as if he should be wandering around Times Square muttering to himself — gets a lot of grief for his syntax, and well he should. As I’ve said before, he talks like a 9th grader giving an oral book report to his class. But Bush’s verbal lapses are entirely superficial — they seem to reflect literally nothing about the man. Mocking him for saying “I will cut the taxes” is like ridiculing someone with a lisp.
Meanwhile, Gore’s syntax is deliberate, plodding, selective. All of his gaffes seem to be very real clues to the inner man. Listening to him lie — I mean talk — is like watching Fidel Castro explain why Cuba is a workers’ paradise. Does Castro know he is lying? Or is his ego so warped that it is impossible for him to digest facts in a sane way? Very much like Castro, when Gore says something ridiculous you never get the sense it’s off-the-cuff like it is with Clinton. Clinton gets away with most his lies because he is trying to please the audience in front of him, and most people are a little willing to forgive that. But when Gore lies, you get a sense he is repeating instructions from a propaganda memo he read — or wrote — a couple hours, or weeks, earlier. Everything is deliberate.
Which brings us back to this myth that he is boring. The impression that he is boring is almost entirely attributable to two things. First: the fact that Gore talks in a monotone more appropriate for a Speak-and-Spell circa 1978. Second: that he wants us to think he is boring.
Take the voice. Yes, he sounds like a Southern patrician Hymie the Robot (from “Get Smart”). But the content of what he says is often monstrous, frequently outrageous, and reliably bizarre. We miss it, simply because it’s wrapped in his robotic inflection like a cyanide capsule in flavorless tapioca.
But why has he wanted to appear boring? It bears remembering that until he was picked as Clinton’s running mate, Gore fought desperately against the idea that he was dull. In the 1980s and early 1990s, his voice and style were widely considered impediments to a presidential career created by his Senator-father. Gore seemed incapable of communicating the fact that he wasn’t merely re-animated flesh or a remote-control politician (similar to Spock in the Star Trek episode “Spock’s Brain”). From the day Gore was born, his parents made it clear that he must someday be president.
So how does a wonky good-government politician like Gore persuade Americans that he is, in fact, exciting? Well, since he can’t show, he must tell. As you follow his career in the 1980s, you see an ever-increasing pattern of exciting — but crazy — exaggerations. My favorite comes from Bob Zelnick’s excellent biography. After passing some legislation that required the FDA to regulate the nutritional content of baby formula, Gore noted that since the end of World War Two, the share of American infants using baby formula increased from zero to sixty percent. Gore called this “the most significant adjustment to the diet of human beings since the introduction of cooking.”
It might have struck some in Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America that the raising of fatter babies in the postwar United States was more important than, say, the discovery of food preservation, refrigeration, the domestication of farm animals, crop rotation, the development of various grains and legumes that prevent scurvy, rickets, etc.
But that’s not really the point. Gore seems determined from the get-go to be a guy associated with the Big Stuff of world history. After all, that’s what his parents said he was being raised for on that “Boys From Brazil” Tennessee farm of theirs.
Gore lost in his first bid for the presidency in 1988. This was mostly due to the fact that voters, especially women, thought that if you threw a bucket of water on his head, sparks would fly out of his ears and scary “zrbt zzt ffzz zzzzt” sounds would come out of his mouth.
In other words, he needed to be more of a fuzzy-wool-sweater kind of guy, while simultaneously being a Great Man of history. Hmm. How can someone square those things? Being an expert — as he was — in arms control certainly wouldn’t cut it. Aha! the environment (which he was already interested in anyway). But with Earth in the Balance, Gore re-invented himself as a guy whom Volvo-driving, Envision World Peace bumper-stickerers could respect. Women dig guys who want to keep oil off seals and seagulls, perfect. “I can even wear a shawl-collar sweater!”
But conventional environmentalism isn’t exciting enough, and neither was Gore. So he had to exaggerate. He called for the end of the internal combustion engine. He explicitly compared people who ignored his environmental call to arms to those who refused to stop the Holocaust.
This is not the stuff of a boring man. This is the sort of thing a man says when he cannot accept certain fundamental facts of life, the most important of which is that he himself is not that important. Nevertheless, Gore seems to have believed that saying these things would make him exciting and his most devoted boosters — like The New Republic’s Martin Peretz — insisted that this was the case.
And then he got picked to be Bill Clinton’s running mate. And all of a sudden the definition of exciting changed. In Bill Clinton’s America “exciting” is the sort of thing you buy in the back pages of Hustler. Bill Clinton’s lies became exciting too. And Gore realized he’d better shut up and use the boring thing rather than fight it. Now, to be “boring” meant you were reliable. It meant you didn’t enjoy taking a Nestea plunge into the intern-bay. It meant you didn’t think blowing up aspirin factories was manly. Thus, Gore embraced the Secret Service and Macarena jokes.
But now Gore is out in front, and the boring schtick won’t work on its own. So he’s reverting back to his true form, with some improvements. After all, he has learned a few things about lying from watching the boss. Gore used to exaggerate his importance by exaggerating the significance of current events and his proximity to them. Clinton lies and exaggerates solely about himself. Now Gore does it too. He says he wrote the EITC law, he inspired Love Story, he invented the Internet and so on.
The real Al Gore is not a boring man, he is a bizarre and desperate man trapped in a robot’s body.
STAYING OFF COURSE
Wednesday’s column discussed the bizarre stuff that passes for think in College English departments. If you thought that was interesting, you will love this [Link defunct].