Last week, Al Gore sighed more than a nun who found her favorite student with a footlocker full of porn magazines and Cliffs Notes. The vice president explained that he didn’t know the mike would be on while his opponent talked and that if he had known there’s no way he would have been so rude. He went further. He explained that his team had negotiated an agreement that the cameras would not be on him when Bush was talking. So, the reason that the vice president of the United States sounded like someone had given him an atomic wedgie every time Bush opened his mouth had nothing to do with Gore’s tactics. Al says he was just being himself. In other words, he has no qualms about telling the world that his normal, unscripted self is a rude, pompous, and condescending jerk.
One wonders how a President Gore would react in a joint news conference with the leader of China. When Jiang Zemin talks about his desire for peace and democracy, would a President Gore roll his eyes like some dashboard Smurf on a potholed road? Would he groin-pull groan every time the Chairman of the Federal Reserve said something he disagreed with?
More to the point, the lesson coming out of last week’s debate is that, at the very least, one’s public character matters. Now, I think any hard distinctions between “public” and “private” character are deeply flawed. Nevertheless that doesn’t mean the distinction is meaningless, and besides, no one listens to arguments about the relevance of “private character” anymore. How a politician frames arguments, how he tries to rally people to his cause is an important question. Last week both candidates faced that question and the public didn’t like Gore’s answer.
Al Gore dominated the time, the moderator, the issues, and even, in the case of CNN, the screen (CNN gave Gore 6% more of the screen; this was probably not a conspiracy to help the Democrat so much as a conspiracy to accommodate Gore’s enormous head). No one can say that Gore didn’t get his fair say. One can even entertain the idea that more Americans agreed with what he said in terms of the substance. They just didn’t like how he said it. And that’s important. We understand this in every other area of life. It doesn’t matter how much you know; you can’t be a good teacher if you belittle your students and you can’t be a good coach if you undermine your players’ confidence. Good cops aren’t the best shots or best drivers. Your professional character matters, even for presidents.
Take the lying. Now, I think the lying is incredibly relevant. It is the one trend that could be plotted seamlessly from a Clinton administration through a Gore administration without a dip. Despite what Michael Kinsley and other Gore defenders (or Bush attackers) think, Gore’s lies were neither small nor insignificant. Take his use of “personal” anecdotes — the can lady, the standing high-school girl — to justify vast new expansions of the federal government. My old boss and friend Ben Wattenberg likes to say that the “plural of anecdote is data” and it’s clear that Al Gore believes this to be the case. But you don’t base government policy on anecdotes, especially when they aren’t true. And if you can’t find even a good, true anecdote to justify an explosion in entitlements, then maybe that should tell you something.
Gore’s defenders bring up Ronald Reagan’s fibs as a counter-argument. And, yes, Ronald Reagan made up some nice stories about America which turned out to be factually untrue. But most of Reagan’s sometimes mythical parables got to the heart of America’s greatness. And, not insignificantly, Ronald Reagan by all accounts believed these stories were true. Al Gore, first of all, either knows his stories are lies or simply doesn’t care. Secondly, his stories do not celebrate the virtues of a self-reliant America, they foment paranoia about run-amok corporations and demand an expansion in an overweening Federal bureaucracy.
Getting back to the jerk factor, what happened when Gore was criticized for something that he does all the time? He blamed others. He said it was the fault of the girl’s father that he got the facts wrong about the Sarasota high school. He’s permitted his campaign to take the blame for the screw-up (by the way, Dan Quayle’s “potatoe” flub was the product of poor staff work and to this day Quayle has taken all the blame).
What happened when George Bush graciously complimented a member of Clinton’s administration? Gore had to glom a little credit for himself by saying he was with the FEMA director when he wasn’t.
What happened when George Bush suggested — a bit too meekly — that maybe the Russians should get involved with fixing Serbia? Gore snickered at him like a kid who knows the answer to the problem on the blackboard.
What happened when the moderator asked in his opening question whether Gore had questioned whether Bush has the experience necessary to be president? He lied flat out and said he never questioned the governor’s experience. Now, a week later, questioning Bush’s experience is the cornerstone of the Gore campaign.
All of these things are simply superfluous examples of the flaws in Gore’s public character. From lying about cosponsoring McCain-Feingold and discovering Love Canal to accusing opponents of race preferences of being willing accomplices in racial murder, Al Gore practices a kind of politics Americans don’t and shouldn’t like.
The elite press — which is packed to the rafters with precisely this sort of Jonathan Alter-Harvard types — is horrified that the Republicans might win simply because Gore isn’t better at hiding the condescension and attitudes they all share. That’s why so much of the coverage of Gore’s lying focused on the GOP’s attempts to make lying an issue.
They prefer the Gore campaign’s definition of “the issues.” They buy the notion that Democrats win when elections are about “the issues.” Never mind that the Gore campaign’s idea of the “issues” is a fresh round of giveaways to voters (see Ramesh Ponnuru’s excellent piece “The Serious Candidate“.) Indeed, if there were a sizable number of undecided pederasts in a few swing states Al Gore would be promising an entitlement to free lollipops, motel rooms, and anonymous e-mail addresses.
But the press can go suck eggs. Americans understand that character matters.
Tonight, Gore will be as programmed as a Scientologist on 60 Minutes. He will be careful to seem modest and self-deprecating. Bush should be careful not to try too hard to pull the real Gore out. Instead he should let Gore get comfortable, because when Gore is comfortable he reverts to form — and that is in Bush’s interests and the country’s. Let Gore be Gore. Carthago delenda est.