Politics & Policy

The Veep Curse

I was right, nyah nyah…

Traditionally, this is the time for careful hedging. Pundits, like the pilot fish they are, need to decide whether they want to remain attached to the ideas, candidates, predictions they championed throughout the campaign season or, realizing they’re backing a loser, pull their puckers off and claim objectivity. Well, not me. I’m going down with my prediction. Gore will lose. On December 14, 1998 I wrote:

I have no idea where I will be or what I will be doing in Y2K. If the cyber-paranoids are right, I will be using rag torches for light and my fellow man for food. But one thing I am willing to bet right now is that Al Gore will not be elected President of the United States.

Since then I have written maybe a half-dozen columns touting what some people have called the “vice presidential curse.” As readers familiar with this column know, I am convinced the holodeck on Star Trek is simply a sop to the egos of actors who think real science fiction is stupid. But that isn’t important right now. Readers are also very familiar with the fact that I believe in the VP Curse.

The argument goes like this. Only two sitting vice presidents have been elected straight to the Oval Office — Martin Van Buren and George Bush. All of the other vice presidents who eventually became president were gay. No, just kidding. But they did get their first shot at being president because their bosses died or resigned. Except Nixon. He’s the only ex-vice president to be elected to the presidency in his own right after leaving the public stage for a while.

So why is it so hard for vice presidents to get elected? After all they have the machinery of the White House, huge name ID, incumbency, and the rest on their side. And most people don’t know they’re gay. No wait. I’m still kidding about the gay thing. Sorry.

Anyway, I think the answer is that the only thing more emasculating than the job of vice president is being forced to buy female products for your girlfriend. A good vice president must necessarily make himself the lesser man. He is the placeholder at state funerals. He is the ribbon cutter at shopping malls. He is the guy sent out for doughnuts during National Security meetings. In prison, he’d be the cellmate whose job it is to put hospital corners on the top bunk and he’d be the guy who always offers his dessert to “Tiny.”

Moreover, Gore has a vice-presidential personality. All of his strengths are ones you expect from a sidekick. He is the guy with the data at his disposal; a Spock to Clinton’s Kirk. He is the downer guy who everyone tolerates because he’s friends with the really popular guy, like Cameron Frye to Ferris in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He is the organized, can-do man like Dirk in Rushmore. When Al Gore praised Bill Clinton as one of America’s “greatest” presidents, he reinforced the feeling that he was sycophantic Smithers to Clinton’s Mr. Burns.

Now, Gore understands some of this. He knows he’s been in the dutiful-sidekick role and this is his moment to break out. In his view he is Kato and he’s finally gotten a chance to kick the Green Hornet’s ass. But unlike Bruce Lee — who played Kato in the 1960s series — who could have opened a to-go carton of Kung Pow whup-ass on Van Williams faster than you can say “You have defied the Shao-Lin Temple!,” Al Gore isn’t even remotely in Clinton’s league. Bill Clinton — as much as I think he should spend eternity in a Sisyphean pool of zaftig interns, Egg McMuffins, and Krispy Kremes — is an indisputably brilliant politician who charms and dazzles people (though nobody I know is charmed or dazzled by him). Meanwhile, Al Gore is only comfortable when talking about photovoltaic converters and brags that he can hypnotize chickens.

Why do you think Al Gore runs and screams all the time? Why do you think he plays tonsil-hockey with his wife at every opportunity? Why do you think he constantly talks about “fighting” and “never giving up”? Why do you think he constantly takes his jacket off and rolls up his sleeves like a man on a date who’s been invited to ring the bell at a “Test Your Strength” carnival booth? Because he needs to communicate he’s a man-of-action. It was one of his advisers who told him he needed to be more of an alpha dog. Well, that’s true of all vice presidents coming out of the shadows (remember the “Wimp Factor”?). But especially so for Gore because he is a vice-presidential guy working for a president who diminishes everyone around him.


Anyway, enough about the how the curse works. I’ve written about this more than Sean Wilentz has written about his dreamland where Bill Clinton is always president and he is favorite vizier. (If you want more Veep-Curse stuff, just look for “Van Buren” in the NRO search engine and you’ll find plenty.) Instead, I want to move on to those who poo-pooed my argument. Unfortunately, for various reasons I cannot go after them all by name, but they know who they are. Oh yes. They know. They are the e-mailers and eye-rollers. The chucklers and the “that’s a cute idea Jonah” head-patters. When I am czar they shall be forced to watch Caddyshack II everyday…

Sorry, I got distracted.

After the Democratic Convention when Al Gore’s polls shot through the roof, many in Washington and elsewhere started zinging me. They’d write me saying, “well bonehead, you still think it’s a lock? You must feel pretty stupid now!” When I wrote a column saying that Gore’s convention bounce would evaporate like all convention bounces do, a reporter from a magazine that will remain nameless (it rhymes with Gnu Knee-Public) wrote me saying, “You’re wrong Goldberg!” He went on to explain that the Gore campaign had been planning all along to emulate the (poppa) Bush strategy of 1988 and turn (baby) Bush into Michael Dukakis. I even bet him that Gore’s numbers would drop to single digits by the first poll after Labor Day. Alas, I lost that bet and I still owe him beers.

But he and others back then argued that it would be smooth sailing after that. They cited the “first law” of American politics, which is that the incumbent party never gets thrown out during times of peace and prosperity. Al Gore had prosperity and the “issues” on his side. He had to win. About a dozen people sent me an article by my friend Will Saletan entitled “Why Bush Is Toast” “The only question has been how far those dynamics would carry him. Now that he has passed Bush, the race is over,” wrote Saletan. “Yes, in principle, Bush could win,” he continued. “The stock market could crash. Gore could be caught shagging an intern. Bush could electrify the country with the greatest performance in the history of presidential debates. But barring such a grossly unlikely event, there is no reason to think Bush will recover.”

I don’t mean to pick on Will, and I don’t mean to say that Gore is losing simply because of the vice-presidential curse. Rather I think Gore’s problems were exacerbated by the vp curse. If Clinton fatigue didn’t exist; if the Lewinsky scandal never took place; if it was possible to turn George W. Bush into a funny-named New England techno-dweeb like Michael Dukakis; if Al Gore weren’t the kind of guy who didn’t make you want to carve out your pancreas with piece of dull shale rather than sit next to him on a 45-minute plane ride, Gore might have beaten the curse.

And Gore, could still beat it. It’s not obvious yet that he is a loser (in the electoral sense). But, as for one-time members of the “peace-and-prosperity”-is-everything school (including the propeller-beanie-wearing slide-rule gang of political scientists with their models and formulas which assured Gore would walk away with the election), they’ve all been proven wrong already. Gore may win. But if Peace and Prosperity ruled the day he wouldn’t be running into the wind and he wouldn’t be campaigning in Tennessee, let alone states Michael Dukakis won.


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