What is one to make of Hillary Clinton, now that her front-running campaign seems to be foundering? Pretty much what one made of Al Gore when his campaign faltered.
2008 has barely begun, but already it seems quite a lot like 2000. There is a sense of deja-vu-all-over-again as Bill Clinton’s over-ambitious First Lady replays his vice president’s fate. The former VP and the former first lady have remarkable similarities. Both Gore and Hillary wanted to be president for a most of their lives, and with an uncommon ferocity. Each one’s rise through the ranks came about via family members — his father; her husband. Both rose to fame on the wings of Bill Clinton, who is proving to be a mixed blessing for both. Each began a campaign in a position of almost impregnable power, which each one subsequently (and quickly) undermined by errors of judgment and character. In short, what we see here are two campaigns that began with a huge amount of familial and institutional support for candidates who rose exclusively through the power of their respective situations, and who, in the end, are inept politicians and thus in over their heads in a high-stakes campaign.
Al Gore was born to a born politician and his ambitious law school-star wife (the Bill and Hillary Clinton of their generation), who determined before he was born that their son would grow up to be president. Al Gore, the elder, arose from rural obscurity though his abundant political talents: he loved to orate, and would make speeches to haystacks in the absence of people. Al Gore Jr. threw up before his first speech, and politics never got easier.
Bill Clinton, from a neighboring state and a similar background, had all of Al Sr.’s gifts. “He was a natural, with all the advantages of an extrovert born in a southern culture that emphasized human drama,” Sally Bedell Smith says in her riveting book on the Clintons. “A rare combination of powerful intellect and animal instinct” with a great love for the faux intimacies of retail campaigning, and an uncanny ability to read the emotional tone of his audience and adjust his response to its mood. These talents, of course, eluded his wife and vice president, who had people skills in negative territory, as they proved once they were out on their own.
Running for president in 1987-88, for the first time in front of a national audience that neither knew nor cared much for his father, Gore performed awkwardly, previewing most of the faults that would mar his campaign in 2000. Given health-care reform in 1993 by her indulgent husband, Hillary ran it into a wall. There is an irony here that may run too deep for sorrow: Gore and Hillary reached the near-top only through the grace of Bill Clinton, who in turn needed them to correct his own flaws. As Smith tells us, the down side of Clinton’s mercurial genius was chronic disorder: wholly disorganized, chronically late, unable to close off a meeting or reach a decision, he needed their focused and rigorous intellects to bring him to closure, and make sure his trains ran on time.
But the downside of all of their rigor and order meant that they were also pedantic and boring, slow-moving, and heavy as lead. And moreover, they were utterly tone-deaf as to the effect they were making. Gore thought it was a good idea to leave his seat and awkwardly stalk George W. Bush in the final debate of the 2000 season. Hillary thought people would be appalled by her accusation that Barack Obama planned to be president at age five, in Jakarta. (Which indeed they were — but at Hillary, not Barack.) And Hillary’s cackle — the harsh, grating ‘caw’ she unleashes in efforts at levity — already has reached the iconic stature of Gore’s histrionic eye rolling and sighs.
During the campaign in 2000, Bill Clinton supposedly wondered aloud that Gore had gone so far in politics, while being so inept at it. The answer was that he had risen as the son of his father and as Bill Clinton’s running mate, just as Hillary rose as Clinton’s First Lady, and became a senator as his sympathetic and put-upon wife. And yet, Gore had managed to tie the election, and came, with the grace of the Supreme Court of Florida, within a few dimpled chads of becoming the president. How far can you go while being a really bad politician?
Well, we may be about to find out.