Gore Can't Heal the Hurt
By Richard Cohen
Friday , November 24, 2000 ; Page A43
I voted for Al Gore. I did so because I have known him since he was a
congressman from Tennessee. I admire his intellect, his seriousness of purpose,
his capacity for hard work and study, his political values, his experience and
his knowledge. That being said, I now think that under current circumstances he
would not be the right man for the presidency. If I could, I would withdraw my
vote. In the terminology of the moment, put me down as a hanging chad.
I still think precisely as I have about Gore. But those "current
circumstances" I just mentioned change everything. Given the present bitterness,
given the angry irresponsible charges being hurled by both camps, the nation
will be in dire need of a conciliator, a likable guy who will make things better
and not worse. That man is not Al Gore. That man is George W. Bush.
Bush has incessantly proclaimed himself as that sort of guy--"a uniter, not a
divider." The tendency is to dismiss that sort of chest-thumping as campaign
nonsense, but in Bush's case it appears to be true. After all, the Bush boomlet
began among his fellow Republican governors, each of whom probably thought the
next president should be none other than himself.
So it says something about Bush that the governors were able to coalesce
around him. Some of these governors knew Bush quite well, some hardly at all,
but the fact remains that they all seemed to genuinely like the guy and
respected his leadership abilities.
You hear the same sort of thing from people who worked with Bush in private
enterprise. I talked with one of them once, a Democrat who disagreed with Bush
on many issues. Yet he, too, praised Bush's leadership abilities, his talent for
bringing order out of chaos and for reaching some sort of consensus. That man's
testimony impressed me. His disagreements with Bush were real, his admiration
for him profound.
Gore, on the other hand, has little of those abilities. His own party is sore
at him for taking the one-two punch of peace and prosperity and running a race
that is still not concluded. His performance was as erratic as his
uniform-of-the-day: earth tones on Tuesday, business suit on Wednesday. The
country sensed that either he did not know himself, or what he did know the
country would not like.
Gore is hardly a political natural. He appears stiff, robotic, insincere even
when he is not, and paradoxically unable to mask his ambition. He is the
intimate of few people, almost no one's good buddy, and not comfortable--or is
it just plain not good?--on television. But TV is as essential to the modern
presidency as a white horse was to monarchs of old.
Could Al Gore rally the nation? Maybe. Could he go over the heads of Congress
and get the country behind him? Maybe. I think, though, that Bush would be
better at those things--and better, too, at restraining GOP Dobermans like Reps.
Tom DeLay and J.C. Watts Jr. At the same time, it's not likely that a President
Bush would be able to appoint Supreme Court justices ideologically similar to
those he says he admires, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Simply put, he
ain't got the votes.
John F. Kennedy won by a hair and under questionable circumstances, and yet
his presidency was never considered illegitimate. Within a relatively short
time, his approval rating hit an astounding 83 percent. But Kennedy was a man of
manifest political talents, not to mention charisma. Bush is no Kennedy on a lot
of levels--particularly his lack of intellectual curiosity--but Gore is almost
Kennedy's antithesis. No one has ever applied the word "grace" to him.
I realize that one-term presidents can become two-term presidents, so it is
not just the next year that matters. I realize, too, that Bush and Gore have
real differences in their approach to government--differences that matter
greatly to many people.
But what matters at the moment is the moment itself--a mere tick of the
historic clock that could, if things continue, just stop it dead where it is.
History does not guarantee that things will be as they have been. The first and
most daunting task of the next president is not a tax bill or a Social Security
plan but--as it was when Jerry Ford succeeded Richard Nixon--the healing of the
country. I voted for Gore because he was the better man for the job. I can't
help thinking that he no longer is.