Column: Al, Are You Listening?

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois.

Al Gore's recent barn burner of a speech in Florida ignited both elation and, one suspects, acute depression. Most party faithfuls were thrilled right down to their partisan socks to hear Gore taking on Bush II with such refreshing elan, while other presidential hopefuls in attendance--John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, and Chris Dodd--likely were wishing Al would plunge off the stage, a la Bob Dole. The former vice president's performance seemed like a hard act to follow.

On the other hand, Gore's next performance might not be a hard act to follow. And that's one of his two politically lethal flaws. He's up one day, down the next; he's rhetorically revved in Iowa, then barely conscious in Maine; he's animated before seniors, then catatonic before workers. Unlike his erstwhile boss, who always loved draining off excess testosterone by working up crowds (among other ways), the Man from Tennessee just ain't got no oratorical consistency. Gore might want to think about getting little amphetamine-booster shots each morning just to level himself out at a higher plateau. This might cause him to ramble a bit incoherently from time to time, but what the hell, the American electorate hasn't seemed to mind lo these many months of presidential incoherence, so never mind that.

There is, of course, little doubt that Gore is squarely in the ring, despite his politically obligatory coyness. He still insists he's made no decision, although the Democratic Party's national chairman, Terry McAuliffe, said in Orlando April 13:"I think he will run." Damn these confounding signals. There is also little doubt that Gore is the presumptive nominee, whatever Joe's, Chris', and the two Johns' aspirations. In recognition of that reality it's time for scribes, whether pro or con on the Gore question, to begin hurling unsolicited advice his way.

In addition to that offered above-stimulants; under a qualified physician's care, naturally--Gore should buy a large can of consultant-repellent. (Please forgive the glaring contradiction of giving advice to dump those giving advice.) His habitual inclination to hang on every word of poll-perusing, number-crunching, focus-grouping strategic professionals only helped to do him in last time around. These chaps are far more interested in divining what the public thinks now, this very minute, than they are in molding opinions. To its credit, the Right figured out some time ago that if it hammered away long enough with any given message dear to its 19th-century heart and mind--no matter how unpopular or expressly inane that message might be--the public would begin to bite. Gore should take the hint. But will he?

A USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll released just hours before the Orlando speech said that 8 in 10 Democrats believed the former Veep should remain uncritical of you-know-who. With recent history as an empirical guide, chances are if Gore's political accountants had had time to digest and advise on the poll's findings, Al would have listened intensely and then thrown rose pedals at George instead of vivisecting him as he did--which was precisely what made the speech such a resounding success.

I'm sure the challenger understands that regardless of what he says, Bush II's astute Ministry of Propaganda will label him an unpatriotic, pinko blackguard anyway, so he might as well say what's on his mind. Gore undoubtedly understands that, but his proclivity to listen to nervous experts will likely pull him back to fretful rhetorical tepidness. If he could just forget the consultants and stick to blasting away at Bush II's record, the numbers would take care of themselves. Gore may understand that in his gut. The question is, will he have the guts to stay the course.

Back in the opening dark days of the 2000 campaign I wrote a piece that imagined what Harry Truman might say to Al, as the latter tossed himself from worrying about focus-grouped opinions to fretting about the specter of Bill Clinton. Harry's advice came down to this:

Start fricasseeing every molecule of George W. .... I was reminded of this ... strategy the other night as I watched a rerun on C-SPAN of my 1948 Democratic Convention acceptance speech. I was hot, really hot, breathing fire then, and didn't bother to mince words in the process. I was also seemingly, hopelessly behind in what passed for polls those days. How far behind I actually was is irrelevant, because I and my opponent and the public believed I was hopelessly behind. So I pulled out all the plugs and did what today seems to be politically unthinkable: I said exactly what was on my mind.

Get mad and stay mad and in enough time the right voters will gain new respect for you. It worked for me.

I'm reasonably confident that's what Harry would have said in 2000, and even more confident that's what he'd say today. Speak truth to power--which in a democracy is supposed to be the electorate, despite Ari Fleischer's oddly articulated political philosophy.

And stay the course.

© Copyright 2002 P. M. Carpenter

Fifth Columnist is published weekly by History News Network and

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More Comments:

Nadja Adolf - 4/29/2002

I find it disturbing that political articles on this site are seemingly all written by partisans of the Democratic Party.

Unfortunately, this sort of bias is exactly why Michael Bellesiles is still on the faculty at Emory, and why this scandal will not end his career. Because in the politically partisan world of the modern academia, if one espouses the party line, one can deflect criticism as long as one can smear one's opponents with being evil
reactionaries, gun toters, or whatever the current villain of the week is in the Old Ivory Tower.

How can one expect people who refer to the President as Bush II or Shrub and mention him only with derision while excusing Mr. Gore's bizarre behavior - and Mr. Clinton's - be expected to honestly judge the malfeasance of Bellesiles or Ambrose?

Or to end the "feminist excuses" being employed by a certain prominent woman historian who has successfully hidden behind the wheels of her baby carriage and explained that her plagiarism was a sign of the struggle to combine career and motherhood - no doubt Ma Barker's justification for bank robbery. B^)

Pierre Troublion - 4/23/2002

Al Gore will never soundbite himself into Harry Truman. If the Democrats continue to put forward
clumsy and inarticulate candidates they will continue to lose by narrow margins to clumsy inarticulate
Republicans (who need to be moralistic but not clever).