Gored To Distraction

Political theater critic Eric Engberg bucks conventional wisdom once again with a critical question: Do we really want to know the real Al?

It is a universally accepted tactical truth that Al Gore's convention mission is to "reintroduce" Americans to the "real" man inside the suit.

I'm sorry, but that notion is simply absurd. And it is absurd in small ways we'll get into a little later.

But the big picture absurdity is this: the Al Gore "reintroduction" thesis completely and entirely ignores the central truth of the Clinton phenomenon that we have witnessed for the past eight years, namely, that American voters simply don't give a hoot about the "real" man inside the suits worn by their elected officials. They don't care about the "private" person. They aren't interested in the "real" soul that comes out behind closed doors and curtains. They don't have to love and cuddle up to the husband, father, son, and buddy.

Voters hire someone to do a job. Liking or respecting a candidate's public persona and performance is adequate for that task. They aren't picking a spouse or a pastor.

Can there be even a smidgeon of doubt of this in the post-Clinton era?

I don't think so. After all, Clinton was first elected after the Gennifer Flowers story broke, after the "didn't inhale" silliness, and after the account of his weasly maneuvering to avoid Vietnam was told. And he's more popular at the end of his two terms than Ronald Reagan was, despite all that plus Monica, Whitewater, and Kathleen Willey.

These glimpses of the "real" Bill Clinton have done mighty little to dampen his approval ratings.

Yet it is gospel that Gore must show his "real" self to the people in Los Angeles. "The supposition in the Gore camp," The Washington Post said, "is that once the electorate understands the Gore they know...his popularity will soar and he will defeat Bush in November."

Check Out Reality Check

"Gore is still seen as an enigma to many Americans," according to Reuters. "The vice president remains a mystery to the electorate," declared The New York Times. The paper's columnist, Bob Herbert, quoted a convention delegate who said, "People still don't feel they really know Al Gore, and that's hurting him."

Baloney. Old-timer columnist Jack Germond got it right: "The dirty little secret about the vice presient is that many voters simply don't like him."

The issue is not that voters crave to know and love the Inner Al. They just aren't hot for the Outer Al. It isn't that complicated.

Having said that, being liked is not essential to winning elections in this country. There are other factors: respect, admiration, and, most importantly, really hating the other guy. Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon Johnson were not beloved when they were elected.

Another, smaller absurdity of the "reintroduction" theory: no modern politician has utilized for political purposes his personal and family life more, or in higher profile settings, than Al Gore.

In his 1992 acceptance, Gore sensitively told of what it was like when his son got hit by a car after an Orioles game: "I ran to his side and held him and called his name, but he was limp and still, without breath or pulse. His eyes were open with the empty stare of death, and we prayed, the two of us, there in the gutter..."

In 1996, it was his sister's death from lung cancer: "And then I knelt by her bed and held her hand. And in a very short time her breathing became labored and then she breathed her last breath... and that is why, until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking."

Now, can anyone honestly argue that what we need is more of such personal glimpses into the heart and soul of this political machine? Spare me.

But that is exactly what Gore's handlers have argued, successfully. And the punditocracy concurs. That is why we have had to endure a convention where the candidate is endorsed by controversial figures like his college roommate, his high school coach, his daughter, and his wife. Surprise, surprise, they like him!

And, frankly, we don't care.