Is Al Gore the lowest form of life ever known to political man? Okay, no more easy rhetorical questions. Judge him instead by his enemies. Michael Kelly, for example, who will forever remains Gore Public Enemy #1. For that blame goes not just to Gore but to Gore mentor Martin Peretz, who unceremoniously fired Kelly from the editorship of the New Republic in 1997 because of all the mean things Kelly had already been saying about Al. It's been payback time ever since.
Monday's Gore speech in San Francisco gave Kelly his latest opportunity. It was like the turkey shoot U.S. forces engaged in against the fleeing Iraqi army in 1991. In so many words, Kelly dismissed Gore's comments as dishonest, cheap, low, breaktakingly hypocritical, wretched, vile and contemptible. Oh, and a pack of lies. Gore was lucky Kelly was prevented by U.N. mandate to express what he really felt.
But even amid the slaughter Kelly performed a useful journalistic service -- by addressing head on Gore's opening claim that all other commentators and reporters have taken at face value. Namely, that "those who attacked us on Sept. 11...have thus far gotten away with it." No, Kelly had to remind everyone, Al Qaeda and the Taliban have not gotten away with it. They've been attacked, scattered, and routed. They are dead, in prison, or on the run. He might have added that Osama is probably dead.
Gore's misrepresentations were legion, but even Kelly couldn't highlight them all in a 750-word column. Besides, he needed to wash much blood from his hands.
Which is just what Gore was counting on. He survives because other commentators let him slip away, primarily by paying little if any attention to his substance and focusing instead on his efforts at political repositioning. So the consensus now is that Gore on Monday moved left to recapture his party's base for 2004 and in so doing gave voice to ideas more cautious Democratic rivals were afraid to utter. Yesterday we saw how his political daring emboldened 90-pounder Tom Daschle to strike angry anti-Bush pose. If there is concern that Gore has caused damage, it is raised solely in a domestic context, as in whether he's revived perceptions of Democrats an anti-war party and thus hurt their chances for gains this November. Whether he's hurt U.S. foreign policy is neither here nor there.
At least Joe Lieberman quickly suggested Gore was out of line. And if one takes John Edwards at his word, he distanced himself preemptively from Gore last week, when in a major Washington Post op-ed he began by saying "the debate over Iraq is not about politics. It is about national security," and ended by noting that "Congress must make clear to Hussein that he faces a united nation." Compared to Gore he sounds presidential. But Edwards will have to heard from again if he wants that impression to be lasting.
It does tell you something about Gore that his two finalists for veep aren't about to follow in his tracks. In their naïveté, they must still think that the presidency and foreign policy require a certain amount of statesmanship. But not our pal Al, who appeared more than happy to treat Iraq as the stuff of domestic politics above all else. In a way no one has dared, he dismissed Bush foreign policy since 9/11 as an opportunity squandered. He said the administration is in thrall to the "far right." He said it had turned a $200 billion budget surplus into a $100 billion deficit. He said everything about it is dirty politics, whether it's Dick Cheney going on Rush Limbaugh or its "political strategy clearly described in a White House aide's misplaced computer disk."
Those remarks had nothing to do with Iraq but everything do with the Gore's permanent campaign. This domestic component played out in several curious ways. For a speech that claimed deep concern for the views of our European allies, it received next to no coverage overseas. The left-wing Guardian has nothing about on its website, even though Gore found a way to chide Tony Blair for his hawkishness (though without acknowledging that Blair's strong backing of Bush puts the lie to any talk of unilateralism). But note Gore's weird comment:
"We see our most loyal ally, Tony Blair, who I think's a fantastic leader, getting into what they describe as serious trouble with the British electorate because of similar doubts that have been raised."
In his smallness Gore can only conceive of Blair acting politically with the same spinelessness that has characterized his career. Gore can say what he wants, but he'll remain the last to know what makes Blair a fantastic leader.
For one thing, steadfastness, which Gore is simply incapable of. By now even Saddam must know that Gore's been all over the map on what is to be done with him. But let's focus here on two of Gore's favorite moments in his speech. He boasted that he had "felt betrayed by the first Bush administration's hasty departure from the battlefield even as Saddam began to renew his persecution of the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south" -- without noting that this departure was much in keeping with U.N. mandates Gore now claims should control U.S. policy. Recall too how he repaid Bush Sr. for his Iraq success: by charging late in the 1992 campaign that Bush was involved in a Watergate-like coverup of his involvement in propping up Saddam Hussein prior to the invasion of Kuwait. He implied that if re-elected Bush would deserve impeachment. Gore as sweetheart goes way back.
In Monday's speech he also bragged that "back in 1991, I was one of a handful of Democrats in the United States Senate to vote in favor of the resolution endorsing the Persian Gulf War." The idea is that we should be impressed by the toughness he displayed. But in retrospect it merely appears he made a lucky choice. Writing in the Winter 1997 issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly, political scientist Paul Kengor observes:
"On January 12,  Gore expressed unusual ambivalence, noting that he had alternated back and forth in recent months over whether he felt the administration should pursue a course of continued sanctions or military action."
And this is how Gore explained himself on the Senate floor:
"My decision today is the product of an intense, may I say excruciating, effort to find my way to a place as close to a sense of the ultimate truth in this matter as I am capable of getting. I've struggled to confront this issue in its bare essence -- to separate what I think is fact, or at least highly probable, from what I think is false, or at least highly improbable -- to strike a balance and to take my stand.
"As I searched my heart on this issue over the last few days ... I found myself feeling that if I voted for the Mitchell nonresolution I would do so hoping that it did not prevail. I found myself feeling even late last night that since it now appears that there is a majority in favor of the other point of view that it would pass and will pass regardless of how I vote. I found myself pulled once again to support the Mitchell nonresolution, speaking only of the process I've gone through.
"I feel that I owe it to those who are there [in the Persian Gulf] prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, to give the best judgment of my head and my heart on what this nation should now do. I cannot reconcile myself to a point of view and a vote that says in effect, we will let this deadline come and go and try the sanctions perhaps until the next window, next August when military operations would again become feasible."
As Kengor puts it, "the statement, ironically, was a rather cryptic and weak endorsement along the lines made at the same time by Governor Bill Clinton."
If this is the best Gore could do at such a defining moment, imagine how President Gore might have come across in response to 9/11. But before he becomes everyone's problem again, he remains the Democrats' problem. Anyone want to wish them luck?