Gore is actually authentic -- he is an authentic political professional. A hardworking, earnest guy in government. A reasonable idealist. A plausibly honest elected official. He is the prince of a southern political family, but without unusual arrogance or over-the-top airs of entitlement. What's more, he's studiously, assiduously prepared for the job.
Still, we begrudge him it. Oddly, as the likelihood that he will become president becomes stronger and stronger, we begrudge him the job even more.
It comes back, I think, to my West Wing feelings. Al Gore in many ways is a kind of fantasy president -- with the qualifications and the preparation, and looking the part as well. But the fantasy, his as much as ours, has taken a bit of the life out of him. Or the fantasy, realized, is, of course, a disappointment.
What's more, being the president -- the notion of the presidency (which we people who still vote largely carry from another era) -- is and has been for some time, a disappointment.
It's my turn.
He moves to the couch, holding a copy of New York. He is wearing his black cowboy boots.
"What if McCain wins the Republican nomination?" I ask. "How do you match him for openness, humor, accessibility, joie de vivre?"
"I'm not very good at tactics and political analysis," he says in his slow cadence -- a patent falsehood that I'm sure seems harmless enough to him (a southern white lie, an I'm-just-a-country-boy sort of thing). "And you know we're in the semifinals now -- we haven't made it to the finals yet. I'm concentrating on March 7." He doesn't, in other words, believe he'll ever be facing McCain.
"What's your sense of the meaning of a personality-driven campaign? Good? Bad? Is it something that we're evolving to because of our enormous prosperity and because there's no risk of war?"
In other words, it's a party, and McCain is the guy having the best time.
"The kind of person a candidate would be as president is always a central issue for voters," he says, trying to rationalize the issue. "As the campaign continues, people learn how a candidate reacts to pressure, how they react to the issues that arise in a campaign."
"Is there a line that you draw in your head where you think, I'm not going to go beyond that -- I don't owe voters everything?"
"I have a line I won't cross in my refusal to make a negative personal attack," he says, offering one of his stock answers to a question that hasn't been asked -- which he realizes. "Or do you mean about privacy?"
"Really, I mean about how much of yourself you'll give. McCain, for instance, seems to be saying, 'Take all of me -- ' "
"Oh, I see. I see what you're getting at now. And your theory is that's changing the nature of the campaign? Okay. Ahhh -- I mean, I think openness is a good thing. I think each candidate has to decide what approach he's going to take for the desire of the media for all news all the time. I prefer to be in a relationship that's all voters all the time," he laughs, pleased with his formulation, "and try to communicate directly with them as much as possible. But there are some common features between my campaign and his. I've relied on what I call open meetings. Did you go to the Los Angeles open meeting? Did you stay?"
"I certainly did," I lied.
"Bare-bones, open format, so you never know -- but I don't plan to go to extremes."
"In thinking about this whole campaign process," I ask, pressing slightly (his formality keeps you from pressing more), "at what point do you feel, I'm just freaking out -- the exposure, the emotional cost . . ."
"I don't experience that. I'm motivated by the mission. I want to make our country a better place. Education -- we're in an information age. Health care. The environment. I'm driven by that, and I'm driven right past any concern about daily Q&A with the press and shouted questions. I don't mind that at all. I used to be a journalist. But I don't think a campaign for president has to be The Truman Show -- all campaign all the time. McCain is as close as it comes to that."
He sees McCain, I suspect, as some kind of fool -- a clown. McCain doesn't get it: He's become a national entertainment. In fact, he's the only one who doesn't know the whole process is fake, scripted. On the other hand, you could argue, it's Gore who seems like Truman, at war with the dawning understanding that people are looking at him all of the time -- wanting him to entertain them.
"Well, who," I ask, "Bush or McCain, would you rather run against?"
He easily avoids the question, chuckling.
"If you couldn't have been a politician -- "
"A writer." Then he says: "David Halberstam."
At that moment, maybe for the first time, I see Gore clearly. I see him as a Halberstam figure, from an era when politics and governing were intellectual, social, professional disciplines, more than pure media plays. Then, you could weave your own personality with the great issues of the day instead of having to go it alone, inventing yourself out of whole cloth. Indeed, his personality traits, personal reserve, Ivy League classiness, mild southern corn, are the stuff of Washington in the fifties and sixties.
He is undoubtedly the best and the brightest of this campaign, but he is also a man out of place.
Can we get comfortable with that?