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Jewish World Review July 3, 2001 / 12 Tamuz, 5761

Chris Matthews

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AlGore's dilemma -- EUGENE MCCARTHY once told me, "It is easier to run for president than to stop." Think of Al Gore.

Polls show an electorate less taken with George W. Bush than it was on Inauguration Day. In a three-way race over the public's evaluation of Bush as president, "undecided" is now gaining on "approval" and "disapproval."

What do these events tell the man who out-polled Bush by half a million votes? The answer: that his partisan competition with Bush is not over -- not by a long shot.

Beyond the current instability in the polls, Gore retains a second asset -- a reverence for the office. I'm talking about something bigger than the "bug" to seek the presidency. Like Bush, he holds a devout commitment to America's Democratic institutions.

Ironically, this gives "loser" Gore a historic edge over "winner" Bill Clinton. At 53, he still has a chance to join the country's list of truly great presidents.

Clinton had it, but he blew it.

The man now suffering the self-exile of the defeated showed a gleaming token of his uninstilled aspiration in his concession speech. He spoke nobly of a country "not under man, but under G-d and law."

Intended or not, those words struck hard at the Clinton legacy. Having begun his presidential campaign calling the Monica mess "inexcusable," Gore ended it by reminding the country that those who seek the country's highest office must bow to its moral and legal precepts.

Refusing to do so, Clinton stalled in the leap from smart and lucky to great.

Do we really need a caption for this?

"Kill reverence," as author Ayn Rand warned, "and you kill the hero in man."

Why would a man with no manifest reverence for either his post or place hope to partake of it?

Gore is different. He lacks what Clinton possesses -- a sure instinct for pleasing, but possesses what Clinton lacks -- a reverence for the institutions of American government: the Congress through which he rose, the presidency he so sought, the courts that denied him his prize.

Reporting for this month's Vanity Fair, Marjorie Williams exhumes Gore's past penchant for doing most heartily what he finds most repugnant to do, namely, joining up for Vietnam, raising money for campaigning, and defending the impeached Clinton.

"This gritting of teeth is, in one way, an admirable trait," she writes. "But it is also what drives him to the opposite extreme after the fact, when emotion has had a chance to catch up with duty and intellect."

To author Williams, this "gritting of teeth" explains Gore's time-delayed anger at Clinton. It's why he didn't have Clinton campaign for him and why the two have had nothing to do with each other since leaving office.

There's some precedent for this reaction. Richard Nixon also wanted to win the presidency on his own. Popular Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted to get out there and help his Veep beat that "young genius" Jack Kennedy. Wanting to win by himself, Nixon stifled Ike's plans for a wider campaign role.

"He had stood in Ike's shadow for eight years and suffered a lot of humiliation," the late California congressman and close Nixon ally Pat Hillings once told me. "Now he wanted to win on his own."

So did Gore. He refused to campaign with Clinton, refused to run on the president's record.

What about next time?

Having learned his mistake, Nixon clung hard to the Eisenhower mantle. "Let's win this one for Ike," he declared as the great general lay fatally ill.

Can Al Gore, who has forced himself to do so many things, ask for Clinton's backing once again? Can he seek a second time in 2004 the blessing of a Democratic party that looks up to a man Gore so clearly looks down upon?

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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