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Jewish World Review March 26, 2001 / 2 Nissan, 5761

Tony Snow

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The raw energy of politics explodes from limitless, vague aspirations -- Washington insiders, perhaps exhausted by the pace of legislative legerdemain and unsettled by the absence of actionable behavior on the part of the chief executive, have taken -- almost as one -- to observing, "We aren't hearing much from Al Gore, are we?"

Gore has become the forgotten man in American politics, spurned by his friends, forgotten by his foes, neglected by the press that once nipped so ardently at his heels. He pops into view from time to time, teaching college classes, schmoozing with Silicon Valley execs and trying to chart a path through a wilderness apart from politics. But he never lingers long. He does his bit and then vanishes into the fog of anonymity.

If you talk to Democrats, most dismiss him as toast, but in the next breath, they discuss timetables for his public re-emergence. Tellingly, nobody knows what he will or should do politically; Gore probably doesn't know himself.

It is a difficult thing for career politicians to surrender the stage. The business insinuates itself into their souls. They become accustomed to speaking before throngs throbbing with expectation. They look into the excited, dilated pupils of young and old; they feel the surging ambitions of supporters eager for the illusion of turning history through the sheer exertion of collective will. Words gush like spilled wine and vapid phrases take on the luster of newfound eloquence. Every sloganeer presumes to channel Pericles.

The raw energy of politics explodes from our own limitless, vague aspirations. We love to believe that simple actions beget profound changes -- that a president can wipe away such grand and incomprehensible ills as "racism" with a simple stroke of a pen. None of this is lost on officeholders, who naturally revel in the presumption that they possess talismanic powers. This implied might both knits them to the masses and sets them above.

If quiet retirement grates on former backbenchers, imagine the deflation that afflicts a man who spent eight years as a vice president, won the popular vote -- and yet fell two tantalizing electoral votes short of the big prize. One might forgive his giving vent to bitterness -- or even to swearing oaths to settle scores with those who took away the prize.

But so far, Gore has straight-armed those temptations and has led an exemplary, quiet public life. One sees him yukking it up at Columbia Journalism School -- even giving high fives to Alan Greenspan, a scene that could qualify as the whitest moment in modern political history. Gore's demeanor -- pleasant, sometimes even exuberant -- strengthens the conviction that his graceful exit speech was not merely a triumph of the rhetorical arts; it offered a glimpse at a side of the man that too often got shoved aside during pitched political contests.

This is the great perplexity about Gore: He can be charming, relaxed, witty and bright, but for reasons known only to him and his advisers, he seldom acted that way on the stump. He embraced a bitter populism that fit neither his personality nor his family background and adopted a brittle sense of aggression that seemed, well, weird.

Now, Manic Al seems to have gone away, and Nice Al has taken comfortable residence within the skin of the former second in command. Indeed, it now seems that if George W. Bush's crusade for civility succeeds, it will owe its success at least in part to Al Gore's willingness to step aside for a few moments and enjoy life away from the limelight.

This very fact may keep Gore alive to do political battle another day. One gets the sense that Democrats are in a forgiving mood. The pardons and the office space and the closed-press speeches and the Harlem public rallies have reminded the party that Bill Clinton's narcissism wasn't an accidental byproduct of his quest for immortality; it was the centerpiece of the man's character and political career. You don't find many people saying, as they did immediately after the election: "Gore blew it. He should have embraced Clinton."

Even if Gore decides one presidential crusade is enough, he has established a firm foundation for a distinguished follow-on career. Politics seldom admits of second acts because lawmakers almost never believe they can improve on their first acts.

But Gore's low-profile, hang-with-the-family, speak-no-evil approach wears well -- which is why his critics are saying nice things and detractors in his own party suddenly are asking what their old pal is up to these days.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate