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Jewish World Review Oct. 13, 2000 / 14 Tishrei, 5761

Tony Snow

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Debate was one one of the most surreal episodes in modern forensic history -- THIS YEAR'S second presidential debate will go down as one of the most surreal episodes in modern forensic history. Chroniclers may recall it as The Night Al Gore Went to Reform School.

Most of us who watched the contest expected more. We remember the Al Gore who in years past used the podium as an executioner's block for Ross Perot, Jack Kemp and Bill Bradley. We remember the fellow who just the week before sighed and groaned and chuckled each time he thought George W. Bush committed some sort of faux pas.

Those iterations of Al Gore had spunk, sass, confidence. The Al Gore who showed up Wednesday night had none of that spirit. Instead, we got a Gore who looked as if he had just lost a final battle with Nurse Ratchet. With face scrubbed clean and hair neatly pomaded, he sat tense and well-behaved.

One could detect beneath the surface a fair amount of rumbling and trembling -- a palpable desire to jeer about Bush's SAT scores or challenge him to a quick arm-wrestling match. Not only did he hold those impulses in check, he seemed to hold every impulse in check. The effect was unsettling -- rather like watching a person strangle himself.

This had all the marks of an inside job. Aides, alarmed by bad press after debate No. 1, scolded him and told him to behave like a good boy. So when Dubya offered pronouncements on foreign policy, Gore began his answers with such zingers as, "I agree."

Keep in mind, this was the topic Democrats considered a trump card for Gore -- the one on which the vice president might be expected to pounce. But this time the Texas governor displayed unexpected mastery of the material. He rattled off factoids about Nigeria and East Timor. He talked fluently about geopolitics. He praised administration policy, but also drew telling distinctions. And for once, Gore was the guy who appeared to be swimming frantically upward, toward a distant, wavering light.

To make matters worse, even Jim Lehrer, the moderator, seemed bent on humiliating the vice president. Lehrer allowed Dubya the final word on a series of contentious topics, and saved the zingiest question to the end -- the question of whether Gore lies (the term of art is "exaggerates") and, if so, whether anybody should consider the failing when voting for a president.

Gore offered an apology, thus ending his evening not with a bang but a whimper. The question itself drew attention to Gore's most puzzling trait, his Prufrockian sense of unworthiness. He has accomplished much in life; he has an appealing story to tell. He married a woman who qualifies as a force of nature. His kids seem to adore him. He is tall, handsome and, when not on a public stage, charming.

And yet, he makes stuff up -- silly stuff, little stuff, inconsequential stuff. There can be but one explanation for this. It's the same explanation one uses when discussing little boys who claim they can slay dragons or fly like Power Rangers -- who claim their dads can toss cars as effortlessly as paper cups and ferret out bad guys in the dead of night.

Kids tell tales because they figure they haven't done enough to impress people on their own merits. They claim to have performed deeds guaranteed to incite admiration in even the most skeptical observer. In other words, they think that in some small way, they're losers.

There's no need to plunge further into the abyss of psychoanalysis. We all know the pattern.

And just as we tell kids that they don't need to concoct fantasies -- that some day, if they work hard, live right and catch a break or two, good things will come their way -- we feel tempted to tell Gore that his life's story is pretty amazing already; that he doesn't need to write new chapters.

But on this night, at least, Gore seemed intent on running from himself -- encouraged by poll-watching minions who had decided as a matter of strategy to scamper away from their own political instincts.

One debate will not settle a presidential contest. Nor will two or three. Yet, Gore almost seemed to surrender Wednesday night. He never found his feet. He thrashed and stumbled -- landing a hard punch here and there, but never sustaining an assault.

Perhaps that is the inevitable outcome when everybody tells an Al Gore to be like himself -- his best and truest self -- even though nobody, perhaps not even the candidate, knows who that true self is.

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