Richard Reeves

The Gore Problem: Perfect Failure?

WASHINGTON -- Have you seen any of the many Disney versions of "Beauty and the Beast"? Remember Gaston, the best-looking guy in the village, chasing after the beauty, Belle? He was the best hunter, but he also was a bully and a braggart?

Al Gore.

Gaston's lyrics read like this:

"No one's slick as Gaston ... No one's quick as Gaston ... No one's neck's incredibly thick as Gaston's ..."

"No one hits like Gaston ... Matches wits like Gaston ... In a spitting match no one spits like Gaston ..."

"No one plots like Gaston ... Takes cheap shots like Gaston ..."

Fairly or unfairly, that is how the vice president looks coming out of his narrow "victory" in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. In the old days, Gore was seen as more plodder than plotter -- and whether or not people voted for him, they generally liked what they saw of this impressive fellow. In an interesting turn of events or perceptions, Gore spruced up and perked up -- and now people are saying they don't like him.

Reporters particularly don't like him, as Mickey Kaus of Slate magazine went online to say the day before the primary: "Reporters aren't simply boosting Bradley for their own sake, or for Bradley's sake. It's also something else: They hate Gore. They really do think he's a liar. And a phony. ... They see him as a bully, and a hypocritical one at that."

The editorial page of The Washington Post has talked of Gore's "dishonesty," which appeared next to a Herblock cartoon showing Gore as a negative image complaining about negative campaigning as he attacked a positive Bill Bradley. On that same page, Michael Kelly, the editor of National Journal, had this to say after calling Gore a liar: "He has ... a long record of uttering misleading or exaggerated statements about matters of public policy and personal history."

In USA Today, columnist Walter Shapiro added that Gore stretches the truth "as if he were competing in a taffy pull."

Whether hate is the motive or love the condition, it is not just the press, and it is not just what Gore has said about Bradley. The Boston Globe reported that during his 1988 presidential campaign in New Hampshire, his own press secretary sent then-senator Gore a memo talking about the dangers of distorting his own record on issues such as abortion and campaign finance, saying: "Your main pitfall is exaggeration."

What started with a laugh when Gore got carried away and claimed that he invented the Internet got a little more serious when he claimed he discovered the toxic waste crisis at Love Canal in upstate New York years ago. In fact, Gore discovered nothing, holding Senate hearings on the situation only after people were already evacuated from the area -- an event reported on every front page and newscast in the country. Now he is under press attack for fudging his own record on abortion and Bradley's record on health care and campaign finance.

The vice president, whom I happen to like and respect, won a famous if close victory in New Hampshire, though he might have lost to Bradley if the campaign lasted another couple of days. But it is not true that close counts only in horseshoes. It counts in presidential primaries, too. Bradley was supposed to be dead after last Tuesday, but he is not. In fact, a couple more famous victories like this one and Gore might be the one headed for intensive care.

The voters of New Hampshire, it seems, decided that they wanted the contests in both parties to continue for a while longer. That decision can only hurt the vice president and the Republican front-runner, Gov. George Bush. These guys were supposed to win in a walk, but that is not going to happen. Destiny's tots, the golden sons of a president and an important senator, are going to have to fight for their party nominations. In fact, in his last campaign appearance in New Hampshire, the vice president used the word "fight" 44 times -- which tells you something about what his focus groups were saying up there in the snow.

"No one fights like Gaston" is one of the lines in "Beauty and the Beast." Well, Al Gore better try. Because in the end, Gaston lost Belle to a sensitive, truth-telling Beast.

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