Entry from December 17, 2002

“Al Gore finally demonstrates that he knows who he is,” read the headline to an article by Damian Whitworth in the Times of London. “So long then, loser.” No, no! I thought to myself. Don’t say that! It’s political hubris! Gore “sees, for the first time,” says Whitworth, “that he is a nearly man, someone who will never be President, and a protagonist in a personal tragedy of great expectations,” Could there be anything more certain to bring down upon us all the disaster of a victorious Gore candidacy at some point in the future? And then I noticed the comparisons by E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Michael Barone in the Wall Street Journal between Gore and another vice president who lost a squeaker and seemed politically dead, only to come back not four but eight years later to win the presidency. . .

Oh no! When I drew the parallel between Gore and Nixon some months ago in this space, I little thought it would come to this! Yet let us remember that it is the season of forgiveness and good will and if there is little enough of either yet for Trent Lott, let us spare a bit for Al Gore. What, you may ask, has Al Gore to be forgiven for? I don’t know, but there must be some reason why I hate him so. No man in public life do I find so repulsive as Al. It’s partly that he is such a transparent phony, and phony not in the way that Bill Clinton was a phony. Clinton was con-man phony, but a con man has to be charming or he will starve to death. And Clinton was certainly charming. Gore is utterly without charm. He is boring-phony; phony-for-the-sake-of-phoniness; phony because he doesn’t know how not to be phony.

Moreover, Clinton was bright enough not to be taken in — most of the time — by his own phoniness; Gore is dull as well as phony, and the worst kind of dullard at that: namely, one who believes that he is smarter than the rest of us and so undetectable in the lifelong imposture that he is Al Gore and not merely an arrogant twerp trying to impersonate him. Every word that comes out of his mouth is hokey, and never more so than when he is trying to project sincerity. Even the announcement that he had decided not to run in 2004 was founded on the typically Gorean bit of hokiness that, although he himself was up for it and could have won, his supporters were still exhausted from the race of 2000 and would have allowed their desire for revenge to become the focus of the campaign.

But it is hard not to reflect that there is another point of comparison between the two former vice-presidents. For I, like many on the right, hate Gore the way that many on the left hated Nixon. Maybe this is because, as Mr Barone points out, neither were natural politicians. The obviousness of their labors when it came to acting their political parts was a constant reminder, especially to those not well-disposed towards them in the first place, of their essential phoniness. In Nixon’s case this led to the “Tricky Dick” and “used-car salesman” taunts which became self-fulfilling. It was arguably the hatred of his enemies which made Nixon what he was and led to the failure of his presidency. He saw it himself when he told David Frost that “I gave them” — meaning his enemies — “a sword.” It was the hatred, which he reciprocated, which led to the paranoia which led to Watergate.

It is looking a long way ahead indeed to foresee some comparable disaster befalling a Gore presidency in 2013, but just in case we should try, brothers and sisters, in the spirit of the season, to refuse to hate Al Gore. This is all the easier now that he has taken himself out of the running, at least for the time being. And maybe, if we’re nice to him, his presidential ambitions will quietly fade away instead of becoming impacted and inflamed by the frustrations of a man grown used to being loathed and despised by something close to half the population. In this case there is, perhaps, more of an element of self-interest in our forgiveness than a strict regard for Christian charity might prefer, but it is still, I think, quite difficult enough.

And what, then, of forgiving Trent Lott? Like Gore, he is an awful phony. His appearance with Ed Gordon on BET was excruciatingly, toe-curlingly embarrassing. And he appeared to have Nixon’s sublime unconsciousness of the embarrassment he ought to have felt for saying such overwhelmingly and obviously phony things on national television. Best of all was when he claimed to be in favor of affirmative action because he had black people on his senatorial staff. “My actions,” he claimed, referring to these same benefactions, “do not reflect my voting record.” Oh dear, oh dear! As Robert Musil says of national claims to “redemption” under the old Hapsburg empire in The Man Without Qualities, “it was not so much the words that offended a healthy common sense as their absurd claim to being taken literally.”

In other words, in asking to be forgiven Lott all but made forgiveness impossible. Yet much as we might like to see him vacate for other reasons — a sense of modesty, or of shame for instance — a position of which he is now less an adornment than ever, I think we should try to forgive him too. This is because the forgiveness he seeks is not for racism. I don’t believe he is a racist, nor, I believe, do most of those who are now calling for his resignation. They are as phony as he is if they say they do. No one seriously supposes that Trent Lott favors turning the clock back to the good old days of Jim Crow; and even if he did there is absolutely nothing — I mean nothing — that even so powerful a man as the Senate majority leader could do about it. So far as any practical consequence of Lott’s alleged “racism” is concerned, the whole kerfuffle is about nothing. What he is being hounded for is thought-crime.

Like it or not, however, thought-crime has become a serious matter in our country, and, rather paradoxically, the difficulties of forgiving it seem inversely proportional to any actual harm it can cause. In South Africa and Russia and Serbia they are officially forgiving murderers and torturers all the time; in America we cannot forgive anyone who harbors a private conviction that the South between 1880 and 1960 was not utterly defined by the relationship within it between white oppressors and black victims. That this relationship is all that remains of our collective memory of the world of Strom Thurmond, which is also the world of our parents and grandparents, is the essential datum on which the race-relations industry in America is increasingly founded.

We are left to suspect that the dirty little secret of Lott’s accusers is that they know they must cherish the grievance of segregation as fervently and for as long as possible, just as the dirty little not-so-secret of Lott himself is that he is not really nearly so appalled by it as he has with ever more absurd extravagance to pretend to be. As usual, it is an essential phoniness on both sides — the pretense of innocence answering the pretense of outrage — that makes the public scandal. But phoniness, as the examples of Gore and Nixon instruct us, is not the worst of vices. It is, in fact, among the easiest of sins to forgive, or so we might reflect at the Christmas season, since it is the one that few indeed of us, and even fewer of those in public life, can ever hope to escape.

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