Gore '04, Bush Today

Make text smaller Make text larger

Now, let's see?where were we? One nice thing about writing "Hill of Beans" again is the chance to catch up with Al Gore. Like many Washington journalists, I've often said, "You'd have to pay me to pay attention to Al Gore." I meant it. Gore rolled out his 2004 presidential campaign last weekend at a Memphis retreat, where a handful of second-tier Clinton-era figures tried to sweet-talk dozens of skeptical multimillionaires into sharing their Clinton-era fortunes with the ex-veep.

It is hard to name a group of people with less to say to the post-Sept. 11 world than Gore's ambassadors to the plutocracy. First, there is Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, who seems to be the last man in America to have caught on that his political career ended at the 2000 Los Angeles convention, when he defended a welfare state that no longer existed in a speech that would have been out of date in 1982. There's Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who owes her rise to the anti-Gingrich wave of 1996, and stands ready to do battle should Newt ever become speaker of the House again. Then there's Gore's national security adviser Leon Fuerth, master of the "humanitarian police action."

This is not to deny that Gore may be the strongest candidate the Democrats have. His problem at this point is structural. For the tens of thousands of sign-nailers and envelope-stuffers and pot-luck-dinner-throwers who win primaries for a Democratic candidate, he's the worst deal in history. These party regulars would be happy to shine in the reflected fame of an incumbent president. They'd be happy, too, with seven or eight senators and governors prostrating themselves before local Democratic organizations, promising the moon. Gore offers them neither: he has no incumbency, and if he makes a serious run, he'll drive off the other gift-bearing supplicants.

Thus the New Hampshire Democratic poobah and Gore skeptic Arnie Arnesen says: "If we see greater vulnerability in President Bush, Democrats are going to look for a new face." Don't believe him. What he really means is: If Al Gore gets the nomination, no one famous will come to my dinners!

Beating the Bushes

Gore had thought that picking the scab of the 2000 election would rally the Dems. Maybe it would have done so if we hadn't wound up in a war. But Washington is no longer an easy, breezy city, with a Gore-friendly college-campus feel. It is a city in which, last week, the Capitol Police ordered 20,000 gas masks, to be distributed to tourists and staffers in the event of a chemical-weapons attack.

That atmosphere means two problems for Gore. First, as long as Bush is a popular wartime president, every memory that Gore tries to evoke of the 2000 election will be received as an act of anti-patriotic sabotage. Second, as has been made clearest in Bob Herbert's recent New York Times columns, many Democrats are as grateful as we are that Gore and Leon Fuerth are not running this war. Maybe more grateful, since they actually know Leon Fuerth. Pace Arnie Arnesen, only a "vulnerable" Bush gives Gore any shot at the nomination. And Gore not only needs Bush to collapse?he needs the country to feel safe from terrorism before Bush collapses. It is getting late for that.

Let's be clear that Bush is (theoretically) every bit as beatable now as his father was after the Gulf War in 1991. One sign of that is a Harris poll taken two weeks ago. It shows that Secretary of State Colin Powell has an approve/disapprove ratio of 79-16; while Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is at 65-24. To have the two personalities most associated with the war effort polling like movie stars would appear to be good news for Bush?but what it actually shows is how absurd, arbitrary and shallow the administration's popularity is. Powell and Rumsfeld stand for diametrically opposite strategies conducting America's most important political endeavor?Powell for appeasing a coalition of Arab states, Rumsfeld for establishing priorities at the risk of losing Arab support. A single respondent can't like them both. This is like a poll showing that 90 percent of Americans eat dinner at 5 o'clock, while another 85 percent eat dinner at 7 o'clock. In short, it's evidence that, as in 1991, Americans are answering every polling question as if they were being asked, "Do you want to win the war or to lose it?"

So Bush could go down, but not to Gore, and there is no rival to Gore who is not flailing embarrassingly at present. Take North Carolina Sen. Johnnie Edwards. In the minds of tv-obsessed Democratic consultants, Edwards' great claim to the Oval Office is his resemblance to the cartoons you see on those oral-hygiene brochures that get handed out in dentists' offices. But in his nine months as Democratic dauphin, Edwards has not shown the slightest sign of either charisma or electability. And he reportedly owns a lot of stock in WorldCom?although, unlike Richard Gephardt and Henry Waxman, he hasn't taken bundles of the company's campaign boodle.

Edwards had another embarrassing moment last week. As we all know, a court in California (a state where Bush has 65-percent approval, by the way) just declared that the Pledge of Allegiance violates church-state separation because, at the height of McCarthyism, the gratuitous phrase "under God" was added to it. Ninety-nine senators, including Edwards, boldly bucked the tide and passed a resolution declaring themselves anti-judicial meddling and pro-God. Edwards didn't stop there. ABC reported it had received a press release from Edwards saying, "Senator Edwards recites the pledge each morning after the Senate convenes and is led in prayer by the Senate chaplain." That Edwards! He really likes God.

Afghan Vogue

Forty years ago, Philip Roth wrote a monumental essay in Commentary about the problems of the Space Age novelist. Looking at the colossal scale of the century's innovations and horrors, he asked (and I paraphrase): What is the point of having an imagination when real life is constantly outrunning it? I'm beginning to feel the same way about political satire. What is the point of The Onion when there are people like Sultaana Freeman running around?

Ms. Freeman is the Florida Muslim who has lost her driver's license because she is unwilling to be photographed without her traditional garb. By "traditional garb," Ms. Freeman does not mean just a "scarf," or a "veil." Nope, she sports the full mulch sack (known as the niqab to initiates), as if she's playing an extra in a Taliban documentary. In the photo of her revoked license that appeared in The New York Times, all you can see is a pair of eyes poking out of a swath of black drugget.

Ms. Freeman claims her religious rights are being violated, but it is hard to see how. A driver's license is a permit to operate a piece of machinery dangerous enough to cause tens of thousands of deaths a year in this country. The state of Florida has an interest in ensuring that such permits are not transferable. Its insistence on a full facial shot to guarantee nontransferability would seem warranted.

But there is a second element to the case, of course, which is much trickier. State drivers' licenses have become, de facto, a national ID card?the "internal passport" so feared by right-wing survivalists. The reason we don't have a literal national ID card in this country is not our high regard for civil liberties?it's because we've been able to throw most of our Ted Kaczynskis off the scent by franchising out the dirty work of surveillance to the 50 state governments.

And it's as identification, not as a driver's permit, that the driver's license is most abusable by state governments. That is where Ms. Freeman's Islamic faith comes in. Get-ups such as hers have lately come to be associated with a particularly adamant kind of fundamentalist Islamism?especially after the defeat of the Taliban, when women across Afghanistan were seen tearing off their mandatory niqabs and weeping tears of joy. And Sultaana Freeman with a bag over her head is a dead ringer for?let's take a sometime Florida resident at random here?Mohammed Atta with a bag over his head. The state may be worried that Ms. Freeman might give her ID to someone who would?oh, I don't know?maybe enter a government building and blow herself to smithereens or something.

Ms. Freeman's lawyers seemed to anticipate this line of reasoning. They said that she would be willing to provide fingerprints or DNA. This smacks of the attention-seeking that is at the root of other "principled" eccentricities, like most vegetarianism, for instance. (Oh, I can't eat steak like the nine other people at the table! Not special old me! Make the waiter come back so I can grill him for 25 minutes on whether there's any chicken stock in the wax used to coat the cantaloupe!)

Are such considerations at the root of Ms. Freeman's whole shtick in the first place? One of the mysteries of the story, which The New York Times infuriatingly fails to explore, is how she came by her decidedly un-Bedouin surname. (The Orlando Sentinel informs us that her husband sometimes goes by "Mark Freeman," and sometimes by "Abdul-Malik.") In the end, there's something suspiciously American about Ms. Freeman. In an interview before her pretrial hearing last Thursday, she lamented, "This is a stress on my entire family. It's an inconvenience every day. I can't run simple errands?" Stress? Convenience? When push comes to shove, she's not so much upset over her constitutional right to practice her religion as over her constitutional right to shop in maximum comfort.

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters