Gore's Defining Downfall Moment
There are moments in presidential campaigns that we later look back upon and say: That was when it became obvious that candidate such-and-such had no chance of becoming the nation's top dog. Recall Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis helmeted and riding in a tank. Uncomfortable smile. Looked like Snoopy. The election could have been canceled the moment that photo hit. Then there was President George Bush in 1992 checking his watch during the debate with Bill Clinton. The nation was still shaking free of a traumatizing recession, but Mr. Gulf War was worrying about his next appointment. The voters have no time for you.
There's a chance the Naomi Wolf eruption?which dominated political chat last week?will be the we-knew-it-then moment for Al Gore's campaign. The news that Gore was paying Wolf $15,000 a month (later cut back to $5000) for advice on how he could transform himself from beta to alpha male reinforced the notion, true or not, that Gore is lost within himself, that he is not sure who or what he is, that he has to pay someone to help him develop not a campaign strategy (we're used to that sort of political consulting) but a personality.
I have no problem with Gore picking her brain. She's a quirky thinker and, no doubt, might toss out a high concept (The Protective Daddy, The Respected Big Brother, The Resourceful Cousin) that could trigger a useful idea for Gore. But could those nuggets be worth $180,000 a year? As described in the press, one of her missions was to guide Gore in the journey from loyal-buddy beta male to big-ape alpha male?a process in which he would have to challenge our current commander-in-chief to prove himself. There was an inherent problem in this project. An alpha male shouldn't need advice?certainly not from a female!?on how to be an alpha man. It's as if Gore had contracted with a consultant for guts lessons. For her part, Wolf maintains that she barely mentioned alphas and betas to Gore and that the advice she provided?for which she was paid through a cutout?focused on the concerns of women.
Wolf has a point about Gore's image problem, but you don't need new-age mumbo jumbo to describe it. Forget the Greek letters. Gore's trouble can be explained by the Geek Theory of Presidential Politics. Rule #1: Geeks lose. Rule #2: When the contest is between two geeks, the geekier one loses.
Look at recent history: Dwight D. Eisenhower vs. Adlai Stevenson in 1952. A general who had won the biggest war in history against an egghead governor. No contest. Stevenson proved he was truly a geek by running against Ike again in 1956?and losing by a larger margin. Then it was John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon, who established the modern-day precedent of the veep-geek. Only Kennedy's Catholicsm made this contest a squeaker. Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater in 1964? Admittedly, neither stood out as a geek, but Goldwater did wear those thick-frame eyeglasses. The next race poses trouble for the theory: Nixon running against Vice President Hubert Humphrey. There is no clear geek gap in Nixon's favor. But the Vietnam War played badly for Humphrey. Moreover, Humphrey, not Nixon, was now veep, making Humphrey the geek by default. Next came Nixon and George McGovern. The Democrat was a former fighter pilot and no geek. But in an era of rage and protest, the Nixon campaign succeeded in depicting McGovern as a fringe candidate. The politics of fear trumped the geek theory that time out.
Jimmy Carter and stand-in President Gerald Ford: the faux-President was ridiculed for his haplessness?a geek trait?and lost to the earnest Southerner who hid his geekness behind that huge smile. When Carter turned out to be a geek-president?remember the photo of him collapsing while jogging??Ronald Reagan bounced him out of office. Former Vice President Walter Mondale was the geekiest Democratic nominee since Stevenson. He had no chance in 1984 against Reagan, the brush-clearing horseman. The Dukakis-Bush contest was a geek faceoff (Bush even had to deny he was a "wimp") that proved Rule #2. Four years later, Bush was challenged by Clinton?whose geeky policy-wonk tendencies were trumped by his much-too-healthy Bubba side?and Bush joined one of the most exclusive geek societies in the world: incumbent presidents who didn't get reelected. There was no geek in the Clinton-Dole duel of 1996: a rascally BMOC defeated a past-his-prime grump.
There's a good reason why Americans don't like geeks in the Oval Office. The president is the symbolic leader of the nation, as well as the manager of the executive branch, though the two jobs don't necessarily require the same talents. (Most West European nations sensibly leave the symbolism to royalty or ceremonial presidencies.) Gore fell into the geek category early in the Clinton years?and he fell hard. His advocacy of the Internet?a plastic-pocket-protector issue if there ever was one?didn't help. His stiffness, which is not apparent in one-on-one meetings, became an overmilked joke. He became a caricature: the classic overachieving nerd.
Despite Naomi Wolf's ministrations, it's probably too late for Gore to go from geek to non-geek. Fortunately for him, his Democratic opponent, Bill Bradley, displays several prime geek characteristics: he obsesses over obscure issues, he ponders on his own and not with others, he can be boring. But an athletic legend is never a geek. Still, what Gore has going for him is that the Geek Theory does not apply to primary contests. In such races, the electorate is small enough to allow a geek to succeed. Remember, primary voters did nominate Bush, Dukakis and Mondale (Steve Forbes, take heart). But should Gore survive the Bradley assault, he will likely find himself facing either George W. Bush, for whom the geek-gene has apparently skipped a generation, or John McCain, a former POW and, consequently, an automatic non-geek. Gore can't out-alpha these males. The Wolf hoo-hah makes that clear.
Two weeks ago, I reported on my visit to Pat Buchanan's book party at a fancy Washington steakhouse and detailed an encounter with Jude Wanniski, the supply-side evangelist who now says he is informally advising Buchanan. I noted that Wanniski was praising Farrakhan as a sincere "man of God"?much to the chagrin of his conversation partner, John Lofton, a religious-right columnist. I also related that Wanniski, after I asked him why he wasn't on the Forbes bandwagon, explained that those running the Forbes show were "white supremacists," adding that he?Wanniski?believed most white people to be benign white supremacists (Wanniski is white).
Wanniski did not enjoy my account of our conversation. He sent an e-mail to several heavies in the media business?John McLaughlin, The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, Bob Novak?decrying me as an "incompetent journalist" and a "slimeball." He did not challenge any of the quotes, nor did he defend his positions. He resorted to that all-too common defense of one who is quoted accurately but inconveniently: he said his remarks were taken out of context. But what mitigating context can there be for his praise of Farrakhan or his remarks about the "white supremacists" of the Forbes campaign?
Wanniski's attack prompted me to check out a file on him that a reader had sent me after the initial column. It offered many reasons why one should not take offense at being slurred by this false prophet. For years, Wanniski, who has a firm that monitors political and economic trends for money managers, has been courting Farrakhan. The New Republic reported in 1997 that he recruited Farrakhan for an annual client conference in Boca Raton, FL. Regarding Farrakhan's reputation as an anti-Semite, Wanniski told the magazine: "Farrakhan has every reason to be disturbed at being on that inferior side of the [racial] divide. On the white side, there is of course little doubt that pound for pound American Jews are the most powerful and influential of all segments of our society?in every professional field of endeavor. In addition, their history asserts a claim of superiority that has made Jews of all people the most resistant to inter-marriage with non-Jews."
Routinely, articles depict Wanniski as a relentless and crazed self-promoter who champions one hobbyhorse after another and who barrages friends and foes with faxes. One infamous June 1992 fax to his clients proclaimed, "We can now confidently predict H. Ross Perot will be elected President of the United States, probably by a landslide." (Will his advice to Buchanan be as valuable as this prognostication?) A 1996 profile of Wanniski by Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard summed him up this way: "Forward-looking. Optimistic. Delusional." He long ago became an embarrassment to Republicans. George Will, for what it's worth, called him a "crackpot." To be slimed by a fellow who cozied up to Farrakhan?not to mention conspiracy-crank Lyndon LaRouche?and who perpetuated an economic fraud on this nation with his groundless supply-side theory is an honor.
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