If, as Plato said, the unexamined life is not worth living, then Al Gore has led one hell of a life. The once and probably future presidential candidate is retooling himself yet again. Last time, he ran as a political mannequin, draped and dressed by this or that consultant, handler, pollster, or color-coordinator -- earth tones preferred. This time, he will run as himself -- if only, I am obliged to add, he knows who that is.
Once upon a time, that was no mystery. Gore was the congressman and then senator from Tennessee, renowned for his thoughtfulness and his willingness to break the spine of a book and simply ingest it. He wrote books himself, did his own thinking, and made himself master of many subjects, notably the environment and arms control. He became the very model of a United States senator.
Yet that Al Gore was not a natural politician. Something about him -- his body language and the appearance that he was lip-synching his own voice -- made him a bad presidential candidate the first time out. That was 1988, when he proved himself not ready for prime time.
Trouble was, he repeated his performance in 2000. He kicked away a victory that should have been his. For all of Bill Clinton's troubles, he gave Gore a pretty good platform to run on -- peace, prosperity, and a unified Democratic Party. Still, George W. Bush won the presidency. It was a close race, and Gore won the popular vote, but it says something about both Bush and Gore that most people preferred to move on with Bush than to stick and fight it out for Gore.
Now, Gore promises to reinvent himself once again. "If I had to do it all over again, I'd just let it rip,'' he told a breakfast meeting of supporters in Memphis the other day. "To hell with the polls, the tactics, and the rest. I would have poured out my heart and my vision for America's future.'' In other words, the New Al Gore is going back to the Old Al Gore.
Welcome back, I am tempted to say. That Al Gore did indeed have vision and heart. He was a decent man, a thoughtful man, and he had -- although he kept it a secret -- a winning sense of humor.
Al Gore will never be George Bush. The president is famously comfortable in his own skin -- but more and more, I am not. Bush may have felt terrific about his $1.4 trillion tax cut, but it has contributed mightily to the federal deficit and left the government scraping the bottom of the barrel for cash.
Bush may feel terrific about his new foreign policy doctrine -- the best defense is a good offense -- but it raises more questions than it answers: What happens after Saddam Hussein (or Iraq) is taken out?
Bush has settled into a morally comfy antipathy toward Yasir Arafat -- he's off the Christmas card list -- but the president's spokesmen simply cannot explain what happens if, as expected, the Palestinians reelect Arafat. (Maybe, as with Florida, the Supreme Court will change the results.)
Gore might well have reached some of the same decisions -- although not on taxes, that's for sure. He was one of the few Democrats to vociferously support the Gulf War, and he apparently has few quibbles with Bush's Iraq policy. But he would have thought out -- and could explain -- what happens afterward.
Gore, however, is too preoccupied with Gore. He introspects too much, tinkering with what, by now, ought to be a finished product.
Get on with it, Al. Get out on the stump, stop telling us who you are, and start showing us. Maybe the unexamined life is not worth living, but please -- at long last -- leave the examining to us.
Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group. His columns frequently appear in the Flyer.