'Up Against It'


In an existential sense (to evoke a term you don't see much anymore but still applies), Al Gore is up against it. After the public injury of losing an extended, public double-overtime contest for the presidency of the United States of America last month, his more sub-rosa quest for the presidency of Harvard, ended in something of an insult.

Two weeks ago Robert G. Stone Jr., a senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation search committee publicly stated of Gore's semi-declared candidacy, "He doesn't have the academic and intellectual standing."

And the Harvard Crimson rubbed it in by reporting last week that the search committee had "whittled" the list of contenders down, "discarding" some 450 nominees, "including Vice President Al Gore '69."

That made it all the more likely that Gore would have to follow through on his concession-speech pledge that he'd be coming home to Tennessee "to mend some fences.

If there ever was a homestead that could stand some mending, fences and all, it is the Tennessee Democratic Party, which hasn't won a major statewide race in more than a decade now and hasn't even fielded a serious statewide candidate since 1994 - a year which saw the governorship and both the state's U.S. Senate seats pass into Republican hands.

Gore, who in November lost home-state Tennessee's 11 electoral votes (enough to have won him the presidency, with or without Florida) was, ironically, the state party's last big winner - having romped to a reelection victory in 1990 over a no-name opponent.

But that was then; this is now, a scant two months since Gore finished 80,000 votes behind GOP rival George W. Bush in Tennessee, in the process losing the [5th] Congressional district he once represented and salvaging his home county of Smith only by the narrowest of margins.

The state's still-popular former two-term Democratic governor, Ned Ray McWherter, stumped relentlessly for Gore during the presidential campaign's home stretch but kept running into versions of the same chorus. As he told the Associated Press two weeks ago, "They told me, `Ned, we're glad to see you. You're always welcome here. You're our friend and always will be. But we haven't seen or heard from Al Gore since 1992.' "

Uncooked Seeds

It is now axiomatic that in his vice-presidential years the once cautiously conservative Gore evolved positions on issues like abortion rights, limited gun control, and rights for gays - to mention only a few - that were way out in advance of most Tennesseans. Add to that his well-earned reputation for personal stiffness and, as McWherter noted, his recent inattentiveness to a home-state constituency that he once, as a congressman and as a Senator, had favored with abundant "town meetings."

Even the most casual observer of the late presidential campaign, and especially of the five-week Florida runoff, would be entitled to conclude that Gore's quest for the presidency went far beyond political dedication. Psychic necessity, or at least an urge to self-definition, seemed clearly to influence Gore's candidacy as much as any ideological matter had.

Just as Gore forbade his eminent father, the former congressman and senator and presidential aspirant, from intervening in his maiden congressional race in 1976, so did the campaigning Gore of 2000 keep Bill Clinton, whom he had served so faithfully as vice president, at an arm's - nay, a continent's - length.

Gore and his inner circle evidently convinced themselves that the various Clinton scandals - especially l'affaire Lewinsky of 1998 - were a detriment to his own presidential candidacy. And, indeed, many in the retiring vice president's circle continue to believe that a Clinton hex was the major factor in creating a tight race and, ultimately, George W. Bush's highly tarnished - even suspect - victory.

That Gore's own failures - especially in the three debates with Bush - contributed significantly to the outcome is a fact that, at some level of consciousness, has to motivate this able and driven public figure, who, after all, had his moments in connecting with an audience (the convention address of 2000 being a clear example, his concession speech being another).

It is too pat to conclude that Al Gore the public figure still has a need to prove himself at the polls. But one doesn't even need a Freudian primer to appreciate the uncooked seeds in a man who led a presidential race by half a million votes and probably will be demonstrated by various unofficial recounts to have "won" the key state of Florida as well.

An Opportunity

There are many good reasons for Gore not to hazard a gubernatorial race in 2002 in Tennessee - not the least of which is the state's currently intractable fiscal crisis. And he is surely aware of the fate that befell Richard Nixon, another first-try loser for the presidency, in his unsuccessful 1962 race for governor.


et Gore has the kind of analytical mind that lends itself to problem-solving (sometimes on a cosmic scale), and he is prideful enough to want to avenge this year's loss in his own back yard. Moreover, he knows that other potential Democratic presidential candidates are out there (does the name "Hillary" ring a bell?) and that he may have alienated many in the party by the simple fact of his defeat last year.

How better to begin his redemption than by winning a race in Tennessee in 2002 - especially when there is a chance Gore would be opposed by another formidable personality, Senator Fred Thompson, and that the two of them would create the kind of energizing spectacle that the media looked for - and failed to get - in the aborted Guiliani-Clinton race of 2000?

And, perhaps, whoever is governor of Tennessee after 2002 will have a perfect opportunity to demonstrate economic ingenuity to a nation which may not be so giddily prosperous in 2004 as it was in 2000. (The signs of such a come-uppance are already being trumpeted, ironically enough, by the incoming president and vice-president.)

And what do we make of the fact that Thompson and Gore easily headed the list in last week's poll by the Mason-Dixon organization of Tennesseans' preferred choices for governor?

And who is to say that Nixon's loss in California in 1962 - however abject it seemed at the time - wasn't a necessary precursor to his ultimate presidential victory in 1968?

All of which is to say that, however remote a prospect it may seem just now, the state - and the nation - may have another Al Gore candidacy to kick around. Sooner than most think.



Two more job prospects for Al Gore, both in Nashville.

First, how about editor of The Tennessean? Gore worked there as a reporter in the early Seventies under former editor and old friend John Seigenthaler, who is still an influential Nashvillian although no longer in the daily newspaper business. And he also knows current editor Frank Sutherland, who would surely be persuaded to move aside for his out-of-work colleague.

Gore could preside over editorial meetings, freshen his ties to his home state, and restore some of The Tennessean's fading prestige and liberal edge lost under the auspices of Gannett ownership. Then he could quickly move up the ladder to succeed Al Neuharth at USA Today or at Gannett's Freedom Forum, which will be moving into its new headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C.

A related possibility is an emeritus position with the First Amendment Center, a Gannett creation at Vanderbilt which sponsors symposiums and such. Gore would be a natural for the Center's political bent and its lofty rhetoric. He could invite his old friends down to Nashville while they cool their heels until 2004.

Either job would return Gore to his home state and to Nashville, where he moved his campaign headquarters last summer. Neither post is exactly on the order of president of Harvard, but then Gore is not exactly Daniel Moynihan either, having dropped out of law school and divinity school at Vanderbilt.

Nashville has already rehabilitated an unpopular pro football team into a beloved Super Bowl contender. It could do the same for Al Gore.


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