Al Gore offers curious `candor'

May 03, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Back in the days of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, one of his closest sidekicks named Bobby Baker got deeply into political hot water over some personal and business indiscretions. When a reporter asked LBJ's press secretary, George Reedy, what exactly was the relationship between LBJ and Baker, Reedy with a straight face replied: "To be perfectly honest, they hardly know each other."

This sort of preposterous "candor" is brought to mind by the comment of Vice President Al Gore on Air Force Two the other day when asked, in the context of his disclosure of his recent meeting with Republican Sen. John McCain, whether he would consider a Republican as his running mate.

Mr. Gore replied: "It's not likely. I don't want to mislead you. But I don't completely rule it out."

Whatever Mr. Gore says, there is about as much chance of him putting a Republican on his ticket as there is of Jesse Jackson running with David Duke. A sure way to throw the Democratic National Convention into turmoil and send his presidential campaign spinning downward would be to choose a Republican, and Mr. Gore certainly knows it.

Look what happened to the elder George Bush in 1988 when he made his bizarre choice of Dan Quayle, who at least was a fellow Republican, as his running mate in New Orleans.

Why, you may legitimately ask, didn't Mr. Gore simply say no to the question about putting a Republican on his ticket? The only possible explanation is that he was discussing the virtues of bipartisanship in politics and got carried away. "My natural instincts are to reach out and create bipartisan coalitions," he told reporters on his plane in the course of the same conversation.

That, indeed, is one of Al Gore's big problems with the public: He gets carried away. It wasn't enough for him to say that he was involved in the development of the Internet. He had to say he invented it. In this case it's not a matter of exaggeration. It's a matter apparently of wanting so much to demonstrate his "natural instincts" for bipartisanship that he states the ridiculous and passes it off as possible.

What is particularly remarkable in this instance is the fact that Al Gore, as a campaigner at least, is one of the more partisan politicians on the national stage today. Although he has a reputation as a wooden figure on the stump, he has demonstrated over and over his ability to be a fire-breathing oratorical dragon before partisan audiences, such as labor crowds.

Mr. Gore's incredible assertion that he doesn't "completely rule out" taking a Republican on his ticket unfortunately obscures his totally responsible observation on the same occasion that in deciding on his vice-presidential choice: "You ask the question, is the person the best person to take over as president would that become necessary?" Try telling a convention full of Democrats that the answer to that question is a Republican.

Mr. Gore's casual stupidity in this instance aside, there is very good reason to believe that when the time comes for him to make a choice, this otherwise cautious, calculating politician will ask himself that question and his answer will be a responsible one. The reason is that he himself was on the receiving end of a solid procedure by Bill Clinton in 1992, who was determined not to come up with a Democratic version of Mr. Quayle, and Mr. Gore saw how well that choice went down with the voters.

This is not to say that Mr. Gore will brush aside the pure political considerations about which running mate will be most helpful to the Democratic ticket. He is too much a political creature and too hungry for the presidency not to weigh the practical political factors. But as probably the most involved vice president in an administration's business of any in history, he also is well aware of what it takes to be an effective president.

So did the elder George Bush, after four years as vice president, when he picked Mr. Quayle. As a nation, we can only hope Al Gore -- or George W. Bush, for that matter -- will do better.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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