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. . . Neither Is Consistency

By Michael Kelly

Wednesday, October 13, 1999; Page A25

Al Gore has been to the political day spa. He has shed the blue suit for khakis and cowboy boots, dumped his pollster, and replaced savvy Washington operator Carter Squier with savvy Washington operator Bob Eskew (do I have that right?). Also, he has moved his campaign headquarters from, as he says, K Street to Main Street, the better to run what he, God help us, called "a rip-tootin' race for the presidency."

It is all so exactly -- utterly, tediously -- what you knew the poor gormless soul was going to do. Critics say Gore has a tin ear for politics, but that is an insult to base metals everywhere. Gore is the performer who mistook himself for a stagehand. He doesn't just stand there in front of his paint-by-numbers set. He drags in the props with his own two hands, sweating and puffing, and proudly shows us how the lights work and how this scrim goes down as that one goes up. He is the little Peter Pan that could, hauling himself through the air with the greatest of heaves.

But, Gore fans, there is hope yet. The vice president has come up with a new campaign slogan, and it is hot stuff: "Stay and fight!"

The point of "Stay and fight!" is that the man threatening Gore in the Democratic primaries, Bill Bradley, is not a very manly sort of man, even if he did once wear short pants to work. Mr. Bradley is, according to Mr. Gore, the kind of fellow who walks away from a fight. A quitter. Mr. Gore, according to Mr. Gore, is a stand-up guy. A fighter.

Gore of the gossamer touch drives it thuddingly home. "In 1981, when the Reagan budget cuts in education, housing and health care threatened decency and social justice, even some Democrats said we have to support them to survive politically," Gore said last week. "But I didn't walk away. I decided to stay and fight. When Newt Gingrich took over Congress and tried to reinforce Reaganomics to try to force deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, I didn't walk away. I decided to stay and fight."

The coward who walked away is of course Bradley, who voted for Reagan's 1981 budget cuts and who quit a Gingrich-dominated Congress in 1996. Contrast that sort of character with Al Gore. Well, fair enough. Gore is right. He's no quitter.

When Bill Clinton, desperate to raise early millions for the 1996 race, decided to sell access to the person of the president and to the beds of the White House; when the Clinton-Gore campaign glommed millions in lightly washed cash from a remarkable array of adventurers, crooks and gentlemen from Beijing; when the Clinton-Gore White House became the place Johnny Chung would compare to "a subway station; you have to put in the coins to open the gate" -- why, a lot of good Democrats would have balked. No, some would have said, if you want to trash the entire structure of Democratic campaign reform laws, you'd better get yourself another boy. Not Al.

Al rolled up his sleeves and went out amongst the Buddhist nuns, a mendicant in the laundry of the mendicants. When Al saw his boss hosting White House coffees at 50 large ones a cuppa, he chimed in with his own checkbook soirees. Some vice presidents might have drawn the line at actually telephoning donors for money from their government offices. Not Al, he reached out and touched all over the place.

When the going got tough and the questions got nasty, did Al quit then? Not Al. He faced the American people and told them right to their faces that, no matter how much it all might smell, there was "no controlling legal authority" against what he had done.

And when Bill Clinton became the first elected president to be impeached, for uttering under oath what federal judge Susan Webber Wright was later to call "false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process" and for "deliberately" committing acts that "undermined the integrity of the judicial system," did Al quit then? No sir, not Al. Al stood tall with fellow partisans on the White House lawn, cheering the disgraced obstructer of justice, and he denounced the "unworthy judgment" against "a man I believe will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest presidents."

Al never quit on Bill through all the years of scandal and disgrace, never backed down, never breathed a whisper of criticism of the man who slimed the White House. Well, not until recently, that is, after the polls got really bad.

So, yes, by all means, let's make the Democratic race about who is a quitter and who is not.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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