Vice President Al Gore, who is relying on his Dudley Do-Right qualities to commend him to an electorate weary of presidential evasions, would doubtless refrain, as president, from manhandling the White House interns. But American voters may not care. In ranking Gore behind the untested Texas Gov. George W. Bush in most national polls, respondents suggest that some subtle skepticism still keeps them from warming to the straight-arrow vice president.

It's hard not to feel a little sorry for Gore, who is smart and likable and experienced and hard-working -- all the virtues we claim to like in our leaders. But I think voters are picking up on something genuinely worrisome about the vice president: the essential contempt for politics that may be his fatal flaw. This contempt shows up in everything from his stubborn dullness in public appearances to his odd lunges in the direction of political expediency -- the sudden acts of pragmatism that seem to betray what he otherwise presents as his bedrock self.

Gore's hiring of his old friend Carter Eskew, the media consultant who designed the tobacco industry's successful $40 million advertising barrage against last year's ambitious anti-smoking legislation, is just the latest of these missteps. Gore's enemies seized on the move as a sign of his insincerity, in light of the famous 1996 convention speech in which Gore essentially accused the tobacco companies of killing his sister.

But Gore is not an insincere man; he is something potentially worse, a man who divorces his sincerity from his political actions, in the apparent belief that his morals are of no use in guiding him through a field that is all (to him) a moral quagmire. Gore has always seemed to think of himself as transcending the ordinary back-scratching of politics; he has a Lancelot air of knowing exactly where all of the limits are and of sternly, abstemiously observing them to the letter -- right up until the moment when he feels he needs to bend one. It is at that juncture that he makes the worst judgments of his career.

Think back to his brief 1988 presidential campaign, when he pandered so furiously, especially in the New York primary, that his effort is remembered chiefly for its hollowness. (This is how big-time politics works, boy, some cartoon Political Boss seemed to have told him. It's hard to trust a man who follows bad advice so punctiliously.) Or, more recently, to the fund-raising scandals of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign, when Gore found himself splitting semantic hairs about his presence at a Buddhist Temple fund-raiser that was by definition a violation of campaign finance rules; and when he made as many as 45 phone calls to big donors from his desk in the Old Executive Office Building. The calls were not, as it turned out, illegal; but they were ugly -- an abuse of the power of his office, and a violation of the political common sense that should have recognized the breaking of a taboo better left intact.

Most politicians -- the ones who are innately good at it; the ones who really think it an honorable profession, in all its moral complexity; the ones who like it -- avoid crossing such borders. Some of their motives are altruistic; others are partly, or entirely, crass. (One of the reasons you don't mess with the boundaries, after all, is that you don't want people to look too closely at the practices those same boundaries encompass and condone.) This mixture of public interest and self-interest is politics. But to Gore, all of politics looks like a shabby compromise, and so he is blind to the variations -- some of them not at all subtle -- that other politicians read with ease.

Just as the fund-raising drama crested, I struggled to answer the question of how a man so smart could do so many apparently dumb things. The most startling fact I learned was that Gore never really stopped and considered, on the merits, whether a sitting vice president who made calls to CEOs asking for contributions in specific amounts might seem to be running something of a shakedown. Why? Because to Gore, it was just another serving of the unsavory spinach he's forcing himself to eat every time he sits down to a meal of politics. If you hate all spinach, you're hardly qualified to tell when the spinach you're eating is rancid.

But this, of course, is what we need our politicians to do: to make distinctions between the kind of expedience that is the essence of their trade and the kind of expedience that is too repugnant to swallow, whether or not there is any controlling legal authority to affirm the judgments of one's gag reflex.

I thought, and think, that Gore is in most ways an admirable man. His deep ambivalence about following his father into politics has a good side as well as a bad one, including the intellectual rigor he brings to the substance of his work and the sense he conveys (in informal encounters, at any rate) of knowing there is more to life than politics. I concluded that in shaping policy, he cares deeply -- more deeply than many of his peers -- about the empirical fairness of the outcome.

But moral vanity isn't a prerequisite for this embrace of fairness. It's reasonable for us to ask that our leaders value fairness and that they be accomplished politicians. At a time when Americans who actually vote are becoming an endangered species, we don't need a president who echoes -- consciously or not -- the widespread conviction that politics is a dirty game. We need one who can show, with integrity and sophistication and even joy, that there is honor to be found in the legitimate exercise of political skill.

Marjorie Williams, a former Washington Post staff writer, is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.