Come home, Al.

Where are you? There's this weird guy running around the country pretending to be you, but he's obviously an impostor. He's wearing slick olive suits with black boots, talking in an exaggerated Southern accent, studying how to be an alpha male, dissing his old friends and advisers, moving his campaign to Nashville where he doesn't live--in short, coming across as more desperate than confident.

You've always had two things going for you: a reputation for being a person who was at ease in his own skin; and a lot of experience in Washington. As Bill Clinton's running mate in 1992, you may well have gotten him elected president; it was those qualities that reassured many voters. But they are getting lost in your recent contortions.

Perhaps we should have seen this coming several years ago, when uncharacteristic things began to happen: encouraging Buddhist nuns to help the Clinton campaign; making fund-raising phone calls from your office; using the "no controlling legal authority" excuse; distancing yourself from the very man you said would "go down as one of the greatest presidents in history" at the Rose Garden post-impeachment victory rally; hiring Tony Coelho, who quit Congress under a cloud, and Carter Eskew, who had lobbied for the tobacco industry--an industry you blamed for your sister's death; and pushing aside trusted advisers like Bob Squier, Ron Klain and Jack Quinn, who were willing to tell you the truth.

All this stunned your supporters. I've heard some say they will back Bill Bradley, John McCain, or even George W. I've also learned that some of Hillary Clinton's supporters and fund-raisers in New York are backing Bradley, some openly and others surreptitiously. Your friends in the environmental world are angry and disaffected, too; they feel you have abandoned the cause you used to be so passionate about because it is not politically expedient.

If you want to be distinctive, look back at the politicians who didn't mind taking a stand for what they believed in--and didn't mind making enemies. Franklin Roosevelt guided members of a reluctant electorate into a war they thought they didn't want. Harry Truman fired the insubordinate but popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur. LBJ, a Southerner, took on civil rights, as did Jimmy Carter. And Ronald Reagan never allowed his enemies to deter him from fighting the Evil Empire. These were leaders who knew who they were, who knew what they believed, and who stood by it.

I didn't think you, of all people, would get caught up in this image thing. A mutual friend of ours--a longtime Washington observer--remarked of you the other day that when a person gets that close to power and has seen the enormity of it he will do anything to get and keep it. Could that be what's going on? Or is this some sort of belated midlife crisis? You've had a number of major events--both happy and sad--in the last year that would rank high on anybody's stress scale, including the death of your father, the impeachment of your president, the launching of your presidential campaign and the birth of your first grandchild. Perhaps it is the accumulation of all these events that has caused you to lose your identity. But it's not too late to get it back.

Go back and look at yourself on the David Letterman show in 1993 when you riffed on the Top Ten good things about being vice president. That was the Al Gore we knew and loved. You were funny and smart and self-deprecating. You sported with the very qualities that you are now trying to hide or deny. You were you.

Bring back the dark suits and crisp white shirts and clunky shoes. Give us the environmental lectures at dinner parties--with tripods and charts and pointers. We miss the boring techno speeches. Act like the grandfather you are; as we used to say, "own who you are." This is all becoming just too painful and embarrassing.

Don't duck your background. You are a child of privilege. That's the simple truth. Your father was a senator. You went to St. Albans and Harvard. You are the embodiment of the American dream. Your parents worked hard to give their son a better life. That's what all parents do. There's nothing wrong with who you are. Look at your three biggest rivals, Bush, Bradley and McCain. Not only are they not denying their privileged backgrounds, they are embracing them. McCain is proud of the fact that he is the son and grandson of admirals.

Tell us the stories about growing up in Washington, about knowing so many of the great leaders of our time. It doesn't mean you can't tell farm stories, too. That's just another part of who you are. But you don't live in Nashville. You live here. So make the most of it. Remember, Reagan moved his campaign headquarters here to be more effective. Bradley's headquarters are in New Jersey where he was a senator, not Missouri where he grew up.

After George W. got zapped in that pop quiz the other day, Bradley and Clinton were both gracious. Bradley said the issue was not whether he knew the names but where he would take the country. Clinton said that Bush would soon learn the names. But you rushed in to proclaim that you would have known all the answers. That was neither gracious, nor wise.

And it was not the old Al. The most basic rule of politics is that when your opponent is shooting himself in the foot, just get out of the way. Who was advising you on that, anyway?

When you appeared on Don Imus's radio show last week, you were stilted and over-rehearsed, trying too hard to be hip instead of spontaneous and natural. And imagine agreeing to allow Coelho to have total control of your campaign. You are the candidate. Would you relinquish that kind of control as president as well?

The worst thing about your campaign's hiring of Naomi Wolf is not that you hid both her and her salary, not that you paid her more than you are making ($15,000 a month), not that you weren't quite truthful about it on Sam and Cokie's show, not that you put yourself at such risk of being ridiculed, but that you thought you needed her at all. God knows you have enough consultants, not to mention your wife and daughter, to help you find out what women are thinking around the country. It seems all too clear to me now that Naomi is there to tell you not who you are but who you should be.

We know who you are. Or were. You're a smart, knowledgeable guy, slightly dorky, a good family man, a conscientious public servant. You are not cool. Don't try to be. We do not need a cool president. We need a president who is comfortable with himself and confident of who he is. If you ended up in the White House now, how would we ever know which Al Gore we were getting? We need the old one back.

Al, come home.

Sally Quinn has been writing about life in Washington for The Post for 30 years.