Weekly lunches? Who has time anymore for a weekly lunch with the leader of the free world? Al Gore, lately intent on distancing himself as much as possible from the president, appears to be the number-one believer in the existence of what pollsters call "Clinton fatigue."

But there is surprisingly little consensus on whether this backlash -- the possibility that voters will spurn Gore as a hapless reminder of his forerunner -- actually exists. Polls can be cited either to prove the existence of Clinton fatigue or to define it into nonexistence. The press leans in the direction of believing that Gore's difficulties are his own fault. According to this argument, which is helped along by the whisperings of Clinton's allies, the vice president's increasing efforts to uncouple himself from Clinton are becoming slightly dotty, a manifestation more of psychodrama (didn't we always know he had a father hangup?) than of strategic insight.

Most of the conversation about Clinton fatigue, though, misses the nature of the menace. Clinton's behavior in 1998 did massive harm to Gore's ambitions, but in a way that polls can barely touch and that the vice president may be helpless to address. Clinton did nothing more or less than change the context in which Gore is running. Until Monica Lewinsky became a household word, Gore seemed a cinch to step into office as the last premillennial politician, one groomed under the old, irony-free dispensation of the dark suit and the formal speech. This earnest school of politics relied on a common agreement that politics was a field unto itself, the last one-layered zone of American life, in which squareness was a virtue.

Even before Clinton, this era of our public life was waning; the old style was seen as obsolete, even archaic, by increasing numbers of Americans, who proved it by staying away in droves from political participation. (In the words of Kurt Andersen's satiric novel, "Turn of the Century," "national politics is a dying brand category, like organ meats and typewriters.") But Al Gore, the finest flower of the old system, seemed destined to squeak by.

Then along came a president who lied and lied again and, overnight, transformed anyone who relied on the old verities from a patriot to a chump. When he stood in the Roosevelt Room and shook his finger in denial of what was plainly true, Clinton used up the last morsel of the willed innocence that nourished the old rituals. From now on, those who run for president will have to address themselves to a thicker skepticism, countering it with more sophisticated appeals to trust.

Bradley handles this turning point in our politics with something approaching an absence of any style at all, shambling and mumbling beneath the radar of voters' doubt: the transparency gambit. Bush handles it with a brilliant grasp of his generation's stylistic irony and unwillingness ever to be completely serious. He gives a good formal speech, but in all the little exchanges that take place outside of such set pieces, he is busy giving off signals -- especially to the traveling press -- that he is in on the joke, mugging and winking and making Austin Powers allusions. John McCain offers an appealing mixture of truth-telling and a mythic personal tale (a five-year hitch in a North Vietnamese prison being a special token of trustworthiness).

Whereas Al Gore -- even the new improved Al Gore, with the earth tones and the cowboy boots -- is forever a man who seems to be doing a stand-up impression of Cordell Hull. Seen in the post-Clinton context, many of Gore's real virtues (his serene family life, his constancy of purpose) seem irrelevant, at best. Some of them even begin to look like vices: A country that just finished the complicated moral contortion of forgiving its rogue president is going to find it hard to cozy up to a candidate who sometimes seems righteous to a fault.

The effects of "Clinton fatigue" are of course unfair, but they may be irreversible. So it must be especially crazy-making, to one in Gore's position, that the Clinton Effect is being dismissed by the political cognoscenti. A recent New Yorker article by Jane Mayer and Joe Klein, for example, which contained great reporting on how thoroughly Gore is spooked by his Clinton problem, went on to find him foolish as a result. Yet it explained, as nothing else has, why Gore was paying $15,000 a month to Naomi Wolf, who turns out to be his inner circle's leading theorist of Clinton-as-albatross: She was the only person around him who was articulating what his instincts told him.

In ways that far transcend the usual vice presidential image problems, Bill Clinton's behavior unmanned Al Gore. Hillary may have been the wronged woman in Clinton's life, but Gore was the political spouse who got placed in an impossible spot. And it's one of the stranger truths of our blame-shifting species that while Americans may be willing to forgive a sinner like Bill Clinton, no one has much pity for a cuckold.

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