Is Al Gore destined to be the Adlai Stevenson of our age? Stevenson, who also came from a political family (his grandfather was Grover Cleveland's vice president), won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952 and 1956 and both times was defeated by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Stevenson was considered an intellectual -- an "egghead" in the jargon of the day -- witty and erudite. Ike, on the other hand, was a clumsy speaker, a syntax-mangler who supposedly thought no great thoughts. He won both times in a walk.
If my reference to Eisenhower brings George W. Bush to mind, it is supposed to. The two are hardly the same, of course. Ike was a war hero who, for most of his career, so obfuscated his political leanings that both Democrats and Republicans wanted him to be their presidential candidate. And when he did run for the White House, he did not eke out a victory -- no hanging chads for him -- but neatly trounced Stevenson. America really liked Ike.
Democrats were perplexed. To them, Ike was a bumbler, something of a political coward as well. He had refused to publicly rebuke that red-baiting demagogue, Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Ike was both slow and reluctant to bring what was then called the "moral suasion" of the White House down on the side of the nascent civil rights struggle. And he appeared to be a delegator's delegator -- so detached from the workings of his own White House that sometimes he seemed ignorant of what was going on. He was Reagan before Reagan.
But what really mystified many Stevenson fans was how the country did not appreciate that their man was brilliant and Ike a fool. These people judged both men as if they were taking their orals -- the way they spoke, the clarity of their thoughts, just the right reference to something from the classics. Stevenson could do that; Ike could not. The cartoonists had a field day.
If anything, Bush is sometimes characterized as even more of a cartoon figure -- a man of such mangled syntax he makes Ike seem downright Shakespearean. And yet, as Bob Woodward shows us in his new book, "Bush at War," Bush had what it took to lead his contentious war cabinet and, much more important, the nation in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. His performance has not been without glitches and mistakes, but in his demeanor, his body language -- his something -- he has won the confidence of the American people.
The details in Woodward's book are riveting -- he's not the proverbial fly on the wall, he's the wall itself -- but they don't change the larger picture. The proof of Bush's performance is in the pudding. He did not merely lead the GOP to victory in the recent midterm election, he emerged as the country's dominant politician -- popular in general, adored within his own party. For the moment, at least (a columnist's dodge), he seems in sync with the nation.
And yet in certain Democratic circles, the caricature of Bush as a fool clings with great tenacity. Daily, it seems, I get yet another Bush joke via e-mail. Some of them make me laugh, even though I know the basis for them is untrue. But the people who send them aren't laughing at the assumption. They believe it. To be blunt, they think the president is a dope.
As some of us learned in high school, verbal agility ain't everything. No one would dispute that Gore has it, and yet presidentially speaking, he doesn't get the girl. Just recently, for instance, the New York Times found in a poll that Gore was rated favorably by only 19 percent of respondents -- and unfavorably by 43 percent.
Those figures, the Times said, were among the worst since the paper started asking that question in 1987. Even among Democrats (33 percent) and independents (17 percent), Gore's favorable rating does not get close to 50 percent -- this after he had completed a book promotion tour in which, it seemed, he appeared everywhere except on al-Jazeera.
Gore is now considering whether to run for president again. If he does, he will be the presumptive front-runner, the candidate with the greatest name recognition if not the greatest claim on the nomination: He actually won the popular vote last time out. Still, now is not then, and the Bush of the campaign is not the Bush in the White House.
More and more, Bush is looking like Ike. And more and more, Gore is looking like Stevenson.