. -- Good for Al Gore. He made a decision that will help his country, his party -- and himself. And he was smart enough to know that lots of people would write sentences like the one you just read as soon as he announced that he would not run for president in 2004.
Absent Gore's non-candidacy statement Sunday on CBS's "60 Minutes," every move he made, every step he took, every word he spoke would have been analyzed in crass political terms for its political implications.
Oddly, Gore becomes a stronger and more important Democratic spokesman for not running. While other Democrats scramble for advantage in the 2004 nomination contest, Gore can make arguments -- for national health insurance, for fiscal responsibility, for social justice, for a foreign policy that wins rather than loses allies -- without anyone saying he's fermenting sour grapes. Gore is free as no Democratic candidate for president will be free.
Some of Gore's close friends had urged him to ponder how Richard Nixon orchestrated his comeback. It was not a comparison Gore much liked, but it was shrewd nonetheless. Recall that Nixon lost the 1960 election very narrowly, and many Republicans thought -- not irrationally -- that his defeat was the product of Democratic vote fraud in Illinois and Texas. Nixon let his party fight out its differences in the 1964 Republican primaries and came back four years later as the man who could pull the party together.
Having eight years instead of four, Nixon was able to establish a different public image. It's easy now to joke about how many "New Nixons" were offered up. But it takes a lot of work and a lot of time for a politician to adjust his public image, to correct for past failures. Gore, of course, may never get the opportunity Nixon did. He has at least bought himself time and a lot of goodwill in a party that, predominantly, wasn't crazy about seeing him run again.
For a politician so often said to be out of touch, his statements on Sunday suggest that he fully understands how his party feels. "I think that a campaign that would be a rematch between myself and President Bush," he said, "would inevitably involve a focus on the past that would in some measure distract from the focus on the future that I think all campaigns have to be about." True -- and not easy to say.
Last April I gathered a group of New Hampshire Democratic activists to talk about 2004 Democratic presidential possibilities. The most striking comment about Gore came from Arnie Arneson, a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate. "The thought of his coming back again," Arneson said, "is exhausting."
It says a lot in Gore's favor that he understood exactly what Arneson was talking about. "The last campaign was an extremely difficult one," Gore said on Sunday, "and while I have the energy and drive to go out there and do it again, I think that there are a lot of people within the Democratic Party who felt exhausted by that -- who felt like, 'Okay, I don't want to go through that again.' And I'm, frankly, sensitive to that -- to that feeling."
Gore pulled himself out of contention at a moment when his standing in his party was rising. Before November's Democratic debacle, he -- unlike many in his party -- had no problem in taking on President Bush directly. Unlike other white Democrats, he grasped instantly that there was something terribly wrong about Senate Republican leader Trent Lott's nostalgia for Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign in 1948. Gore leaves the scene at the very moment when many Democrats, to their surprise, want to hear more from him.
It was odd to be in Florida when Gore broke the news. I am one of millions of Americans who still insist that all the evidence of the 2000 election, honestly read, shows that a plurality of Florida's residents thought they had voted for Al Gore -- meaning that absent ballot snafus, he should have won this state's electoral votes and the presidency. I still believe that the Supreme Court of the United States had no business shutting down Florida's efforts to recount ballots.
Gore has every right to remain enraged by all this, and he could have run a campaign in 2004 inspired by revenge. That he has chosen not to suggests clarity, self-knowledge and a sense of responsibility his adversaries have never conceded him. Already, you can see the rise of a New Gore who has a political future if he wants it and who will have a strong public voice even if he never runs again.