They were two political partners who had barely spoken for a year, but a few days after Al Gore conceded the 2000 presidential election, he and Bill Clinton were finally talking face to face.
For more than an hour, in what sources close to both men described as uncommonly blunt language, Gore forcefully told Clinton that his sex scandal and low personal approval ratings were a major impediment to his presidential campaign. Clinton, according to people close to him, was initially taken aback but responded with equal force that it was Gore's failure to run on the administration's record that hobbled his ambitions.
The White House meeting, which Gore sought, was a doleful postscript to a relationship that once was exceptionally close but had deteriorated badly over the course of Gore's 2000 race. Its significance, however, was more than personal. The question the two men were debating -- why did Gore not capture the White House? -- is the same one confronting Democrats broadly as they assess the lessons of 2000.
If Gore hopes to seek the presidency again, moreover, several Democratic strategists say he will almost certainly need to establish a better footing for his relationship with Clinton -- who remains a powerful figure within the party despite the blunders that marked his exit from the White House.
Only Clinton and Gore were present for the showdown session, which never appeared even on internal schedules distributed to White House staff. But people close to both have described its tone in similar language. "Tense" was the description of one adviser to Clinton, while a Gore aide called it "cathartic." One Democrat who has worked closely with both men called the session "very, very blunt."
Where descriptions differ is on the conclusion of the meeting. Some Democrats who heard descriptions from one or the other of the two participants said the meeting essentially ratified what for many months had been an unspoken truth between the two men: Their relationship suffered irreparable harm in the wake of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal and Clinton's lies to Gore and the nation about it. Gore, said one Democrat, "seemed eager to get things off his chest."
Others put a more upbeat cast on the session, calling it a useful air-clearing that should allow the two men to move forward. "They had to cover a lot of territory," said one Democrat close to Clinton and Gore. "My impression was it was a very constructive meeting."
"He felt it was a very good conversation," said one adviser to the former vice president.
Jake Siewert, a spokesman for Clinton, and Kiki McLean, a spokeswoman for Gore, said their bosses would not comment on a private conversation.
Gore and Clinton saw each other several times after the talk but before the end of the administration and also spoke by phone; aides said these conversations were polite, but not consequential.
And they have not come close to finding common ground on why Gore is not president today. In fact, on this large issue and several minor ones, there are open wounds between the camps of Democratic aides allied with one man or the other -- resentments that have been rubbed anew since Jan. 20.
Many Clinton advisers were infuriated by a post-election analysis Gore consultant Carter Eskew published Jan. 30 in The Washington Post in which he said the "deep dissatisfaction and anger" felt by swing voters over Clinton's scandals was "the elephant in the living room" preventing Gore from making his case.
A senior White House official close to Clinton scoffed: "I don't think the fact that they lost four out of four debates had anything to do with Bill Clinton." By this reckoning, neither Gore nor his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), made a compelling case in showdowns against President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
As a general rule, aides close to Clinton say, he was less upset than often reported by Gore's efforts to distance himself publicly from the president. And, with the exception of the last 10 days or so of the general election -- when he desperately wanted to hit the road in key states but was told no by the Gore campaign -- he did not expect a significant role as a Gore proxy. But he was mystified, and at times angered, by Gore's refusal to run on the strong economy and other issues in which Clinton felt both he and his vice president deserved credit. Just as voters made a distinction between Clinton's personal conduct and his job performance, Clinton believed Gore could campaign on the record without being tied to the president's scandals.
Clinton, Democrats said, never fully appreciated the degree of Gore's resentments, and how they colored his political calculations. "Gore came in all knotted up, and it surprised him," one aide said.
As many Clinton people view it, Gore took a basic political problem -- how to use his affiliation with the administration while establishing his own identity -- and made it more complex than necessary. He was often palpably uncomfortable when talking about Clinton, and his fumbling answers to the question of whether Clinton would campaign for him elevated this to a major subplot of the fall campaign. Although there were periodic reports of their tension during the campaign, a Democrat close to both men said, "It was far worse than anyone knew."
As many Clinton supporters see it, the president was less of a political issue than an emotional hurdle for Gore. By this account, family members, especially Tipper Gore, disliked Clinton even more strongly. "Gore had this sort of psychological analysis in which anything Clinton did was inadequate," said one Democratic operative who has worked with both men.
The two camps around both men have also become estranged. Some senior Clinton advisers said they were once close to many top Gore advisers, including Eskew, but friendships among a generation of Democratic operatives ruptured during 2000. More recently, sources said, former Clinton chief of staff John D. Podesta is angry that Gore aides have allowed Clinton to take blame for pranks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, even though most of the mischief took place in the vice president's offices.
One Democratic strategist said that whether Gore works for a rapprochement with Clinton will be one sign of whether he wants to try again for the office that so narrowly eluded him. "If he does," this Clinton supporter said, "he's going to have to be large enough to move off the last campaign and at least get some closure."