To steal a line from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, "The former vice president could not win the presidency when he won the presidency."
That was with all the credibility afforded by the nation's second-highest office. Now -- despite his only platform being ... none at all, come to think of it, aside from regular office hours at MTSU and Fisk -- Al Gore is back. As he announced to his audience at a Tennessee Democratic Party fund-raiser in Nashville weekend before last, "For everything there is a season," and he intends to "rejoin the national debate."
But does anyone care? Seriously. He didn't even entirely shush the room at the Renaissance Hotel. How on "earth-in-the-balance" -- to lift another Dowdism -- can he expect to resurrect himself now? Besides, aren't there enough public policymakers offering the counter-administration view? The Senate's got 50 of them, and they were actually elected.
Those aren't simply the kind of questions conceived by cynical media. Before party faithful had even digested their Chardonnay, and as beer bottles still lay on the ballroom floor at the Renaissance, the national welcome mat was being pulled out from under Gore, and his own renaissance was in danger of being stillborn.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, "laughed uproariously when asked about supporting Gore again," The New York Times' Richard Berke wrote in a devastating piece, going on to quote Dorgan: "Al Gore lost North Dakota by 28 points! The entire ticket went down with him in North Dakota. When you lose by 28 points, that's a mega-landslide." Dorgan continued, as if continuting were really necessary: "I don't hear anybody say much of anything about Al Gore."
"You have to be likable before they can vote for you," said Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat. And Sen. Tom Harkin, whom Gore has raised money for, wouldn't even say for sure whether he would support the former vice president.
Other observations were equally ravaging: that Gore's talents are more suited to the private sector; that he had a campaign-finance meeting in Washington, D.C., last month, but only a few 20-something volunteers showed up; that most of his former advisers have taken up with other political candidates.
Still, the couple thousand or so attendees of Gore's coming-out party in Nashville, while busily campaigning and milling and otherwise comparing political stickers, certainly were more enthusiastic than the media about Gore's arrival back "home" from his actual home in Virginia.
Meanwhile, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a trial lawyer who once upon a time practiced in Tennessee, is already campaigning in New Hampshire and is being heralded as a "fresh face" people can get excited about.
The precise reason for Gore's appearance was to announce the formation of a political-action committee, called "Leadership '02," to help Democratic candidates and to "train young people in the skills of democracy."
But he took the opportunity to make a political speech, first logging his unequivocal support for President Bush on the war effort, then segueing into a partisan attack on the policy decisions of the Republican administration regarding the economy, tax cuts, the environment, and so on.
"Some disagreed with my choice to withdraw from the policy debates for a time," he said. "But it was right for me, and I would do it again. I thought it appropriate, given the nature of the election."
He didn't commit to another run for the presidency, saying he's not decided about that. "Don't get ahead of yourself," he told his audience. "The focus should be on 2002."
But he did say he's canvassing Tennessee, "meeting with friends, reconnecting with old ones and making some new ones. I haven't made it to all 95 counties yet, but I'm getting there."
Maybe he hasn't declared, but no one goes to Grundy County unless they're campaigning.
Liz Garrigan is news editor of the Nashville Scene, where a version of this column first appeared.