WASHINGTON — What is Al Gore up to these days? Is he in hiding? Is he still licking his wounds? Or is he merely resting and enjoying a respite from the political wars, with the intention of eventually rising up from the battlefield to fight once again?
A short while back, I tried to lure Mr. Gore - a part-time journalism teacher at Columbia University - out of his politically inactive status by inviting him to be our guest at a Monitor breakfast. He has already shared bacon and eggs with us a dozen times over the years, four times during his first term as vice president. But I got nowhere.
Joe Andrew, recent Democratic chairman, encouraged me to issue the invitation. He said it was time for Gore to break his silence and the breakfast would be just the place to do it. He gave me an address where I could reach Gore and, in addition, said he personally would urge that Gore accept.
Mr. Andrew is and has been a loyal Gore supporter. And I gather he thinks Gore has earned another shot at the presidency, and shouldn't wait too long before indicating his interest in seeking the 2004 nomination.
But what did I hear from Gore? After a week or two of waiting, a female voice came on the line and merely acknowledged that Gore had received the invitation "but that he isn't doing anything like that yet." A "thank you" from the caller, and that was it. I understand that others trying to entice Gore back into the Washington political circle are also being politely rebuffed.
Could it be that an embittered Al Gore is leaving politics? I don't believe it - although I'm sure he's thought of doing so. Gore, like his father, is a political animal; he may move away from politics for a while, but he'll be back.
But one must ask: How successful would a Gore comeback effort be - one in which he would once again seek the presidency?
Well, he won the popular victory last time, and millions of Democrats still think he was cheated out of the electoral win by the Supreme Court decision. That in itself would seem to be enough to earn Gore another chance. Indeed, it's arguable that Gore should be able to build on his last election performance and score a decisive victory next time around.
But I've talked to enough prominent Democrats since the election to conclude that Gore is headed for strong opposition from within his own party if he once again seeks the presidency.
The argument against Gore is worded like this: "With the good economy we should have won. Gore just wasn't a good candidate."
Gore will, indeed, have his party supporters like Joe Andrew. But other influential Democrats have told me that they are "seeking a new face," an attractive newcomer to the presidential wars - maybe a senator like Evan Bayh of Indiana or John Edwards of North Carolina.
As I see it, Gore's main problem in the past election was that he couldn't shake himself loose from President Clinton. It's arguable that next time around, presidential candidate Gore could be far enough away from the Clinton years to be viewed on his own.
But Gore must also somehow learn to be himself if he is to be a successful presidential candidate. Take this last campaign: On stage and, particularly in debate, Gore too often looked pompous and aggressive and sounded whiney. (Remember his audible sighs?) He simply wasn't very likable.
The Al Gore whom I've known for years is a particularly warm, relaxed, likable fellow. More than anything else, Gore has a wonderful sense of humor - which is always on display at breakfasts he has attended. He joshes, he pokes fun; he's one of us. And I've seen this Al Gore so often that I'm convinced it's the real Al Gore.
Here I want to add that several of the breakfasters have made similar observations about Mr. Gore.
SO I SIMPLY don't know what happened to Gore on the campaign trail. It was almost as though he was trying to show the public how important he was, how smart he was. Remember when he seemed to be playing the part of Mr. Know-It-All in one of the debates with Bush?
If Al Gore reenters politics and can somehow be the same old Al Gore we breakfasters have come to enjoy, he can still go far. If he can't, he'd better stay at Columbia.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor