WASHINGTON — After a recent column I wrote about the possibility of Al Gore running again for president, I received an angry e-mail accusing me of "building up" Mr. Gore because I knew he wouldn't have a chance of winning. Since then, I've had two letters that expressed the same mistrust of my intentions in writing that Gore, by "being himself," just might make it next time around.
Well, it is arguable that if Bush remains the formidable wartime president he is today there is no chance that anyone Gore or any other Democrat will be able to unseat him. And it is further arguable that should Gore run the same old race he ran in 2000 he would probably be a very weak opponent of Mr. Bush.
But I think a "new" Al Gore even if that newness is nothing more than a return to an old, uncontrived, personable Gore could become an attractive and, perhaps, winning candidate in 2004.
Why am I saying this? Because I'm remembering how a former vice president, Richard Nixon, lost in 1960 but repackaged himself as a "new" Nixon and won in 1968. Nixon had to somehow sell the idea that he was no longer the "Tricky Dick" who smeared his foes with false accusations and that he had become a more mature, reasonable, and even affable fellow who dealt fairly with his adversaries. A ridiculous, unsalable idea to put across? Sounds like it.
But Nixon and his aides sold the "new Nixon" to a lot of people, including that savvy reporter and great political historian, Theodore H. White. And it was this allegedly restructured Nixon who won the presidency in his second try only to remind the voters after election that he hadn't really buried the old Nixon.
Gore wouldn't have the tremendous sales job that Nixon had in selling a different image of himself if he makes another try for president. In my many contacts with Gore, as a newsman, I found him a straight-shooting, warm guy. He was not the know-it-all, always-on-stage, often-less-than-likable Gore he was during his battle with Bush.
Now Gore is talking about running again and promising his supporters, "If I had to do it all over again, I'd just let it rip.... To hell with the polls, the tactics, and the rest. I would have poured out my heart and my vision for America's future."
That's the New Gore if he decides to run. The New Gore could take him to a presidency that many of his supporters still think he won and lost only because of an unfair Supreme Court decision. Yes, Bush might be unbeatable by anyone. But a New Gore that revealed what I think is the real Al Gore might well be the most potent Democrat who could take on George W. Bush win or lose.
I'm not forgetting that this would be the third, not the second, try by Gore for the presidency. He ran in 1988 when his loss in the primaries could be attributed to his youthful inexperience. But that was long ago. He has worlds of experience now in the hot political spotlight of presidential politics. He's certainly ready if he hasn't tired of the struggle, with its aches and pains. That's what he must decide and he says he will decide by the first of the year.
Nixon won the presidency during wartime, too the Vietnam War. When Nixon first indicated to me in a 1965 interview in his New York law office that he was thinking about running for president again in 1968, he was expecting a contest with a sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, who had won by a landslide against Barry Goldwater the year before.
By the time Nixon was deep into the 1968 presidential campaign and Johnson had dropped out of the race because of his war-related unpopularity he disclosed he had a "plan to end the war." He never quite spelled out what that plan was. But by stating he had such a "plan" and yet by not disclosing whether it would be a withdrawal or an all-out effort Nixon somehow won over a lot of doves while keeping the hawks in his camp. Foxy Nixon.
But should Gore run again, he might not be able to craft an effective war position. Indeed, his recent criticism of Bush for not being able to "get" Osama bin Laden might backfire with voters who (most of them) seem well satisfied that Bush is doing all he can to win the war.