I SUSPECT that many Americans, at least those of us in the older crowd, found Al Gore's performance on the David Letterman show Sept. 8 at least a little disconcerting. By now we have grown accustomed to seeing presidents and presidential contenders become regulars on programs such as ``Larry King Live.'' But here was the vice president of the United States calling his host ``pinhead'' and offering, at the top of his Letterman-copy list of the 10 best things about being vice president, his ``Secret Service code name: Buttafuoco.''
The intended objective in all of this clowning was, of course, to ``humanize'' the ``wooden'' Veep. Mr. Gore almost fought his way on to the show in order to demonstrate how much of a ``man of the people, 1990s style'' he really is. Letterman staff said they would have preferred having the president himself, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, or even the president's mother, Virginia Kelly.
At least since the age of Andrew Jackson, Americans have wanted their political leaders to have a common touch. Our national ideals have never demanded economic equality along the socialist line, but they have surely insisted on social equality, of the ``you're no better than I am'' variety. This is why our presidents have been known by names such as Old Hickory, Honest Abe, Teddy, Ike, Jimmy, and now Bill.
But does this longtime insistence on unpretentiousness and a common touch now, in the electronically ``hot'' 1990s, get expressed in a desire to see our leaders behave like talk-show hosts? I don't think so. At the risk of sounding perfectly square, I argue that Gore didn't help himself politically, and that in assuming he would, the vice president and his staff sold the American people short. In general, politicians misread things badly if they assume that such antics fit the mood and expectations of our times.
Let's acknowledge that there are no data out there measuring the impact of Gore's performance on the several million people who witnessed it. But there's plenty of evidence that most Americans, while wanting their leaders to be socially unpretentious, most of all want them to show that they have the character and judgment to lead a great nation ably.
One doesn't show that by trading on a TV comedian's long-standing play on ``Buttafuoco.'' Mary Jo Buttafuoco was shot and critically wounded in May 1992 by a 17-year-old Long Island girl who had been having a year-long affair with Joey Buttafuoco, the victim's husband. The tabloid press, radio, and television in the New York area gave this story enormous attention. Presumably, Mr. Letterman was capitalizing on the bizarre and sordid details told endlessly in the press when he made it a practice to repeat ``Buttafuoco'' on his program. He was also making fun of an Italian-American name.
Even if one likes this attempt at comedy in a television entertainer, one can reject it coming from the vice president. The Buttafuoco ``joke'' is a crude ethnic slur and trades on a tragedy.
Contemporary leaders seeking ways to show themselves ``of the people'' might take a few minutes to consider the case of the politician who is best known and still much revered for his common touch, Abraham Lincoln. His contemporaries saw in Mr. Lincoln humility, compassion, and kindness - the exemplary virtues of many men and women. They also saw in him uncommon strength of character, steadfastness of purpose, clarity of vision, and moral depth - the evident and exemplary attributes of great leadership.
Superficial styles have changed greatly since the 1860s, but the basics have not. We still want our leaders to be uncommon men and women who show they understand that they are no better than their fellow citizens who find ways to summon us all to do better and thus leave our polity a better place.
It's terribly demeaning to assume that a public that has guided this democracy pretty ably for more than two centuries, is incapable of understanding that presidents and vice presidents have a role to play different from that of talk-show personalities, and that what may work fine for the latter may be inappropriate for the former.
Those cynical enough to believe that the public doesn't make such distinctions might consider the case of Al Gore's boss, Bill Clinton. The president is highly intelligent, works incredibly hard, and is as determined a politician as the US has ever had. Mr. Clinton is seen as having a common touch. Indeed those conducting focus groups find him regularly referred to as ``Bill,'' whereas his predecessor was ``President Bush.''
But for all his abilities, efforts, and commonness, Clinton has thus far received low marks as president - the worst for any beginner in the time polls have been conducted. The Yankelovich Partners survey of Sept. 8-9, taken for Time and CNN, again showed more people disapproving of his handling of the office than approving of it.
Americans want of Clinton what they wanted of his predecessors and, I think we can say confidently, what they will want of his successors - uncommon strength of leadership and sureness of vision.