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Thursday, June 17, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Collin Levey / Times editorial columnist
It was a real love-in at the White House this week as President Bush extended a warm welcome to the Clintons for the unveiling of their official White House portraits. But while everyone was trading backrubs, there was one person notably absent from the room: Al Gore.
Asked about the former veep's absence, former Clinton spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers seemed to arch an eyebrow. "Good question," she told NBC. "I think that was a question that was being asked all over the room yesterday by the Clinton aides that were there. I don't know."
Myers continued: "I think it was well-known that things did not end on a high note between the president and the vice president; however, they seemed to reconcile over the years."
Wherever Gore was, his absence came off as a snub and even a power-play refusal to spend another second in Clinton's shadow. Over the past few months of the presidential race, the distance between Clinton and Gore has seemed to widen, creating a bipolar force field in the Democratic Party. John Kerry's campaign has had to navigate the identity crisis as best it could, driving Kerry into areas of emphasis outside the tension like his Vietnam service.
The friction isn't a brand new phenomenon for Clinton and Gore, of course. The men, even as candidates, didn't have much personal style or rhythm in common. Clinton was smooth and fluid, Gore uptight and mechanical. And, most notably, when Gore ran for election in 2000, he made the decision to separate himself from the Clinton scandals, and the man himself, to whatever extent he could. Gore even seemed to disown the wealth creation of the Clinton years with his tirades against the "rich and powerful."
The high point (or low point, depending on how strong your stomach is) came when Candidate Al and Tipper suddenly became mega-gropers, showcasing their marital happiness with a make-out session at the convention.
The contrasts back then were heavy-handed and it's unlikely that Clinton ever really forgave the slight. But the feeling was mutual: Gore was never really Clinton's priority anyway before his own presidency was even finished, Hillary had moved to Chappaqua to prepare for her current life as a senator from New York. As soon as that happened, Clinton began to see her as his future empire, not Gore.
Fast-forwarding to the current primary contest, the feud seems to have mushroomed into a battle for headlines and party influence one that Gore has been losing with one misstep after another. Gore endorsed Howard Dean at what may well be considered the height of Dean's popularity, before his fatal red-faced yaaargh following his loss in Iowa. Clinton, meanwhile, did the exact opposite, implicitly endorsing the unorthodox anti-Dean candidate, Wesley Clark.
Those choices suggested very different visions for the future of the Democratic Party. Had Dean, with cheerleader Gore nearby, ascended to the nomination, the choice would have been seen to negate the Clinton legacy of the Democratic Leadership Council and the rise of successful moderates in the party. It would, in the predictions of many, have wrecked the Democratic Party's presidential hopes for a generation, much as the McGovern defeat in 1972 did. Guess who would have been the big loser then? Hillary.
Clinton was also the quickest to embrace Kerry, while Gore fumed on the sidelines and tried to outdo Michael Moore in turning the Iraq war into a criminal escapade of the Bush administration. (Clinton has not only been circumspect in criticizing the war, but occasionally gives evidence of understanding the long-term dilemma that Saddam Hussein posed amid a growing struggle over the future of the Middle East).
Gore continues to fan the bitterness of his 2000 loss, most recently stirring up recriminations between Democrats in the contest to fill outgoing Sen. Bob Graham's seat in Florida. Naturally, this came just as savvier politicians in both parties recognized that, in the wake of Ronald Reagan's death, the public wanted more nicey-nice from the two parties.
Clinton and George Bush, showing why they are political winners, conspired to create just such a moment this week, benefiting them both. No wonder Kerry now mentions Bill Clinton's name 20 times in his stump speech. Meanwhile, Gore's venomous blatherings he most recently called for the resignation of at least four Cabinet secretaries over Iraq are passed over in silence. Gore's performances have made more than a few in his own party cringe as much at the delivery as at the message.
Clinton's book tour will likely tip the scales even further against Gore and produce a wave of Clinton nostalgia all its own, which may be a godsend for the Democrats. Our fondness for the Clinton presidency, after all, has to do with recalling a less complicated, more peaceful time.
Kerry understands this, too. His recent stump performances suggest a man who has suddenly recognized how much he stands to gain from associating himself with Clinton's happier era and leaving the public to associate Bush with the more troubled world we find ourselves in now.
This may not win Kerry the White House (voters know they need a president to confront the troubles head on), but guess who benefits from a campaign that treats the Clinton legacy as worth cherishing? Hillary.
Collin Levey writes Thursdays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at email@example.com
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