As Bush grows, Gore shrinks out of picture

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Monday, January 14, 2002 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Until quite recently, President Bush reminded me of Lily Tomlin’s almost-6-year-old "Edith Ann." He didn’t seem a bad kid, only an out-of-his-depth kid, legs dangling from the oversized chair of the presidency, trying earnestly to sound like an adult.

Well, while he remains a few steps short of eloquent, and while his policies and perceptions don’t always jibe with mine, Bush no longer seems too small for the job.

Al Gore, the man I would have preferred, does.

Why is it that one man in the presidential contest that split America almost precisely down the middle seems (in my mind, at least) to have grown, the other diminished?

Part of it may be that Bush was never quite as limited as he seemed to me during the latter stages of the campaign — though it still amazes me that a person of his education, means and opportunities could have had such little interest in the world at large, having hardly even visited the European capitals. Part may be a tendency to mistake infelicity of expression for lack of intelligence.

But mainly, I think it’s not that I was wrong about what Bush was but that I underestimated what he could become. The growth spurt I’ve seen since Sept. 11 has been little short of remarkable — and on the foreign policy side, the area that had been his most glaring weakness. It is not true that any person in the White House would have grown to the challenge of international terrorism — or would have been able to bring the country together on the need to deal with it. No doubt the decisions Bush has made have been presented to him by smart and experienced advisers. But he chose those advisers and, moreover, demonstrated what even savvy counsel could not give him: calm resolve and determination. He may not be my guy on any number of domestic issues, but he no longer evokes Edith Ann.

Would Gore have done less well on the war? I don’t know, though as Bob Keohane, a Duke University history professor, put it a couple of months ago, Gore would have been less successful doing precisely what Bush was doing because conservative Republicans would have eaten him alive for irresolution. No way, the professor noted, would Gore have been allowed the deliberative time Bush had between the terrorist attacks and the initial bombing of Afghanistan.

But it isn’t my guess as to what Gore might have done in office that diminishes him for me. It is his failure to act in any public way out of office. I find myself reaching back a quarter of a century for a local analogy. Clifford Alexander, the well-respected lawyer, came within an ace of defeating incumbent D.C. Mayor Walter Washington in the 1974 Democratic primary. A lot of us thought that Alexander, better known for his federal service than for his attention to hometown affairs, could have had the next election almost for the asking. All he had to do was continue evincing his newly developed interest in local issues — showing up at civic functions, testifying at City Council hearings, that sort of thing.

He didn’t. And no one ever thought of Alexander as a mayoral contender again.

Gore has pulled a similar disappearing act. No one can blame him for not second-guessing the administration on the war on terrorism. But even on the things we thought he cared deeply about, Gore has been eerily silent. Not even on such weighty environmental controversies as Arctic drilling, global warming and power-plant emissions has Mr. Environment been heard from. As with my friend Alexander, his interest in the issues seems coterminous with their political utility.

Maybe both simply tired of politics. If so, that doesn’t spell the end of life. Alexander has gone on to be an enormously successful lawyer and business executive. Gore — smart, experienced and hardworking — could become successful at any number of possible pursuits.

All I’m saying is that the man I used to think of as a privileged know-nothing has grown to fill his presidential office, and the man I used to think of as a self-disciplined know-everything has disappeared into ordinariness.

Goodbye, Edith Ann. Hello, Incredible Shrinking Man.

William Raspberry can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or willrasp@washpost.com.

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