Time and Donald Trump do interesting things to a man.
They make Al Gore glitter.
It’s almost impossible not to be thinking of Gore now, with the words “Florida” and “recount” so prominent in the news, and it’s hard not to credit him with virtues absent in Trump and increasingly rare in politics these days.
Grace in defeat, for one. For another: a commitment to democracy greater than a concern for self.
Sure, the review of ballots that Gore’s campaign demanded in 2000, as he and George W. Bush waited to see who would get the Sunshine State’s electoral votes and become president, was a rancorous affair lousy with recriminations.
But after the Supreme Court halted it, Gore didn’t reject that ruling as partisan, rail about conspiracies or run around telling Americans that he was their rightful leader, foiled by dark forces. He felt that the stability of the country hinged on the calmness of his withdrawal. So he told Americans to move on.
Then he did likewise, a decision that seems positively exotic in retrospect.
Joe Biden, 75, is contemplating a third bid for the presidency. Bernie Sanders, 77, also seems to be mulling another run.
And there are people unconvinced that Hillary Clinton, 71, has surrendered her Oval Office dreams. Several prominent Democrats have suggested that she may give Hillary 2020 a whirl. While that’s highly doubtful, she hasn’t rushed to throw buckets of cold water on it.
Gore, 70, is younger than all of them. Like Clinton, he can proudly point to having won the popular vote. But when a new try for the White House made the most sense for him, in 2004, he took a pass. There were many reasons, including this: He possessed the ability to cede the spotlight even when it was his to claim. Imagine that.
He wasn’t always easy to like. He was stiff. He exaggerated. His judgment wobbled. He let his disgust with Bill Clinton’s conduct eclipse his need for Clinton’s help.
But how quaint are those quibbles in the context of Trump?
Gore is looking good – virtuous, visionary – in many ways. Wildfires are once again ravaging California, and if climate change isn’t the culprit, it’s an aggravating factor – an accomplice. Trump won’t go there. Gore went there long ago. His documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” about global warming, came out in 2006, and it spoke to a passion that transcended political expedience. Imagine that, too.
In a eulogy for Gore’s abandoned political career that The Times’ Patrick Healy wrote in 2012, a close friend of Gore’s said, “He doesn’t let his anger take priority over his policy obsessions, where he still believes he can make a difference.”
It took the Gore and Bush teams weeks in 2000 to ratchet up their language to a level in the vicinity of where Trump and Rick Scott, the Florida governor, started out. Scott, running for the Senate, was trying to protect his lead over Bill Nelson, the Democratic incumbent. He and Trump quickly raised the specter of voter fraud and election theft even though Scott was poised to win and there was no real evidence of wrongdoing.
In Trump’s case, that’s unsurprising. He complained about illegal voting and a rigged result before Election Day 2016, presaging a refusal to accept the results as legitimate if he lost. He’ll almost surely do the same in his re-election effort.
“We’re in uncharted territory here,” Shaun Bowler, a professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, told me, adding that some politicians, especially on the right, “are drawing into question the legitimacy of the system as an election-winning tactic. They’re doing this for short-term gain without thought to long-term erosion.”
The greatest perils are a widespread loss of faith in the process and unwillingness to honor its outcomes. That was precisely what Gore sought to avoid in 2000. Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who was one of the Gore campaign’s principal spokesmen, recalled that when the recount was stopped, Gore “emailed me on my BlackBerry: ‘Don’t trash the Supreme Court.’”
In an interview with The Washington Post in 2002, Gore noted that he could have “launched a four-year rear-guard guerrilla campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the Bush presidency, and to mobilize for a rematch.” But, he added, “There’s so much riding on the success of any American president and taking the reins of power and holding them firmly, I just didn’t feel like it was in the best interest of the United States, or that it was a responsible course of action.”
Those read like lines from some fairy tale at this point, and so do parts of his concession speech shortly after the Supreme Court ruling. “I accept the finality of this outcome,” he said. “This is America, and we put country before party.”
We do? Maybe we did. I thank Gore for the reminder.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.