When a Buddy Movie Goes Bad

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DIANA WALKER FOR TIME

On the last day in office, the boys pretend to be friends

You can almost hear Bill Clinton, when he found himself alone with his Vice President for the first time in nearly a year, saying as he bit his lip, "I've missed you, man." But that's not how the meeting went, according to the Washington Post's John Harris. Clinton, still chafing over being kept on the sidelines, rejected any responsibility for Gore's loss. Gore, whose body had returned to the West Wing but whose psyche was still counting chads in Palm Beach, tried to explain that keeping Clinton under wraps was a rational response to polls showing swing voters were still mad as hell over the Year of Monica. Clinton, who sees that period as his Defense of the Constitution, shot back that had Gore embraced him and the Administration's record, he would have won.

No one could watch the pair's chilly handshake on the Inaugural platform and not see instantly that the two had lost their Boys on the Bus glow. Still, it's amazing that, like two estranged lovers arguing over who left the cap off the toothpaste, they skipped over the substance and focused on old slights. How had the Veep, who had lunched privately with the President every week in earlier days, only now got around to getting "things off his chest"? It's equally amazing that Clinton was surprised when Gore went into their last meeting still "knotted up" over the Lewinsky affair, "the elephant in the living room" (as Gore adviser Carter Eskew put it) that closed so many minds to Gore.

As the grief counselors say, get over it. (Bill's and Al's aides, playing out the same melodrama in print and on cable, should too.) For now, at least, Gore's got a leg up for the nomination in 2004 (his argument: I beat Bush once). But Clinton has the grip on the Democrats, having installed his wife in the Senate and his close friend Terry McAuliffe as chair of the party, which might as well be called the Clinton National Committee.

In this ninth year of the Clinton Administration, Clinton continues to soil Gore's reputation. Last Thursday it was Gore's allies who bore the brunt of the criticism for Clinton's eleventh-hour pardon of financier Marc Rich at hearings chaired, just for old times' sake, by Representative Dan Burton, of Who Murdered Vince Foster? fame. Clinton, with his eyes wide open, had his reasons for pardoning Rich--like the near half a million Denise Rich gave to his library--but the hot lights were trained on Jack Quinn--closer to Gore than to Clinton--and former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, who was accused by the committee of passing on the Rich pardon in hopes of landing the top spot at Justice in a Gore Administration. As usual, the buck doesn't stop at Clinton.

It's partly by contrast to Clinton's ex-presidency that Bush's presidency looks so good. It's not honor and dignity that Bush has restored to the White House so much as order, maturity and the prospect that when he leaves we won't have to count the silver--or the sofas. There's Clinton, buying mansions, prospecting for multimillion-dollar multimedia deals, chomping on a cigar on a whites-only golf course in Florida after addressing a group of investment bankers for $100,000. At dinner in Greenwich Village with former Senator Bob Kerrey, a loud retelling of the lesbian joke that helped torpedo Kerrey's '92 campaign made the papers. Fun.

His new Manhattan office, with its sweeping views of Central Park, is a scandal of its own. After lowballing estimates for rent of the entire 56th floor (it's now about $800,000 per year), he presented himself, surprise, as a victim--this time of local real estate prices. He promised that his foundation would pick up $300,000, but any charity that profligate would itself be scandalous. Word is that the government is encouraging Clinton to move to a cheaper suite on a lower floor.

On the heels of reparations for his wife's bridal registry, first reported by the New York Times's Maureen Dowd, comes the news that some of the furniture the Clintons carted off belonged to the White House. The chief usher warned them not to take $28,000 worth of furniture. Last week Clinton became the first President in history to have to return tables and chairs to the White House.

Historians heatedly debate who is the best ex-President, but if Clinton keeps it up, there may soon be no argument over who is the worst. Al Gore, on the other hand, is a model ex-Vice President. Minutes after the Inauguration, he quietly repaired to a modest Tudor house in Arlington, Va. He began lecturing to journalism students at Columbia University (ironically, off limits to journalists), and plans to write a book about families. He's betrayed no bitterness, even when he presided over the Electoral College vote. But from his skyscraper, awash in his global celebrity and a small fortune, Clinton continues to cast a shadow on his old friend. Will it always be Gore's fate that when Clinton trips, Gore is the one who ends up in the body cast?