Among White Men, Gore Needs to Pick Up Good Vibrations

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This should be the week of Al Gore's liberation — from many things. From the good news/bad news of Bill Clinton. From the indentured servitude of the vice presidency. Even, it may be (to dip presumptuously into the candidate's psyche), from his father's impelling shadow. A formal emancipation. But have those servitudes left behind a permanent shadow? In the minds of some voters there is an interesting cloud of doubt about Gore and what he adds up to.

The greatest danger to Gore's future is focused in one sector — in the doubts of his peers, of other white males. The latest TIME/CNN poll registers a 25 percent deficit for Al Gore among among men. The poll shows Bush with 57 percent of the male vote, and Gore with only 32 percent. Among women, Bush gets 48 percent and Gore 44 percent. Specifically, Gore's biggest problem is white men. He has the black vote pretty much sewn up.

Gore's job this week is clear. Unless he uses the convention to persuade white male voters that he is, as they say of his running mate, Joe Lieberman, a mensch — and, since Gore is top man, even more of a mensch than Lieberman — then his chances in November start to get dim.

Why does Gore fare badly with male voters? Why should the male verdict on Gore be so much harsher than the female? We enter a subjective realm — intuitive and irrational. One might grope around in pop anthropology and try out theories. For example: Men, habituated to teaming up in forms of disciplined aggression and governance (hunting, war, politics), possess well-developed, wary instincts about other men, including their qualities of leadership. Male intuition discerns which men can be trusted with power and which cannot. In Vietnam, for example, an American combat soldier evaluating one of his peers might say, "I would go down the road with him." Meaning: "I think he's solid, I trust him. I know he'll back me up if things get bad."

Just as women can be brutally unfoolable about other women, most men have a shrewd instinct about other men's reliability. That is Al Gore's greatest challenge this week in Los Angeles.

There's no need for anthropology. I simply note the unarguable, poll-proven fact that Gore disturbs many men. Not all, of course. Millions of American males admire and respect Gore, like his policies, and will vote for him enthusiastically.

It's the others who are Gore's problem. Why? He seems to them too much a pleaser and a chameleon. (Women may share this opinion, but I'm talking about the men). These men see uncertainty of self, cunning changeability, opportunism. They see energies of desperation in him, and at the bottom, somewhere, a kind of fear... but of what? Inadequacy? Failure? The men who are Gore's problem do not, in any case, believe that he adds up to a trustworthy human being. They look into his character and see a house of cards.

The white male gap between Bush and Gore is explained by this: A disproportionate number of men pick up a vibration from Gore that they do not like; it has less to do with policy than with character. They do not get this vibration from Bush.

Can Gore do anything about it? He may be wise to plan an acceptance speech that is heavy on policy specifics. Better to emphasize the very real practical differences between Democrat Gore and Republican Bush than to depend too much on personality and atmospherics. Gore will not win against Bush among white males in a personality contest.

Probably the best thing Gore could do this week is to calm down. He sometimes campaigns like an alien on Dexedrine, all pumped and almost loony with focus, his face a fast-forward of mad spontaneities and grimacing sincerities. That sort of performance adds to the disturbing impression. The doubting white male says to himself: "If he acts like this while he's working a ropeline, how would he behave in a real crisis?"