Public Eye: Save the Last Dance for Me

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Al Gore's concession speech was not as good as the reviews would have it. Quoting his father about how defeat shakes the soul was the right touch of poignancy. Saying he would be mending fences in Tennessee admitted how much it hurt to be rebuffed at home. Invoking the clichèd "It's time for me to go" so elegiacally displayed the mordant, subtle humor of one who accepts that life is mad. Finally we glimpsed the Gore who, according to those who love him most, always existed.

But the encomiums were overdone by a commentariat that praises freely only when it comes to bury. Gore went gently into that good night because, as New York Timesman Thomas Friedman put it, someone had "to take a bullet for the country."

Rob Reiner was present for the dying of the light. He had stopped over at the Gores' for a roast-chicken dinner after hosting an event for his I Am Your Child foundation. He was polishing off his lemon tart when word came that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was imminent. They flipped on CNN in the dining room, and Reiner watched transfixed with Tipper and three of the children while Gore got on the phone for a conference call with his lawyers. "There we were getting the opinion, slow page by slow page over the fax machine, as CNN was reporting on us getting the opinion. It was The Truman Show." At first, Reiner said, Gore was encouraged that while there was an equal-protection problem, it could be fixed by making the standard for counting votes uniform. But he was crushed when the court imposed a deadline by which it couldn't possibly be fixed.

Gore wanted to sleep on it. He bucked up the weeping kids and sent everyone to bed. But no amount of sleep could soften an unsigned opinion tossed over history's transom like a ransom note penned by Kafka. You have to wonder if the Supreme Court, instead of reading election results, is now in the business of making them. The court warned that its ruling was custom fit: "Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances...equal protection...generally presents many complexities." You bet it does: like flawed machines that disproportionately failed to record legally cast votes in inner-city precincts. Or the purging of voter rolls by a firm hired by Bush's brother that disproportionately disenfranchised blacks.

When Reiner came back the next day for a long-planned Christmas party, Gore was putting the finishing touches on his speech. Gore asked him what he thought of turning back on himself a campaign slogan originally directed at Bush. Reiner thought "It's time for me to go" sounded the perfect note. Afterward they partied the night away.

For Gore this is the time in life, the right tragedy, the right male-pattern baldness to occasion a full-fledged midlife crisis. With his first dream dashed, he could reach for a second act more suited to his brainy, scientific gifts. More likely the second act he hopes for is a second chance. But even though he won the popular vote and, for all we'll ever know, the electoral one, his own party is complaining that had he won bigger, he wouldn't have needed to be worried over a few thousand uncounted ballots. Democrats don't like their losers, even good ones.