For Gore, the character test is not yet over

By David M. Shribman, Globe Staff, 12/14/2000

ASHINGTON - He was bred for the presidency by an ambitious senator father. He cruised to the House and then to the Senate as one of the baby boom's breezy men of entitlement. He won his party's nomination under conditions of affluence and social peace, as close to a recipe for inevitability as our politics provides.

And yet as the American people considered whether they would bestow their greatest office on Albert Gore Jr. of Carthage, Tenn., they tested him, they tortured him, they nearly broke his spirit and his will and then, after all that, they forced him to suffer through a nearly endless campaign overtime before he lost in what was essentially a tie vote.

Indeed, last night's agony, when a man who won the popular vote nationwide but couldn't prevail in Florida finally conceded, was but the final difficult scene that Gore was forced to endure in the 2000 campaign.

He did it with pain but with grace, and there was nothing staged about the nervous pause as he began to speak in the Old Executive Office Building. He pointedly and poignantly referred repeatedly to his rival as ''President-elect Bush'' and, in a prayerful tone pleaded, ''May God bless his stewardship of this country.''

For Gore and for the nation, this millennial presidential election was less a campaign than a character test. And now that it is over - now that he has lost - a new character test begins. Beginning at noon Jan. 20, Gore has no job, no role in politics, and maybe no prospects.

In the short term, Gore may be regarded as heroic, graceful, and courageous. But in the long term, politics - a competition less of ideas and of intellect than of ambition - is a cruel business. And by the time the 2004 campaign rolls around, there may be shinier faces, new issues, and new demands, and Gore may be regarded less as a victim of caprice and more as a feckless candidate who could not prevail despite his advantages.

''Democracy,'' Herbert Hoover once noted, ''is not a polite employer.'' Even in the past year, when Gore was the heir apparent to an administration laureled with success, Americans poked at him. They probed him. They examined his record. They wondered out loud about his rectitude. They made liabilities of his greatest assets, rendering his fluency with issues irritating, making his experience a burden.

Through it all, he was reduced to a caricature: stiff, mechanical, lacking a sense of humor and the personal touch. Of all the stumbles of a long presidential campaign, the failure to show the humanity of the man may have been the greatest.

On Thanksgiving morning, for example, Gore picked up the phone and called the home of David Sullivan, a Boston lawyer who had volunteered to help the Gore team in Tallahassee. He spoke to Sullivan's wife, Catherine, said he was sorry that her husband had been away so long - and asked her permission for him to return to the legal wars.

And so what are we to make of the trial of Al Gore and of the effect of that trial on Al Gore?

That the American people, though content and comfortable, do not bestow high office in a cavalier manner. That the nation, though weary of politics, still summoned the grit to think carefully about its choice and then (and the polls demonstrate clearly that this occurred) to think again. And that Gore, though reared to occupy the White House, still had to fight for it, and even then he did not win the prize.

Indeed, he had to struggle to the very last moment. Of all the reams of data spewed forth from computers on election night, this may be the most intriguing: Those Americans who couldn't, or wouldn't, decide until the last three days of a yearlong campaign broke solidly in Gore's favor, almost by a 2-to-1 margin. But it was Gore's luck, or fate, that the apparent end was merely only the beginning. The campaign droned on for 36 more days, and soon the man who won more votes than his rival was derided as a sore loser.

The effect of this trial on Gore - so searing that it forced him, like James K. Polk in 1844, to lose his home state of Tennessee - may take months, even years to evaluate.

This ordeal may make Gore more open, more willing to question his own motives as readily and as deeply as he questions the assumptions of the problems of the intellect. Or it may make him withdraw in introspection and bitterness. As Gore learned with a brutality few Americans have experienced, presidential politics offers no consolation prizes. He came as close as any American in a generation to winning the presidency and, in the morning as in history, came away with nothing.

This campaign reflected the challenges and changes embedded in American life at the first breath of the new century. But it also challenged, and changed, Al Gore. It assured that Gore would only be changed, and be changed some more.