You'll have Gore to kick around


WASHINGTON -- They say when you fall off a horse, you should get right up on it again. In one sense, Al Gore did that the other day by making a public appearance in Florida, the horse that threw him last November.

The former vice president showed up in Orlando to make a nonpolitical speech for one of the first times off a college campus since losing the presidency. He confined himself largely to doing a self-deprecating stand-up comic routine, which is wise for anyone like himself who is known, unfairly, as unfunny.

He dusted off the old opening line he first used as a losing presidential candidate in 1988. Such candidates are always introduced by masters of ceremonies as "the next president of the United States." He told the audience in Orlando: "I am Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States."

Obviously, Mr. Gore had hoped that the first time he tried that gag 12 years earlier he wouldn't be calling on it again for a laugh. He had other one-liners, including noting that he is often asked if he would have done anything different in last year's election. "Yeah, there is," he said. "If I had to do it over again, I would kiss Tipper much longer." That reminder of the campaign's most famous smooch amused his listeners too.

Otherwise, Mr. Gore played straight man. He turned aside a reporter's invitation to assess the first 100 days in office of the man who beat him by saying, "I decided to observe a period in which I will not enter the public arena to criticize what the new president was doing."

That noncomment was in keeping with Mr. Gore's attitude and demeanor ever since he lost the election. Even in his "lectures" at Columbia University and a college in Tennessee, Mr. Gore pretty much steered clear of the election and the job that President Bush has been doing.

While his immediate listeners in Florida may not have complained at his reticence, it isn't sitting well with a lot of old Gore supporters, especially environmentalists who looked on him as their champion in 2000. Their chagrin was perhaps best summed up by cartoonist Pat Oliphant in a needling effort that showed a background of polluters, chopping down trees, drilling for oil and gouging holes in the earth. There in the foreground lay Mr. Gore motionless on a slab, like Snow White in the fairy tale. The caption read: "Sleeping Beauty."

With Mr. Bush under fire in recent weeks for real or perceived environmental rollbacks of one sort or another, Mr. Gore has been conspicuously silent, when his special constituency could have used his expertise in the field to blow the whistle on the new president.

But Mr. Gore obviously knows what he's doing. As in his graceful concession speech after the long post-election brawl over the Florida electoral votes he needed to be elected and didn't get, he has opted to eschew bitterness (or hide it, anyway) as the first step in his political rehabilitation. His comment about observing "a period in which I will not enter the public arena" certainly suggests he has a comeback in mind.

One sure way to complicate such an effort would be for Mr. Gore to start slashing at Mr. Bush and his policies now. American voters traditionally give a new president a honeymoon, and even this president, elected under a cloud, is getting one. They likely would not look favorably on Mr. Gore sounding as if the campaign of 2000 were still on, or was being resumed so soon after it ended.

There will be plenty of time before 2004 for the former vice president to jump back into presidential politics with his presence and his views. Nor should he be written off prematurely. Remember Richard Nixon, who supposedly was all washed up after his infamous "you won't have Nixon to kick around any more" on losing the race for California governor in 1962. Yet he came back and won the White House six years later.

Republicans said in 1960 after two popular Eisenhower terms, as Democrats are saying now after two popular Clinton terms, that their nominee blew an election he should have won. But the chances are that we'll have Mr. Gore, as we had Nixon, to kick around some more before he's through.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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