George Orwell said of Evelyn Waugh: "Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be while holding untenable opinions." Al Gore's concession speech last night inspired similar feelings. I disagree with Al Gore about pretty much everything, and on second-hand evidence — I've never met the guy — have always doubted I would find him very congenial company. He did the right thing last night, though, and did it magnificently well.
Gore's eloquent, well-written and well-delivered speech reminded us that there is something to be said in favor of a hereditary ruling class. This man knew by instinct — which is to say, by upbringing, training and example — what was the right thing to do, just as well as did the twenty-year old English aristocrats who led their men up out of muddy trenches into machine-gun fire on the Western Front in World War One. Noblesse oblige: Al Gore has had a very comfortable, interesting and privileged life. Since he was a tot he has been living in government palaces, or in posh hotels at government expense, and has been chauffered around in government limousines. Last night came time to pay the tab. He paid it, with a smile and a joke, and not a word of complaint. This is a man of high caliber. Untenable opinions, but high caliber.
It seemed to me — though it is possible my judgment was softened by the success of my faction — that the speech was better-written than his previous ones. (He wrote it himself, we are told.) There was just one of the vice president's trademark convoluted topographical metaphors: "In one of God's unforeseen paths, this belatedly broken impasse can point us all to a new common ground." Fingers point, roads point, signs point, but impasses don't point. Oh, well. The rest of the speech was good strong declarative English sentences.
"I accept my responsibility to honor the president-elect …"
"Defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out …"
"This is America. Just as we fight hard when the stakes are high, we close ranks and come together when the contest is done …"
"What remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside …"
These are honest and honorable sentiments, expressed in clear language. Al Gore fought like a Kilkenny cat while there was any point in fighting. Then, when there was point no longer, he rose to the occasion and showed his class, with grace and courage. If that's the real Al Gore, he's a better man than I took him for.
The great English parliamentarian Enoch Powell once said that all political careers end in failure. Applied to U.S. presidents, this is not quite true — Reagan and Eisenhower are counter-examples — but it is true enough: Bush Sr., Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, … Applied to those who came second in presidential contests, it's pretty near watertight. The only exception in recent decades has been Richard Nixon, and that of course was only a temporary rebound. It's a little early to be taking bets on 2004, but my guess is that Al Gore's political career is over. In which case, let the epitaph on that career be the one Malcolm pronounced on Macbeth's life: Nothing became him like the leaving of it.**
[** Note: That's how I wrote it, and that's how it was published. A mighty host of readers rose up to tell me that Malcolm was not speaking of Macbeth, but of the Thane of Cawdor. Sorry.]