Drink-driving could decide the leader of the free world

Bush is the last politician in the world for whom one feels inclined to sympathy
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The Independent Online

The moment that defined it all for me was way back at the Democratic Convention. Big Al Gore grabbed Tipper and gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in front of thousands of hysterical delegates. How they swooned and cheered. It was big, awkward Al's defining moment. After that the polls shot up and Mr Gore was all of a sudden the front-runner for the presidency of the United States. Yes, folks, he kissed his wife and in one slurp became a man America could trust.

The moment that defined it all for me was way back at the Democratic Convention. Big Al Gore grabbed Tipper and gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in front of thousands of hysterical delegates. How they swooned and cheered. It was big, awkward Al's defining moment. After that the polls shot up and Mr Gore was all of a sudden the front-runner for the presidency of the United States. Yes, folks, he kissed his wife and in one slurp became a man America could trust.

The voters wanted a "human" President and Al Gore was too much of a bore. So they bought the myth of the kiss, for a while, until the undeniable reality of the Vice-President's gift for tedium forced its way to the forefront again.

Perhaps it is all the inevitable consequence of prosperity and peace. Two terms of bread and circuses (and oh, what circuses!) under Mr Clinton have left the American public spoiled. They like the benefits of a sound economy, but Mr Clinton's sexual gallivanting has established an impossibly low standard for the monogamous Mr Gore to follow. Apart from a tendency to tell some dull fibs about his past life ("I served in Vietnam" - actually, it was as an army newspaper reporter), and indulging in some dubious finance-raising activities, the Vice-President has nothing spicy to offer. The skeletons in his closet are calcium deficient. There are times, too, when you look at Gore and wonder if his heart is in it. He seems too much the dutiful son, going through this because it is what his parents wanted.

In the States last summer I watched a live transmission of Gore chatting with the press aboard Airforce Two and marvelled at the aura of absence he projected. He seemed hardly aware of the questions, and his answers drifted off into a tangle of "ums" and "aahs" and tortuous sub-clauses. The reporters seemed embarrassed, and in the background I think I saw an aide clasp his hand to his forehead in despair. If ever a politician needed editing, it is Al Gore.

This agonising lack of charisma has made it possible for a man as shallow and nasty as George W Bush to emerge as a genuine challenger for the White House. Its about character, all right: the wrong kind of character. Mr Bush exudes the same wide-boy aura as Bill Clinton, though without the intelligence of the outgoing President. In this presidential campaign, appearances do not deceive: Bush looks like a rogue because he is one. Gore looks, and is, a thundering bore. I am not sure that they are separated by any great ideological chasm. Mr Bush likes to present himself as the apostle of a new conservatism, but I doubt that he has much in the way of genuine conviction. His father tried the "compassionate conservatism" line and it was exposed on the campaign trail as fatuous.

His predecessor Ronald Reagan was hammered by the liberal intelligentsia for his famous indifference to detail, but he was a politician of conviction. Not the convictions I'd subscribe to by and large, but he did keep faith with his own ideas. Mr Bush is a son of privilege whose conservatism is contrived. It is devoid of radicalism and - like his father - conspicuously lacking in backbone. With him it is not a matter of gut instinct, but a posture. He, more than any politician in recent American history, will say anything to get himself elected.

But if being a rogue is such a selling point in post-Clinton politics, why is the Bush camp in disarray over the revelation of a drink-driving conviction 24 years ago? It isn't, as some commentators are suggesting, about lying. The mantra "it wasn't what he did, but that he lied about it" has been trotted out relentlessly over the past 24 hours.

Mr Clinton lied through his teeth about Lewinsky and was forgiven by the crowd; but he had the distinct advantage of being already in power at a time of unprecedented prosperity. The broad reaction could be simplified as: so he screwed around in the White House and told a lie about it. Wouldn't you lie about something like that? And bringing down the President for lying about sex is a much bigger proposition than voting No for George W because of his drink-driving lie.

Mr Bush does not have the benefit of being a successful incumbent. He is seeking power, and the record of his time as Governor of Texas is neither so spectacularly good nor so widely known that it could prove a defining advantage on the national stage. He is known chiefly as the man who sends more people to the death chamber than any other US governor. Now that may go down well in some parts of America, but it doesn't amount to a pressing reason to vote for him. And so he rode into this election with little to offer beyond his charm and a whiff of excitement. People knew he'd been up to some kind of monkey business in the past, but accepted his assurances that it didn't amount to anything more than "youthful indiscretions".

We knew he'd had a drink problem and that he'd given up his old ways. But he made a big mistake by not admitting early on to his drink-driving conviction. The reticence had everything to do with his sense of how the public might react. Bush knew it could inflict a fatal wound. Americans take a dim view of drinking and driving. It is strikingly at odds with the laboured declarations of devotion to family and God which are such a tiresome feature of any US election. There is an alcohol-related fatality every half hour in the US; some 30 per cent of all road deaths are alcohol related. It isn't hard to imagine the lobby groups - not to mention Gore's PR team - summoning up the memory of dead children to haunt George W Bush.

Does it really matter that he was once a drunk driver, and that he was less than honest about his past? No man should be damned for ever because he was once a drunk: recklessness is part of the disease of being a drunk, and if Bush has set all that behind him then he deserves a break. Except he is the last politician in the world for whom one feels inclined to feel sympathy. Bush is the most enthusiastically vengeful politician to run for the White House since Nixon. This is not a man with a lot of forgiveness in his nature. The defining George W Bush moment came at the time of the execution of Karla Faye Tucker (who became a devout Christian on death row), when the Texas governor went on television and mimicked the doomed woman's protestations of faith.

After the drink-drive admission, there will be pressure on Mr Bush to admit to the rest of his indiscretions. The public will no longer accept the penumbra of vagueness that surrounds his past. What else is he hiding? Those rumours of cocaine use so emphatically denied - I think we will soon hear more. The American public may have got used to a certain amount of excitement over the past eight years, but that is not to say they want a repetition of the scandals that dogged the Clinton presidency. They want someone livelier than Gore - but that isn't the same as wanting another season of traumas courtesy of George W's undiscovered past.

There may yet be time for Bush to save himself: some tearful Jimmy Swaggart-style confessions at prime time might edge him back into contention. If not, it will have to be tedious Al Gore, no saint by a long-shot, but safe in the essential ways for a nation that likes some spice but nothing that will upset the stomach.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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