DEMOCRATS have Kennedy nostalgia, great gusts of longing for their last president who was not a public embarrassment of one kind or another, and their last burst of mid-century glory, before the ceiling fell in on the party. Republicans have Reagan nostalgia, pangs for what seems, at least in the telling and retrospect, an unparalleled moment of clarity. And now some liberals have developed nostalgia for Albert Gore Jr., for a presidency that should have been but never was, a lost cause that died, not on the killing fields of Culloden or Gettysburg, but in the counting rooms of Broward County, and the dueling chambers of the Supreme Courts of Florida and the United States. All lost causes glimmer darkly with unfulfilled promise, and all have their heroes. And so, along with Marse Robert and Bonnie Prince Charlie, we now have Bonnie Prince Al.
Reagan and Kennedy were actually elected, and thus had real presidencies, tarnished with failures and lapses of judgment, such as Iran-Contra and the Bay of Pigs. Prince Al on the other hand has just an imagined one, which plays itself out as alternative history, a place where, in the minds of his vassals, nothing can ever go wrong. These visions are hauled out as weapons against President Bush--who as a real president has real wins and real losses--as "proof" that in the Gore version, there would have been nothing but wins.
"It is worse than painful to reflect on how much better off the United States and the world would be today if the outcome of the 2000 election had been permitted to correspond with the wishes of the electorate," wrote David Remnick in the New Yorker. "Can anyone seriously doubt that a Gore Administration would have meant, well, an alternative universe, in which, say, American troops were sent on a necessary mission in Afghanistan but not on a mistaken and misbegotten one in Iraq; the fate of the earth, not the fate of oil-company executives, was the priority of Environmental Protection Agency; civil liberties and diplomacy were subjects of attention . . . [and] torture found no place or rationale?" And how would a President Al have contained an Iraq which refused to comply with inspections, was free to persist with its search for weapons, continued funding and feeding suicide bombers, with a sanctions regime that was falling to pieces, and when most of our "allies" in the Security Council were being bought off by Saddam? No one explains. On the other hand, it is all too easy to imagine an alternative universe in which Saddam stays and, emboldened, makes even more trouble, or President Gore is so scrupulous about the kind treatment of terrorists that a few do get through here, and blow up a city. Remember: in a mythical universe, all things are possible. And no one version is more, or less, "true."
The trouble with all these alternative visions is that sometimes real life does break through. Richard Cohen had barely published his paean to Prince Al and his vision (about the need for austerity, and leaving a wee tiny imprint upon Mother Nature) when news broke that His Princeness, in his palazzo in Nashville, was burning through kilowatts in staggering numbers, and trampling all over Mother Earth (if not an Earth Mother) with hobnailed and giant-sized boots. This was the real Al, not the virtual one, and one we knew well from the past: the one who at the 1996 convention made a five-Kleenex speech about how his sister's horrific death in 1984 from lung cancer had turned him into an indefatigable foe of tobacco, when in 1988 he had bragged about raising the crop; who went from co-sponsoring a bill to make a fetus a person to defending late-term abortion at NARAL celebrations, and then denied that he had changed anything; the Al who wasted unknown gallons of water during a drought to float his canoe for a save-the-earth photo op; the Al who in March, 2000, declared his intention to crusade for campaign finance reform, because he had been nearly indicted in a fund-raising scandal; the Al who ran in 2000 as, a people-vs.-the powerful populist, while being outed as a slumlord who left his indigent tenants living in squalor; the Al who in the Florida recount promised to "count every vote" (for him, that was), while trying furiously to discredit those of overseas servicemen, and others whose problem was a slight technicality, with which the voters had nothing to do.
This Al has what some in the real world might call a reality problem, a problem in connecting his past with his present, in accepting the truth when it becomes inconvenient, or connecting his words with his deeds. No wonder the fantasists love him so dearly. A perfect Prince Over the Water, for a virtual country. Meet Al, the Alternative King.
Noemie Emery, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor, is author most recently of Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.