Alpha in Wonderland

By Roger Banks
web posted October 23, 2000

"How puzzling these changes are! I'm never sure what I'm going to be, from one minute to another!"

These words, spoken by Alice in Lewis Carroll's famous children's tale, would make a fitting elegy for Al Gore and his running mate Joe Leiberman, if only the two men were as honest as the young girl in wonderland. In fact, Al Gore's campaign and Alice's adventures are remarkably similar.

Alice, we may recall, is consumed by a desire to enter "the loveliest garden you ever saw," through a passage "not much larger than a rat-hole." So desperate is her quest that she will radically transform herself just to get in.

First a magic drink reduces her to the size of a rat. Then, having left on the ledge above the key to the door leading to the garden, she eats some cake to grow again. Unfortunately, the same enchantment that lifts her to the key also renders her too large to fit through the door. Later, nibbling around a special mushroom, Alice is reduced, then increased again, all to no avail. To make things worse, the food has an unhappy side-effect of stretching her neck to the length of a giant serpent.

Al GoreAl Gore, like Alice, is bent on entering a garden of sorts, and also willing to undergo wild transfigurations to gain entry. Consider what magic he must have ingested to expand himself into the Inventor of the Internet, Discoverer of Love Canal, and Inspiration for Love Story. And yet, like poor Alice, the very effort to magnify his stature has left Al Gore vastly overblown, too big, it seems, to fit through the White House door.

It isn't only Al Gore's size that changes, but also his shape. The transmutations are often spectacular -- as when he changed from Hollywood's Vice Flatterer into the Admonisher in Chief (castigating the "polluters" of culture), then back again to abject Fund Raiser, swearing his "tremendous respect" for the donor-filmmakers. Even in Wonderland, such wizardry was never seen!

"I wonder if I've been changed in the night?" says Alice. "But if I'm not the same, the next question is, 'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle!"

Equally great was the puzzle many faced trying to guess who, at any moment, was standing behind Al Gore's podium in the first presidential debate. The tilt-and-nod; the simulated ruddy cheeks: why, it was Ronald Reagan we descried! Then with a grimace, and the cadence of a beating drum, was he not John McCain? Bill Clinton certainly appeared, squinting askance, defining terms.

In the second debate, Al Gore noticeably reduced his size (and his sighs), having evidently drunk something to shrink his grandiosity of the previous week. He was small enough, to be sure, to fit through that little door leading to the garden. Nevertheless, without the key to voter affection, he seemed forlorn.

"I stand here as my own man," Al Gore continues to say. "I want you to see me for who I am." Initially, this incantation seemed almost to make him grow, to elevate him above a wilderness of scandals and investigations. But the repeated public invocation of his "own man" is necessary only because he is not. Like the magic of wonderland, it soon becomes an empty tautology.

In fact, seeing Al Gore for "who he is" requires one to gaze at a paradox. His identity is the absence of identity. Or, to the extent he has one, it is this: the man singularly devoted to whatever is seen as necessary in any given moment to attain the desired end. He has become the nation's living, breathing embodiment of Ambition. As such, it is fair to say, Al Gore is an allegory.

As Alice discovers, submitting oneself to unnatural changes causes familiar things to be supplanted by things surreal. She falls upon a land where it no longer matters where you go, so long as you get somewhere; where knaves try to cover up a garden scandal by painting the white roses red; where words mean whatever Humpty Dumpty says they mean.

Yet for the ability to portray a meltdown of reality, Lewis Carroll may have met his match in Al Gore and company. Al Gore's endless metamorphoses have imbued his campaign with an absurd, dream-like quality. This was especially evident when Joe Leiberman gazed dreamily into the camera and recited lines everyone should know are false: "I have not changed a single position since Al Gore nominated me to be his vice president."

The strangeness of it all recalls another wonderland scene, in which Alice tells the Caterpillar, "I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then." "Explain yourself!" demands the Caterpillar. "I can't explain myself because I'm not myself." Alice's candid response illuminates a basic truth: when identity is discarded, accountability goes with it.

Thus, the two plagues of Al Gore's campaign - the identity crisis, and the proclivity for factual distortion -- are closely intertwined. Neither Al nor Joe can explain (or account for) themselves because they are not themselves.

As Dick Cheney observed, the President of the United States should have a "track record of dealing straight with people, of keeping his word, so that friends and allies . . . respect us and our adversaries fear us." In contrast, the fictitious personae of Al and Joe, the self-described "dream team," are likely to frighten our friends and provoke our enemies.

This is unsettling because, unlike Alice's fleeting dream, where hostile powers are just a pack of cards, the threats to domestic tranquility are unrelenting and real.

Roger Banks can be reached at rbryntbnks@aol.com

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