How did Al Gore blow it? He had everything going for him. He was the heir to one of the most successful administrations in American history. The length and extent of our prosperity were unprecedented. Our position in the world had never been higher. All agreed, with polls to back them up, that if the Constitution had permitted Bill Clinton to run again, he would have won in a landslide. Win didn’t Gore inherit this goodwill? Win wasn’t he a shoo-in?

All he had to do, it seemed, was disassociate himself from Clinton’s disgusting sexual exploits and the lies and prevarications that went with them. This he did beautifully by seldom mentioning Clinton, by emphasizing his own “family values,” and by finding himself a running mate who was probity incarnate. But it didn’t work. Why?

Through the worst of the Clinton sexual scandals, his public support never wavered. The Republican majority in Congress—in their shock, horror, and glee—couldn’t believe that the support would continue “once the facts were known.” Finally, they had to give up the whole project in the face of clearly hostile public opinion; when it was all over, a poll was taken which revealed that two thirds of the American public approved of Clinton’s performance in office, sexual games and all. Oh, yes, some people said (showing more sophistication than the pundits), they might not want Clinton going out with their daughters; but that had nothing to do with the presidency.

Never before has there been such a gap between political wisdom in the higher echelons of American government and the actual preferences of American voters. How did it happen? Why couldn’t the experts believe in the clear testimony of the polls? I suspect the answer lies in the nature of human belief. To believe a fact, you need more than just the fact, plain and simple: you need an explanation for it. The fact has to fit the beliefs of the person who accepts it. I once developed the habit, in all seasons, of walking barefoot around the polite suburb where I live. The only person ever to notice was a visitor from India. In India, adults walk barefoot; in America, they don’t. So when you walk barefoot in America, no one expects to see it, so no one does.

Maybe the experts couldn’t believe what was in front of their noses because they didn’t have the right beliefs about the American presidency. Something about the office and its relationship to the electorate today escaped them. Sexual exploits. Kings and their mistresses. An American president is a kind of monarch, isn’t he? The further back you go in history, the clearer the pattern becomes. At Julius Caesar’s official triumphs, his soldiers put on obscene skits, celebrating his sexual exploits (with both sexes). That was no shame; it was part of his power and glory—because, like the Fisher King in the notes to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, he was a fertility symbol. The king’s potency is a magical guarantee of the nation’s.

That’s how Clinton—that poor Mr. Prettyboy from the backwoods of Arkansas—outfoxed everybody, probably without even realizing it himself. He had become a fertility symbol. I remember a working-class gent from Virginia saying, at the height of the scandal, that he was going to church that Sunday to pray for Bill Clinton’s soul. I don’t think I have ever heard heavier, more delicious irony. The man hadn’t been near a church—certainly not in spirit—for years. It was his way of commenting on what he viewed as the hypocrisy of churches and their ministers and supporters: all those pious souls who are embezzling church funds, doing it with choirboy’s, getting it on with their secretaries. . .

And Gore, raised (unlike Clinton) among die elite, fell for the phony piety (or, at least, supposed that the stupid voters would), heeded the political wisdom of his class, and placed himself firmly among the solemn hypocrites. Half the electorate preferred—perhaps with good reason—an ignorant, spoiled wastrel of demonstrated incompetence. If Gore’s advisors and spin doctors had told him to shout from the rooftops what a great guy Clinton was, if they had found ways for Gore subtly to imply that Clinton’s successes with the economy and with the nations of the world were a perfect reflection of his success with Monica Lewinsky if they had told him to keep kissing Tipper and to throw away that little pad he scribbled on during debates and to quit boring everyone to death with endless talk about the drab little issues we have nowadays—then I think our savvy electorate would have produced a less confused result.