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The Gore Letters

* The VP's reaction to the release of his letters was weak.

By David L. Bosco

"Oh, good Lord, Oh God, Oh Good Lord."

What has happened to our normally terse Vice-President to elicit such a reaction? Did he fall off his crutches? Is he reacting to the Republican takeover?

No, Al Gore had just been read some of the letters he wrote during his years at Harvard. The letters, recently published in the New Yorker, were not all that remarkable for a student writing home in the late-1960s, a mish-mash of misplaced idealism and rampant cynicism about the U.S. Government.

Young Al wrote to his father that the U.S. military was "the best example...of a fascist, totalitarian regime." Moreover, he accused the American government of "creating--and if not creating, energetically, supporting--fascist, totalitarian regimes in the name of fighting totalitarianism."

Now the Vice-President, who had largely dodged the aspersions of anti-American sympathies that his boss received, is getting some of it too. On the political weathermap though, Letter-gate is clearly nothing but a squall, and a small one at that. The incident does, however, reveal some things about our Vice-President and about the nature of political life.

First, and of lesser importance, it shows once again that our top elected officials grew up with a very different conception of this country than most of its people. Both Bill Clinton and Al Gore seem to have had, at least temporarily, a visceral hate for national institutions, or the nation as a whole. This is an interesting realization (and one that may help to explain the corresponding visceral dislike of the Clinton administration by the American people). But on a substantive level the feelings Gore expressed in his letters mean very little.

After all, Winston Churchill once said that "if you aren't a liberal at twenty you have no heart." (He did, of course, finish by arguing that those who weren't conservative by age 40 had no brains.)

The larger point is that intellectual growth and change is a good thing, something that should be encouraged, not stifled. Nothing is more obnoxious than those college politicos who are already skirting difficult issues. Intellectual honesty, not sly obfuscation should be what college is all about. And if that intellectual honesty leads to embarassing statements like those of our Vice-President, so be it.

Unfortunately, that is not how Gore explained the letters. Instead, he reflexively brushed them off as kid's stuff, and that, it seems to me, is dishonest. First, a 20 year-old is not a kid. 20 year-olds vote--they helped Clinton and Gore get elected. Moreover, 20 year-olds were going to Vietnam and dying when Gore was writing home to father. And judging from the language Gore used, these were strongly-held sentiments, not idle ruminations.

It would have been refreshing if Gore had defended himself with honesty, rather than cant. The necessities of politics are often constraining, and forthrightness is a difficult commodity to find. But surely this was a time when forthrightness was possible. All he had to say was that the letters represented his true feelings at that time in his life, feelings that have subsequently changed.

As college students--and not "kids" --we are adults who bear responsibility for our actions. Certainly it must be hoped that Harvard students today will, like Gore change their minds many times and question their firmly-held beliefs--that is a sign of intellectual courage. But it also would be best if later, when looking back, we don't trivialize the feelings we had then simply for the sake of political comfort--that is intellectual cowardice.

David I. Bosco's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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