Al Gore's speech, and the excellent critiques thereof by Rocket Man, Michael Kelly, and Charles Krauthammer, got me thinking about whether Gore is merely one of the most slippery politicians of this era or whether, along with Bill Clinton, he surpasses all past generations of American politicians in this regard. There certainly have been many politicians more corrupt than Gore and there have been bigger overall scoundrels (e.g., Aaron Burr). And, while the smear tactics of Gore are reprehensible, they hardly seem unprecedented. But did past politicians flit from position to position on key issues the way Gore and Clinton have? I don't know enough about American history to answer definitively, but I'm going to suggest that Gore and Clinton have made a unique contribution when it comes to prevarication on substantive issues.
Our history is full of significant shifts in position by famous politicians. Calhoun started as a nationalist and ended up advocating the right of secession. Webster may have flirted with New England secessionists but he ended up a great nationalist. Clay started as a "war hawk" and ended up quite dovish. Goldwater can be said to have followed a similar path. Van Buren was solicitous of slave interests when he was a Democrat but later was the Free Soil party candidate for president. Seward began as a stong anti-slavery "conscience Whig" and ended up a loyal member of Andrew Johnson's cabinet. Nixon was considered a "red baiter" when he started out but would eventually appease the Soviet Union and go to China. Even Jefferson is sometimes said to have compromised his states rights principles when he purchased Louisiana. (I'm going to rely on the Rocket Prof and other historically astute readers to correct any errors I have already made or will make as I proceed).
Some of these changes were opportunistic; others simply reflected genuine personal evolution and/or changed conditions. Rocket Man, Trunk, and I all started out on the "left". None of us changed our views to advance a political career.
What is perhaps unique about Gore is his willingness to take flagrantly inconsistent positions within a short period of time on the most crucial issue in politics -- war and peace. To be sure, many politicians changed their tune on the Vietnam war within the space of a few years. However, this was the product of new conditions -- we appeared to be losing the war. Politicians also sometimes start out opposed to a war but reluctantly fall into line behind the president as the shooting is about to start. But Gore's flip-flops on Iraq are based neither on changed conditions (other than political ones) nor on patriotism. Both in 1991 and this year, he spoke out of both sides of his mouth well before war was about to begin. Gore's shifts represent pure jockeying.
I can think of one somewhat comparable situation It involves Henry Clay and the Mexican War. In 1844, popular sentiment strongly favored annexing Texas, even though it would mean war with Mexico. Clay did not. Fortunately for him, neither did Van Buren who was considered almost certain to be his opponent in that year's presidential election. Some historians believe that Clay and Van Buren (who, as founders of the Whig and modern Democratic party respectively were bitter, if largely genteel, rivals) reached a secret agreement not to advocate annexation during the campaign. The only probem was that Andrew Jackson strongly favored annexation. When Van Buren would not advocate it, Jackson abandoned his long-time friend and protege and helped bring about the nomination of James Polk ("Young Hickory"), a strong hawk on the issue. This left Clay in an extremely close election against a candidate who had a far more popular position on this critical issue. In the latter days of the campaign, Clay waffled on annexing Texas, particularly in his "Alabama letters." The first letter stated, "Personally I could have no objection to annexing Texas, but I would be unwilling to see the union dissolved or seriously jeopardized for the sake of acquiring Texas." When this statement caused an uproar, he issued a second suggesting that he would simply be guided by public opinion on the issue. Clay narrowly lost the election and then lost a son in the ensuring Mexican War.
Although Clay waffled on Texas, the differences between his conduct and Gore's are telling. First, Clay did not set out to "demagogue" the issue. Indeed, he may have reached an agreement with Van Buren not to do so. Second, Clay did not advocate war one month and peace the next. As I understand it, his biggest concern was avoiding the threat to the union that would be posed when Texas was acquired as a slave state. This is a concern he continued to express until the end. Ultimately, then, I see only a superficial resemblance between Clay's conduct and Gore's. Aside from the posturing of Bill Clinton, I can think of no historical precedent for Gore's unprincipled flip-flopping on matters of war and peace.