WASHINGTON, DC–With his lead in presidential polls narrowing to just four points over Republican challenger George W. Bush, an already anxious Al Gore wondered aloud Monday whether the latest Doonesbury is about him.
The cartoon in question, the Sept. 25 installment of Garry Trudeau's popular, long-running satirical comic strip, depicts a silhouetted political figure that strongly resembles the vice-president.
"Do you think this is supposed to be me?" Gore asked deputy campaign manager Mark Fabiani shortly after finishing breakfast and, as is his custom, turning to the Washington Post comics page before beginning his day. "I think it is."
An anonymous source within the Gore camp said the candidate later added, "Because it's not a very flattering portrayal, if it is. I mean, is that what the American people think of me? They don't think I'm some kind of big dork, do they?"
The controversial strip, which ran in hundreds of newspapers across the U.S., depicts an unnamed political figure engaged in a top-secret strategy session with a group of shadowy advisors. At first glance, the character, which Trudeau will neither confirm nor deny represents Gore, appears to be seeking out advice of a substantive, political nature. Upon reading the word balloon above the character's head, however, it becomes apparent that he is actually consulting his advisors on matters of fashion, showing himself to be a shallow, vain individual more concerned with his appearance than with issues that affect the American people.
"Look, I can take a joke as well as the next guy," Gore told Fabiani. "But if this is supposed to be me, well, I just don't think that's very nice. What's worse, millions of people read this thing every day. Can you imagine how that makes me feel? It's not exactly a confidence-builder, to say the least."
Continued Gore, "I mean, sure, I may have hired a fashion consultant early in the campaign and tinkered with my outfits and color schemes a bit, emphasizing earth tones to soften my image. But do I really deserve to be mocked in front of the whole country like this?"
According to the anonymous source, approximately 15 minutes later, Gore turned to top economic adviser Laura Tyson and said, "I'd hate to think that all this time, while I've been trying to promote education, deficit reduction, and progressive environmental policies, the electorate was laughing at me."
Gore reportedly seemed preoccupied throughout the day, becoming easily distracted during campaign strategy sessions and bringing up the subject of the cartoon frequently.
"He kept asking everyone about it," the source said. "It was obvious that Trudeau really got under his skin with this one. I felt sorry for him, really."
Despite repeated assurances from top advisors that he shouldn't fret about the strip and that no one reads Doonesbury anymore, Gore continued to obsess.
"Man, I really felt sorry for him," said Washington Post reporter David Maraniss, who has been following Gore on the campaign trail since January. "He looked like a sad, pathetic little kid. Poor guy–those cutting-edge, Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonists can be so cruel sometimes, with their barbed pens and rapier wit."
"This thing has been a real blow to Gore's morale," Maraniss continued. "He was feeling a bit more confident after that Newsweek poll showed him up by 10, but now he just stays in his office obsessively re-reading the strip. He'd never openly admit it, but the feeling among staffers is that Al's self-esteem may have taken a significant hit from this lampooning."
Perhaps most devastating, according to Brill's Content editor-in-chief David Kuhn, is the fact that the cartoon comes at a time when Gore is "really trying very hard" to impress people.
"If this cartoon is indeed about Gore, as he fears," Kuhn said, "it would almost appear that Trudeau deliberately chose to 'needle' Gore, so to speak, on this particularly sensitive subject. Like he was specifically picking out an area in which Gore was vulnerable to criticism in order to make fun of him or even provoke derisive laughter against him. That's kind of mean, if you think about it."
Gore supporters are hoping that the ambiguity of the strip's subject will give the vice-president the "out" he needs to stop worrying and once again focus on the presidential race.
"Maybe it isn't about me," Gore said. "There are lots of other politicians out there, you know. Yeah, it's probably about one of them. Now that I look at it again, the guy does bear a pretty strong resemblance to [Arizona Sen. John] McCain."
But despite such signs that Gore may be ready to put the cartoon behind him, observers fear that the worst is yet to come. According to Trudeau spokespersons at Universal Press Syndicate, in next Sunday's Doonesbury the mystery politician will be depicted as a floating block of wood.