WASHINGTON - It's no wonder Al Gore is a little touchy about his weight, what with everyone trying to read his fat cells like tea leaves to see whether he's going to run.
He was so determined to make his new book look weighty, in the this-treatise-belongs-on-the-shelf-
between-Plato-and-Cato sense, rather than the double-chin-isn't-quite-
gone-yet sense, that he did something practically unheard of for a politician: He didn't plaster his picture on the front.
"The Assault on Reason" looks more like the Beatles' White Album than a screed against the tinny Texan who didn't get as many votes in 2000.
The Goracle does concede a small author's picture on the inside back flap, a chiseled profile that screams Profile in Courage and that also screams Really Old Picture. Indeed, if you read the small print next to the wallet-size photo of Thin Gore looking out prophetically into the distance, it says it's from his White House years.
A subliminal clue to his intentions, perhaps? He must be flattered that many demoralized leading Republicans and Bush insiders think a Gore-Obama ticket would be unbeatable. And he must be gratified that his rival Hillary has never cemented her inevitability, even with Bill Clinton's lip-licking Web video pushing her.
But though he's on a book tour clearly timed to build on his Oscar flash and Nobel buzz, and take advantage of the public's curiosity about whether he'll jump in the race, he almost seems to want to sigh and roll his eyes when he's asked about it.
"I'm not a candidate," he told Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America." "This book is not a political book. It's not a candidate book at all."
Of course, his protestation was lost given the fact that he was sitting in front of a screen blaring the message "The Race to '08," and above a crawl that asked "Will he run for the White House?"
He is so fixed on not seeming like a presidential flirt that he risks coming across as a bit of a righteous tease or a high-minded scold, which is exactly what his book is, a high-minded scolding.
He upbraided Diane about the graphics for his segment, complaining about buzzwords and saying "That's not what this is about."
Sawyer was not so easily put off as he turned up his nose at the horse race and the vast wasteland of TV, and bored in for the big question: "Donna Brazile, your former campaign manager, has said, 'If he drops 25 to 30 pounds, he's running.' Lost any weight?"
Laughing obligingly, he replied: "I think, you know, millions of Americans are in the same struggle I am on that one. But look, listen to your questions. And you know, if the horse race, the cosmetic parts of this - and look, that's all understandable and natural. But while we're focused on, you know, Britney and KFed and Anna Nicole Smith and all this stuff, meanwhile, very quietly, our country has been making some very serious mistakes that could be avoided if we the people, including the news media, are involved in a full and vigorous discussion of what our choices are."
So if Al Gore is really unplugged and unleashed and uncensored, as Tipper and his fans say, then he is no longer bound by the opinions of gurus and focus groups. He can be himself, and inhale away and still run if he wants.
Doug Brinkley, the presidential historian, said that even though the fashion now is for fit candidates, after the Civil War, there was a series of overweight presidents. "It showed you had a zest for life," he said. The excess baggage may make Bill Clinton and Bill Richardson look roguish, but unfortunately, too many cheeseburgers and ice cream sundaes make Gore look puffy and waxy. "Maybe," Brinkley suggested, "Gore can sit
in Tennessee and do it via high-
definition satellite - like McKinley, just eat and sit on the porch."
Maureen Dowd, a columnist for the New York Times, can be reached at New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.