Bush looks jumpy on death row

I often think that one of the many tragedies of the way executions work here is that, by the time the person is executed, he or she is so often a different person from the one who (in most cases) committed the murder(s) in the first place: none more so than Karla Fay Tucker, the born-again Christian married to the prison chaplain, whom Boy George none the less had put to death in Texas in 1998.

In the same way, as they are put to the test of knowing that one of them will endure a long-awaited and inevitable electoral death strung out by agonising court appeals, the true characters of the two presidential contenders are beginning to emerge. Now that nearly a month has passed since we failed to learn who would be 43rd president, we are watching a new and energised Al Gore never seen before in his 25 years in politics. For the first time, he has a cause in which he can wholeheartedly believe, without equivoation, and throw his energies behind: that Al Gore should be the next president. In his campaign, he was unfocused and uncertain how he should tackle issues. He worried about whether focus groups would be behind him, and even required a $15,000-a-month feminist on his payroll to tell him how to act like a man. Now that he has finally found an issue over which he has no doubts, he is acting exactly the way we expect presidents to conduct themselves: sure-footed, certain, articulate.

Facing his time on electoral death row, meanwhile - almost certain that he will win his reprieve, yes, but still not absolutely certain - Boy George has emerged as surly, jumpy, partisan and ungenerous in assumed victory. That nervous facial skin complaint I wrote about last week erupted again at the weekend, requiring a doctor's attention on Sunday. Having run into electoral trouble, Boy George sought out his dad's former right-hand man James Baker - an old hand in his eighth decade ("Uncle Jim" to Boy George, perhaps?) - to try to get him out of trouble in Florida (run, lest we forget, by Kid Brother Jeb). And, having based much of his campaign on emotive pleas not to rely on those feds who think they know better back up there in Washington, almost the first critical action Boy George took following the disputed election was to appeal to the US Supreme Court - the very epitome of federal power back in dreaded DC.

Likewise, Dick Cheney, Boy George's running-mate and another surrogate parental figure - although he is only five years older than Boy George - promptly reacted to the stress by having his fourth heart attack. Five days later, he was nevertheless ruthlessly trundled out, still looking pale and wan, but well enough to announce that it was "regrettable" that $5.3m of federal funds and 90,000 sq ft of offices were not being made available to them for the transition to power. Instead, poor Dubbya and Cheney are having to appeal for individual $5,000 donations to set up transition offices with big unofficial signs saying "Office of the Presidential Transition Team Welcome Center".

So now that he has shed the ludicrous "earth tones" recommended by the $15,000-a-month feminist, Gore is looking and behaving much more like a president. Had he behaved with such single-minded purpose during the campaign, he would almost certainly have won the electoral college, as well as the popular votes. Encouraged by news that the margin in his popular victory over Dubbya is around 300,000, Gore is pursuing his goal with the determination he has lacked in most of his political career: that, in turn, is leading to an inner rage and disbelief that his indignation is not universal, and that time is running out for him to reverse the flawed Florida results.

Even while lawsuits were flying around his head last Tuesday, Gore conveyed a presidential disposition: lunch with the treasury secretary, Larry Summers, followed by a denial that he would appoint Summers to his administration should he overturn the election. Such collegiality with colleagues is another Gore talent hitherto largely obscured: getting Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle, the House and Senate Democratic leaders respectively, to fly down to Florida to support him publicly (as they did on Monday) is a minor miracle in itself, particularly given Gephardt's private disdain for Gore.

The other supreme irony is that it was Boy George who first used lawyers in the bloody Florida election battle, yet his people have managed to convey the perception that Gore started all the legal shenanigans; by Tuesday, in fact, Dubbya's team had positively flooded Florida with lawyers whose orders were simply "delay, delay, delay", so that Boy George can beat the clock. With him naming members of his "new administration", meanwhile, polls show that Americans think Boy George is being too presumptuous in assuming power so readily - an image he did nothing to disavow when he broadcast to the country, again very nervously, on Sunday night.

If the teams of Republican lawyers succeed in running Gore's legal avenues into the sand and judicial deadlock, however, the atmosphere could change fast. Furious when the Florida Supreme Court made its initial ruling in favour of Gore, James Baker made perhaps the most ugly public threat yet: that the Republicans would mobilise the Florida congress (in which they hold clear majorities) effectively to overrule the courts. A Florida congressional edict sending delegates to the electoral college to vote for Boy George would then have to be signed into law by none other than Kid Brother Jeb.

For a condemned man, it concentrates the mind, all this election stuff - and blood, both men know, is always spilled in the end.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to the dirty mac image