WASHINGTON - They were political partners who had barely spoken for a year, but a few days after Al Gore conceded the 2000 presidential election, he and Bill Clinton finally talked face to face.
For more than an hour, in what sources close to both men described as uncommonly blunt language, Gore forcefully told Clinton that his sex scandal and low personal approval ratings were a major impediment to Gore's presidential campaign. Clinton, according to people close to him, was taken aback but responded with equal force that Gore's ambition was hobbled because he failed to run on the administration's record.
The White House meeting, which Gore sought, was a doleful postscript to a relationship that once was exceptionally close but had deteriorated badly during Gore's 2000 race. Its significance, however, was more than personal. The question they debated -- why did Gore not capture the White House? - is the one confronting Democrats as they assess the lessons of 2000.
If Gore hopes to seek the presidency again, several Democratic strategists say, he will almost certainly need to establish a better footing for his relationship with Clinton, who despite the blunders that marked his exit from the White House remains a powerful figure within the party.
Only Clinton and Gore were present for the showdown session, which never appeared on schedules distributed to White House staff. People close to both have described its tone in similar language. "Tense," was the description of one Clinton adviser, while a Gore aide called it "cathartic." One Democrat who has worked closely with both called the session "very, very blunt."
Descriptions do differ on the conclusion of the meeting. Some Democrats who heard descriptions from one or the other of the participants said the meeting essentially ratified what for many months had been an unspoken truth between the two men: their relationship suffered irreparable harm over the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Clinton's lies to Gore and the nation about it. Gore, said one Democrat, "seemed eager to get things off his chest."
Others put a more upbeat cast on the session, calling it a useful air-clearing that should allow the two men to move forward. "They had to cover a lot of territory," said one Democrat close to Clinton and Gore. "My impression was it was a very constructive meeting."
One adviser to the former president said, "He felt it was a very good conversation." Jake Siewert, a spokesman for Clinton, and Kiki McLean, a spokeswoman for Gore, both said their bosses would not comment on a private conversation.
Gore and Clinton saw each other several times after the talk and spoke by phone. Aides said these conversations were polite but not consequential.
And they have not come close to finding common ground on why Gore is not president today. In fact, on this large issue and several minor ones, there are open wounds between the two camps of Democratic aides. Those resentments have been rubbed anew since Jan. 20.
Many Clinton advisers were infuriated by a post-election analysis Gore consultant Carter Eskew published in the Washington Post Jan. 30 in which he said the "deep dissatisfaction and anger" felt by swing voters over Clinton's scandals were "the elephant in the living room" preventing Gore from making his case.
A senior White House official close to Clinton scoffed: "I don't think the fact that they lost four out of four debates had anything to do with Bill Clinton." By this reckoning neither Gore nor Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., made a compelling case in showdowns against President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
As a general rule, aides close to Clinton say, he was less upset by Gore's efforts to distance himself from the president than he often was reported to be. And, except for the last 10 days or so of the general election, when he desperately wanted to hit the road in key states but was told no by the Gore campaign, he did not expect a significant role as a Gore proxy. But he was mystified, and at times angered, by Gore's refusal to run on the strong economy and other issues in which Clinton felt both he and his vice president deserved credit.
Just as voters made a distinction between Clinton's personal conduct and his job performance, Clinton believed Gore could campaign on the record without being tied to the president's scandals.
Clinton, Democrats said, never fully appreciated the degree of Gore's resentments and how they colored his political calculations. "Gore came in all knotted up, and it surprised him," said one aide.
As many Clinton people view it, Gore made a basic political problem - how to use his affiliation with the administration while establishing his own identity - more complex than necessary. He was often uncomfortable when talking about Clinton, and his fumbling answers to the question of whether Clinton would campaign for him elevated this to a major subplot of the fall campaign. While there were periodic reports of their tension during the campaign, a Democrat close to both men said, "It was far worse than anyone knew."
As many Clinton supporters see it, the president was, for Gore, less a political issue than an emotional hurdle. Family members, especially Tipper Gore, by this account disliked Clinton even more strongly. "Gore had this sort of psychological analysis in which anything Clinton did was inadequate," said one Democratic operative who has worked with both men.
The two camps around them also have become estranged. Some senior Clinton advisers said they were once close to many top Gore advisers, including Eskew, but friendships among a generation of Democrats ruptured during 2000. More recently, sources said, former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta is angry that Gore aides have allowed Clinton to take blame for pranks in the Old Executive Office Building, even though most of the mischief took place in the vice president's offices.
One Democratic strategist said whether Gore works for a rapprochement with Clinton will be one sign of whether he wants to try again for the presidency. "If he does," this Clinton supporter said, "he's going to have to be large enough to move off the last campaign and at least get some closure."