Image: Janis Joplin
Michael Ochs Archives  /  Getty Images file
Janis Joplin sang, ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’
By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 10/14/2007 8:52:28 PM ET 2007-10-15T00:52:28

For boomers, one of the more recognizable song lines comes courtesy of the late, great Janis Joplin, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." It's a line I keep hearing in my head when I think about Al Gore and the Nobel Prize.

In fact, what is it about ex-politicians that has them finding their backbone after they leave office?

The latest example of a "recovering" politician finding their voice is Al Gore, who can add the phrase "Nobel prize winner" to his resume, perhaps even one day seeing that Nobel phrase replace "losing presidential candidate" in the first graph of his obit.

I am not trying to take anything away from Gore and his success in moving the global warming issue from the science section of the newspaper to the front page. But it's yet another example of a politician finally having success fighting on an issue AFTER they leave office.

Gore's not alone; politicians frequently find their voice after their elected political careers are done or close to it. Look no further than the last American to win a Nobel Peace prize, Jimmy Carter. Talk about a guy who couldn't find his voice when he was in office but finally found his purpose later on in life.

Sam Nunn's another one. As a sitting senator from Georgia, he was the picture of conservative Democratic caution. Now? He's head of an organization whose goal is to reduce (and eventually eliminate) the threat globally from nuclear and biological weapons. In fact, he's pondering an independent run for president in order to raise awareness for his issue.

Where was that kind of rhetoric when he was in office? Sure, Nunn was a respected voice on national security issues but I can't say I think of him as the voice of the nuclear freeze movement. Politically, it would have been a deadly thing for him to be associated with the nuclear freeze movement in the '80s in a state like Georgia.  I remember Reagan advertising against Mondale on the issue of nukes in the ’84 campaign, it was that hard of an issue for Democrats to deal with.

This presidential campaign features two ex-senators who both sound as if they've find a backbone that they didn't use much when they were in the Senate. Both John Edwards and Fred Thompson speak about their positions with a lot more conviction than either had when they were actually in the Senate.

A damn-the-consultants populist
Edwards has become a full-fledged, damn-the-consultants, populist. His passion on the stump is infectious to those who watch and he does seem genuinely concerned about the plight of the poor and the plight of the working class. And yet, for those of us that remember Edwards' one term in the Senate, we wonder where that guy was back then. Everything about that first run for president and the one term in the Senate was the picture of caution.

Thompson is putting together a candidacy that has the candidate becoming the straight-talking conservative, a candidate who won't be afraid to talk about tough things like Social Security reform (read: cuts?) or war with Iran or other less-than-popular positions.

The problem is that Thompson's eight-year senate career was not one that I would describe as marked by a lot of Thompson leadership moments. It's not that he didn't vote fairly conservatively and didn't have his share of 99-1 Senate votes where he was the "1." It's that he wasn't the guy that took the floor to the lead the charge on, say, Social Security reform or some other cause near and dear to conservatives.

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This isn't the only presidential campaign, of course, to feature ex-electeds suddenly finding a voice.  In '92, the "let-it-all-hang-out" candidate was, yet, ANOTHER ex-elected official, Paul Tsongas.  It was his straight talk and lack of caution that got him into the national spotlight (of course, that straight talk on Social Security helped do him in down the road; more on that aspect to this later).  Was Tsongas THAT guy when he was in the Senate?

In '00, Bill Bradley was the candidate who was fed up with how politics was being conducted and suddenly was speaking more from the heart and his gut. It only got him so far. Again, did anyone mistake Bradley for passion during his years in the Senate?

The fact is, I believe Edwards and Thompson are running the type of campaigns and spewing the type of rhetoric that they now deep down believe. I also believe Sam Nunn really wants to get rid of all nukes and that Al Gore wants the world to do everything it can to slow or even stop global warming. I think Bill Bradley and Paul Tsongas were genuine in their arguments.

But all of these folks have failed when it comes to either becoming president (or almost running in the case of Nunn) because their post-elected official persona contrasted so greatly with their years in elected office.

Maybe our system is the reason; maybe it's impossible for someone to stay in elected office if they show their true passion and don't calculate everything they do. Because the more passionate a candidate is on one issue, the easier it is for an opponent to point out some downside to that obsession. 

Nunn would have been painted as a weak-kneed liberal on defense had he been part of the nuclear freeze crowd in the '80s. Gore was famously called "Ozone man" in the '92 campaign for his supposed obsession on the environment (he ended up toning down emphasis on the enviro issue in '00; oops); Tsongas lost in '92, in part, because he wasn't a "pander bear" on Social Security; Bill Bradley lost in '00 because he didn't "stay and fight" in '96 when things were tough for Democrats post-'94. And if Edwards and Thompson don't succeed, it may be due, in part, to some of the bold (or radical, depending on your point of view) ideas the two are proposing.

Changing the expectations
Frankly, maybe the system will never reward a candidate who puts out the boldest proposals and shoots the straightest with press and voters. Then again, one wonders what the U.S. Senate would have been like had all of the ex-senators I've described above had been as passionate about their respective issues while serving? Would it had changed the game of expectations of what kind of elected officials the public wants in office or expects to run for president?

Campaigns frequently attract candidates who seem to abide by Janis Joplin's words that freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. There’s always a lot of bold rhetoric but it never translates. The U.S. Senate, as well as presidency, is frequently occupied by politicians who instead end up abiding by my rewritten words of Crosby, Stills and Nash: "If you can't be for the issue you love, honey, be for the issue you're with."

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