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He sings, he strains

cover image

CAMPAIGN DIARY BY STEVE LOPEZ

January 10, 2000
Web posted at: 11:07 a.m. EST (1607 GMT)

Because Vice President Al Gore is basically a decent and well-intentioned man, you find yourself constantly wanting to rush up to him on the presidential campaign trail and save him from himself. He is a sharp guy, but he knows next to nothing about the social contract between humans, probably because it is not written down anywhere and cannot be downloaded into the Palm V organizer he keeps strapped to his belt at all times.

Last week at Somersworth High School in New Hampshire, for instance, some poor kid asked him a simple question about how to develop leadership skills. Gore hurried over to the boy and stood too close to him, looking every bit like that one guy you end up trying to avoid at the party. And by the time he approached what must have been Point 6B in a frightfully organized answer, several students appeared comatose.

But perhaps a more striking example of his social disability is the moment when Gore broke into song with Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who had just endorsed him. In Gore's defense, Kennedy kind of put him on the spot. After a meeting with senior citizens at a housing complex in Portsmouth, N.H., Kennedy spontaneously grabbed the housing director (also an Irishman) and Gore and started in on When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.

It was almost as painful as when Mike Dukakis put on the helmet, which fit him like a kettledrum, and climbed into the tank for a photo op. Gore didn't know the words but tried to fake it, and that was the least of his problems. You wanted to run up and tell him: Don't pretend this is the least bit comfortable for you. It only makes it worse.

In retrospect, it would have been smarter to have Kennedy mail in his endorsement. A Kennedy fills a room, not just casting a shadow but creating a total eclipse. At the Grover Cleveland Middle School in Dorchester, Mass., Kennedy packed the hall with labor leaders, party loyalists and other wildlife, then delivered a fire-and-brimstone endorsement speech that brought them leaping to their feet. Off his diet and about to bust every stitch of his too small blue suit, he was a great, sweaty, painted pumpkin, with a voice that raised the roof.

Then Gore took the microphone, which is like being the guy who bats right after Mark McGwire. It would help if somebody would grab that Palm V when Gore isn't looking and type in Social Contract Rule No. 1: don't enunciate every syllable while feigning an intimacy that doesn't exist because it looks as if you think you're speaking to morons.

It's not that Gore doesn't have his moments. He had a roomful of women swooning in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, with the moving story of his mother's struggle to put herself through college. "I wasn't sure about him before I came," said Merritta Florence, 68, a schoolteacher for the past 45 years. "He's interested in the same things I'm interested in, and I like his proposals on education and health care especially. And I thought he was very warm."

And Gore was quick on his feet at the Kennedy sing-along after Chris Matthews, host of CNBC's Hardball, asked him why he keeps caning Democratic opponent Bill Bradley like a redhaired stepchild. In responding, Gore playfully kept plugging the name of Matthews' show, to which Matthews replied, "I'm falling in love with you."

"It can happen," Gore retorted, co-opting Bradley's campaign slogan. Can it? Is it really possible to love a man who presses his Dockers? Imagine candidate Bill Clinton fielding that student's question about leadership. He'd have spun gold, bringing that boy and the rest of the room in on the deal with a simple, folksy story rather than a footnoted dissertation that made you want to run from the building and stick your head in a snowbank.

One night last week in Moline, Ill., the stairs of Air Force Two literally froze to the ground. After Gore and some staff grabbed a rope, tug-of-war style, and resolved the problem, the Vice President came back to brag on it a little and feed the animals in the press. He told a story about sneaking into a Tennessee-Jacksonville NFL game incognito and one about himself and his father stumbling onto a still in Tennessee once while hunting. He is warmer and more likable in that mode, but there is still a strain of earnest informality.

Kennedy's presence awakened the raspy-voiced twin who lives in Gore's body and often rises up like the son of Frankenstein to deliver punctuation. But by week's end, Gore was in quiet retreat, putting out fires ignited by his comments on gays in the military and his campaign manager's remarks about minorities in the G.O.P. At a press conference, he brilliantly managed to make it worse with a raft of doublespeak.

People love to ask who the real Al Gore is. But there is no great mystery in him. He is a politician who wraps himself in whatever he thinks will get him past the shadows of Clinton and his own father, a Senator and citizen of great timber. He's a nice enough fellow who wants to do good but needs a little too desperately to do well.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: January 17, 2000


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