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Jewish World Review Oct. 26, 1999 /16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Matthew Rees

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Al Gore, from Dawn to Dusk -- IT WASN’T EXACTLY the rhetoric of a surging candidate: “We are beginning to solve some of our problems,” Al Gore told reporters on October 20. His campaign, of course, has had countless fits and starts over the past six months. But Gore and his allies say he’s “turned the corner.” In the words of senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, “There’s a new energy out there that I had never seen before.”

Maybe. There’s no denying Gore has been running a more aggressive campaign in recent weeks. Zinging Bill Bradley—for voting in favor of Reaganomics and for retiring in 1996—seems weak, but it shows Gore has turned off the cruise control. Similarly, his decision to cut a television ad immediately after Republicans defeated the nuclear test ban treaty revealed a spontaneity that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago (John Podesta, Clinton’s chief of staff, was steamed Gore didn’t check with the White House before running with the ad). Chris Lehane, Gore’s spokesman, now describes the campaign as a “lean, mean, fighting machine”—a characterization that wouldn’t have passed the smell test before Gore announced his campaign office was moving to Tennessee and shedding countless staff.

But Gore still has his share of problems. Last week, a new Iowa poll showed that, for the first time, Bradley and Gore are in a statistical dead heat. And on October 20, the Washington Post’s “In the Loop” column reported that three people have turned down offers to become the campaign’s communications director, which should be a highly sought-after job. The press secretary post is also vacant.

A more fundamental problem for Gore is money. At the end of September, he and Bradley had about the same amount of cash on hand. But Gore has already spent about 25 percent of what’s permitted in Iowa. Add to that his new TV ads, and the Bradley campaign estimates he’ll soon be at 50 percent. Bradley, by contrast, has spent just 5 percent of the legal limit.

Money becomes less important if Gore begins to energize voters. But can he? On October 20, Gore made four public appearances. I attended all of them, in the hope of finding out whether he has truly “turned the corner.”

10:40 a.m., Congress Heights United Methodist Church

The 75 people in attendance stand and applaud as Gore briskly enters the basement auditorium of this church in Anacostia, the poorest (and blackest) section of Washington, D.C. Outfitted in a charcoal suit, white shirt, and sporty rep tie, he’s here to unveil a set of proposals to combat deadbeat dads. The timing is not a coincidence: Bradley announced a few weeks ago he would be releasing his own child-poverty proposals one day from now. Gore’s office only called the church a few days ago to see if it would host the event.

That Gore is being forced to respond like this underscores how far he’s fallen. Yet, he did succeed at quickly putting together an event and a proposal to preempt Bradley. This suggests the speedy decision-making Gore showcased after the test-ban treaty vote may become the rule of his campaign, and not the exception.

The session starts 40 minutes late—bad symbolism for an event promoting personal responsibility. But Gore connects with the audience during a 20-minute presentation delivered without a podium and almost entirely without notes. At moments, he is Clintonesque, beginning his talk by congratulating the minister’s daughter on her recent engagement. The audience applauds when he proposes denying men who owe child support the ability to get a new credit card (it’s a wonder Dick Morris didn’t think of this). At other moments, he is, uh, Goring: He should know better than to say, “Here are some statistics to reflect on.” And his talk is long on government solutions, wrapping him in the civil-servant mantle he needs to shed.

Gore is more effective when he sits with a group of young mothers and fathers and solicits their views on the challenges of parenthood. A young black woman describes her juggling act as a single mother, a full-time worker, and a law school student. Gore has a moment of Clintonian empathy, saying “I’m in awe of your achievements.” Later, he seems even more relaxed, holding a 2-year-old girl on his lap. Her parents describe raising her while they were both unemployed. Gore abruptly asks, “How did that make you feel?” The mother says it taught her “if you want something, you just have to work for it.” Gore nods solemnly, as if it’s a sentiment he’s uniquely qualified to appreciate.

3:30 p.m., Indian Treaty Room, Old Executive Office Building

Gore is here to sign a “memorandum of understanding” between the Small Business Administration and the Social Security Administration, pledging the agencies to coordinate efforts to expand employment for the disabled. But because he’s a busy guy—he’s just come from a lunch on Capitol Hill with Senate Democrats—the event begins without him. A disabled woman is five minutes into her presentation on the agreement’s importance when White House aides begin shuffling in and out. The woman eventually stops to ask what all the commotion is about. Told the vice president has arrived, she promptly resumes speaking.

When Gore finally enters the room, he still looks loose in his charcoal suit. Only there’s nothing informal about the Indian Treaty Room, with its high ceiling and ornate walls. During his 15-minute speech, Gore stands planted behind the podium. I notice he’s reading from his notecards, as he pleads for equal treatment of the disabled, saying he believes in it “with all my heart.” There is applause, but his delivery is as lifeless as a seafood platter.

The climate improves as Gore tells a poignant story about his blind aunt, and the audience of 50 people, many of them disabled or advocates for the disabled, lap it up. The notecards are nowhere to be seen when Gore recounts his meeting with Stephen Hawking, whom he describes as the “smartest man in the whole world.” He obviously thinks the crowd will like hearing him say that about the wheelchair-bound Hawking. And everyone laughs when he describes Hawking’s A Brief History of Time as a book “I pretended to read.”

For a routine signing ceremony, Gore’s performance is slightly better than I expected. But nothing about it suggests a dramatic change in persona. And, then, there is his penchant for sounding disingenuous. He prefaces his comments about Hawking by noting, “Some of you may have heard me tell this story. It’s a true story.” This makes me wonder: Why does Gore feel the need to describe a story he’s about to tell as “true”? Does he now make a practice of larding his speeches, Clinton-style, with anecdotes made out of thin air?

4:30 p.m., Marriott Hotel

The vice president is late again, 20 minutes this time. It’s the annual convention of the Civil Service Employees Association, a New York state union. A mischievous audio engineer decides to fill the cavernous room with Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” followed by Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” Dozens of union members begin gyrating to the music. I wish Gore would arrive.

AlGore acting presedential. Too bad Arsenio was cancled.
A popular theory has it that Gore can defeat Bradley by forsaking his moderation and running as a Walter Mondale-style labor loyalist. This speech is evidence he’s giving that theory a test run, as he spends nearly half an hour touting his liberal credentials and ridiculing Republicans.

Gore connects with the crowd early by describing himself as “pro-worker, pro-union, and pro-collective bargaining.” There’s nothing courageous about anything Gore says—he doesn’t, for example, challenge his audience with any rhetoric about pushing the Democratic party to the center. But he does take pains to distinguish “moderate Republican” voters, many of whom belong to unions, from “extreme” Republicans.

But then, starting to sound like Joe McCarthy, Gore warns darkly that the GOP would base its Supreme Court appointments on “private meetings with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.” On a softer note, Gore tells the audience that when his father was Tennessee labor commissioner, Gore Sr. set a state minimum wage of 25 cents an hour. “Sounds like one of the Republican platform positions.” The crowd of 1,000 hoots with pleasure.

But these days no Gore speech would be complete without an autobiographical riff and at least one gaffe. This speech has both. Gore talks at some length about his family, noting he and Tipper have just celebrated their 29th anniversary and that they have just become grandparents. Bill Clinton is referred to only cryptically. Obviously, Gore is setting himself up as the kind of family-values exemplar the president is not.

And near the end of his speech Gore thanks the CSEA for its endorsement. The people around me look at each other and ask, “What endorsement?” As a matter of fact, CSEA hasn’t endorsed Gore. Thanking organizations for support they have yet to offer is a mistake no campaign should make, particularly that of an incumbent vice president. Although the speech is well-received, the glitch stands out.

8:20 p.m., National Building Museum

It’s the final public event of Gore’s day, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee gala. His strategy is to serve up more red meat than one finds at the Palm, which is wise. No one comes to massive fund-raisers like these to hear speeches.

Daylight saving time, says Gore, is “the one time we all get to act like Senate Republicans by turning back the clock.” His rheAverkill. Republicans who blocked the nuclear test ban treaty, he says, are “not worthy to run the United States Senate. They are an embarrassment to this country.”

But the biggest moment of the gala comes when Gore introduces Miss America, Heather French, for a special announcement. She comes to the podium and says she’s switching from Republican to Democrat, because of her concerns about “veterans’ issues.” The crowd of 1,200 goes wild.

That very morning, French had been quoted in the Washington Post saying she was thinking about switching parties. She tells me Gore staffers tracked her down—she was visiting Washington to talk about homeless veterans—and offered her a speaking spot at the dinner if she’d hurry up and make her switch official. There was, however, one small detail that prevented this from being a public-relations coup for the vice president: French told me she hasn’t decided whether she’ll be supporting Gore or Bradley.

Following Gore’s speech, a quick survey of Democratic opinion reveals enthusiasm for the vice president’s newly energized campaign. “He’s on a roll now. . . . He’s where he needs to be,” beams fund-raiser-cum-mortgage guarantor, Terry McAuliffe. “The campaign seems quite a lot better in the last few weeks,” opines New York senator Charles Schumer. “From the standpoint of Iowa, it’s a whole new ballgame,” says Harkin. Hillary Clinton tells me, “I think he’s doing great!”

“Great” is an exaggeration; “better” might be more appropriate. Gore is running a more intelligent, and more nimble, campaign than he was just a few weeks ago. Shrinking the number of staff, for example, can only help. It saves money—Gore had been spending more on personnel than any other presidential campaign—and makes-decision making easier. And moving to Tennessee is nicely symbolic. As a speaker, Gore still has a long way to go, but his delivery is improving and he seems to be connecting more with his audiences.

But what does it all add up to? One of the first real tests of whether Gore’s vaunted new campaign can fight off Bradley comes October 27, when the two Democrats square off at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Gore seems to understand he can no longer afford to be timid. The question now is whether he can avoid looking desperate.

Matthew Rees is a staff writer of the Weekly Standard. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


10/22/99: The Clintonized Democrats
10/20/99: Our Hysterical President
09/24/99: The Harassment of Gary Bauer
09/24/99: What I Saw at Burning Man
09/20/99: A scenario for last-minute entrants to shake up the 2000 presidential race
09/16/99: A tale of moral dudgeon and posturing in the Clinton era
09/10/99: One Nation Conservatism
09/09/99: Goldsmith's Secrets of Success
08/31/99: Class Warfare in the GOP
08/26/99: America's Leading Conservative
08/20/99: The Case For Censorship
08/19/99: They Say D'Amato
08/13/99: The Agony of Not Being George W. Bush
08/12/99: Iowa Gothic
08/0699: Preschool in the Nanny State
08/04/99: Body Slam
07/30/99: End of the Leave-Us-Alone GOP
07/28/99: Madeleine Albright's Vendetta
07/22/99: Bill Clinton, Historian
07/20/99: The Terrorist Next Door
07/16/99: The Empress of the Empire State

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