"I'm not peaking too early"

Al Gore takes on his critics and the substance-averse media, who've savaged the vice president for all the wrong things.

By Jake Tapper
Published August 4, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Al Gore knows he's been getting some mighty bad press lately, that even staunch Democrats have embraced the media caricature of him as a "stiff" and "boring" automaton from the Disneyland Hall of Vice Presidents. He's trying mightily to shrug it off.

"I find the coverage stiff and boring," he told Salon News. Not that the veep is complaining. "I feel fine about it," he insists, though his calm seems more calculating political strategy than thick skin. "I would honestly not swap my position in this race for anyone else's; I'm not peaking too early," he adds, only half-kidding. "You know, in stock car races, it's usually the second car in the gun lap that wins."

Gore is referring to his current weak position in the polls compared with his likely opponent in the 2000 election, high-flying Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Gore hopes Bush has only one direction to go in the polls and that direction is down.

Thus, the vice president can insist that he's quite content, for now, being the Rodney Dangerfield of American politics.

Not surprisingly, Gore's allies blame the substance-averse, scandal-happy national media. They say that the conventional wisdom -- that his campaign is lackluster and hobbled by infighting, that he has been stumbling everywhere he goes, and that as a public speaker Gore is only slightly more animated than a corpse -- is just plain wrong.

Gore's allies might just have a point. It's hard to look at the last two years of Gore's press clips and not see a fairly intentional effort on the part of journalists to turn the veep into a stiff, self-important caricature.

Take his most infamous utterance to date: "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet," from an interview he gave to CNN a few months back.

While this was obviously an overstatement, Gore actually does deserve a substantial amount of credit for the technology through which you're reading this story. "Gore took a critical part [in launching the Internet]," says Dave Farber, a professor of telecommunication systems at the University of Pennsylvania. "He did misspeak, and everybody jumped on him, but he made a very significant contribution."

Vinton Cerf, the Stanford researcher who sketched out a design for the Internet in 1973, seconds that emotion: "It is entirely fitting that the vice president take some credit for helping to create an environment in which Internet could thrive."

Then there was the flap that ensued when Gore, during an off-the-record chat, boasted that the character of Oliver Barrett in Erich Segal's "Love Story" was based on him. Pounce went the media. "Does he think, going into 2000, that this will give him a romantic glow, or a romantic afterglow?" snarked the New York Times' Maureen Dowd.

But Time Magazine's Karen Tumulty, with whom Gore had the actual conversation, told a columnist that Dowd and others got the story wrong, that "Gore was telling us something that was basically true."

Segal himself, in fact, has confirmed that Barrett is an amalgam of both Gore and his Harvard roommate, actor Tommy Lee Jones.

Then there was the "farm boy" fracas in March, when reporters ripped Gore for an Iowa speech in which he exaggerated his own farming credentials. "In Iowa, Gore claimed that he was a farm boy who plowed steep hillsides with mules," wrote the Cincinnati Enquirer in an editorial titled "King of Gaffes: Al Gore out-Quayles Dan."

But as even conservative Gore biographer Bob Zelnick acknowledged in his fairly critical book, "Gore: A Political Life," the veep did, indeed, spend "long weekends, summers, holidays, and his entire seventh year" in Carthage, Tenn., working on the family farm. Young Gore woke before dawn, fed the livestock, cleaned out the hog parlors and cleared a field one summer "with only a small hand-axe as his tool."

The media's newest anti-Gore flap, "Floodgate," simply continues the anti-Gore trend.

On July 22, not far from Cornish, N.H., Gore, New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and a cadre of Democrats and reporters piled into canoes and started floating down the Connecticut River.

It was a fairly typical campaign photo op; Gore sat erect in his canoe, the perfect perpendicular man, as always. After finishing his 45-minute ride, Gore participated in a carefully staged press conference announcing an immense grant for the Connecticut River Joint Commission and others to implement various components of the American Heritage River Action Plan.

But then a Washington Times reporter in attendance stumbled onto a man who complained to him that environmentalists had been after the river commission to raise the water level of the river for some time to benefit the fish. The man was discouraged that it wasn't until the vice president came to the river for a photo op that the commission finally acted, releasing millions of gallons into the river simply to ensure that Gore's canoe didn't scrape the rocks.

It sounded like another mini-scandal, but there was just one key problem: No one affiliated with the Gore campaign had anything to do with the decision to raise the river's water level. The head of the river commission had come up with the idea in order to help along a photo op that was going to bring national attention to her cause. And, it should be emphasized, raising the river level was actually good for the environment.

But the curious fact that the river was flooded for the sake of a photo op -- on behalf of a politician already stereotyped as being artificial, in a campaign already labeled as faltering -- was too good to pass up.

The following day, a headline blared from the front page of the Washington Times: "New Hampshire able to float Gore's boat."

"Nearly 4 billion gallons of water were unleashed from a massive dam Thursday to raise the level of the Connecticut River in Cornish, N.H., so that Vice President Al Gore's canoe would not get stuck during an environmental photo opportunity," wrote the Times' correspondent.

"Gore in Environmental Quandary," ventured the Associated Press.

That afternoon, CNN's "Inside Politics" reported that "Vice President Al Gore is facing political heat over the fact that millions of gallons of water had to be released from an up-river dam in order to provide enough for him to take a campaign photo-op canoe trip downstream during a regional drought."

By the time the Gore motorcade reached a house party in Rochester, N.H., all the vice president's men were in a tizzy, huddling and pacing and otherwise chagrined. Other reporters -- by now under pressure from their editors -- called Gore's press secretary to get a comment on the matter.

"Critics Paddle Gore in 'Dam' Rowing Row," screamed the New York Post.

"Campaign blasted for water release," yelled the Charleston Daily Mail.

"A Canoe Trip Becomes a Political Misadventure for Gore," said the New York Times, discreet as ever.

By the time I parted company with the Gore campaign that Friday afternoon, it was clear that any hope for positive stories from his two-day visit to New Hampshire -- that his campaign skills have markedly improved, say, or that despite bad press, the Gore 2000 organization seems to be generating lots of excitement -- were drowned out by "Floodgate."

Even apart from the supposed gaffes, Gore suffers from the notion that he's one stiff dude, a cigar-store Indian with a major pole up his ass. It started with his posture, which is pluperfect, like a backward parenthesis. His neck doesn't seem to twist, so all his turns are from the waist, as if he were doing the '80s break-dancing move "the robot."

Despite these odd physical characteristics, Gore hardly seems stiff in a small group setting; in fact, he was perfectly capable of generating excitement at a gathering in a barn in Etna, N.H., on July 22, where he genuinely wowed the crowd. In fact, in small groups throughout New Hampshire that week -- whether at house parties, or while conducting a seminar at a New Hampshire technical college, Gore conveyed an appealing personality, relaxed yet serious, wonky yet concerned and always quite charming.

He scored positive reviews from many of the pleasantly surprised voters who attended his events. "I thought he was very personable ... and very comfortable," said Polly Dale, a substitute teacher who leans Republican and saw Gore at the technical college. "I was very impressed."

Gore told Salon that his comfort level on the stump "hasn't been freshly examined [by the media] in a while. I don't mind that; it's OK. I joke from time to time that I benefit from low expectations."

"My response is always 'stiff compared to who?'" says Bill Turque, a national correspondent for Newsweek whose as-yet-untitled biography of Gore will hit bookstores early next year. "Who is this long line of great theatrical talents who run for president? There's Clinton and Reagan, but after that, who are they talking about?

"Stiff compared to George Bush? To Mike Dukakis? To Bob Dole? Gore's not the most fluid guy. For a long time he was very self-conscious about his age [he was sworn into the House at the tender age of 28], and also he talks about very technical things, like climate change, information technology, environmental restoration. But I think he's capable of being very good campaigner."

Friends and confidants of the vice president argue that whatever stiffness remains comes from Gore's inability to feign sincerity. Whereas a 30-second encounter with President Clinton can make you feel like he's your new best friend, Gore doesn't do that. And Clinton, of course, is full of crap. Not that Gore never is; but while every pol has a degree of phoniness, it may be that Al Gore doesn't have enough, at least not on the stump, to please his critics.

When he's comfortable, the vice president can actually be quite a wise-ass. When I ask him what his biggest faults are, he says, with a twinkle: "I work too hard. I'm too kind. I care too much. If I were better balanced, I would have at least one unkind thought in my body." Not bad, for a stiff.

If you forget the stuff about his image, there are still plenty of substantive criticisms to be fired at Gore. Among them:

  • On important policy questions, Gore can be cautious to a fault, perhaps one result of having seen his father's Senate career cut down by bold stances in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War.

  • Gore become an overly aggressive fund-raiser during the last election cycle, pushing the law to the limit, despite his earlier statements in favor of campaign finance reform.

  • In betrayal of the nickname former President Bush once gave him -- "Ozone" -- environmentalists think Gore has sold them out, and that he has abandoned his environmental principles.

  • As an outspoken opponent of big tobacco -- and someone who made a tortured speech before the nation about how his chain-smoking sister had died of lung cancer -- his decision to hire as his media man Carter Eskew, big tobacco's advertising superstar, seems outright hypocritical.

  • He often speaks to people in ways they find condescending, and varies his manner only slightly whether he's talking to kids at a day-care center or to their moms at campaign events with a wandering-mike shtick.

  • In an era when the public seems to be seeking bipartisan cooperation from political leaders, Gore is a partisan Democrat from the old school.

So far, however, none of these faults are contributing to his media problems. What you hear, over and over, are the "Love Story," Internet, and farm-boy flaps.

"Al Gore is like the fat boy in the schoolyard," Russell Baker wrote in the New York Times in 1997, right after the "Love Story" fracas. "Tormenting him is so much fun that nobody can resist ... Victims are necessary in schoolyards to satisfy the nastier angels of youthful nature. Victims in politics fulfill similarly shameful needs, but a politician, once draped in the trappings of victimhood, faces dangerous practical problems."

One way you can tell another election season is approaching is to check out Gore's waistline. That's because he tries to get into shape before each new campaign gets under way. This year, for example, he's already dropped about 15 pounds; his arms are veiny from weight lifting, his face is chiseled where it was previously puffy, and he looks to be in better shape than many of his Secret Service guys.

Gore approaches fitness the way he approaches everything -- with pious studiousness and methodical dedication.

He was the same way back in the early 1970s, when he was a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean. "Journalism school [professors] and city editors, the advice they always give you is before you ever go on assignment, go to the library and look up the clips," says Frank Sutherland, who worked with Gore at the Tennessean and is its current editor. "He is the only reporter I knew who always did that. He was always prepared for an interview; he never went into an interview cold."

Despite reports of infighting at Gore 2000 headquarters, the vice president's campaign actually seems to be running smoothly. It's the hard-born result of typical Gore diligence, dedication and homework -- plus, of course, the cushy benefits that come from being an incumbent.

In both New Hampshire and Iowa, the veep has been endorsed by an overwhelming majority of state officials. And though both states' Democratic governors aren't taking sides in the Gore-Bradley match-up, their spouses -- Bill Shaheen, hubby to New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, and Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack -- are full-fledged members of the Gore 2000 squad. Bradley made a strong drive to get the endorsements of Iowa's two big labor unions, AFSCME and the UAW, but Gore snatched them both.

Gore's also ahead in the polls. Among New Hampshire Democrats, Gore leads Bradley 48 percent to 32 percent. In the most recent poll of likely caucus voters in Iowa, Gore's up 64 percent to 24 percent.

Besides being a dedicated worker, Gore has earned a reputation as someone always out a little bit ahead of the pack on the issues.

"The guy genuinely does look seriously around the corner and into the future on a lot of issues a lot people don't pay attention to," says Newsweek's Turque. "In the early 1980s he was studying climate change and early global warming when that was not on people's screens.

"In the early '80s, he was also very interested in changes in computer infrastructure, in what he called the information superhighway," Turque adds. "He would talk in congressional hearings about the day when everyone would have PCs in their homes. At his best, there's almost a prophetic edge to the guy."

One reason Gore's always ahead of the curve is that he reads so much. The names he drops are not those of celebrities, but of authors.

Even though he failed to complete two separate graduate programs -- law school and divinity school -- Gore is every bit a scholar, which is why he comes off so very teacherly, rattling off figures and numbers and studies all the time.

"If he has a fault, it's that he will explain something to death for you," editor Sutherland says. But then again, in the early '90s the then-senator came to the Tennessean to teach them all about global warming. The lesson lasted an arduous hour and a half, Sutherland says, but "when he was finished, we all understood what he was talking about."

His scholarly edge manifests itself elsewhere in his life too. As first disclosed by biographer Zelnick, after having three daughters, Gore devoted himself to Dr. Landrum B. Shettles' "How to Choose the Sex of Your Baby," a serious text that recommends that, to procreate a son, the prospective father wear boxers, drink coffee immediately before sex, and attempt impregnation during the high-alkaline moment of ovulation.

In October 1982, Albert Gore III was born.

When Albert III was injured in a severe car accident in April 1989, Gore withdrew from politics somewhat, and boned up not only on his son's injuries (he has since recovered) but also on environmental issues, for what would become his bestselling enviro-tract, "Earth in the Balance."

But Gore's clean-as-a-whistle reputation took a hit when he teamed up with Clinton. As one of Clinton's most valuable assets on the '92 campaign trail, as well as at the policy-making table, Gore was an able, on-message Tonto to Clinton's Kemosabe. But when Gore's work ethic and unquestioning Democratic partisan loyalty were channeled into the Clinton-Gore-DNC fund-raising apparatus, suddenly the diligence of the heir apparent got him into trouble.

His April 1996 fund-raising at the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple was especially crass, and his wormy attempt to extricate himself from the media fallout was clumsy. At the very least, he skated around the edge of the law, and afterward, Gore had only himself to blame for the fallout from this incident.

When Bradley hammers Gore on campaign finance reform, as he has done especially hard in the past few weeks, he's therefore pushing on a vulnerable and largely self-inflicted wound.

Gore knows he is in a dirty business. He's aware that politics is soaked with compromises and necessary evils, and he seems to have come to terms with that a long time ago. At a New Hampshire house party last week, in response to a young man who had inquired about the rewards of public service, Gore said, "It is self-government. People in it are just ... trying to do the best we can. [People] make mistakes. But the cumulative power of the American experiment has thrilled the entire world, because people like you are willing to make it work -- in spite of all the difficulties.

"There's something in our American system about the exchange of ideas," Gore went on, "that can be translated into tangible changes in the way we live our lives together that's just different from any other country that came before us. And if you're willing to put up with what it takes to be a part of that -- I'm telling you, if you keep your heart right, the rewards are just beyond measure."

For months now, Bradley's been jabbing Gore for only seizing upon only the little issues and not thinking Bradleyesque deep thoughts. That cuts both ways, of course: New Hampshire House Minority Leader Peter Burling, a Democrat who's endorsed Gore, described a one-hour meeting with Bradley this way: "I knew I was in the presence of remarkable intelligence, but I can't say I fully understood what he was talking about."

Still, Bradley is on target when he derides Gore as hampered by caution. On the stump, Gore talks about niche issues like suburban traffic congestion, better preschool education and prescription drug benefits for seniors using Medicare.

In Congress, he picked similar small issues, taking on the makers of contact-lens solution and baby formula. Sutherland says that when he asked Gore, 'Why do you pick these issues?' Gore replied: "Because I can do something about them."

Gore is quick to point out that there are grander themes at stake in this election, however. Whatever his "practical idealism" shares with Bush's "compassionate conservatism" in rhetoric and overall squishiness, Gore argues that the differences couldn't be more stark, and the stakes couldn't be higher.

The next president, he points out, will probably appoint three Supreme Court justices. So, as he tells a crowded barn in Etna, N.H., "the future of many of our individual rights is at risk."

He and Bush differ on "policy toward crime and handguns," he says, arguing his belief in photo-licensing and waiting periods for handgun buyers, while "the other side wants more concealed weapons."

Gore opposes the tax cut the Republicans in Congress are pushing, wanting to use the budget surplus "to extend the life of Social Security" and "bring about revolutionary changes in our public schools."

Gore argues that the success of his "practical idealism" can be measured in its accomplishments, not its rhetoric.

"The best thing that President Clinton and I have done is to translate the lofty ideals that have always been at the heart of the Democratic party into a practical program that has made it possible to really achieve goals that were once felt to be beyond our reach," he told Salon. "Although we still have so much work to do, I feel that we've been able to restore some measure of confidence in the promise of self-government in a time that that confidence has begun to wane."

In contrast to the boyish, impulsive Clinton, the quick-tempered, formerly hard-partying Bush and lofty dreamer Bradley, Al Gore is staking out ground as the grown-up in chief. The administration's policies show "the kind of patience and common sense that make it possible to really achieve [Democratic] ideals," he says. "Our anti-crime program, our economic program, our education program, you can go right down the list. We have made a lot of progress in a lot of areas where people were beginning to think there was no realistic hope."

Clinton's (and Gore's) accomplishments aren't just a net plus, of course. In Gore's last run for the presidency, in '88, he was prisoner only to his own record and caution; now he's a prisoner of Clinton's foibles, too. Every Republican candidate links Gore to Clinton and, by extension, to Monica, to the China scandal, to Whitewater -- hoping to exploit the national weariness for this administration.

Which in the end may be Gore's biggest problem. As one of the few candidates with a legitimate claim to service in Vietnam, intelligence, a fairly moderate record, much-improving campaign skills and a strong political organization, you'd think Gore would be doing better in the polls than he is so far.

But Clinton may be the one monkey he can't get off his back. Gore has done a bit to distance himself from Clinton but there's really only so much he can get away with. At the Etna barn party, one New Hampshirite told Gore that he wished he had stood by Clinton even more, telling the country that Clinton "was your friend."

"He is my friend," Gore said in response. "I've had a closer working relationship with him than any vice president. My philosophy is, 'Hate the sin, love the sinner.' If you have a friend who makes a mistake, that doesn't destroy the friendship."

No, I thought to myself, but it might just destroy your candidacy. And it might help explain why everybody always seems to be picking on you, too.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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