The styles and personalities of Vice President Al Gore
and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley are so incongruent, there
were moments during their first bona fide debate Friday night that felt as if the two were at entirely different events in a show spliced
together by editors.
Then there were other times when you felt like you were eavesdropping on the incessant bickering of an old,
unhappily married couple. When the two would scrap
-- interrupting one another and disputing facts and figures, having
fights that seemed decades old -- Gore recalled a nagging shrew,
Bradley his exasperated spouse long resigned to misery and seething.
On the whole, the second debate, held at Daniel Webster College,
hosted by ABC's "Nightline," and moderated by the inimitable Ted
Koppel, was a fairly accurate representation of the campaigns they've
been waging for the White House -- and occasionally against each
Gore, who in his bygone days as an unquestioned front-runner
seemed physically unable to pour the name "Bradley" from his lips,
has seen his candidacy challenged by Bradley's fund-raising and
laconic appeal -- especially here in New Hampshire where Bradley and
Gore are neck and neck, according to polls.
A lot has gone down since the two last shared a stage at
Dartmouth College on Oct. 27. Most notably Gore has gone on a
direct and often misleading attack against Bradley's 10-year, $650
billion health-care plan. Whether claiming that Bradley's plan would
deprive health care for poor people, seniors, the disabled; sending snarky e-mails to Bradley challenging him to name the
funding source for future Medicare funds; or calling Bradley's
proposed $150 health care subsidy an inadequate "voucher," Gore has
been hammering away, leaving Bradley and his followers flummoxed and
more than a tad resentful.
"Gore wonders why his disapproval ratings are so high," one Bradley
supporter groused earlier in the day. "Why doesn't anyone like him?
It's pretty simple: He's a jerk."
The first chunk of the debate was far removed from such ugliness.
Koppel threw a self-described softball about what kinds of first
ladies Tipper Gore and Ernestine Schlant Bradley would be. Guess
what? They'd both be super!
Bradley said his wife was "a unique human being"; Gore said that
Tipper's works include "seek(ing) out homeless under bridges and in
alleyways" -- presumably not just to put warning stickers on their
Frank Zappa albums.
The first question from the audience was sensible enough, asking why
any sane person would want to run for president with all the media
intrusions into candidates' personal lives.
Bradley replied that he was running to promote health care, racial
unity and campaign finance reform, and to reduce the number of
children in poverty and guns in the wrong hands.
Gore rattled off a
similar list -- universal health care, environmental clean-up, gun
control -- adding his new catch phrase that he wants "to fight for
you." (In the past few weeks, Gore has tried to capitalize on his feistiness, going so far as to replace the tag line of his biographical TV
from the clunky "change that works for working families" to "I want
to fight for you.")
In one of many sardonic asides, Koppel made sure the crowd noticed
"how skillful (Gore and Bradley) are at beginning with your question
and ending with what they want to talk about."
Throughout the show, Koppel requested that the long-winded candidates
conform to the sound-bite mentality of TV and fight their fondness
for bloviating. Gore, the pluperfect Harvard man, and Bradley, a
Princetonian Rhodes scholar, eagerly dove into a few essay questions
from the audience.
To a question on what can be done to avoid future school shootings, both
Gore and Bradley talked about gun control, family-friendly policies
to allow for better parenting and the need for the media to show
Gore added that he wasn't "sure that particular release [of the Columbine video tapes]
was handled well because I don't think it was sensitive to the
families out there. Not to blame popular culture," Gore said, "but some kids are
vulnerable to seeds planted that bear bitter fruit."
When pressed by Koppel, however, neither candidate proposed attacking
the nefarious media executives with more than just some stern
Another questioner wondered what the candidates thought of when they
heard other politicians speak of this election as a "battle for the
American soul." Both men took a moment to wander down philosophical
paths, though both brought the point to issues their campaigns have
addressed -- Gore focused on school violence, while Bradley focused on racial reconciliation
and having those "with deeper resources turn their eyes toward those
But the loftiness couldn't last forever, not with Gore on the stage.
And not after Koppel told the two that they should feel free to
question each other. After Gore took another swipe at Bradley's health-care plan, questioning how he would pay to shore up Medicare, Bradley did something he hasn't done much of during this campaign -- he went on the offensive. If Bradley's plan was too bold, he was going
to challenge Gore's for not being bold enough.
"The main difference between our programs is I do provide access to affordable quality
health care for all Americans," Bradley said. "And his plan does not.
So my question to you is, Who will you leave out? Will you leave
out the part-time worker that doesn't have health insurance? Will you
leave out the downsized middle-class industrial worker who loses
health insurance? Will you leave out the 40 percent of the people who
live in poverty who don't have health insurance?"
"OK, I'll answer the question," Gore said, "the answer's very simple: I won't leave out anyone."
The two continued bickering, interrupting each other until Koppel again stepped in. "I just want to point out that neither of you answered the question," he pointed out. Even the normally unflappable Ted Koppel was letting the tension eat into his psyche.
The awkward conflict reared its head a couple of other times, with
neither man really getting an answer to his opponent's question. Other topics were raised: terrorism (both heroically opposed it), a call to pledge to land a man on Mars by 2010 (both declined), gay and
lesbian rights (both supported) and one from Koppel about an ad in
the newspaper in which a photo of high school science scholars
contained not one African-American or Latino face. To this, each
affirmed his commitment to civil rights and affirmative action, while
Gore bemoaned the fact that there was only one African-American in the
("That's because we're in New Hampshire, you asshole," one jaded
member of the press corps cried.)
Possibly the most insightful responses -- at least in terms of
personality -- came with a question about how each felt about Gov.
George W. Bush's affirmation of his love for Jesus at the GOP debate
on Monday. Bradley said that "a person's religious faith is the
deepest and most intimate aspect of their lives," and while he
respects "open expressions of faith, in my own case I've decided
that that personal faith is private."
Gore took the moment to run all over the religious map -- affirming the
separation of church and state, his own belief, the importance of
fighting for the rights of religious minorities, rounding it all up with
a firm grab for the atheist vote.
Precisely 90 minutes and maybe 15 commercials after the clock
began, Koppel brought it all home for the good people in the
television viewing audience.
"I think the differences that we've heard between you this evening
are less significant perhaps -- or seem less significant to me as a
listener -- than perhaps they are to you as candidates."
But there were two other events that seemed instructive, though
neither one was on camera. At a mall in Nashua this morning, Bradley and his wife were scheduled for a walk-through, to meet and greet Granite staters.
As soon as the
Bradleys walked in, however, they were ambushed by a dozen or so
adolescent Gore supporters, who chanted "Al Gore! Al Gore! Al Gore!"
obnoxiously, as if the name itself were an insult. Bradley seemed
unfazed, but mall security told the pugnacious teenyboppers to chill.
Ernestine Bradley is much more charismatic on the stump than her
terse hubby. Bradley was typically mellow as he careened past the
Metabolife booth and Perfumania while Ernestine bubbled to voters,
"Hi! You going to vote? I hope so. I hope you vote for the right guy!
I'm the wife."
Bradley again seemed beleaguered as he constantly had to stop and search behind him
for Ernestine. About the fifth time he did this, Bradley slipped and
called her a name none of us had ever heard before.
"Wuschel!" he said. She ran up to him.
The media was abuzz. What did he call her? Bushel?
I approached Bradley staffers and asked them, but they were mum. "Why
are you stonewalling?" I joked. "What's this nickname? What's with
Finally, I approached the man.
"What did you call your wife before?" I asked. "Wushah?"
He smiled slyly. We'd caught him. He'd slipped.
"Wuschel," he said, spelling it for me after I asked.
"What does it mean?"
"It means her," he said, pointing at Ernestine. "It's a variation on a
nickname she had when she was young." For a moment, the distant, remote Bill Bradley seemed completely human.
"Somebody caught him in a moment in which he forgot himself and he called me
by my nickname," she smiled.
The second revealing moment came later that night, when I was
instructed by the Gore campaign to take a cab to the airport so I could catch a flight back to D.C.
with the veep and his traveling press corps. But by the time I got to the tarmac, Air Force Two was long gone. Stood up by the vice president, without so much as a phone call!
"This guy [Gore] is rude," said Bradley supporter John Rauh, the New Hampshire Democratic Party's 1992 Senate
nominee, after the debate. "It ain't gonna sell. And he ain't gonna be president of the United States."