If Al Gore's stupefying dullness remains his biggest impediment to the presidency, it is never more painfully evident than when he gives a speech immediately after the man he hopes to succeed.
Monday night, roughly 1,000 assorted businesspeople and political operatives packed into the Sheraton New York to hear Tipper Gore, Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Clinton and Gore speechify before a $1,000-a-head fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee -- an event expected to net $2.2 million for the party.
Sitting below enormous chandeliers in a second-floor ballroom, the guests munched on grilled vegetables and filet mignon and were entertained by singer Tony Bennett and comedian Jon Stewart. ("After we eat we're going to have a separate performance: Donna Hanover [Rudy Giuliani's wife] will be performing 'The Vagina Monologues,'" cracked Stewart. "Enjoy it while you can before the mayor cuts off the funding.")
DNC general chairmain Ed Rendell kicked off the evening's speeches, paying tribute to the various Democratic fat cats in attendance, such as venture capitalist Alan Patricof, hotelier Jonathan Tisch and investment banker Steven Rattner. He boasted that the DNC "ended up the first quarter of this year with more money than the Republican National Committee" -- to loud applause.
Tipper Gore provided a few words before introducing Hillary Clinton to a standing ovation. The first lady waxed wistful, recalling that day's Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn, the Clintons' last such egg roll as the first couple. And she recalled campaigning with the Gores in 1992.
Standing at the presidential podium, before a bright blue screen, she then turned to the matter at hand, her Senate race against Mayor Giuliani: "With so many Democratic New Yorkers in the House, I just have to say one special word about how important it is that we elect a Democrat to succeed Daniel Patrick Moynihan." Applause. "We do not need any more Republicans in the United States Senate," she added, raising the specters of exploding deficits from the 1980s and destructive disinvestment.
"And you all know that in order to get anything done in the Senate, it takes teamwork," she added. "If you go to the Senate, you disagree with a fellow senator -- you can ask the vice president; he was there working so hard and effectively for all those years -- you can't sue or fire your colleagues. You have to get along."
She then introduced her husband as "the person who really has made it all possible."
The last time the president and the vice president appeared together -- at a major fund-raiser in Los Angeles last week -- Gore raised eyebrows with seemingly backhanded compliments about Clinton. ("Of all the criticisms of President Clinton that I've heard, the one that rings the most hollow is that he has pushed small ideas, little proposals," Gore said.)
But Monday night, Clinton seemed unfazed by last week's faint praise, and showered his deputy with compliments. The president appeared relaxed, enjoying playing to an audience that hung on his every word. He dismissed the complaints of previous chief executives who bemoaned the presidency as a tough job. "Frankly," he said with a smile, "most of those guys didn't have as tough a time as I've had. I don't know what in the heck they're talking about."
Then he proceeded to the subject of Gore.
"He wanted to be the first administration in history to take on Big Tobacco and try to give our children their lives back," said Clinton. He complimented Gore for his roles in Kosovo, Haiti, health care and more. "He was there, every time, in private, getting no credit," said Clinton, waving his finger in that all-too-familiar way. "He has had more responsibility than any person who ever held this job, and he has performed in an absolutely stunning manner," Clinton said.
He ran over a list of accomplishments -- from telecommunications policy to empowerment zones to Internet access for public schools -- and then leaned forward onto the podium in his folksy way. "I feel absolutely comfortable putting the future of my daughter and the grandchildren I hope she'll give us" in Gore's hands, said Clinton.
He then passed off the ball to Gore -- and it quickly hit the floor.
Gore launched into a meandering speech, consisting of a virtual recitation of everything the Clinton administration had done right and everything his opponent wanted to do wrong. He compared Americorps to the Peace Corps, reiterated his support for women's right to choose and the nuclear test ban treaty, attacked George W. Bush's position on guns and opposition to hate-crimes legislation and decried deficit spending. (There was no mention of Elian Gonzalez, however, an issue Gore has bungled publicly, and on which he now keeps his opinions fairly evasive. Indeed, the only time the matter was mentioned all evening was during Stewart's monologue.)
"You have to keep your eye on the ball," Gore declared at one point, although it was unclear what, precisely, this was a reference to.
By this time, several audience members were noticeably slumping in their chairs. One dinner guest seated at a table near the rear resorted to sticking food up his nose to entertain himself.
"How deeply do you care about the way we make the policies that will affect all our lives in the future?" Gore asked in closing. "The other side may be wrong in our way of thinking on all these issues, but they are passionately committed. Just look at what they're doing with all the money that's flowing into this state, for example -- [from] people that don't know either one of the candidates -- because they are committed to their way of thinking, to that different vision that they have of our future. Because of your presence here, and because of what I've been hearing from you and what I feel from all you in this room, I have no doubt that the real answer is that you feel stronger than they do, and because of that we're going to win."
There was loud applause. Mercifully, the speech was over. The vice president put his arm around Tipper, President Clinton did likewise with the first lady and they all waved goodnight to the crowd.