So Al Gore -- the vice president of the United States of America, the second most powerful man in the universe, the guy trying so desperately to get a promotion -- is lying in a 6-year-old girl's double bed amid pink and bunnies and Britney Spears posters, and this is what it has come down to as he slumbers at the home of an actual public-school teacher the night before one of his increasingly regular "School Days."
This one, at Holt High School on Friday, is his fourth so far, with a previous one in Michigan and one each in Ohio and North Carolina. (Another is planned for Thursday in Los Angeles, in a Latino neighborhood.) This is Gore's first high school visit -- the others were at elementary schools -- but they've all shared the same almost familiar, faux-homey pattern.
The school days begin the night before, when he sleeps over at the home of a teacher, often in a kid's room and -- noticeably non-Four Seasons -- bed. The next morning, he goes to the school itself (in the vice presidential SUV, of course; no limo for this) and spends a full day there attending classes, forums, assemblies and meetings with students, parents, teachers and, naturally, the principal.
It's a whole day out of his busy schedule, but it was Gore's idea to have them. And it's a breath of fresh air next to the sniping he's gotten into with his opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, tidbits of which he willingly, gladly, pushes along to reporters -- today filing from the school's drama room -- who write what he says about Bush (the words "risky," "smug" and "arrogant" are repeated a lot) and about what Bush shoots back in questioning Gore's honesty and credibility.
This is what gets reported, even though the snipes -- this day, focused on Bush's supposedly friendly relationship with the gun industry -- last just a few seconds out of a school day that, as you might remember, lasts hours.
But Gore loves the "School Days." Really. He finds them invigorating! Fascinating!
There's the official, pragmatic reason for the visits. "To really understand the issue of education, you need to spend time on the local level in order to see what it's really like," says Gore spokesman Chris Lehane. As an image-conscious exercise, they soften Gore, the pit bull, whose energy for politics has been known to work against him. People often tune out a pol standing on a podium, but stick one in a classroom and it's something new. And his strategists tout polls showing that the more people see of Gore, the more they like him, while the reverse is true for Gov. Bush.
"This is a guy who comes and spends eight hours in a school!" gushes Lehane. "And in this day and age, the saturation media coverage has the effect of conveying that very fact to everyone in the state."
Indeed. Because while "School Days" might not wow 'em in the producers booth at ABC's "World News Tonight" (one TV news correspondent nearly heaves when Gore says that he'd like to continue them as president), they do awfully well with, say, the news editor at the Lansing State Journal, which reported Friday on its front page: "For Holt students, staffers, today is 'goose-bump-time.'" It's an interesting strategy: Keep up a relentless rat-a-tat-tat on Bush at the national level while following a steady itinerary of trips to key areas that serve no greater purpose than conveying that Gore is a concerned -- and nice -- guy.
Gore flew into the town late Thursday, but he took a minute to shake the hands of the 100 or so neighbors gathered nicely across the street from Jay and Margo Strong's house. Not long after midnight, he's settling into the easy chair in the Strong living room, drinking bottled water, eating cheese and crackers and getting acquainted with the couple as their two children, Nick, 10, and Anna, 6, sleep.
Margo's a computer science and technology teacher at Holt High School, has been there for 20 years, while Jay teaches first grade at the local elementary school.
Gore knows the Strongs are big Michigan State basketball fans who were delighted at the results of this year's NCAA Tournament. (This was mentioned in his briefing papers.)
But tonight, the Strongs are watching hockey. In fact, it's the third longest National Hockey League game of all time, in which the Philadelphia Flyers take five overtimes to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, though Gore stays up to watch only four.
He soon retires to Anna Strong's room, which has been outfitted with a special phone in case of a national emergency. But it's also used for his wake-up call, which occurs sometime around 5:30 a.m. ("Short nights here, don't you think?" he later quips.) To prepare for his day, he puts on a cotton golf shirt, jumps into freshly ironed, pleated khaki Dockers, pulls on his shiny black cowboy boots and, the pihce de risistance, clips the Palm Pilot to his belt.
The Strongs prepare a green pepper, onion and cheese omelet for Gore (after asking staffers what he likes) along with toast, bacon and coffee. Then Gore and his motorcade take off and, within five minutes, the vice president strides up to Holt High School, home to 1,100 students, 80 teachers and the Rams.
All the usual reporters and cameras are cordoned off from Gore. He will grant just one exclusive interview today: to reporters from Ramparts, the Holt High student newspaper -- with questions, of course, screened by the assistant principal (a classic task for an assistant principal).
Principal Brian Templin greets Gore. "She's a terrific cook, I must say," Gore says to Templin of Margo Strong as cameras click and the video whirs.
Soon, Gore, Templin and a few specially selected students -- Holt High School's "student peer assistance listeners," an eager-beaver, camera-ready assortment devoid of weird hair or body piercings -- take Gore on a tour of the school.
(Later in the day, after Gore's grand finale -- a pep rally on the football field -- I run into a few slacker types hanging under the bleachers, one wearing a shirt declaring, "This Town Sucks." They're trying to make a quick getaway after the event concludes, but the Secret Service and Lansing cops won't let them or any other student past a certain buffer zone. "They'll probably let the senior girls go by," says one. I ask what they thought of Gore's visit. "I dunno," one replies. "I didn't see him."
The Gore Tour 2000 commences. Classroom, classroom, bulletin board, classroom. It's a school as generic as the one in "Election," one of Gore's recent favorite movies. Clean. Orderly. Jarringly nonsubliminal declarations about keeping a clean and orderly school are posted everywhere. Gore finds it all "very impressive," he says.
In Steve Neureither's "geocad" (for geometry- and computer-aided design) class, 20 students are using computer technology to design a new soccer ball for the new women's soccer league (also in Gore's briefing papers).
It's still early and the kids are still waking up. It's a forest of confusion and anxiety and zits and sebum and hormones. The Goth girl, the cutie, the kid with Hebrew on his T-shirt, the blond dude with the pubertal goatee and the "Hooters Girls Dig Me" T-shirt -- they're all unfailingly polite and somewhat awestruck, and the vice president says "Hi" to each one of them, or at least tries to.
"We're calculating surface area and volume," says Neureither, whose class also designed a computer car that broke some sort of record (also mentioned in the briefing papers).
"Sounds pretty complicated," Gore says, shaking some more hands as he talks to the fresh-faced kids.
"Sounds pretty complex," he says a minute later about another matter. "I'm very impressed."
As he walks away from the students, various pasty-faced scribes run over to the adolescents to record their innocuous thoughts.
"He might be president someday, so it's not an opportunity everyone gets," says one girl, who's wearing a "School Iz Cool" T-shirt. It must be a welcome change of reception for the man who can't put 25 cents in a D.C. parking meter without someone's doubting the quarter's sincerity.
"Thank you very much for letting me come into your class," Gore says, and he's off to physics.
There, Josh is on a saxophone and Julie's on a clarinet while the teacher, Eric Pulver, shows the class how the music they create manifests in sound waves and how the sound wave patterns are indicators of how mellifluous the music will sound to the human ear.
"The repetitive nature in the picture of the sound is what makes it pleasing to us," Pulver says. He has Josh and Julie play disharmonious notes. "It looks like a jumbled mess," Pulver says of the sound waves. "And it sounds like a jumbled mess, too."
Will the reporters out there searching for metaphors seize this one? A "jumbled mess"? At a previous school day, Gore sat in on a class in which the students were working on self-portraits. A veritable literary layup: Gore, the man seemingly confused about who he is, in a class where students slave away at the same question. One Gore advance man assures me that classes are not vetted for potential unseemly metaphors, but that seems doubtful for the world's most calculated man. Gore was originally slotted to visit a science teacher who wanted to measure his blood pressure. For some reason, that didn't work out.
But when thrown in an unpredictable situation, Gore can roll. In physics, one student jokes that the class has taught her plenty "about Mr. Pulver's personal life." (Pulver, it turns out, is engaged to a math teacher who is also at Holt.)
"I see," Gore says. "Is it harmonious? Is it pleasing to the ear?" That gets plenty of laughs. And he fares almost as well when another student, Steven Baker, says that he believes in creationism and not evolution. Gore could shrug off the remark but, to his credit, he doesn't.
"I don't think they're inconsistent," Gore says. "You can be a person of faith and still believe in the scientific theories and the processes of physics." Of course, he's dealing with an adolescent here, so what could have been a heated debate ends then and there.
Another class follows, film criticism, in which comedy film clips are shown, including one from "National Lampoon's European Vacation." "I liked the original 'Vacation' better," Gore says. "I didn't like the Las Vegas one."
Outside the room, Gore policy director Elaine Kamarck briefs a few reporters on the policy speech Gore will make later at the Michigan Education Association. The speech has clearly been designed to deflect the two related criticisms of Gore's education policy: that he demands no teacher accountability and that he is in the pocket of the teachers lobby.
But Gore doesn't mention his "bold new demands for teacher accountability" at his next stop, the teachers lounge, where various disembodied voices right out of a Charlie Brown TV special tell him how important their Wednesday morning all-staff meetings have become. (They're also a hit with the students, who get to sleep in.)
"It ends up making you a team, is that right?" he asks. "And why does that make a difference?"
Gore's earnestness, undergirded as it is by prissy Harvard arrogance, often comes across as a tone of pure condescension. His audience is often so star-struck they don't seem to notice, but it can, indeed, be grating. It fits in perfectly at a school, however, where a patronizing attitude comes with the chalk. This is especially true at the next stop, Kate Brennan's 10th-grade American history class, where Gore "co-teaches" a class on the landmark 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson.
"Can I ask a question?" Gore asks. "What's the difference between 'political' and 'social'" rights? A decent discussion ensues.
Gore likes being the one with the lessons to teach, the unquestioned fount of knowledge in the room. "That's a good point" rolls off his tongue. He already has a facial expression that reads: "Now, let's not always see the same hands."
At one point it slips that the kids have been prepped for battle. "How do you know that Plessy didn't 'look' white?" he asks one kid.
"Because we've done this before," the kid responds.
But it doesn't matter; Gore keeps going. Whatever horrible Machiavellian qualities one wishes to damn him with, he clearly has some feeling for the issue of race in America, and he shares some of his connections to the issue with the class.
There's his dad, the senator who "caused a minor uproar in Tennessee" by appointing black students to the service academies. Then there's the man who offered the Senate the "Southern Manifesto," a former colleague, nonagenarian Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. Gore knows the brother of "Roots" author Alex Haley and recounts a story he once told Gore about how Nazi POWs were served at the Southern lunch counter that had just denied seating black American GIs moments before.
Additionally, Gore remembers a Carthage, Tenn., movie theater where "the African-Americans sat in the balcony. They had a separate entrance. The law didn't require that, but the social custom when I was young was quite strong."
It's tough to imagine Bush in such a setting for oh-so-many reasons, not just because it's hard picturing him speaking easily about Plessy, a Supreme Court decision -- which codified the concept of "separate but equal" -- acknowledged as a bad one. Nor just because Bush's main connection to black Americans seems only to be portrayed in photographs of him among cute young ones. The real difficulty is trying to picture Bush's handlers letting him have a 45-minute, somewhat improvised conversation about any subject, even among high schoolers.
Miss Brennan asks the class why President Dwight Eisenhower had such a "bipolar" record on civil rights. "Because he was elected by the Southern states," says one girl, "and he had Southern friends who got him into office."
But Gore nods most tellingly when a boy remarks that much of the racial turmoil of the Eisenhower era came before he was reelected.
"That's a very sophisticated point," Gore says.
Miss Brennan later tells me that in past discussions of the integration of the armed forces she has raised the issue of gays in the military. But that point goes unmentioned today.
I would have brought it up, but Gore takes questions from only a few select reporters today -- namely those from "Ramparts." His favorite extracurricular activities in high school, they uncover, were basketball, football, track and art.
But "Ramparts" won't feed the beast, so Gore ducks into the principal's office and gets on the phone with Mark Halperin of Political Points, the webcast of ABC News/New York Times, to further take Bush to task on the National Rifle Association.
Gore has been on the defensive for much of the past two months, but a comment made public this week by Kayne Robinson, a top official of the NRA, that if Bush is elected, "we'll have a president ... where we work out of their office," has put the spring back in Gore's step.
As governor, Bush did much to stand in the way of localities being able to sue firearms manufacturers. Would he do the same as president? Gore asks. "If I'm entrusted with the presidency, I will veto any bill like the one Governor Bush signed ... I challenge Governor Bush to make the same pledge. Will he veto any bill that lets gun manufacturers off the hook? Will he fight for the gun industry or for America's families?"
In San Diego, Bush responds that "it depends on what's in the legislation," and says, "What I did in office was sign a bill that made it very difficult for local municipalities to sue manufacturers of a legal product."
Bush then repeats a completely unsubstantiated claim -- the kind known outside the world of politics as a "lie" -- that Gore once was a member of the NRA. When asked where he got such information, Bush responds, "A little birdie."
Hearing Bush's response while at Holt High School, Lehane wets his finger and makes a "score" mark in the air.
Not only does the gun subject bode well for Gore, and put Bush on the defensive, but by lying about Gore's NRA membership, Bush isn't exactly shoring up his credentials as the more credible of the two candidates.
And all of this before 11 a.m.
Next up is pepperoni pizza and fries with six more carefully gleaned kids. (Gore must be off that Atkins Diet.) Boom mikes hang while reporters' ears perk up to catch snippets of conversation. "How does the basketball draft work? ... Marine Corps Marathon ... dad was in politics ... in the Army ... we were at war ... in one school they used me in an exhibit and they made me feel really old ... three daughters ..."
Amid the pool of lunching young white achievers is a 17-year-old black kid, Derrick Hawthorne, president of the Multicultural Club and member of the basketball team and drama club. He says he has lost friends to gun violence. He also says that, unlike his fellow senior at the lunch bench, Clair Morrissey, who's heading to the University of Michigan's honors program next year, he'll be at Lansing Community College. He wants to ask Gore about making college more affordable, but he doesn't seem to get up the gumption to ask a question.
After Gore downs his meal, a more formal and substantive -- though no less staged -- conversation with teachers, parents and students follows. Gore handles all the questions with wonky authority, and everyone seems delighted. Then it's off to the football field for the closing pep rally.
But first, another pit stop. Gore gives ABC News a visual of the earlier sound bite.
I can't get to Gore -- few of us can these days -- so I grab Lehane. Lehane loves this new scrap about guns.
"W. seems to think that this is a frat party," Lehane says. "Run, wander around, slap some people on the back and don't have any difficult discussion on the issues. But it's not like that. Nor should it be." Lehane distinguishes between Gore's attacks against Bush and Bush's against Gore. "Bush has made it personal. All of our discussions are predicated on substance; his aren't." Lehane says Bush should "act like a real Texan and debate Al Gore."
The bleachers are filled, the baton twirlers twirl, the student body president is lauding the "transformation" of a formerly apathetic high school "to a school that's, like, politically aware."
Gore jumps to center stage and offers "a word of good luck to the women's soccer team," who will be playing that night "under the lights." Then: Substance. The baby boomers benefited from the investment in education that "the World War II generation" made, Gore says. Now Generation Y, the biggest baby boom in this country ever, needs the same thing. That baby boom is "why you've got some crowding in the hallways," Gore says.
"Some?" the students mutter.
"Yeah, right," Gore says sarcastically, oddly, forever unhip, totally dadlike. "Right now we need to make the same kind of investment." He rushes through a politician's laundry list of programs: preschool, affordable education, etc. Then he's off to downtown Lansing to the Michigan Education Association to give his speech; to Pennsylvania, where he'll speak at the Democratic Senate Issues Retreat; then back to D.C., where he'll prepare for next week's school day in Los Angeles.
"I will always remember my visit here," Gore says.
With that, he's outta there. And the bell rings.