The Gore campaign team has been saying for a while now that it would emphasize its candidate's credentials as a real person. Monday, the campaign had the vice president take the next logical step: Al Gore went on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Gore talked, endlessly it seemed, about Tipper Gore. Oprah asked how he had reacted to the news of Tipper's depression. He did what he had to, he said, which was to "feel the love and start the healing." He touted his wife's work in protecting American kids from those "albums that are inappropriate," something the Gores played down in 1992. He once gave Tipper a bracelet, he told everyone, inscribed, "To the bravest person I know."
He said he couldn't explain what she had to be so brave about. Of course, it didn't matter, since the point was not about Tipper, his "soul mate," but about Gore: a man who loves his wife silly, irrationally, so much he can't even say.
Such is the kind of dumbstruck male preferred by Oprah's audience. "Men mature more slowly than women," Gore said when asked to say something about being a man.
"Yes, they do," Oprah replied.
"What's the most important problem facing America?" an audience member asked.
Though the subject came up later during the show, Gore's first answer did not mention the people "who have to choose between food and medicine" -- one of the few political comments made during the hour. Instead, his answer was: "We need more meaning in our national life." In general, Gore behaved as if talking about his job was a bit gauche. Holding office, he made clear, is what he does when he is done taking care of "all the family and personal time." Asked about his faith, Gore went for a full Oprah pander. "Somebody told me," the vice president of the United States said, "we are not human beings who occasionally have a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience." Oprah didn't fall for it -- which is strange, since a day doesn't go by when she isn't hawking the same flaky brand of New Age slogans.
Presidential candidates are on television all the time, but only on occasions like this do they appear with television stars. Unfortunately, they pale next to the real, real thing. On Arsenio Hall's show in 1992, Bill Clinton seemed to have barely enough air in his lungs to fill his saxophone. Similarly, Gore looked very, very pasty Monday. Still, as Oprah guests go, he did a pretty good job, holding up his part of the conversation, letting her talk about what he thought.
For example, Oprah, who is single and childless, gave a brief editorial on the importance of training expectant parents. Did the vice president agree? "I think parenting education is an idea whose time has come," said the willing guest. The studio audience seemed to like that.
The exposure a candidate gains from such appearances can be quite valuable. Oprah has tens of millions of very devoted, very involved fans. This isn't the professional-minded, three-newspapers-a-day Washington crowd. Oprah's largely female audience is made up of enthusiasts who send her approximately 25,000 letters a week and enough money to fund the weekly $50,000 donations her show makes to do-gooders. They make millionaires of the novelists and self-help authors whose work she promotes. Furthermore, female voters have been key to the gains Gore has recently made against George W. Bush in polls. If Oprah can make Gary Zukav a bestselling author, why couldn't she put a presidential candidate over the top? Soon after the Gore appearance was announced, a Bush appearance a week from now was also announced. And Oprah's invitations rarely go unaccepted.
Who knows what to call it when candidates avoid politics, as Gore did on "Oprah," and talk only about their personal lives? It's not technically politics. It's more like the personals: Gore was a successful middle-aged professional, the sensitive type, looking for someone to understand him -- and for women to support him in droves.