I haven't been seated this close to Vice President Al Gore in slightly more than a year. That year sure has taken its toll on his face.
The wrinkles that parenthesize his mouth are deeper. Some tiny new crinkly ones -- ones that almost look like claw marks -- mark the top of his heavy eyelids. It is a much more severe look, up close, than what you see on TV. It might explain the much-criticized pancake makeup of his first presidential debate with Gov. George W. Bush.
Gore is making his way back to Air Force Two, after coming from a rally where the Republican mayor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, endorsed Gore not only for his similar views on public education and abortion rights, but also because she clearly finds his opponent intellectually wanting.
"I want a president who has the intelligence to understand the issues," says Mayor Lee Clancey.
Despite that feisty introduction, Gore seems, as he did in the second debate against Gov. Bush, restrained.
The "Fightin' Al" Gore has been confined by chains of his own construct; his exaggerations and misstatements have created a caricature that the GOP and media have been exploiting, sometimes fairly, sometimes not so. So he has taken it down a notch or 10. In that, something has been lost, perhaps -- the Al Gore with oomph, the one who has blown the last few weeks when he was planning on dispatching with Bush once and for all.
"I was determined not to sigh, as I did in the first debate," Gore says of his more subdued second debate performance. "Also, the format was very different. Table format, as you saw in the Cheney-Lieberman debate ... it has kind of a sedating effect."
Format or not, the hemmed-in Gore let Bush get away with numerous misrepresentations of his record, not to mention disturbingly wrong remarks about foreign policy. "I think it ought to be one of our priorities to work with our European friends to convince them to put troops on the ground" in the Balkans, Bush said, despite the fact that the NATO-led Kosovo Force is represented by 28,000 troops from 27 European nations.
Then, at the end of the debate, Bush lit into Gore's credibility, even though the Texas governor is hardly above reproach. Gore, instead, offered his lengthy mea culpa. Why?
"Because time ran out, because time ran out," Gore says rather defensively when I ask about this. "And [moderator Jim] Lehrer did not bring that topic up until the very last question. And on my watch, there was one minute remaining and we were going overtime."
"It's a good case for interrupting," he says, perhaps re-thinking the polite Al Gore. He's clearly been rethinking Wednesday's performance. "There were only two occasions when he turned to me to close out the discussion of a topic," he says, "and I determined that I was not going to interrupt him during that debate."
He won't concede defeat in his last prime-time match-up with Bush. "I think that there's good reason to believe that more happened in that debate" than how it was assessed by the pundits, he says. He cites a positive assessment of his performance in Slate that he thinks captures this. Additionally, Gore and his advisors think that in the second debate, Bush's record in Texas got put on the table and Gore came across as more personable.
Maybe, but Gore's rhetoric also has been adjusted in the past few days. He still proclaims that "AAAAH will FIGHT foar YEEWW." But he makes it clear that he's "questioning [Bush's] priorities, not his heart." He makes sure to say that "the pharmaceutical industry is made up of a lot of good people, and I think they do a lot of good things," before he bashes pharmaceutical companies for jacking up the prices of prescription drugs for seniors.
He seems in a struggle to be both dynamic and careful. Once, during a riff on the country's economic prosperity, Gore says that Bush claims that things were better off eight years ago. But then he catches himself and, clarifying with meticulous detail, says: "At least, I heard him say it once. And they imply it often."
Gore says he sees no change. "I don't see it that way," he says. "I've said that about the pharmaceutical industry before. That's not a new statement. I've talked about how it's wrong for them to make the highest profits of any industry while they're charging seniors so high. I left out what I usually say there, that profits are fine."
"I see these two days" -- Thursday and Friday, where his campaign activities are cut short so he can huddle with the president, secretary of state, secretary of defense and the national security team -- "as being a little bit in the shadow in these events" in the Middle East and Yemen, he says about his more somber tenor. "That's the way I feel, with the deaths of the sailors, and the tensions in the Middle East, rushing back for the national security meeting."
But Gore advisors admit that their boss's unfavorable ratings went up in the wake of the first debate, and thus his sudden mellowing probably isn't just the result of current events.
Take, for instance, the lockbox. Mocked on last week's "Saturday Night Live" for, during the first presidential debate, constantly referring to a "lockbox" that would guard Social Security and Medicare funds from a lusty Congress, Gore doesn't even use the word in Cedar Rapids. He refers instead to "a special category where the money can't be used for anything else."
It's clunky. He should embrace the lockbox. Jeez, it was just a joke.
Still, his team has taken up his defense with an aggressive, traditionally Republican, offense: On Thursday, Gore campaign chairman William Daley berated the media for not holding Bush to the same standard for his misstatements.
I ask Gore if he agrees, citing as an example the lack of media coverage about an incident just a few weeks ago. At the end of September, Bush was asked by a woman about the Violence Against Women Act -- through which Texas has received $50 million in the past five years -- and he said he had no idea what it was.
"Or the FDA Commission," Gore adds as another example, referring to a moment in the first debate, when Bush didn't seem to understand the role of the FDA -- or the FDA commissioner whom he would appoint -- in approving the abortion pill RU-486.
"He said that the percentage of uninsured was going up in the United States, and going down in Texas," Gore says. "Actually, it's the exact reverse. It's going down in the United States and going up in Texas."
Still, he doesn't quite take the bait. "I don't consider myself to be a very good media critic, so I will stay out of analyzing the press coverage," he says. "I don't think it's up to me. I really don't."
Later in the conversation, however, Gore does find fault with at least one aspect of the media. And it's one that embodies many of his feelings about the snipes coming at him from both the GOP and the press.
It comes during a discussion about an issue both the media and Bush slammed him for on Friday: a story in Friday's New York Times claiming that Gore allowed Russia to violate the terms of a 1992 law that he himself co-authored with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would trigger sanctions against any country selling advanced weapons to countries classified as sponsors of terrorism.
An agreement inked secretly in 1995 by Gore and then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin allowed Russia to fulfill already existing contracts for weapons shipments, as long as all shipments ended on Dec. 31, 1999. But Russia has violated that agreement.
In Lincoln, Neb., Friday, an angry McCain lashed out. "The administration has simply nullified important legislation that was co-authored by the vice president," McCain said. "Gore-McCain included a waiver of sanctions, but administration officials chose not to invoke it because, I assume, they would have been obliged to make a defensible argument for doing so. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, did they consult or inform any member of Congress, including the coauthor of Gore-McCain, about the provisions of the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement.
"That," McCain said, "is inexcusable."
Gore disputes the gravity of the incident.
"All of the contracts that were covered by that [agreement with Chernomyrdin] were signed before the Gore-McCain law took effect," he says. "They're not covered by Gore-McCain ... They've signed no new contracts since then. They unilaterally extended it for the deliveries. They could not deliver all that they were obligated to under the old contracts, by the deadlines. We disagreed with the extension. We faced a choice -- do you want to pull the plug, and use the old provision and go ahead to impose the sanctions because of the unilateral extension of the deadlines?"
Gore's critics have repeatedly slammed him for the failures of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, which was established shortly after Gore became vice president in 1993, ending when former Russian President Boris Yeltsin fired Chernomyrdin in early 1998. Bush, who was praised by the media for being able to pronounce "Chernomyrdin," described the Clinton-Gore policy in Russia as, "'We said here's some IMF money. It ended up in Viktor Chernomyrdin's pocket, and others.' And yet we played like there was reform." IMF money, though, didn't even arrive in Russia until after Chernomyrdin had left office. Chernomyrdin has never been proven to have been involved in any such corruption, and the former prime minister on Friday threatened to sue Bush for defamation.
Still, critics say Gore's trust led to Russians taking advantage of the U.S., leading to bad deals and arms sales to Iran. Gore says that his work on the commission led to peacetime jobs for Russian weapons scientists, along with the removal of nuclear weapons from Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine.
"I think that what I did in the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission has been of significant value to the country," Gore says. "And I'm proud of the work that I did."
Then he add, with a less-than-veiled whack at the media: "It's complicated, it's complex, it's detailed.
"Virtually none of it got any news coverage at the time."
Some of his rhetoric still packs a punch, however, no matter how subdued its delivery. Thursday in Milwaukee and Friday in Cedar Rapids, Gore repeated the -- accurate -- story that Bush pushed through an "emergency" tax relief bill for oil and gas producers while, during the same legislative session, fighting efforts to provide poor children with income levels between 134 percent and 200 percent of the poverty level with health insurance through the Children's Health Insurance Program.
It's all part of what Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., are trying to use to scare the bejeezus out of voters. It's a "window" into Bush's "priorities" that Gore is trying to construct, offering a menacing glimpse into the future of a President George W. Bush.
Fair enough. But Bush has a nightmare scenario of his own, reminding Wednesday night's debate watchers of Hillary Clinton's disastrous attempt to tackle the issue of the then 36 million -- now 43 million -- uninsured.
"He's not for a government-run healthcare system?" Bush asked. "I thought that's exactly what he and Mrs. Clinton and them fought for in 1993 was a government-run healthcare system. It was fortunately stopped in its tracks."
How does Gore respond? He implicitly slams the 1993 effort as not being an example of how he would conduct himself were he to have been in charge, saying, for instance, that any healthcare reform effort should be bipartisan -- which the Clinton 1993 approach most certainly was not.
"When Franklin Roosevelt pulled national healthcare out of the New Deal at the last minute, we began 65 years of evolution along the lines of a hybrid public-mostly private system," Gore says. "Fifteen percent of the people don't have health insurance, but 85 percent do. And any proposal aimed at securing it for the 15 percent, which threatens to tear up what we have and start over again from scratch, can and does easily arouse the majority within the 85 percent, who are relatively happy with what they have. Or, if not, relatively concerned that they might end up with something they like less under a national healthcare approach."
"I've long held a view that we should take a step-by-step approach," he says. "And I had that view in 1993, and advised that we spend the first two years trying to build a consensus with the Congress on what to do and tackle that in the second two years."
Which Republicans would he work with?
"All of themmmmm," he intones. "All of them who are willing."
You're not known for being particularly bipartisan, I say.
"You see, that's another myth," he says, "and I think that the misconception comes from the focus on my role as vice president, which naturally requires you to be more of a point person for the political party -- always has, always will. But in the House and Senate, I did in fact have a reputation for working across party lines. I supported President Bush on the Persian Gulf War --"
Speaking of which, I interrupt, what's all this about the story former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., is going around telling about you selling your Gulf War vote to whichever side gave you more speaking time?
"Yeah," he says, laughing and shaking his head.
What is that about?
"It's just untrue, obviously," Gore says. "If you want to go into chapter and verse into all the details, I'd be happy to." And he is. "[Simpson] was not a part of any conversations that I had. I was undecided, tortured over that vote, because it was a very difficult vote," Gore says. "Democrats were virtually lock-step. It was very, very tough.
"I was still balancing the equities in my mind, and I went to [then-Senate Majority Leader] George Mitchell [D-Maine] and asked if I could have time to speak. Because when I made up my mind, whichever way I voted, I knew I was going to have difficulty explaining it to the constituents who were on the other side," Gore says. "And he said -- and incidentally, Mitchell has publicly debunked [Simpson's story] on numerous occasions -- and he said, 'No, not unless you'll vote with us.' He said, 'If you're not going to be with us, I can't give you time.'"
Gore says that he told Mitchell that he was still struggling to decide, but would want to defend his vote either way.
"And he said, 'Well, if you're with us, we'll give you time.' He said, 'Why don't you ask [then-Senate Minority Leader Bob] Dole [R-Kansas] that, in the event that you vote the other way, will he give you time. I'm sure he would.'"
Gore says he then went to Dole and explained the dilemma. At that point, both Mitchell and Dole said that, depending on which way he voted, it would come out of one of the sides' allotted time. "The idea," Gore says, "I mean, how valuable is a different speaking slot?!"
On C-Span, I say.
"Yeah!" he shrieks, in a high-pitched voice of disbelief.
It wasn't like it was live on ABC or the networks, I add.
"No!" he shrieks again.
Still. It's a small story by anyone's standards. But added to the negative press, and his own screw-ups, it still seems like the momentum may be with Bush, doesn't it?
"I'm not so sure," he says. "I'm not so sure. It's neck and neck ... I'm looking forward to St. Louis. I think you'll find that a very entertaining debate. I'm looking forward to the next 25 days. It's going to be very hot and heavy."