With the clock running down on this year's presidential race, Vice President Al Gore spent precious time Saturday morning praying and politicking with religious leaders in his home state. The Tennessee Democratic Victory Prayer Breakfast was dominated by black voters the Democrats are counting on, and Gore's sermon was part of an aggressive party effort to inspire those voters to -- as Gore said -- "Take your souls to the polls."
After an endless parade of pastors thundered into the mike, Democratic rising star and Tennessee congressman Harold Ford gave Gore a rousing introduction. Suffering one lapse into silliness ("Didn't Al Gore kiss his wife so good at the Democratic Convention?"), Ford gave a speech that was half grateful native son, half hard-partisan and all aimed at getting out the black vote.
"When times are good, it's easy to forget when times were bad," he lectured the flock. Then he cited the shortcomings of the previous Bush era, problems that Ford credited Clinton and Gore with fixing. Ford gave the administration credit for everything from the drop in unemployment and the tripling of the stock market to the proliferation of the Internet, and practically called George W. Bush a dunce for not joining in the hallelujah chorus.
"When I heard that young fellow from Texas" -- that would be Bush, who is more than two decades Ford's senior -- "say we had missed opportunities and squandered opportunities, I don't know what America he was living in the last eight years."
Following Ford, a tired-looking Gore took center stage as a gospel choir sang in the background. Battling to be heard over the music blaring from the speakers, the choir belted out Kool and the Gang's 1980 hit "Celebration" -- "Cel-e-brate good times, come on!" Despite his fatigue, the vice president seemed ready for some kind of celebration himself.
Once he reached the podium, his reserve seemed to melt away and he quickly settled into the Sunday morning rhythm. "All praise be to the Lord," he said twice, both times to scattered amens and applause. During his remarks, the vice president reeled off enough scripture to match Clinton's legendary performances and cast himself as Moses trying to lead his people to the Promised Land. "We have left Egypt," he told the audience, "but we have not reached Canaan."
But it wasn't all fire and brimstone. "You remember the children's game when your friends would say, 'You're getting warmer,' and if you were headed in the wrong direction, away from what you were seeking, they would say, 'You're getting colder'?" Gore asked. "I'm getting warmer." With that declaration, Gore peeled off his jacket and dabbed the sweat from his forehead.
At times, Gore got plenty warm with his audience. Whether driven by his hopes that Bush would self-destruct, giddiness that the race is almost over or a sleep deprivation high, the vice president was surprisingly friendly, lamenting and then poking fun at the problems in his campaign.
"You know me. You know my heart," he began. "You don't care ... whether I [Gore breathed heavily into the mike] sigh." The crowd laughed in recognition. "You might even forgive me if I get a little impatient with the pace of justice," he said, though his tone echoed that of his disastrous victory in the first debate.
"But you know me, you know what is in my heart," he said, returning to earnestness, then pleading for a miracle. "You know that even in the valley of dry bones, the Lord breathed life into those bones," Gore intoned.
It was a strangely chosen metaphor for someone running in the last days of a close race. Perhaps Gore saw himself in need of a divine second wind, or was just carried away with the redemptive tone of the event.
While the vice president stayed on the same spiritual page as his audience, he did sound one flat note when he delivered an anecdote about the need for racial healing. "I saw a movie one time about a devastated area in California called Compton," he said, as if the place would be foreign to the ears of a majority black audience.
The movie he went on to describe was "Grand Canyon," a well-meaning 1991 ensemble flick that he presented as a parable about race and class divisions. "At one point in the scene, black and white met," Gore said. "One character played by Danny Glover came to the rescue of another character played by the actor Kevin Kline."
In a moment of pure pandering, Gore described how the noble Glover saved Kline after his car broke down in the middle of a dangerous slum. What he did not mention is that Glover was saving Kline from a gang of black kids holding him at gunpoint.
But the pandering didn't get worse than that. And, though a weary Gore stumbled through some of his remarks, the audience seemed forgiving and, dare I say it, loving. They gave him a rousing standing ovation, and the event ended with the hundreds of participants joining hands, and singing "We Shall Overcome."
We'll see Tuesday.