Al Gore's rehabilitation tour

The same awkward Gore struggles to excite a crowd of young Manhattanites, under the scrutiny of skeptics in his own party.

By Jake Tapper

Published June 28, 2002 2:42PM (EDT)

Thursday night, long after Al Gore and his lovely daughter Karenna left Lot 61 -- the hip Manhattan club where his new political action committee, Leadership 2002, had a small, $50-a-head youth-themed event Thursday night -- former KISS bassist Gene Simmons walked in.

"Did you come here for the Al Gore event?" I asked.

"Who?" he said. He hadn't.

"Al Gore," I said.

"Who?" he said again, laughing. He looked at his date who didn't seem to get the joke.

"Al Gore," I replied. "The former vice president? He had an event here tonight."

"Why?" Simmons asked, matter-of-factly.

"Ummm ... for youth," I said. "For young people. To get them motivated, to tell them to vote for Democrats in November."

That's why, after all, several hundred young folks had splurged to show up at a club that more commonly hosts parties for the likes of Maxim magazine, which had an event there last month. There seemed to be two purposes to Thursday's event. The first was to raise money for a Gore project to teach young Democrats about politics and campaigns. The main reason, though, seemed to be to remind people that Gore's still around. Which did not sit too well with Mr. Simmons.

"I think it's a bad time to talk about electing Democrats," the aged rocker said. "Somebody got into the White House who nobody thought should have gotten into the White House and he went and did a bang-up job. He went and he rolled up his sleeves and he said it's time for politics to stop and it's time for ass-kicking to begin. I think the last thing the public wants to hear right now is politics. I think the last thing people want to hear is anything from the Democrats."

And with that, Simmons and his coterie of silicone-augmented gigglers turned and left the building.

Simmons, of course, is not Joe Sixpack. But strangely, he had tapped into the chief insecurity of Democrats who are watching Gore go about rehabilitating his career. Gore backers swear that the rank and file love their boy -- he won the popular vote, after all -- and that the skeptics are ivory-tower Manhattan and Washington elites. But it's tough to reason that now is as good a time for another Albert Arnold Gore Jr. presidential run than, say, when he was an incumbent vice president and the world was in a blissfully innocent state of peace and prosperity.

As he dips his toe back in the pool and reenters political life, the plumper, balder Gore, already too sensitive to criticism from should-be allies, seems to sense the whisperings. He feels he has been proven correct about Bush's campaign deceptions -- the deficit is back, the Social Security trust fund has been pilfered, environmental regulations are being rolled back, the economy is in the crapper -- and seems a bit frustrated at the less-than-lusty reception he's being greeted with.

He surely has plenty of detractors. "Gore smacks right now of a child star in the middle of an awkward adolescence," an operative from a Democratic rival's camp snarked earlier in the day. "He's still showing up for auditions, and the casting crew is reluctant to tell him he's the Tina Yothers of the Democratic Party."

But naysayers be damned, all signs indicate that Gore is going to go for it again. "It's been an interesting year, year and a half for me," Gore understated Thursday night. The Gores just set up their new home in a very White House-looking $2.3 million estate in a tony section of Nashville. And in an interview with the Memphis Commercial-Appeal that hits the stands Friday, Tipper Gore -- previously thought reluctant to see her main squeeze reenter the brutal fray -- says that she finds the prospect of another Gore presidential run "exciting" and if asked for her advice she would tell her hubbie, "Let's get going right now."

Leadership 2002 has raised about half a million dollars since the beginning of the year -- more money than the PAC of any other potential Democratic 2004 candidate with the single exception of Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Gore's erstwhile running mate who, with a wincing, almost regretful smile, has pledged not to run if Gore does. After Thursday night's event Gore will head south, to Memphis, the home state that rejected him and in doing so cost him the presidency. There, where he pledged to "mend fences," Gore will host a closed-door retreat with 60 or so of his biggest fundraisers.

Along the way, Gore does it in his own inimitably cloddish way, trying painfully, sadly, pathetically, tragically. Almost as if it were his first run, as if he hadn't been in office since before most of Thursday night's attendees were soiling their Pampers. It's not that the message is bad. It didn't seem like bad timing Thursday night when Gore called publicly -- as the drip-drip-drip water torture of corruption on Wall Street continues -- for the resignation of the controversial Harvey Pitt, director of the Securities and Exchange Commission, describing him as typical of Bush administration appointees.

For "every chicken coop," Gore said, "they've gone out to look for the hungriest-looking fox to put it in charge." He continued, questioning the "troubling change" from what he said he and President Bill Clinton had done, as now "investors are looking toward Europe instead of the U.S." Not only was government supervision of corporate crookdom laughably lacking, he said, but Bushonomics resembles the WorldCom zeitgeist in that "they're not telling the truth about future liabilities so they can shovel money to the few executives at the top." The 2002 elections are an opportunity, Gore said, "to send a message that what they're doing is wrong."

The message was not without merit, but Gene Simmons, for all his days of fire-breathing and face paint, seemed more in tune with the American people. According to a Bloomberg News poll conducted June 11-16, Bush would beat Gore in a match-up today, 56 percent to 32 percent. Bush has a 68 percent approval rating as president, and 60 percent of the American people approve of his handling of the economy and foreign policy, with 70 percent approving of his handling of the war on terrorism.

The crowd Thursday, too, was polite if not entirely sold.

"I wanted to see some old acquaintances and support the former vice president and support the party," said Ross Wallenstein, 24, the communications director for state comptroller candidate Alan Hevesi. Asked if he supported the prospect of another Gore presidential run, Wallenstein diplomatically said that "the Democratic party has a wide range of great candidates for 2004."

His friend Jared Nussbaum, 24, who works in telecommunications, was even less psyched. "I support the party," Nussbaum said. "The jury's still out as far as I'm concerned in terms of what I'm looking for."

Even the normally filially loyal Karenna seemed to have discerned the crowd's hesitation. "It's great that we can rally together and say, yes, we hate the terrorists ... but we can also say we disagree with the administration," she said in introducing her father.

While Karenna was speaking, a cameraman tapped on a hulking mass of a man, motioning him to get out of the way so he could get a better shot of the striking blond mother of two. The hulking mass he was shoving aside was the former vice president of the United States, the candidate who captured the 2000 popular vote -- if not the electoral or the Supreme Court votes -- two years ago. It recalled the farce just days before, when the geniuses at Midwest Express security singled out and selected Gore for random security screening at Reagan National Airport in Washington, before a flight to Milwaukee -- and then again, before Gore flew from Milwaukee to New York.

Gore's speech was full of the same jokes he's been making at fundraisers and state Democratic Party events for the last few months. He's a visiting professor -- or "V.P. for short." He misses motorcades. He and Tipper eat at Shoney's. He's concerned about the economy -- "I was the first one laid off, a year ago."

Laughter. Beat.

"That's not funny."

Chuckles, some a bit uncomfortable.

Then: hitting pitches that should be easily hit by any Democrat, given the Bush administration's conservative record and the shameless corporate corruption of Enron, et al. And an attempt to tie them together: Pitt should be "the point man on ensuring the integrity of financial statements." Instead he's holding "private meetings" with the corrupt CEOs of companies whom he formerly represented as an attorney. "That's wrong," Gore said. "He ought to resign. They ought to wake up and realize that the Bush-Cheney economic policy is a total catastrophe for America."

There were words he should have said more than two years ago: "I don't care what anybody says, Bill Clinton and I did a damn good job." Biggest cheers of the night.

With little style or cadence, he concluded by reminding a bunch of Manhattan liberal Democrats to support Democratic candidates in November. And bada-bing, it was mercifully over.

This weekend, the Memphis retreat will bring five dozen or so Democratic donors together. Three key Gore moneymen will be in the house -- former finance director Peter Knight, former finance chair Johnny Hayes and longtime Gore moneyman Jody Trappaso -- along with a trio of his closest advisors -- general adviser Elaine Kamarck, foreign relations advisor Leon Fuerth, environmental advisor Katie McGinty. But few Gore political staffers will be there. Just the aforementioned wonks, Karenna and dog-loyal former traveling chief of staff Mike Feldman, plus 2000 campaign deputy Donnie Fowler. Many of his previous loyalists, for now, are elsewhere. Former Democratic National Committee field guy Michael Whouley is helping 2004 wannabe Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in his nothing of a reelection contest; media gurus Bob Shrum and Tad Devine are with wannabe Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who is holding his own private retreat for 50 or so supporters on St. Simons Island, Ga., at the same time. Former campaign manager Donna Brazile, disillusioned with Gore's reluctance to actually try to "count every vote" during the Florida recount, is working for the Democratic Party. "That doesn't surprise me in the least," a senior aide close to Gore says of his former colleagues' various activities. "The livelihood of these guys depends on some of these Senate Democrats; it makes sense for them to keep their powder dry.

"Especially since Gore has not said that he's going to run yet."

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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