A Stiffened Resolve
Stung by bad polls and Clinton's critique, candidate Gore keeps on keeping on.
By Jackson Baker
MAY 24, 1999: ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, MD. -- Vice President Al Gore, shirt-sleeved and tieless after a day which began with a blessing spoken over bacon in Iowa and ended with a $1,000-a-plate dinner of Iowa beef in Boston, stood in the aisle of Air Force Two Monday night, thinking of how to phrase for the record his reaction to published criticism of his campaign style by President Clinton.
It was no secret to those traveling with him this past weekend that Gore was close to furious about Clinton's complaint, cited in Friday's New York Times, that his heir apparent was failing to connect with the voters or the media -- a critique that came complete with proposed remedies from the president.
After all, Gore has made a point during the six and a half years of his vice presidency of keeping his own advice to the president close to the vest, and he surely saw no reason why Clinton himself should suddenly be talking out of school.
What the vice president ended up saying, however, as he balanced himself against two seatbacks in the customized DC-9 that was taking him back home to Washington, was wryly discreet. "He might as well tell me what to do. If he didn't, he'd be the only person in America who didn't," Gore said with a stoic shrug.
And, in fact, a series of recent polls reflecting widespread public skepticism about Gore seemed to confirm what Clinton (as well as virtually every late-night talk-show comic) had suggested: The vice president was having trouble connecting with people, coming off as suspect not only on the personality scale but on that of leadership as well.
But, as Gore was now contending, he'd seemed to have had a good weekend of campaigning -- with appreciative crowds on his bus tour through southern Iowa, with generally respectful responses to the comprehensive education proposal he'd announced Saturday at Graceland College at Lamoni, and with a handsome (and presumably lucrative) turnout of supporters at Boston's Park Plaza Hotel.
At the latter affair, he'd even picked up the surprise endorsement of Boston mayor Thomas Menino -- no small matter at a time when Democratic rival Bill Bradley, the former senator from New Jersey, was waging an increasingly competitive-looking campaign both in the Northeast and in Iowa, the hinterland state where Democratic officials -- for boosterish reasons, if nothing else -- seemed to be encouraging a competitive struggle all the way through next January's bellwether caucuses.
In the Hawkeye State, Gore had been accompanied at all his stops by two-term congressman Leonard Boswell, who was publicly backing him, but Governor Thomas Vilsack, who worked a rope line with Gore at his hometown of Mt. Pleasant and hosted a brief meet-and-greet for the vice-president there (where a senior-citizens choir serenaded him with versions of "Tennessee Waltz" and "Chattanooga Choo-Choo"), was maintaining an official neutrality.
"He's not as stiff as I'd expected" was a frequently heard comment from people in the Iowa crowds that were assiduously worked at every stop by a casually clad Gore, lean and whippet-looking from a regimen of early-morning runs and what appeared to be a variant of the Dr. Atkins protein diet.
Ironically enough, Gore seemed to be following the published advice of Clinton to adopt the president's own tactics of moving with apparent eagerness into crowds, keeping a disciplined grin on from person to person and, with outstretched palm, asking virtually every child he encountered to "give me five."
The vice president's new tactics were first put on display Friday afternoon at the affair that kicked off his weekend tour, the opening of his state headquarters at Des Moines. As he went from corner to corner of the parking lot outside his campaign office looking for hands to shake and Secret Service agents experimented with opening up a wider than usual perimeter in the crowd, giving him room to work, state Democratic treasurer Mike Fitzgerald looked on approvingly.
"So what if he's dull," Fitzgerald pronounced. "He's good at it!"
The berobed Gore who was on display as Graceland College's commencement speaker on Saturday was the familiar sober-sided version. In what was billed as the first of several major policy addresses, the vice president proposed a seven-point formula to improve American education -- with remedies ranging from universally mandatory pre-school programs to "second-chance" schools for problem youth to an extension of work-leave to parents attending P.T.O. meetings.
As Gore outlined his concepts, the graduation-day crowd listened with minimal muttering and seemingly attempted to follow his sometimes complex reasoning, even applauding at most of the right places.
The vice president expounded further on his plan Monday in Boston with a forum at Charlestown High School, an institution which had rebounded from a period of academic laxity and student turmoil through the application of programs similar to those which Gore has proposed on a national scale.
Surrounded by state and school officials and accompanied by his wife Tipper, Gore conducted what amounted to a town meeting, interacting with students and faculty a la Clinton, and apparently staking out for himself a potential role similar to that gained by city executives like Mayors Menino of Boston and Rich Daley of Chicago, both education mavens, and (though Gore would in conversation later on prove loath to give him credit) the crime-fighting Rudy Giuliani of New York.
The role which Al Gore seemed to be declaring for himself as he headed into the early stages of his campaign for the presidency of a nation facing a new century and a millennial turn was that of a Mr. Fixit, a national policy wonk with a sensible plan to solve everything. In a word: Clinton without the interns.
And there was some evidence from his weekend of campaigning that he might even have a remedy for the mockers and scoffers, the Jay Lenos of the world. At his Sunday-morning breakfast session, which he opened with a blessing, Gore remarked on the tragedy of Littleton via a take on the Parable of the Sower. He waxed downright eloquent -- even passionate -- as he likened the scattering of seeds to the broadcasting of pollutant ideas by a sometimes sociopathic media fixated on violence. It was a theme made familiar, of course, by Tipper Gore in her campaign of a previous decade against explicit rock lyrics.
However many re-programmed Gores might appear between now and November 2000, this buttoned-down, middle-American version seemed the real thing, a well-intentioned Square John who -- on his own behalf and that of the nation -- would try to find ways of closing off certain nuances and distractions in his determination, above all, to keep things sensible.
There was a revealing moment at the Charlestown educational forum on Monday. Reflecting on the current generation of American youth, Gore noted that, arithmetically, it now exceeded the baby-boomer generation which included himself and so many others who are nationally prominent today. He began to speak of the men who had created the post-World War II baby crop. The returning veterans, he said, had come back to America and "gotten busy "
He was interrupted by laughter and seemed unaware of the double entendre he had inadvertently uttered.
"What'd I say?" he asked, genuinely confused.
Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, the Al Gore who would be president is, it would seem, capable of spontaneity -- some of it surprising even himself.
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