POLITICS JULY 12, 1999
A few weeks ago, Tipper Gore hinted to reporters that the vice president of the United States, the man who is a heartbeat from the presidency, sleeps in the nude. Now, I'm no Michael Isikoff, but I think I've got a scoop of my own concerning the vice presidential undergarments.
My troubling discovery came as I followed Al Gore on his presidential announcement tour last week. In Carthage, the normally plodding Gore raced through his speech at such breakneck speed that seven dense pages flew by in just 25 minutes. He spoke with even more haste at stops in Iowa, New Hampshire, and New York City. I checked with Laura Quinn, Gore's communications director, to see how she explained this new urgency.
"We gave him really tight underwear," she replied.
There are other possible explanations. Another aide credited performance-enhancing substances: "He's highly caffeinated." Yet another suggested the candidate was made to drink large quantities of water before his appearance, forcing him to finish quickly. It is not an altogether pleasant image to picture the superhydrated, overcaffeinated candidate hurrying cross-legged through his speech, bolting for the men's room, and peeling off his constricting skivvies.
But I'm not complaining. Whatever the cause, boxers or briefs, Gore's newfound need for speed is a blessing for listeners. I hear a good number of Gore speeches, so it's likely the faster pace will save me days of cumulative waiting time before the campaign is over. The quickspeak will also make Gore sound less condescending than he invariably does when he slowly articulates every syllable, as if he were reading a storybook to children or perhaps encountering a new word for the first time. One hopes he will never again decry "pro-TEK-shuns for GUN man-YOU-FACT-chur-urs" or vow to protect "OW-ur CHILLED-run."
Yes, there were a couple of lapses into the old ways on the announcement tour. In Iowa City, Gore, who shrewdly avoided reading a list of acknowledgments in Carthage, felt it necessary to thank a local fellow from 4-H. "I was in the 4-H club and raised beef cattle," he began, creating a momentary worry that we would hear another yarn about his youth as a farmer on the fertile plains of Massachusetts Avenue. But, once into his stump speech in Iowa, Gore delivered one line with such rat-a-tat-tat speed ("If-you-do-not-want-some-body-committed-heart-and-soul-to-bring -revolutionary-change-to-our-public-schools-then-vote-for somebody else") that Tipper jolted her head back in mock whiplash. Gore, thankfully, has stopped playing the 45 rpm record at 33.
The big story of the Gore announcement tour has been the candidate's efforts to separate from his boss. He spoke of the "moral leadership" invested in the presidency and criticized Clinton's sexcapades. On the press plane, Gore's campaign chairman, Tony Coelho, tried to soften the vice president's remarks, telling reporters they were "fixating" on the Clinton split and saying, "We're not going to give you a headline that says this." But neither did he mind the distinction being drawn. In the same breath, Coelho spoke about a Gore who is now "unshackled." (Actually, it was Coelho himself who seemed unshackled, if not unhinged; the man was dancing on the tarmac in Cedar Rapids after Air Force Two landed, to the strains of U2 and, curiously, the Fleetwood Mac tune "Little Lies.")
Gore began to show some distance from Clinton on the eve of his announcement tour. "I'm completely different from President Clinton," he said. "I have a different set of priorities, a different approach." Gore won't put it like this, but the message is simple: I can keep the economy humming, and I won't sleep with the interns.
Some Gore strategists, who clung to Clinton earlier this year, are coming to the conclusion that the president, though still popular, is a liability. Gore aides had argued that his poor showing in polls was similar to Vice President Bush's fix in '88 (and that W.'s weaknesses were similar to Dukakis's), but some now say the situation is worse. One adviser was flummoxed by a CNN poll this month showing 71 percent approval of Bush's job as president, double what he got when actually in office in 1992. The adviser said such a number can only be explained by a Clinton backlash. When I asked Gore about this Bush revival, he answered, "Maybe there's a hitherto hidden fondness for deep recessions."
The getaway vehicle for Gore's departure from Clinton is faith and family, a familiar Gore theme anyway. The key passage in his announcement speech, according to campaign strategy, was this: "When we in our generation are finished adding up our deeds, our possessions, all our material and scientific advances, I believe we will ultimately be judged by whether we have strengthened or weakened the families that are the hope and soul of America." One reporter who bothered to count told me Gore used the word "family" 27 times.
The faith-and-family theme sounds a bit Republican (it doesn't excite hard-core Democratic audiences the way, say, a minimum-wage hike would), just as George W. Bush's "compassion" line (which doesn't get a rise out of Republican audiences like a tax cut does) sounds Democratic. In this post-Clinton era, both candidates are such expert co-opters that they steal from each other freely. After Gore's Iowa City speech, reporters argued about which man first used the ubiquitous "leave no one behind" line. Bush lifted Clinton's '92 campaign themes of responsibility and opportunity; Gore, meanwhile, made off with Bush's issue of federal support for religious charities.
Their similarities approach the absurd. Appearing with his father in Kennebunkport, George W. sounded like young Hamlet when he spoke of lessons learned from his father's defeat. Seventy-two hours later, in Carthage, Gore spoke similarly about his late father: "His last election was lost, but his conscience won." The eerie likeness between the two privileged scions was even evident in their summer hometowns. In Kennebunkport, signs (some with a "W." superimposed over the old George Bush versions) welcomed the new favorite son. In Carthage, storefront signs urged locals to "be a part of history" at Gore's announcement. One Gore souvenir booth promised the "lowest price t-shirts in carthage." Even the Bass Funeral Home got in on Gore's campaign kickoff, erecting a tent on its lawn labeled, disconcertingly, "first aid center."
The two campaign operations, both obsessed with fund-raising and endorsements, are also disturbingly alike. A couple of weeks back, I received an e-mail from the Gore camp announcing endorsements from lieutenant governors; moments later, I received a fax from Bush with his own list of lieutenant-governor endorsements. On June 3, nothing could distract the front-runners from their show-of-support competition. Three releases came over the fax machine within 66 minutes. "Forbes warns no U.S. troops should be sent into Kosovo," read a Forbes release. A Dole release had a "statement by Elizabeth Dole on Kosovo peace agreement." And the Bush fax? "Columbus Mayor Lashutka endorses Governor Bush."
In case you live in a cave, here's the conventional wisdom from the past couple of weeks: the presidential contest, eight months before the Iowa caucuses, is a two-man race. Bush and Gore themselves, judging from their stump speeches, seem to have bypassed the primaries and gone straight to the general election. Bush campaigns against the "if it feels good, do it" culture identified with Clinton and promises "a fresh start after a season of cynicism." Gore decries the "crumbs of compassion" and the stands Bush has taken on guns and abortion.
This strategy is utterly maddening to the other candidates. Lamar Alexander, who had to lay off staff after fund-raising dried up, lashed out at Bush by saying that "most voters in Iowa couldn't pick him out of a lineup." It was an interesting theory, so I had TNR's consulting art director create just such a lineup: a piece of paper printed with the photos of three Bushes (George, George W., and Jeb), three standard-issue Republicans (Lamar, Tom DeLay, and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge), and three men with high, patrician foreheads that resemble the Bush brow (Ohio Senator George Voinovich, New York Governor George Pataki, and Democratic Representative Marion Berry of Arkansas). I then took the lineup with me to Iowa and New Hampshire. Though half the people I asked could pick out both George W. and Lamar without much trouble, my lineup did indeed baffle a number of citizens. "George W. Bush? Sure. It's him," said one fellow, pointing without hesitation to Ridge. "That's him," said a woman, pointing confidently to the elder Bush. Another fellow fingered President Bush and, when I reminded him I was looking for W., confessed: "I don't know the difference." Another man studied the photos intently and pointed to Jeb.
But Lamar shouldn't celebrate the outcome. A similar number of Iowans and New Hampshirites couldn't identify him, either, even though he has been living among them for the past five years. When I asked my subjects to find Lamar, one fellow studied the photos at length and ultimately settled on Berry. Another man pointed to Ridge. Still another seemed to think the photo of George W. Bush was Lamar.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence that the primaries are over and the general election has begun comes from the debut of the hecklers. The presence of the heckler is a vote of confidence in the candidate's stature, a calculation that the heckler can get maximum exposure from the disruption. In New Hampshire, Bush heard from a heckler shouting about the anti-flag-burning amendment Bush supports. That ultimate heckler, Pat Buchanan, is talked about as a possible Reform Party candidate, so he could heckle Bush all the way to Election Day. Bush is even being heckled on the Internet: a clever website parody, GWBush.com ("Bush turns himself in for past drug crimes in an attempt to `usher in the responsibility era'"), apparently got under the candidate's skin so much that he declared at a press conference that "there ought to be limits to freedom."
But Gore has been the most heckled of late, as his announcement tour indicated. Shortly into the Carthage speech, demonstrators seeking cheaper aids drugs began to blow whistles and disrupt the speech--until one fellow in the crowd punched a whistle-blower in the jaw, apparently knocking him to the ground. The next morning in New Hampshire, a militant aids group, act up, was at it again about aids drugs, this time managing to get four or five protesters in the front row, where they unfurled their banners and blew whistles until police removed them.
And so it was obvious what awaited us at Gore's next appearance, a Manhattan rally. Much of the audience, it seemed, had come to put on a carnival of civil disobedience. There were the whistling aids protesters, to be sure, but there was also a man dressed up as a sunflower, apparently to make some point about gardening policy. Another man appeared to be in costume as a pickle, or perhaps a cucumber. "A pea," the Los Angeles Times' Ron Brownstein corrected me. A fellow with a beard spent the whole time ranting about how "Al Gore is a phony environmentalist." Another man shouted about animal tests, and somebody else protested nafta. A large banner proclaimed: "al gore: american psycho!"
It began to drizzle as Gore spoke, and it seemed that most of the crowd couldn't hear what he was saying. To me, the whole event seemed like an unmitigated disaster, the protests a crushing blow. And yet the Gore aides didn't seem displeased. Then it occurred to me: the rally had nothing to do with me or the thousands of others here. It was about getting a good television shot of Gore, with his family on the flag-bedecked stage, and a spirited crowd. The sound would come directly from his microphone. And millions of Americans that night would see and hear almost nothing of the aids activists, the vegetable man, or the human sunflower. In the 2000 campaign, we're all just props.
This article originally ran in the July 12, 1999, issue of the magazine.