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No More Hollow Man, but Core Gore Is Still Hard to See

August 18, 2000|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton, who writes a column for Newsday in New York, worked in the White House of President George Bush.

As I wrote two weeks ago from Philadelphia: Acceptance speeches can be compared to job interviews in which the electorate sizes up the presidential hopeful.

Al Gore has been a national figure since he first ran for president in 1988, yet on Thursday night he needed to reintroduce himself: "I stand here tonight as my own man. I want you to know who I truly am." Who Gore truly is, of course, has been the subject of much wonderment. The latest issue of the Economist features no fewer than seven Al Gores on the cover, caricaturing him as everything from "tree hugger Al" to "Buddhist temple Al." This image problem is not entirely Gore's fault: It is endemic to the vice presidency. The last vice president to get his party's nomination, George H.W. Bush, had a similar problem. Indeed, Bush had it worse: A 1987 cover of Newsweek pasted the words "Fighting the Wimp Factor" over his photo.

Neither Bush the Elder nor Gore are particularly malleable figures in person. It was the job that eroded their standing, as they stood in the background, saying little of interest, doing their best to persuade skeptics that not even a tiny crevice of difference--on policy, at least--existed between the No. 1 and the No. 2.

A dozen years ago, Papa Bush proved he wasn't a wimp by demolishing Michael Dukakis with sharp issue positions--"no new taxes"--and even sharper negativity--Willie Horton. And so, that vice president, down as much as 17 points, wound up winning by eight.

Gore has proved that he can go negative; he told reporters in 1991 that the way to win was to "rip the lungs out of his opponent." He pretty much did that to Bill Bradley in this year's primaries, although he suffered in doing so.

Perhaps the George W. Bush campaign has spooked Gore into trying niceness for a nonce. And so while this vice president can still roar with the best of them when the world isn't watching--"I'll be damned if I'll let [Republicans] them privatize Social Security," he hollered to a crowd of unionists in an airport hangar in Michigan last week--he was far more subdued Thursday night.

The first indicator that the speech would not be a barn-burner came when the Gore campaign insisted that their man was writing his own words. Bush, by contrast, has trouble composing complete sentences, but when others compose them for him, he proved in Philadelphia that he can deliver them well. Gore, with or without a muse, was content to recycle Bill Clinton. The vice president's hymn to those "who pay the taxes, bear the burdens and live the American dream" was a lift from the first lines of Clinton's 1992 acceptance speech, although Gore was wise to leave out another of Clinton's lines: "Play by the rules."

Gore rattled through Clinton-era policy proposals in a tone that bespoke his familiarity--even fatigue--with them. He talked up prescription drug benefits for seniors, reduced classroom size, a patient's bill of rights, campaign finance reform, and the Roe vs. Wade decision, but the passion of the audience seemed greater than the passion of the speaker.

Indeed, one problem facing vice presidents is that after eight years, the best--or at least the most popular--new policy ideas have been used up. And so his nationwide audience, curious about Gore the man, but just as curious about Gore's vision, was left instead with carefully crafted middling words: He will "reform the estate tax," he said, and "end the marriage penalty the right way." Such phraseology is useful to a president trying to keep his negotiating room but not so helpful to a candidate trying to rouse voters.

Perversely, this carefully scripted convention put the finale first. After Clinton's rousing speech Monday, it was a forlorn fall into torpor. Repeated efforts to raise the glamorous ghost of the last Democrat nominated out of Los Angeles--John F. Kennedy--foundered on the reality that 40 years is a long time. While the late president still is revered among Democrats, the price Gore had to pay for reviving long-ago Camelot was hoisting the present-day Teddy Kennedy onto the stage Tuesday, where he, along with a parade of liberals, failed to articulate why Bush is so terrible and why Gore is so great.

Conventions have no purpose anymore except to be infomercials for the presidential candidate. By that reckoning, the Gore-iors who muffled their positive promises and dulled their negative attacks, tossed away billions of dollars' worth of much-needed media. There's still plenty of time for Gore to rally. Indeed, the strong parallels between this election year and 1988 suggest that a sufficiently negative campaign by the incumbent vice president against the challenging governor can work. But Gore's best opportunity to ask for the presidency has slipped away; now he has fewer days to do it, and fewer resources to do it with.

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