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Political Theater of the Absurd

August 18, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | Theater Critic

More pizazz? More just-folksiness? More coffee? A different acting coach?

What could improve the theatrical effectiveness of Al Gore?

All week we heard it from the telegenically engineered pundits who really couldn't give a rip about policy specifics. Gore's gotta loosen up. Big speech Thursday. Gotta act loose. Personalize that personal demeanor, like George W. Bush.

All summer, the media treated Gore's imminent acceptance speech as, in effect, a drama class assignment.

Could he present to the world a better-acted version of himself?

Thursday night, Gore talked a long time, but he proved some naysayers wrong. He could address a worldwide audience with occasional, verifiable bursts of a human voice, even in a deeply scripted context. He didn't smile much. But he didn't smirk either.

"Are you with me?" he asked at one point, off the cuff. Yes, that's right. Off the cuff. Al Gore.

All this matter of "seeming" has always been crucial to securing the job of president. Still, the politics-as-showbiz metaphor has gotten quite a workout this week, rivaled only by the "journey" and "chapter" analogies, heard in DNC speech after speech.


Opening night, Staples Center. DNC executive producer Gary Smith marshaled his financial forces to deliver, straight from Broadway, a number from "The Music Man."

Following President Clinton's speech (lacking only a Presleyan rendition of "My Way"), Craig Bierko and other members of the "The Music Man" revival sent weary delegates and mosh-pitted media folk up the aisles to the tune of "76 Trombones."

On television, however, more than one station cut away from the number to footage of the police and protester action outside the convention.

Rubber bullets, right here in River City. You got trouble, all right.

Here was a truly daring juxtaposition of events, enough to get you thinking. What about a radical new interpretation of the Harold Hill story? When Professor Hill sang "I'm here to organize a River City boys' band," did he mean, you know . . . unionizing them?

Cue the strike-breakers!

The theatrics were just getting going. Charges of reckless showbiz ran rampant all week.

On Monday, Democratic National Convention Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe chided the opposition for its slick group hug in Philadelphia. Right down to "the last balloon drop," the whole thing, he said, was "a show, a sham and a shell game."

Later, the Dems' "American Dialogues" panels--TelePrompTered and rehearsed to a capital T that rhymes with P that stands for Politics--proved no less an infomercial. They were simply selling Al Gore rather than an Ab Glide.


In all, a pretty odd amalgamation of politics and stagecraft. We had constant random spectacle--featuring tremendous numbers of tightly wound extras in LAPD uniforms--spiced up with bits of Broadway. And Shakespeare.

One day in Pershing Square, actor and perpetual activist Ed Asner invoked the Bard at the rally, protesting the death row fate of Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of killing a Philadelphia cop. Asner and company lit into police brutality and the legal system. If that latter protects the former, the actor growled, then "as Shakespeare said: 'The law is an ass!' "

The "Much Ado About Nothing" gag got a big laugh.

Prior to Gore's speech, Democrats hoped against hope that their man wouldn't bring to mind another Shakespeare line, from "King Henry IV, Part Two": "How many thousand of my poorest subjects are at this hour asleep?"

Not too many, it turned out. Gore will never acquire Bush's aw-shuckitude. In his speech Thursday night, he acknowledged the boring problem. But in this nation's leading role, do we want a somewhat plodding, self-admittedly serious man with some brains?

Or do we want George W., our own era's "King John," in which Shakespeare's ruler describes himself as ". . . but a clod/And module of confounded royalty?"

Intermission. Act 2 begins today.

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