Being Al Gore

Daily Convention Coverage


Al Gore high-fived his way into the Staples Center amid a thunderous ovation and proceeded to charge through his speech, rarely stopping long enough even to collect all the applause offered. The delegates loved it, cheering his entrance, cheering his forced phrases, and even cheering his exit (the only thing that had me clapping). But as Ben Boychuk of the conservative Claremont Institute, who sat next to me, noted, "He could have stood up there and recited Kant in Esperanto and they would waved their little banners."

Al had a lot to prove with his acceptance speech. If Bush had to define compassionate conservatism, wipe the smirk off his face, and exude an air of seriousness, Gore had to endear himself to America, which most decidedly means not being himself. Worse, he was unable to use the tool with which he usually humanizes himself: family tragedy.

After using his son's car accident as an excuse to go on an environmental rampage against automobility and his sister's lung-cancer death to decry the tobacco industry from which he only recently quit taking juice, the press had soured on Al's exploit-a-relative routine. (Young Albert Gore III, infamous for his alleged pot smoking antics, hadn't been seen this week. A least I hadn't seen him, leading me to think that he was either stoned at the Shadow Convention or that his desperate dad might trot him out for a human sacrifice on the last night of the convention in a bold gesture to the anti-druggers.)

Unable to exploit family, he sought to highlight the struggles of average Americans, each of whom just happens to live in a battleground state: the Hispanic family that has crumbling schools in Texas; the 72-year-old Missouri woman whose life has been reduced to popping prescription pills and eating macaroni and cheese; and the family from Washington state whose HMO, after botching their son's delivery, suggested that the family give him up for adoption so it didn't have to pay for his medical care.

The last example is particularly heart-wrenching, but Al was constrained by past performance from milking it fully. In a ridiculous line, he said, "That's when his mom and dad got really mad," referring to the HMO's suggestion that they give their baby up for adoption. Never use really in a sentence–it's so junior high. I suspect they had already gotten really mad when the doctor made whatever "medical mistake" caused their son to need intensive care. (Gore was probably tempted to use this family's pain as an example of why we need trial lawyers to sue doctors and a patients' bill of rights to regulate HMOs. Come to think of it, trial lawyers were the only Democratic interest group Gore explicitly left out of the speech. They ought to sue him.)

In a similar way, Al's speech seemed hemmed in. It was clear from the start that Al wasn't relying on poetry to win over the audience to his new, freeze-dried flavor of populism. Teddy Roosevelt decried "malefactors of great wealth." Franklin Delano Roosevelt thumped on "economic royalists." Al Gore, recalling the same theme, comes up with "powerful forces and powerful interests." Said Al at one point, "They're for the powerful, we're for the people." Actually, both parties are for different sets of powerful people.

Then there were things that you just shouldn't say. Like an acne-addled draftee trying to cajole a sympathy lay out of a girl before shipping out, Al blustered, "I stand here tonight as my own man," as if we thought he was filling in for someone else or something else. And then there was the pathetic line about how he might not be the most exciting politician, but he sure does work for your interests. Memo to Al: The presidential election is a popularity contest. Really. It's the ultimate popularity contest, so you better figure out how to get popular.

All of that is just my opinion, of course. I hasten to add that it's the opinion of a person who's not going to vote for Gore anyway, even though I stand to win $200 if he does win the White House (I've also got a $30 side bet running that the Dems retake the House). And this much is sure: Al was plenty popular with the Democrats in the hall. "This speech accomplished exactly what the convention accomplished," said a hurried Wyeth Ruthven, a South Carolina delegate, sounding like a DNC talking point memo. "That there are substantive differences between George W. bush and Al Gore, and that Al Gore has a real vision and agenda for our country that he will fight for working families, reign in the powerful interests, and build a better future."

"We are going to win it in November because Al Gore rocks," said Markesha Hill, a student at Texas' Southern Methodist University.

Even his sappy, "Aw shucks, I am a bore" line seduced some in the audience. "I like the fact that he mentioned his faults and that he may not be an exciting candidate but that he was a good candidate," Rosemary Fitzpatrick, a CNN employee from Atlanta, told me as we left the hall. "I thought that was good for him to put that out front." (Indeed, my own wife liked that touch, too.)

But he didn't go far enough for some people. "I wanted him to publicly say he was going to work for greater equality for gay and lesbian and transgendered people, in addition to saying that he supports hate crimes legislation and [related policies]," said Lynn d'Angona, who thinks the speech was great otherwise. "I wanted a little more acknowledgment, that's all."

Some offered faint praise. "He didn't try to make it entertaining," said one Californian. "He spoke to the issues. He was pretty sincere. He's a good guy."

Democratic Party muckety-mucks are by all accounts pretty openly sweating Al's chances of winning in November, but the jes' plain delegates in the Staples Center had no doubt their guy would be moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue later this fall. "Just marvelous," one told me in assessing Al's performance. "He's been dubbed as boring and laid back and I thought he was fantastic. He showed us the real Al Gore tonight."

Which is, of course, precisely the major reason the muckety-mucks are worried.