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How I Got Over My Al Gore-a-phobia

Yes, he's wonky. But shouldn't our leader know his stuff? Yes, he's stiff. So was Abe Lincoln. Gore has what it takes to be a fine president -- so what if you wouldn't want him to give you a hug?

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The call for the press pool is at 5:30 a.m. in the Sheraton lobby.

"Let's snuggle!" says Nathan Naylor, Al Gore's tall, thirtysomething, defiantly blasé, perfect-West Wing-type press aide. He wears a Secret Service earpiece, flesh-tone corkscrew wires going down his neck, and talks into his sleeve. "Roger, copy," he says.

"Spread your bags for the canine," commands a genuine Secret Service agent. The bomb-sniffing German shepherd noses through the luggage. This is what's called the sweep, and it occurs before every vice-presidential departure.

It has been twenty years since I was last on the campaign trail -- the worst, if most mythic, job in journalism. Chronic physical discomfort is combined with an almost total absence of real information.

I'm here because I've been promised virtually cheek-to-cheek access to Gore for the day. I've been arguing with Gore's staff over the past month that McCain is transforming the campaign process -- "You can't run a campaign on canned stuff alone" -- and that Gore is going to have to show himself in a way that he hasn't before and that I would be an ideal agent for this new Gore.

I offered too that I liked the guy (or wanted to). After all, it seemed fairly obvious that he was in the top-top percentile of intelligence for politicians (if he didn't invent the Internet, he at least propounded the metaphor -- the information superhighway -- that made it possible). And while we might not be able to count on his vision (and whose could we count on?), I thought we could trust his attention to detail, which is no small thing. Then, too, I was old enough to know that nothing means so much as experience. As for the options, Bradley is fast fading (personally, I would never vote for a professional athlete), Bush is an obviously bad idea, and McCain, however ebullient and charming, is a hawk. It would have to be Gore.

"You're in the pool van in the motorcade," says Nathan, voice lowered. "We'll keep you close to him."

I annoy myself by helplessly thinking about this West Wing show. I can't keep from comparing Gore and his people with that pleasant and energetic cast.

"I'm getting time with him, though, right?" I try to clarify.

"Hey!" says Nathan with the greatest authority and good-guy-ness. "Nobody will get more than you."

The motorcade, a few vans, some black Suburbans, police cars, and two funeral-type Cadillacs strong, is moving by six (best case, Gore arrived at his hotel at 1:45 a.m. from a 1:00 a.m. rally at LaGuardia, maybe he slept till 5:00 a.m.) down predawn Park Avenue, all of the side streets blocked by police details, to a 6:15 arrival at Grand Central Terminal. It is a pride of the campaign that Gore is one of the few candidates (possibly one of the few candidates ever) to mostly keep to his schedule. No doubt this is because a vice-president is a sort of event-and-appearance machine. But perhaps it's also a reaction to the Clinton inability or unwillingness to stay on schedule. (I wonder how much this has bugged Gore?)

At Grand Central, the pool reporters are "diverted" to a "holding area" on one side of Michael Jordan's restaurant while the vice-president is brought to the far side of the balcony for morning-show interviews. Bus reporters complain that Gore as vice-president prefers to deal with upper-echelon national shows rather than with campaign reporters. He's a media snob.

"Peace Corps position, guys," says one of the photographers, crossing his legs on the floor.

"My news director calls," says one of the drive-time-radio reporters to no one in particular, "and wants to get a few minutes live with Gore. I said, 'Ha ha ha ha.' "

"McCain would give you a few minutes," puts in another of the reporters.

Chris Lehane, the Gore-campaign press secretary, a slicked-back-hair, wiseguy-looking fellow, is busy deflecting a series of requests and protests from the press pool. Lehane and Nathan Naylor and many of the other Gore staff have spent their entire careers in the Clinton-Gore administration; they are less campaign cowboys than employees taking the next step up the corporate ladder. They don't talk about Gore much. When they do, it's as an entity, the vice-president, the VP, seldom Gore, never Al, no personal or anecdotal stuff. There aren't any real insiders. There isn't a Gore mafia.

I'm watching Gore across the station floor. He's silhouetted by the television lights, doing a chop-chop motion, one hand into the other. It's a tight-shoulder, Kennedy sort of posture. Patrician. Harvard. Cold War. He looks good from afar. He's doing one morning show after the other. Between interviews, a makeup person powders him and fusses with his hard-coiffed hair as he reads his press clips from the day before and sips bottled water.

The assumption I'm working on is that Gore can't be Gore. Nobody is wooden -- people are just described as wooden by people with poor descriptive powers. The media can't see past seven years of familiarity -- Gore as wallpaper, Gore as potted plant -- and all its various Clinton resentments. We can't let Gore be something other than a guy with egg on his face, a semi-guilty party.

Gore is certainly no help to himself. He is a literalist (in the recent abortion flap, he was unable to articulate the surely sympathetic fact that he'd had a doubt or two). He has no evident irony -- irony would be helpful when you've been Clinton's vice-president (not to mention running for president in these post-political times). And he works too hard. He's a grind. The minutiae of government are what he excels at. In many ways, he is the opposite of an empty suit -- he's stuffed so full of facts and work product, he can hardly move. Can I animate such a figure?


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