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How I Got Over My Al Gore-a-phobia

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"He can balance anything on his nose," says one of the press-pool people. "In the '92 campaign, he'd come back into the bus balancing stuff. He was a pole-vaulter in high school and practiced balancing the pole."

"On his nose?"

"Hey, guys, pep talk," says Nathan. "He's going to do a walk-through. So let's not do the Cuban-grandmother thing. I know you want to get close, but getting close all depends on if we can move as a cohesive unit and not spaz out."

Almost everyone is saying, "Nathan . . ." in a beseeching, pleading, desperate-ingratiating sort of way.

Gore is positioned on the steps up to Michael Jordan's. He's perfectly creased. Precise. In his CEO or catalogue-model pose. Frozen eyes. Turn-on-turn-off smile. Is it so bad that he's learned to shut people out?

Commuters are fed up the steps in gauntlet fashion to press his flesh. Political handlers say a good candidate "feeds" off the crowd. A sort of frenzy rises. The candidate wants to be touched. The crowd wants to touch. Everybody goes a little crazy. It's all sex.

Not with Gore.

He does what he has to do -- concentrating.

There is the idea of the good Clinton: Clinton the artful centrist, Clinton the powerful analytic mind, Clinton the workaholic, Clinton the genuinely compassionate guy. Clinton without the cravings, without the neediness, without the sex. In other words, Al Gore. (But do we really want the good Clinton?)

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. The fictional people on television are smart, good-looking, professional, liberal, Ivy League. Top-drawer. They're not hacks, bumpkins, ideologues, tax-cutters. They are, almost convincingly (courtesy of fabulous set design), the kind of government, or style of government, we people who once dreamed of being president dreamed of. Gore and his crew probably come as close to that -- that is, reasonable, educated, intelligent, liberal people (Maureen Dowd recently described Gore as a "phony, smarmy, sniveling, preppy sneak," which would also describe the characters we like on The West Wing) -- as any possible presidential team in my memory. Of course, you have to look hard to see that, partly because Gore is disinclined (and probably unable) to romanticize the above traits. You need writers for that.

"The game is afoot, gentlemen," says Nathan as we saddle up into the vans, bound for what is described on the schedule as only a "private residence," and then, after that, on to an event at a hospital in Brooklyn. Then on to Ohio and California.

Even in tough-guy campaign terms, today's schedule is a bitch -- even on a full night's sleep. Gore himself has ramped everything up; three-event days are now five-event days. This new determination is probably not just from seeing the winning light in the distance but also from having come so close to blowing everything. He's running against surprises and uncertainties. If he pushes as hard as he can to March 7, he no doubt thinks, the last seven years will not have been a waste.

There's speculation that the private residence is the home of a donor, a fat cat, a Park Avenue pit stop. But then the consensus shifts. We're headed up a blockaded Park Avenue, Imus on the radio, to his daughter's home, where Gore will spend a quality half-hour with his new grandson, we come to believe (although that destination is neither confirmed nor denied).

"Ahem, guys," says Nathan, riding shotgun in the press van. "Just want you to know that today is going to be, ahem, fucked up."

"Are we scratching the private residence or the hospital event?" asks one of the pool.

"All will become clear," says Nathan.

"We're obviously not going to his daughter's house, unless she lives in the Bronx," observes someone else in the pool.

"We're heading to the airport."

"Okay, listen up," Nathan says, "but swear -- everybody put your cell phones down -- that you won't call your desks. Okay? All right, he's returning to Washington."

"We're bombing Iraq," I offer.

"What do you mean, he's going to Washington?" several people demand at once.

"How is he going?" Someone asks the more basic question.

"He's going by commercial carrier," Nathan announces.

Separation anxiety starts to roll through the van. Maintaining contact, knowing the exact whereabouts, the minute-by-minute relationship of him to us, is the overriding job.

There's a vote, a potential tie vote, an abortion vote, we learn, that Gore will have to break. Nathan takes a few seconds to pump the abortion thing -- Gore will do anything to support abortion, etc. -- as though this vote were a great affair of state.


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