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How I Got Over My Al Gore-a-phobia

There's intense speculation now about who might go where, under what means of transportation, under whose auspices. There's Air Force Two, which is still being serviced; the press plane, which is a less secure appendage to the vice-president; and now, novelly, the shuttle, a commercial carrier, which, apparently breaking some taboo -- the president and vice-president do not fly commercial -- will take Gore to Washington.

The mounting anxiety could not be more acute if we were bombing Iraq or if some national emergency were taking place. It is the panic of the head being severed. It is the panic of people who have no access anyway being given even less.

But Nathan, after talking into his sleeve, has something for us -- a photo op, a historic photo op: the vice-president buying a ticket on a commercial carrier.

It occurs to somebody that if it's the shuttle, we can all just buy a ticket. Why not? And tail the vice-president on our own steam.

Nathan is getting marching orders piped into his ear: Yes, the vice-president will continue on with the day's schedule, heading out from Washington to Columbus, Ohio, and then on to Los Angeles. Air Force Two will head down to D.C. and pick him up. The press plane will fly directly to Columbus.

I lean forward to remind Nathan that I am supposed to be with the vice-president. "You are with the vice-president," he says.

Then something happens. It is not clear what -- a wrong turn perhaps, a misinterpreted signal. The press pool is diverted from the motorcade. We're suddenly in a sort of access free fall. "We're diverted, we're diverted," Nathan is yelling into his sleeve.

The loud music has a heavy bass line, and Gore, coming through the crowd and onto the stage, is trying to move to it. It's awful -- or endearing.

"Come on!" he says, as panicked as everyone else, jumping from the van, curbside at LaGuardia.

In movie fashion, then, a dozen middle-aged men from the press pool, several with awkward, outsize dangling cameras, are running through the terminal (cell phones flying out of their pockets). We are following, to a wholly unclear destination, the vice-president's boyish and determined staff member, who barrels down the concourse and, with little thought or fare-thee-well, suddenly charges through the metal detectors amid the hysterical protests of the Hispanic ladies working the machines. "We're with the vice-president," Nathan shouts.

That, clearly, does not impress the metal-detector ladies.

"So arrest me!" Nathan proclaims with the greatest West Wing-ish misguided enthusiasm. "Call the police! We're coming through. We have to maintain contact with the vice-president."

After a moment of uncertainty, the press people, who seem unaccustomed to breaking rules, are running down the US Airways gate area -- suddenly being hotly pursued by various security forces of the airline, airport, and FAA.

In short order, as the vice-president is peaceably boarding his commercial flight, the press pool is, in fact, corralled and detained.

"Oh, fuck," says Nathan.

"This is really serious," says one of the poolers. "This is really, really serious. You could get five years for this."

"Shit, we're really going to have to kiss some butt," Nathan says.

A long while later, after we are identified by the metal-detector ladies and have surrendered identifications and Social Security numbers, we are released. ("I've made a call and believe me this will be handled at a very high level and will all go away," says the Daily News' Harry Hamburg).

"I never asked anyone to follow me," Nathan keeps saying.

I'm sitting at a table in the luncheonette in back of the Marine Air Terminal -- one of the few eating establishments at a major airport that's not a chain; rather, it could be a small-town diner -- with Tony Coelho, the campaign chairman, waiting for Air Force Two to get gassed up.

Coelho may or may not be the genius of the revived Gore campaign (there is divided opinion on this), but he is certainly its most interesting figure. In leather jacket and jeans and dark glasses, he's some unexpected aging hipster. A cool and mysterious operator. He's not West Wing. He's an old-fashioned pol.

When I bring up the character issue, that Gore remains a blurry figure, that our sense of his motivation remains unclear, that the basic details with which you draw a character have not been supplied, that, in fact, the character traits that we have are actually the absence of traits, his woodenness, his robotic quality, because we haven't been let in, Coelho looks at me with something just this side of lack of interest.

"No, he's energized," Coelho says. "He used to be freaked out by the crowd, but now he's okay."

I wonder if Coelho really thinks this is true, or if he thinks the wooden issue, the failure-to-connect issue, isn't all that important anymore. Gore is obviously playing better in the personality department than Bradley is (if he had to run against someone, think how lucky he was to get Bradley). And more and more, they're confident that whatever Gore is or isn't will play just as well against Bush. Gore's virtues are clear: He's intelligent, he's experienced, he performs under pressure. Likewise, Bush's failings have become clear: Not too smart, not too experienced, unimpressive in the clutch.

Everyone around Gore is pleased with his new ferocity -- the debating Gore, Gore as litigator. He really, it seems, wants the job, which has come as something of a surprise to a lot of people. He's been pacing the hotel halls at night urging aides to add more stuff to his schedule. He gets an A for effort; Bush is strictly a gentleman's C.

But what, I say, if it's McCain? (Hello?) Don't you think that what McCain is doing is fundamentally changing the terms of this business? A redefinition of political personality. He talks to anybody. There are no barriers. There's no resistance. It's all just here-I-am. He's deconstructing the whole campaign artifice. As a Gore partisan, however mild, I suggest that Gore has got to start hanging out, or something.