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How I Got Over My Al Gore-a-phobia

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He's slept and changed clothes before the 9 p.m. arrival at Burbank Airport. He's gone casual -- although it's Nordstrom rather than L.A. casual. There's a crowd of a few hundred mustered from various unions (seiw 660!) standing in the hangar, and a line of minor dignitaries waiting to receive him on the tarmac.

Jay Leno in jeans and Harley jacket, carrying a gym bag and talking on a cell phone, wanders out near Air Force Two and over to the head of the receiving line.

Gore is a Leno kind of guy.

After greeting the dignitaries, Gore, followed by photo scrum and a boom mike, works his way down then back along the rope line. He gives high-fives aggressively, hitting hard.

I have a brief talk with Lehane, the press secretary, pointing out that I've yet to exchange a direct word with Gore.

"But it's been a good day, right?" he prompts. "You've gotten close to him. Tonight's town meeting," he says, "will be cool."

Motorcycle cops part the way for us across L.A. to Los Angeles City College.

These Oprah-style town meetings, first used by Clinton to powerful political effect, are now credited with the revival of the Gore campaign over the past few months. But where Clinton used them to do his I-share-your-pain thing, Gore uses them to demonstrate his stubborn, determined, immovable, even stoic presence. In Lebanon, New Hampshire, a few nights before, he conducted a town meeting that went on for three hours 35 minutes (a personal best).

Does the absence of charm the inclination to retreat from people, say something about your presidential abilities?

You're voting for pure stamina here. His absolute determination to do what does not come naturally. A fat boy who won't be shamed.

"I will stay here," he says to the crowd of a few hundred (I cannot get a ready answer as to where these demographically correct people, willing to sit into the early-morning hours, come from), "as long as anyone has a question. I'll stay here until March 7 if that's what it takes." And no doubt he would.

He begins with a moment of silence for the Alaska Airlines crash victims, then goes into a 30-minute rendition of the Albert Gore story. It's rote, memorized, one-man-show stuff. "Tipper and I have been married for 291Ž2 years . . . How many other grandparents here? . . . Give the grandchild anything he wants, and if that doesn't work, give him back to his parents . . . Can I ask all the teachers to stand? You are heroes . . . " Then there's the story of his parents, both poor, both striving; his mother becomes a lawyer, his father a school superintendent, then a fabled southern senator. Al grows up in Washington. He tells his sixties biography: "The civil-rights moment lifted and inspired me -- and then Martin Luther King was assassinated."

He says then: "I became the most disillusioned young person you'd ever meet."

This is a wholly improbable, indeed preposterous notion.

Still, you strongly feel the presence of the achieving parents. You get a sense of the intensity of the pressure and the expectations -- perhaps that's what he means about his disillusionment. You can imagine he had nowhere to turn. This might explain the enlisting-and-going-to-Vietnam business -- which does seem like either a remarkably calculated career move or an ass-backwards order of rebellion.

If I ever get the chance, I'd surely like to ask how he might imagine his life without a political career. I'll bet he's imagined it, too (in a way that Clinton obviously hasn't).

I'm sure he would have been a terrific business guy. A modern CEO dealing with an intellectually challenging, technologically complex world. But he's here, instead, in some way, you even suspect, not living up to his full potential.

The questions begin -- the first one from a Lyndon Laroucher, which he dispatches with alacrity (and without meanness). The most interesting and telling thing is that he doesn't really answer the questions. That is, he seems intent on making the questions, all relatively simple and direct, larger than they are. He's looking for grand themes and substantial meaning. He's looking to impose what is obviously a prodigious amount of information and thought and experience on some pretty basic stuff.

This is much more of a conversation with himself than it is with anybody here.

The worldview he seems to be trying to project is about reasonableness. There is no reason for extremes, for polarization, for bad things to happen to good people, he seems to think. Hence his constant effort to navigate between interest groups and his tendency to reduce issues to a question of semantic blurring, with the result that he appears to be a hairsplitter and dissembler -- not to mention a gasbag.

"Do you profess to be a born-again Christian?" he is asked.

"The answer to your question," he replies, "is yes. But what I want to say hard on the heels of that answer is that there is a tendency to hear that phrase and to associate it with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson . . ."

Indeed, five or ten minutes later, he has reduced and redefined being a born-again Christian into being, well, a Protestant.

Again and again, whether the question is about the Internet or reparations for slavery or his position on abortion, he manages to return to some bedrock, fundamentally bland, infinitely uninteresting middle ground -- and stay there, and win his point (mind you, no one else is competing for the point) because he can talk longer, even on virtually no sleep, than anyone can listen.

It is a sort of torture.

AFSCME District Council 37 -- that is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- on Barclay Street near City Hall is roiling in the turmoil of union members, New York politicos, and press, a scene vainly orchestrated by inept union officials, inept campaign officials, and resentful Secret Service agents.

"Okay," Nathan says, grabbing me and doing an elegant maneuver through the crowd and down a corridor, pushing me into one of District 37's large executive offices.

There are two aides in the room, and Gore behind the desk on the phone. He looks like a powerful Midwest business executive. His aides are silent. Gore does not look happy. He seems to be absorbing bad news. He closes his eyes, appears almost to be near tears. But then he responds -- in Spanish. So that's it: He's concentrating. Not only is he trying to understand Spanish, but he's getting his ear chewed off in Spanish.

He's doing phoners, remote radio interviews. After the Spanish interview, his aide dials another call, but the station isn't ready yet. The two aides and I, and Gore, sit there in dead, breathless silence. Gore is a wax figure behind the desk. Red tie, power blue shirt, mouth slightly open, thin-lipped. Waiting . . . frozen . . . no one breathing . . . finally Gore's eyes glance at the laptop in front of him.

Does the absence of charm, the inability or unwillingness to take responsibility for other people's social well-being, the inclination to retreat from people rather than advance on them, say something about your presidential abilities?

Or is it just that we feel we're paying for well-developed presentation skills? Though one more schmoozer is precisely what we don't need in this marketing age.


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