How I Got Over My Al Gore-a-phobia

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?

“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.

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.

“Bush is where we were in August, when we had to fix the campaign,” says Coelho, meaning Bush will get his campaign up and running again. That’s their thinking: Bush wins the Republican nomination, and they’ll be in good shape. Gore is the clear contrast gainer. Bush is a gift.

“We’ve gotten through the persona issue,” Coelho adds. They’re not yet thinking of what an incredible problem it would be if they get McCain.

I am bumped up from the press plane to Air Force Two with the handful of pool reporters. The schedule is that the press plane will fly directly to Columbus, for the rally at Ohio State, and Air Force Two will swing down to Washington and pick up Gore and then head to Columbus. Even stuck sitting on the tarmac on line with every other plane (“Without the VP aboard, we’re just like any other Cessna,” says Marty Kasindorf, the pool reporter from USAToday), we’re able to make up the time and get back close to the published schedule.

I’ve been promised face time on the Washington-to-Columbus leg (and I don’t think I’m the only one), but Gore stays shut in his compartment, a sort of handicapped-bathroom-type arrangement on Air Force Two.

The other pool reporters spend the flight trying to reconstruct what might have happened on Gore’s commercial airline flight.

“Sleepless from a post-midnight flight from New Hampshire and a predawn wake-up call …” the AP reporter, Sandra Sobieraj, dictates into her cell phone. Later, working the phone, she comes up with the fact that Gore himself stowed his tray and returned his seat to an upright position.

The Columbus stop is billed as a 3,000-person rally, but really there aren’t more than 500 or 600 people – the room couldn’t have held too many more. Lots of kids from different Ohio schools have been bused in – I see some Kenyon and Dennison sweatshirts; on the stage, there’s an Up With People-type group of kids in Gore regalia.

A plump girl steps to the microphone: “Welcome to Ohio State, where the vice-president of the United States will talk to our student body.”

Then the Columbus mayor introduces Gore.

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.

He is wearing cowboy boots. It’s hard to figure the message of this look, the boots with the Italian no-vent suit (must be inside-the-Beltway fashion; on the bus, they’re still talking about last week’s too-tight jeans).

He hugs the plump girl. It’s a curdling hug, painful for him and for the girl and for the audience. He hugs the mayor, and this is horrible, too. He can’t wait to let go (as opposed to Coelho, who is working the edges of the room, getting the local pols into no-escape headlocks). He doesn’t know where to put his hands. He knows he’s in someone else’s space.

You can make a case for Gore’s lack of seductiveness – that it might be good to get the nation off its sex-appeal binge. But it’s pretty terrible to watch.

“Thank you,” he says into the microphone to the mayor, using some exaggerated kind of syllabification (tha-ank gets two syllables, for instance), “for your support, your enthusiasm, and for the leadership of this great city – and hello, Buckeyes!”

He could obviously give a great Power Point presentation. It’s just that he’s not good at being everybody’s friend. I don’t think he gets much from the adulation (and, accordingly, doesn’t get much adulation). The problem is, he’s trying to be Clinton. This is Clinton shtick, down to the boots, I suddenly realize. The hugging, the beat, the coming through the crowd.

Is that what being vice-president is all about? You just lose yourself in the other guy? Or is it that Clinton has reinvented how politicians have to behave – and everybody in this campaign is doing Clinton (McCain most successfully)?

Now, there is an argument here, if you’re a sucker for subtlety, that the more sincere you truly are, the harder it is to mask your insincerity.

Gore speaks for about twenty minutes and says nothing remotely of any interest. It’s disconcerting how hard he works at it, too, as though the job is to make it even more vacant. Undoubtedly, he thinks this cornball stuff is communication. You’d hate him for his condescension if he didn’t seem so exposed by it.

He does five local TV interviews after the speech.

I’m staring at Gore (intently, rudely actually), and he winks at me. Yes. There it is: an ounce of irony. I’ll take it.

His demeanor in front of the cameras for these little local interviews is all fifties TV dad – good guy, tolerant, not a lot of fun (no sex). The practiced calm and bedside manner voice are a little frightening.

“I want to fight for …”

“Prosperity means we have a responsibility …”

“I have always supported …”

“I want to make available resources at the local level …”

Then, between camera setups, he looks at me again, and grimaces. A gargoyle grimace. For a half-second, his tongue is out, hangdog, or retch-like, to the side.

I think: There’s someone in there.

In the only vaguely human question of the five interviews, a reporter asks, “What pets do you have?”

He misses a beat – it becomes nearly a blush. “I’m only thinking,” he says, “about winning.” But then, realizing that’s no answer, he says he has two dogs and Tipper’s mother has a cat, and she lives with them, so, he says, he has a cat.

More telling, I note, is that he lives with his mother-in-law.

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.

Gore is actually authentic – he is an authentic political professional. A hardworking, earnest guy in government. A reasonable idealist. A plausibly honest elected official. He is the prince of a southern political family, but without unusual arrogance or over-the-top airs of entitlement. What’s more, he’s studiously, assiduously prepared for the job.

Still, we begrudge him it. Oddly, as the likelihood that he will become president becomes stronger and stronger, we begrudge him the job even more.

It comes back, I think, to my West Wing feelings. Al Gore in many ways is a kind of fantasy president – with the qualifications and the preparation, and looking the part as well. But the fantasy, his as much as ours, has taken a bit of the life out of him. Or the fantasy, realized, is, of course, a disappointment.

What’s more, being the president – the notion of the presidency (which we people who still vote largely carry from another era) – is and has been for some time, a disappointment.

It’s my turn.

He moves to the couch, holding a copy of New York. He is wearing his black cowboy boots.

“What if McCain wins the Republican nomination?” I ask. “How do you match him for openness, humor, accessibility, joie de vivre?”

“I’m not very good at tactics and political analysis,” he says in his slow cadence – a patent falsehood that I’m sure seems harmless enough to him (a southern white lie, an I’m-just-a-country-boy sort of thing). “And you know we’re in the semifinals now – we haven’t made it to the finals yet. I’m concentrating on March 7.” He doesn’t, in other words, believe he’ll ever be facing McCain.

“What’s your sense of the meaning of a personality-driven campaign? Good? Bad? Is it something that we’re evolving to because of our enormous prosperity and because there’s no risk of war?”

In other words, it’s a party, and McCain is the guy having the best time.

“The kind of person a candidate would be as president is always a central issue for voters,” he says, trying to rationalize the issue. “As the campaign continues, people learn how a candidate reacts to pressure, how they react to the issues that arise in a campaign.”

“Is there a line that you draw in your head where you think, I’m not going to go beyond that – I don’t owe voters everything?”

“I have a line I won’t cross in my refusal to make a negative personal attack,” he says, offering one of his stock answers to a question that hasn’t been asked – which he realizes. “Or do you mean about privacy?”

“Really, I mean about how much of yourself you’ll give. McCain, for instance, seems to be saying, ‘Take all of me – ’ “

“Oh, I see. I see what you’re getting at now. And your theory is that’s changing the nature of the campaign? Okay. Ahhh – I mean, I think openness is a good thing. I think each candidate has to decide what approach he’s going to take for the desire of the media for all news all the time. I prefer to be in a relationship that’s all voters all the time,” he laughs, pleased with his formulation, “and try to communicate directly with them as much as possible. But there are some common features between my campaign and his. I’ve relied on what I call open meetings. Did you go to the Los Angeles open meeting? Did you stay?”

“I certainly did,” I lied.

“Bare-bones, open format, so you never know – but I don’t plan to go to extremes.”

“In thinking about this whole campaign process,” I ask, pressing slightly (his formality keeps you from pressing more), “at what point do you feel, I’m just freaking out – the exposure, the emotional cost …”

“I don’t experience that. I’m motivated by the mission. I want to make our country a better place. Education – we’re in an information age. Health care. The environment. I’m driven by that, and I’m driven right past any concern about daily Q&A with the press and shouted questions. I don’t mind that at all. I used to be a journalist. But I don’t think a campaign for president has to be The Truman Show – all campaign all the time. McCain is as close as it comes to that.”

He sees McCain, I suspect, as some kind of fool – a clown. McCain doesn’t get it: He’s become a national entertainment. In fact, he’s the only one who doesn’t know the whole process is fake, scripted. On the other hand, you could argue, it’s Gore who seems like Truman, at war with the dawning understanding that people are looking at him all of the time – wanting him to entertain them.

“Well, who,” I ask, “Bush or McCain, would you rather run against?”

He easily avoids the question, chuckling.

“If you couldn’t have been a politician – “

“A writer.” Then he says: “David Halberstam.”

At that moment, maybe for the first time, I see Gore clearly. I see him as a Halberstam figure, from an era when politics and governing were intellectual, social, professional disciplines, more than pure media plays. Then, you could weave your own personality with the great issues of the day instead of having to go it alone, inventing yourself out of whole cloth. Indeed, his personality traits, personal reserve, Ivy League classiness, mild southern corn, are the stuff of Washington in the fifties and sixties.

He is undoubtedly the best and the brightest of this campaign, but he is also a man out of place.

Can we get comfortable with that?


How I Got Over My Al Gore-a-phobia