Al Gore is breaking his wooden wonk mold wide open

October 26, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

LOS ANGELES -- Vice President Al Gore, identified by Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, California's colorless Democratic gubernatorial candidate, as "my charisma adviser," was defying his reputation for woodenness here the other day at a rousing party rally in Theodore Roosevelt High School's gymnasium.

Mr. Gore had worked up the jam-packed East Los Angeles crowd to a rollicking pitch by praising Mr. Davis and a host of other Democratic candidates, and by reciting the role the Clinton-Gore administration had played in putting the state's once-depressed economy back on track.

Bilingual booster

Breaking from time to time into Spanish to the cheering appreciation of the predominantly Latino audience, Mr. Gore extolled the administration's new education initiatives focused on Latino dropout students, and attacked Republican-backed voter referendums against affirmative action and liberal immigration policies.

The Democratic Party, he said, was unified in its focus on improving education, in contrast with the Republicans. "The only thing they agree on," he shouted, "is their hatred for President Clinton and their love of investigation."

Then Mr. Gore ignited the crowd with this rapid-fire harangue: "The difference between our approaches is clear. We say legislate. They say investigate. We say educate. They say escalate. We say illuminate. They say interrogate. We say unify. They say vilify. We say make the decisions. They say take depositions. . . . We say let's heal our nation! They just say more investigation!"

Gore's version of political rap, first tried on audiences earlier in the week in Iowa, was a clever attack on the Republican-led inquiry into possible impeachment of the president, and by inference on the report by independent counsel Kenneth Starr that triggered the call for the inquiry.

It suggests a reading by Mr. Clinton's political advisers that gains can be made by tapping into a public backlash against the Republicans and Mr. Starr as registered in polling after release of Starr's report and the inquiry vote.

Mr. Gore's rap, unleashed in the wake of Mr. Clinton's tactical victory over the Republican leadership in Congress in their session-ending budget negotiations, also cast the opposition party as legislative obstructionists as the Democrats drive to limit losses in the Nov. 3 congressional elections.

For all of Mr. Gore's reputation as an inducer of slumber on the stump, he continues to show a considerable talent for rousing the party faithful, first demonstrated in the 1992 presidential campaign when he accompanied Mr. Clinton on their highly successful bus tours after the national convention that had nominated them.

Then, Mr. Gore often outdid Mr. Clinton in working up crowds along the way. His favorite lines then were to recite the shortcomings of Republican opponents George Bush and Dan Quayle, ending by charging that they "have run out of ideas. They're run out of energy. They're run out of gas, and with your help come November, they're going to be run out of office! It's time for Bush and Quayle to go!" Then he would ask the crowd: "What time is it?" And the roar would come back: "It's time for them to go!"

Mr. Gore's ability to fire up crowds with such partisan pitches tinged with humor often surprises audiences because of his reputation -- now repeatedly encouraged with self-deprecatory cracks and stunts -- for being stiff and strait-laced.

He feeds the image by doing such things as once being wheeled, stone-faced, to the head table of a Gridiron Dinner on a freight handler's dolly, or observing that he might cry over something, but if he did he would rust. And there was his 1996 convention demonstration of the macarena -- by remaining motionless to the music.

Capitalizing on his image

All these plays on his wooden image capitalize on the low expectations generated by it, and make him a formidable prospective front-runner for the next Democratic presidential nomination. President Clinton's strong endorsement of him may not be worth what it once was, considering his current political dilemma. But the personal nature of that situation does not figure to damage Mr. Gore as some Clinton policy failure might, such as a collapse of the economy.

Vice presidents going back at least to Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew have been cast as partisan hatchet men in off-year congressional elections. Mr. Gore is playing that role now, but with much more finesse and humor than either of those two earlier worthies ever did. It has been a performance that will not hurt Mr. Gore as he looks to 2000.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 10/26/98

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