Slick packaging alone won't make Gore leader of the pack

November 05, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

ONE OF the laws of politics is that some candidates are snake-bit. Just when things seem to be going well, something causes a problem.

So there is a temptation to feel some sympathy for Vice President Al Gore right now. Just when he seemed to be getting his campaign on track the world has learned that he has a guru who is ostensibly teaching him to be an Alpha dog rather than a Beta dog. Ye gods.

But before wasting any sympathy on Mr. Gore, you have to consider the facts of the case. He is, after all, the candidate who hired author Naomi Wolf to advise him on matters as diverse as his dress (she recommended those "earth tone" suits he now wears) and his public persona (she coached him to be the new, assertive Al Gore). If he didn't know she was getting $15,000 a month, recently reduced to $5,000, he should have.

So he has valued her advice and followed it. But you have to ask yourself what this episode tells about the real Mr. Gore. He has always been considered less than scintillating as a public performer, but no one ever accused him of being some lightweight. On the contrary, he has earned a reputation as a serious public official with the credentials and expertise to be vice president and, by extension, president as well.

Laughing matters

Now, however, he has become fodder for the late-night comedians. He is such an easy target Jay Leno doesn't even need writers. The Alpha dog jokes are already abundant.

The notion that the Gore campaign was trying to pull a fast one here is, of course, reinforced by the fact that Ms. Wolf was paid through another consulting entity so her name and the $15,000 a month didn't show up on any Federal Election Commission filing.

The amount, the equivalent of $180,000 a year, would be high even for a manager in most presidential campaigns, let alone for an adviser on fashion. Those who arranged it were wise enough to know it would not be good for staff morale for the $15,000 figure to be out there for all to see.

Ms. Wolf has strong credentials as a feminist writer and social critic. And there is epidemic snickering about the things she has written about female sexuality, masturbation and similar topics not considered suitable for readers of all ages. But that kind of criticism of an adviser isn't likely to rub off on Mr. Gore. No one imagines the vice president as a secret swinger.

Indeed, the only apparent chink in Ms. Wolf's resume is her service in the last presidential campaign as an informal adviser to Dick Morris when he was the chief strategist of the reelection campaign of President Clinton. According to Time magazine, which first reported the deal with Mr. Gore, Ms. Wolf offered advice on campaign initiatives that might appeal to women voters in particular.

Mr. Gore, the opinion polls tell us, has a problem with women voters now, particularly when matched against Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the leading Republican candidate. On the face of it, that weakness is puzzling because Mr. Gore has a strong record on issues that should be of special concern to women voters. So the only inference one can draw is that there is something in his personality they don't like.

Clinton's role

If the problem is that he is perceived as the Beta dog to Mr. Clinton's Alpha, there is not much Mr. Gore can do about it. Wearing tan suits and cowboy boots doesn't make him the top dog. Neither does making his points in a loud voice with vigorous hand gestures. Nor does trashing Mr. Clinton in increasingly forceful tones. No one is going to miss the fact that Mr. Clinton is the guy who put Mr. Gore on the political map.

The core of the problem for the vice president, however, is not how voters see him in relationship to the president but how they see him as a candidate in his own right. Does he have the self-assurance to persuade most Americans he is a leader they should follow. Or is he another politician being packaged for popular consumption. Those aren't questions Ms. Wolf can answer for him.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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