Al Gore seeks to reinvent himself as his own man

July 04, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Al Gore, in a recent closed meeting in Memphis with key supporters, vowed that if he runs for president again in 2004, he'll listen to his own counsel rather than that of consultants, of whom he had a small army in 2000.

"I'd just let it rip," he said, and "let the chips fall where they may. ... To hell with the polls, tactics and all the rest."

That's a familiar refrain from losing candidates. They imply that it was bum advice from others that cost them the election in question.

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You occasionally even hear it from winners. Dan Quayle, in his successful campaign for vice president in 1988, blamed his "handlers," rather than the numerous verbal gaffes he committed, for the wide public impression that he was as dumb as a stone.

James Baker, the crafty Texas friend who ran the senior George Bush's campaign that year, assigned two old Republican pros, Stu Spencer and Joe Canzeri, to watchdog the effervescent but mistake-prone Mr. Quayle. They had only moderate success in saving him from himself.

Mr. Quayle subsequently declared his independence from them, but still he committed verbal slips that made him a laughingstock, even as he served for four years in the vice presidency.

Nevertheless, in this era of overmanaged candidates and a penchant to make them seem other than what they really are, it's refreshing for an office-seeker to venture forth on his own and take his chances offering his unvarnished self to the voters -- doing it, as Frank Sinatra used to say, "my way."

Mr. Gore certainly left the impression in 2000 that he was far from calling the shots in his campaign. He seemed to run in a straitjacket despite a declaration in his nomination acceptance speech that he was going to run as his own man.

When word got out that somebody was even dressing him, or at least advising him to wear "earth tones" to make him appear "cooler," the news only added to the sense that he was being carefully programmed by consultants.

That view did not do justice to Mr. Gore's intelligence and knowledge of public affairs, just as Mr. Quayle's reputation as an empty suit obscured his decent record in the Senate. So it is understandable that Mr. Gore would say now, as Mr. Quayle did in rebellion against his handlers, that if he runs again he will steer his own course, unrestrained by others.

There is, however, some wisdom in listening to others, a lesson that Richard Nixon learned well after his 1960 defeat for the presidency. In that race against John Kennedy, Mr. Nixon had stubbornly decided he was going to campaign in all 50 states, against the advice of some aides. In doing so, he ran himself ragged and looked it. He wound up courting voters in states in which he had no chance and short-changing others that could have brought him the margin of victory.

The second time around, in 1968, Mr. Nixon listened to his handlers and meticulously adhered to their strategy, crafted to avoid the 1960 mistake of overscheduling. His campaign mastermind, H.R. Haldeman, had Mr. Nixon run a scrupulously disciplined race, preserving his energy and staying away from the press and from spontaneous events in which he might misspeak and get himself in hot water.

While his opponent, Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, raced frenetically around the country, speaking nonstop and leaving himself vulnerable to error, Mr. Nixon campaigned essentially in an isolation booth. From start to finish, he sat on the lead he had, derived in considerable part from voter discontent with the anti-war chaos in the streets in 1968, demonstrated most conspicuously at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Mr. Nixon, however, never managed to shake the impression that he was forever re-inventing himself, giving rise to stories about "the new Nixon," "the new, new Nixon," and even "the new, new, new Nixon."

A "new Gore" risks the same labeling. But one of those versions of Mr. Nixon, after all, did gain the presidency. So who knows?

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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