Nashville Move Underlines New Approach for Gore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 1999; Page A1
NASHVILLE, Oct. 6 –– Sporting a knit shirt, cowboy boots and a Palm Pilot clipped on his khakis, Vice President Gore cut the ribbon on a campaign headquarters based not on K Street, but in the state he calls home. It was the new Al Gore. He ditched the note cards, blue suit and even the title in front of his name.
And most significantly, he was talking about himself.
"This is a very powerful moment in this campaign, powerful because of what home means," Gore said today, joined by his wife and mother. "Home is not only a place, it's an idea. Home is where we start from; home is where we learn our values. It's where we return to remember ourselves in the best sense."
If modern campaigns are as much packaging as the product itself, Gore thinks he has found a better way to market himself to an electorate that wants to feel a personal connection with the person they put in the White House.
With his presidential ambitions in jeopardy, aides said, Gore has come to realize that he can no longer simply make jokes about his stiff public persona; he has to change it. Before the voters will even listen to his ideas about health care and education, Gore has come to believe, the public must see him as a person who is warm and with whom they can identify. They actually have to like him.
And that means talking about himself.
"I want to tell you a couple brief stories about who I am and where I come from and why I'm running," he told Democratic activists meeting in Washington recently. "I think that when you choose a standard-bearer you have a right to know not simply what is on his resume but what is in his heart."
The retooled stump speech, still a bit windy at 40 minutes, is noteworthy not only for its new material, but for its presentation. Gone are the "wooden" jokes and much of the bureaucratic jargon the techno-Gore thrives on. In their place are tales of a "disillusioned" young man in the turbulent times of Vietnam and Watergate, a man who has become a proud grandfather who hikes and runs marathons with his children.
Gore usually begins with the story of his parents, a metaphorical bridge to his own values and political ideals.
His mother Pauline, celebrating her 87th birthday today, was raised at a time when "poor girls were not supposed to dream," Gore recounts. She read textbooks to her blind sister, Aunt Thelly, and put herself through law school waiting tables in an all-night coffee shop. "She taught me women and men are certainly equal -- if not more so," he says, promising to keep up the fight for equal pay and abortion rights.
Gore's father, the late senator, "was against the poll tax in the '40s and for civil rights in the '50s," the son recalls. "He was against the Vietnam War and lost his seat in 1970 because of the courage of his conscience."
From the day 51 years ago that his birth was trumpeted on the front pages of the local papers, Albert Gore Jr. has lived in the public eye. Yet after three decades in office, the vice president is not well known outside Washington and until recently has struggled with telling his own story -- the most basic of political chores.
"He had this wall built up," said Rep. John E. Baldacci (D-Maine), who learned only last week that the vice president had served in Vietnam. "He told us he doesn't have to be vice president anymore; he's a candidate."
For months Gore rattled off his resume like a grocery list, mentally checking each item as eyes in the audience glazed over. But slowly, the telling of his biography has evolved, prodded out of him by curious Iowans, reporters and "message" gurus Carter Eskew and Bob Shrum -- both of whom have come to believe that Gore has a rich and compelling story to tell, one to which voters will respond.
The most gripping account comes from Gore's boyhood -- age 7, to be precise.
"We lived in the summers in Carthage, Tennessee, on a street called Fisher Avenue," he begins. One day, the mansion at the top of the hill came up for sale and all the neighbors rushed to the open house. Gore's father took him by the hand, "past the parlor and the living room where the other neighbors were looking at the ornate furnishings."
"He took me straight past to the back of the house and down the stairs to the basement and he pointed to one of the stone walls on one side of that basement and said, 'Look,' " the son recalls. "There were metal rings there, slave rings."
Gore pauses, adding drama to a story he once kissed off in a few quick sentences. "The shock of that moment has really lingered with me," he says, "not only because of the evil embodied in that cold metal artifact, but also because of the sharp contrast between what that reality had been and the gentleness and harmony of my home town as I knew it."
By all accounts, it has not been an easy rhetorical transition for Gore, the proper prep-school boy who moved first in father's shadow and more recently in Bill Clinton's.
"For him, it takes a long runway to get up in the air," said one adviser who has watched Gore rework his pitch over the past few months.
Last July, Gore and his teenage son Albert made an arduous three-day hike up Mount Rainier in Washington state. Initially, aides said the vice president would not discuss the trek because he did not want to "exploit" the private experience with his son. But now it has become a central metaphor in his stump speech.
"From the summit of this unprecedented prosperity in America, we can't see every opportunity that we'll face or every challenge we'll confront," he says. "But we can see where we've been and how we can work together . . . and work to create a future that's worthy of our children."
In recent weeks, Gore has also begun talking about the "long dark tunnel" of Vietnam, an experience that left him "as disillusioned with the democratic process as anyone you have ever seen."
One day in 1969, while still in basic training, Gore visited old classmates at Harvard University, sporting a crew cut and crisp Army uniform. "I had another shock; I felt hatred from my fellow Americans because I wore the uniform of my country," he says. "I understood it, but I didn't like it and it was a profoundly shattering experience."
His disillusionment only grew when after Vietnam came Watergate and then his father's defeat -- a loss the vice president attributes to his father's brave stands on civil rights, but which in reality also was precipitated by the elder Gore's inattentiveness to local concerns.
Still, the story serves its purpose, portraying the vice president as a reluctant politician who decided to run for the House only after being "drawn toward the idea of rolling up my sleeves and trying to change things for the better."
The new Gore appears to be having an impact.
"I saw a comfort level in him today when he opened his headquarters that I haven't seen in a few years, a few months," said former Tennessee governor Ned McWherter (D) at a fund-raiser tonight. "He's ready, prepared, he's able. He's our man."
"I thought he was a person of privilege," said Alberto Torres, a Bronx Democrat who heard Gore speak earlier this week in New Hampshire. Torres said he never knew Gore's mother grew up poor in rural West Tennessee.
And Rhett Butler, a member of the local carpenters union, who was at the Gore rally in Nashville today, said: "He looks more like a country boy than a Washington insider and that's good."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company