Gore and the Bore Effect
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 1999; Page C01
More than a description, it's a condition, an albatross, an image worth ditching. It speaks to something many people are but nobody wants to be. White paint, brown socks, plain yogurt, Lite beer.
To bore is to attack the senses with a fusillade of monotony, to weary the world with blandness. Boring is so boring that Webster's devotes little of its precious space to the adjective: "Dull, tiresome, etc." End of definition.
But let's take it further: Think high school chemistry class and a bouquet of carnations. Dockers slacks, K Street office buildings, the Chevy Lumina. Insurance adjusters and fiscal responsibility. Marshmallows, Martha Stewart and those fishing programs on cable TV.
Which brings us to Al Gore, the highest-ranking boring man in the land. Or so the polls say. He is, these surveys suggest, the vanilla pudding of the species. This doesn't have to be an absolute truth to be a problem. In America, when an impression takes root it multiplies until it becomes commonplace until it becomes parody until it becomes accepted fact. And then it's too late. It has become legend. We don't have to speculate about this phenomenon. We have Al Gore. We have political science:
Who are these Americans? They are prison guards and grocery store employees and Democratic activists. We telephoned some of them, specifically those who told The Post's pollsters that Gore was "very boring." We were hoping to prod the surveyed into deeper thinking about this subject.
What is it about Gore that makes him boring to you?
"I couldn't tell you why," said John Denmark, a correctional officer from Staten Island, N.Y. "I just think he is."
"To me, he's just a boring guy," said Deward Vann, a retiree living in Jacksonville, Fla. "I don't like to listen to him."
"He's just monotone," explained Lynda Fischer, who works in the customer service department at a Sarasota, Fla., supermarket. "He starts to speak and my ears shut down. He's like a robot. He doesn't have any flow to his voice."
A bad thing, this is?
"Very, especially if he wants to be president," Fischer continued. "If he's talking to world leaders or even to the public and we all fall asleep, that's not good. It's like they put a cassette tape on his back."
Couldn't this deficiency be corrected?
"I don't know how you teach somebody not to be boring. He's just a big stuffed shirt. I don't see him loosening up."
It is hard to arouse the kind of deep thinking we had imagined.
"He really doesn't have anything new to talk about that I can see," said Nathan Banas, a senior at Annapolis High School. "Seems like he's always talking about older things and older issues."
Like, what new things would you like him to talk about that would make him less boring?
"New issues, things that are rising in America today. . . . Things like drugs, the amount of teen smoking, things like that."
"I don't think boring is quite the right word," interjects Rich Harwood, seller of pension plans and a Democratic committeeman in Suffolk County, New York. "In 1992, he was very wooden. Now, he is very contrived."
"It appears to me he is working hard to show the people that he is not what the polls show he is. I want to see more of him, not someone whose advisers are telling him what he needs to be. If he's a naturally stiff, wooden person, relax. Be stiff and wooden. Be yourself."
The Joke Strategy
Maybe this knock is unfair, maybe it's dead on. Doesn't matter. Gore can't change the knock. For now all he can do is cope with it, in the way that C-SPAN, tofu and minivans must live with their burdens.
"America is such a tough place," says Weldon Latham, a Washington attorney and Gore backer. "Everything is image."
Latham tells this story:
Two years ago, as Gore was laying the groundwork for a 2000 presidential campaign, he had breakfast with a small group of supporters. One woman, after politely extolling the veep's qualifications, decided she would lean over toward him and unload what was really on her mind: "You suffer from this problem of being a patrician."
Gore doubled over in laughter.
The supporter was perplexed. She considered Gore's ramrod formality to be an impediment, not a cause for chuckles. "How do we deal with this?" she demanded.
To which Gore replied: "What you see is what you get."
The story, Latham suggests, illustrates how comfortable Gore has become with his portraiture. Comfortable, perhaps, but hardly resigned. In fact, he has summoned every trick in the politician's arsenal to battle the curse of the boring.
He has tried rap – a kind of gangsta harangue of the Republicans. ("We say legislate, they say investigate. We say educate, they say escalate.") He has tried dance (the Macarena, a little salsa, the Booty Call). He has tried jokes ("Al Gore is so boring that his Secret Service code name is Al Gore").
Jokes are fine, as a general rule. But Gore's aides want him to cut the self-deprecation bit. At first, it was cute. You're in the shadow of the president. Might as well have some fun with it. But now his advisers are telling him: Enough, already. "You're not that stiff," as one aide put it. "So why do anything to reinforce perceptions. Don't play into any preconceived notions."
In other words, be the man. Let others spin the boring thing. And spin they have.
Example: Gore's staff assembled a package of newspaper clippings that depict their man as all loosened up in the living rooms of Iowa and New Hampshire. Included in this package is a chart, with side-by-side excerpts comparing the press coverage Gore is generating now with the coverage Vice President Bush received in the early days of his 1988 presidential campaign. Message: It's not really about Gore's personality, it's about the job. ("Some people refer to it as vice presidentialitis," says Gore spokesman Chris Lehane.)
Mario Cuomo, someone no one thinks is boring, offers an unsolicited assist: "This is interesting. If you had asked in the years of Eisenhower if they found Nixon boring, they would have said yes. Scowling, always sounding like a Quaker, he was boring. Lyndon Johnson, before the tragedy [of Kennedy's assassination], was boring. Harry Truman, the guy never left his tailor shop. Dan Quayle. Did you ever hear anybody say he was exciting? When Al Gore was a senator, they didn't think he was boring."
Did they think he was exciting?
"As a senator, he was as exciting as Tennesseans get."
Well, if you can't convince folks that Gore is not a stiff, then maybe you can convince them that being colorless is a good thing. That is the essence of spinning.
Gray Davis, nobody's candidate for Mr. Excitement, surprised the pundits by being elected governor of California last year. He calls Gore his "charisma adviser." He celebrates being thought of as the anti-Keanu Reeves of American politics.
There are polls that help his case. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed in a Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll, for instance, cited "boring and predictable" as the characteristics they would most like the new president to have more of. Apparently, President Clinton has provided enough thrills to last.
"So boring and dull are in," asserts Michael Bustamante, Davis's spokesman. "Just look at Gray Davis."
The problem with that thesis is that it can be unraveled. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman likes to say, "People aren't looking for Cher to be their president."
But he is wrong. There is lust for Cher and her ilk. And there are polls to prove even that. A Schroth & Associates survey, for example, has Gore finishing behind Clint Eastwood, Oprah and Donald Trump in various three-way mock presidential contests.
The fact is, voters like a little razzmatazz from their politicians, an Ali shuffle or two. And Gore doesn't show us much fancy footwork. But how many of Gore's brethren do?
Bill Bradley? Steve Forbes? House Speaker Denny Hastert? Dick Gephardt? We could go on . . . and on.
The fact is, drab, charisma-challenged political figures are in the majority.
Part of Gore's reputation as Wooden Man Walking comes from the geeklike enthusiasm with which he embraces subjects such as reinventing government, suburban sprawl and ozone depletion. Add to that his sometimes awkward use of language – "controlling legal authority" – the clipped cadence, the robotic moves onstage, and you've got the package.
"With Gore, the body never performs the text," explains Roderick Hart, a professor of communication and government at the University of Texas in Austin. "It's almost as if the body is a silent partner, standing in the back watching."
Aubrey Immelman, an associate professor of psychology at Saint John's University in Minnesota, conducted a study of Gore's political personality and found that while his major strengths are his "conscientiousness and low susceptibility to ethical misconduct," his weaknesses include "the important political skills of inter-personality, charisma, spontaneity."
"Unlike the extroverted, outgoing Bill Clinton, Al Gore is not prone to being energized by adulating crowds," Immelman said in an interview. "This social reserve and emotional distance is publicly perceived as a lack of empathy and social indifference, which elicits – and this is key to making sense of Gore's sagging poll numbers – a reciprocal reaction in others."
Put another way, says Immelman, Clinton is like a musician who feeds off the audience "and Gore is more the scientist who works better in isolation."
And that's from an expert.
"He should take a look at his silent message," says Tony Alessandra, a behavioral scientist and author of the book "Charisma: Seven Keys to Developing the Magnetism that Leads to Success." The silent message is the unconscious signal you send out to others who are watching and evaluating--whether you look them in the eye or look at your shoes or slump your shoulders or square them confidently or shake hands firmly or smile naturally.
"He should have somebody take a look at the clothes he's wearing," adds Alessandra, "to see if they project quality and power."
And that's from an expert.
But here's an expert of a different sort, brother-in-law Frank Hunger:
"I have known him since I was a senior in high school," says Hunger. "I have not detected all these mannerisms that others do. In many ways, he's a very easygoing guy, fabulous sense of humor."
Then why do so many people think he's boring?
"Because they don't know him," says Hunger. "Every day, if you pick up the paper and you read it, if you don't know him you begin to believe it."
Dan Quayle told a kid to add an "e" to "potato" once and will forever be branded a doofus. Was the misspelling a metaphor for his emptiness as a politician or just an unfortunate mistake that has been replayed so often and so cruelly that it has taken on false meaning?
That debate is ongoing.
Perception or reality?
If you go back to Gore's first campaign, a 1976 run for Congress, he was in some ways the same man who's being lampooned now. He had two standard jokes he used to warm up crowds – one about kittens for sale, the other about a dog on the porch. Sometimes he told the jokes well, sometimes he didn't. Aides would privately crack on his standard campaign uniform – blue pinstripe suit, blue shirt, red-specked blue tie – and how odd it was that he wore this garb even in the sweltering Tennessee heat, in front of shirt-sleeved audiences on courthouse steps.
But his dress, his demeanor were not sources of public critique. Nobody said, "Gee, why is he wearing only a blue suit? Why doesn't he loosen up?" recalls Kenneth Jost, who worked on that campaign and is now a reporter for Congressional Quarterly. "Nobody wrote that."
But they're writing it now.
Perception or reality?
Boring vs. Dull
A new word has entered the lexicon: MEGO.
As in: My eyes glaze over.
As in: Did you catch Al Gore's speech on global warming on C-SPAN?
It is a hipper word than boring, which has been on the scene since the mid-18th century.
Defining boring, interpreting it for today's society, is really what's at the heart of the matter.
"Failing to hold attention to the point where the person bored would rather be turning his attention to something else. That would be the essence of it," says Michael Agnes, editor in chief of Webster's New World dictionaries. "Of course," he quickly adds, "this is all a value judgment. One person's boredom is another person's fascination."
A fat wad of chewing gum.
Al Caruba, founder of the Boring Institute, which named Gore "most boring celebrity of the year" in 1993, offers this: "Boring people have no idea, not a clue that they're boring."
But everyone else knows.
"Somebody who's boring might as well be carrying a great big neon sign," says Caruba. "We all know a boring person in the first 30 seconds of the sheer misery of being in their presence."
Boring: Lamar Alexander, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, the vast majority of the U.S. Senate.
Not boring: Alan Keyes, Ann Richards, Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson.
In this discussion, fine points are important.
Dull men, for instance, shouldn't be confused with boring men, reports the National Council of Dull Men.
"Dull men accept their dullness. Boring men are dull men who actually believe they are interesting."
Dull: the character Norm Peterson from the television show "Cheers."
Boring: the character Cliff Clavin from the television show "Cheers."
Which brings us back to Al Gore. Dull? Boring? Or neither?
Perception or reality?
When Gore addressed 700 members of the Service Employees International Union recently, you'd have thought he was auditioning for a spot on "Saturday Night Live." He strolled onstage with a slightly awkward hip swivel, fists balled for dance, and the crowd chanted: "Go Al! Go Al! Go Al!" He was so fired up, told so many jokes and got so many laughs – they even laughed at the one about the 8-year-old who sent him a letter ("You are the first vice president of my time") – that it was possible to wonder whether this was actually Al Gore.
"I think he's had a lot of practice," said Debbie Timko, chief of staff for the Milwaukee local. "At this point, I think he is a dynamic speaker." Huh? "He has qualities Clinton doesn't. He's funny."
Al Gore as Austin Powers.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company