Yadda Yucks for Gore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 1998; Page A02
NEW YORK, May 14 Intent on proving he is not a graduate of the lumber yard school of public speaking, Vice President Gore went for Seinfeldian yucks before substance in a commencement speech today at New York University.
"After today, many of you will have to go out and find jobs. Just like the cast of 'Seinfeld,'" said Gore, who is under some pressure before his anticipated 2000 presidential run to neutralize his reputation for being wooden.
No less than 25 percent of Gore's speech, his second commencement address in the past week, was devoted to rim-shot zingers, many of them tied to tonight's broadcast of the final episode of "Seinfeld."
Finding heretofore unseen similarities between members of the NYU community and the cast of the top-rated TV sitcom, Gore singled out four students and faculty who share surnames with characters in the show Kramer at the law school, Costanza at the credit union, Seinfeld at the school of social work and Newman, a graduating senior at the school of the arts and wished each of them adieu.
The vice president saved Newman for last. In the same sneering, hateful tone that Jerry Seinfeld uses in the show when addressing his slothful postman nemesis, Gore curled his lip and barked: "Goodbye . . . NEWMAN!"
Judging by the laughter of 8,000 purple-robed graduates and their families spread across Manhattan's Washington Square Park on a splendid sun-dappled morning, the vice president proved that, at the very least, reports of his soporific speechmaking are somewhat exaggerated.
As enthusiastic as the response was to the jokey part of his speech, Gore came nowhere near matching the standing-ovation electricity generated earlier in the ceremony when celebrated filmmaker, NYU graduate and "loyal Knicks fan" Shelton Jackson "Spike" Lee was awarded an honorary doctorate.
The substance of the vice president's speech concerned high-tech issues that he has come to be identified with a call to protect consumer privacy from computerized invasion. Gore outlined what he called "an electronic bill of rights for the information age," the details of which were made available on Wednesday and which were published today in many newspapers.
In summary, Gore called for legislation to restrict electronic access to private medical records, announced the creation of a government Web site that allows people to prevent their personal data from being passed on by companies and said the Commerce Department would convene a summit in June on consumer privacy.
As the vice president soldiered through the substantive portions of his speech he seemed to slip back into his often-criticized rhetorical style, a painfully deliberate manner of speaking that is similar to the pedantic "Special English" short-wave broadcasts the Voice of America beams to Third World countries.
Oddly, in the joke-filled first quarter of his speech, Gore's comic timing was superb as he made wicked fun of the legendary meaninglessness of the vice presidency, of the stodginess of the men who have held the office (including himself) and of the danger of delivering a commencement speech that turns out to be a snoozer.
Quoting Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, who served under Woodrow Wilson, Gore said, "The vice president of the United States is like a man in a cataleptic state: He cannot speak; he cannot move; he suffers no pain; and yet he is perfectly conscious of everything that goes on around him.
"Which brings me back to my role at this commencement. Your great former governor, Mario Cuomo, once recalled the advice he was given the first time he was asked to speak at a graduation. Commencement speakers, he was told, should think of themselves as the body at an old-fashioned Irish wake. They need you in order to have the party but nobody expects you to say very much."
Gore, who has for some time been trying to inoculate himself against wooden-politician jibes, jabbed an ironic needle into his own vice presidential flesh.
He mentioned that in his reading on the history of the vice presidency, he learned that Vice President John C. Calhoun, who served under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, had earned a public-speaking reputation as the "Cast Iron Man."
"Could you imagine having a reputation of being SO STIFF they called you the 'Cast Iron Man'? I really don't know how he went on."
But Gore did go in that same vein for another five jokes before shifting to his vision for the 21st century and the problems of privacy in the information age.
The vice president's rhetorical transition between silly and substance was, as befits the momentousness of the day, Seinfeld-like.
"Or to put in another way: yadda, yadda, yadda," the vice president said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company