If Al Gore died and went to Heaven, this is what it might look like:
Moises Perez, a compact man with a slight accent, is telling a cavernous auditorium that when he and his Alianza Dominicana wanted to open a community center in Manhattan, they borrowed from their roots and named it La Plaza. Today La Plaza is a safe haven, welcoming troubled youths from 3 to 10 p.m. each day, Perez boasts as Gore's head nods up and down.
"Gracias, Moises," the vice president says in his best talk-show-host baritone. Then, with a smooth swivel in his chair toward his blond co-host (wife Tipper), Gore observes: "Wouldn't it be nice if every community had a meeting place like that?"
Heaven. Sheer wonk heaven.
For two days here at Vanderbilt University, in a hall teeming with do-gooders, the man best known for his statue imitation finally appeared to relax in public.
With a "hallelujah" here and a hug there, Gore temporarily shed his stiff-guy armor and displayed a long-rumored but rarely seen human side. He teased a "crusty" corporate executive, quoted Yeats, babbled in Spanish and smooched a baby. He even giggled like a girl when one man predicted he would win the 2000 presidential race.
Bill and Hillary Clinton can have their Renaissance Weekend and pied-a-terre in New York. Al Gore's got Nashville and the Family Re-Union, a down-in-the-weeds policy summit that only a man with a steel-trap brain and a steel rear end would describe as "fun."
The two-day talkathon is "an acquired taste," acknowledges Gore adviser and comrade-in-wonkiness Elaine Kamarck. "This is our favorite event of the year. For Al Gore this is the basis of his understanding of social policy writ large."
Uh, right, Elaine. Whatever you say.
While his aides fought to stay awake and the national press corps remained in Washington, Gore was positively wallowing in the sheer density and total unsexiness of his eighth annual reunion.
"I love this work," he said at a reception Monday evening for the thousand-plus community activists and academics who attended. "It makes you feel good."
One week into his presidential campaign, Gore is battling a serious image problem. Programmed to the point of seeming robotic, so clean he's boring--but apparently not clean enough to shed some of President Clinton's scandal baggage--Gore is searching for ways to connect with voters.
With Clinton far away in the Balkans and an agenda that afforded plenty of time to discuss the "interconnected webs of community," as he put it, the conference offered a rare glimpse of an off-the-cuff, warm-and-fuzzy Gore.
Take his exchange with Lily Yeh, a Chinese American artist who overcame a bad case of nerves to explain how she has converted 87 abandoned lots in Philadelphia into lush parks.
Realizing Gore's clout in Washington, Yeh first put in a bid for more federal grants.
"I was too slow--you got me," he replied.
Then she warned Gore, in a half-joking tone, that if the local politicians opposed her tree farm project, "there would be bloodshed." As the audience chuckled, Gore raised his eyebrows, feigning great fright.
And, while she had his ear, Yeh continued, how about full funding for the National Endowment for the Arts?
"I was a little scared sitting next to the vice president," she said.
"I don't believe you anymore," Gore laughed.
For a natural campaigner like Clinton, this sort of exchange is an everyday occurrence. Coming from Gore, it was a revelation.
In a teleconference session titled "Owning the Dream: Economic Vitality and Education for Leadership," Gore orchestrated several satellite hookups like a seasoned anchor. "Now let's go out to your colleagues in Los Angeles," he said, steering the discussion to another remote location.
And when he heard about one entrepreneur's efforts to market frozen soul food, he quipped: "Frozen soul food--sounds kinda like my Macarena."
Not that the reunion wasn't serious. In fact, it was the weight of the conference that seemed to relax Gore, like a shy researcher finally at home in the confines of a library.
Almost as magically as the relaxed Gore appeared here, though, there were signs the spell was wearing off. At a closing news conference with a handful of reporters, Gore whipped out his cue cards and started reading word for word, slowly . . . enunciating . . . every . . . syllable.
Would he at least spontaneously field a few questions? Nope. Not on the cards.
CAPTION: Al and Tipper Gore at the social policy conference in Nashville: Could the vice president's true colors be something other than gray?
CAPTION: The vice president in Nashville, during one of his regressive moments.