If presidential politics were a playground brawl, the churlish scrutiny of Al Gore's personality would be akin to getting trapped inside the monkey bars. Gore has been cornered by a pack of taunting bullies. The tormentors are calling him names: prosaic, stiff, boring.
Dull boy, dull boy. Dull, dull, dull. Poor Al, can't bond with people because he's stiff as a board. Waaa!
The bullies fire off the insults as if they've studied the very nature of bland and found Gore to be its essence. So Gore decided to prove them wrong, to change his image before their very eyes. He would electrify crowds, entice voters with his charisma, talk the talk of the common man.
Of course, this singling out of Gore as duller than your worst blind date implies that the landscape is crowded with serious presidential contenders who are so entertaining and charismatic that they ought to be out on the road doing stand-up, just one joke away from their own cable special. But unless one has the oratorical flourishes of a Southern preacher or the physical magnetism of a film star, anyone who earnestly pontificates on taxes, Social Security and campaign finance reform is bound to make listeners feel as though they're being repeatedly hit over the head with a mallet.
Of course, Pat Buchanan can spout political fire and brimstone to stunning effect. And celebrities such as Warren Beatty and Cybill Shepherd have been stage-whispering about their political aspirations to much interest and amusement. But they are merely diversions from the somber centrist campaigns that dominate.
So, yes, when Gore slips into that sincere I-want-your-vote mode, he is a bore. But so is everyone else--Bill Bradley, George W. Bush, John McCain and the whole lot. They're one big yawning chasm of centrism. Begging for mass public approval is a tedious, ugly operation. Public policy is important and necessary, but listening to people with only the tiniest shades of differences expound on it is a test of one's devotion to democracy.
But only Gore has gotten trapped in the dull box. Only he has been stymied by this image that has mutated into a "communication problem." ("You never say the candidate has a problem," says Susan Estrich, former campaign manager for Michael Dukakis and now a law professor at the University of Southern California.)
This failure to communicate has sent the campaign into fast and furious fiddling. Pack up the campaign bus and move to Nashville. For the New Hampshire town meeting, ditch the navy suit for a nice tan one. A white shirt? Pshaw! Blue is softer, more soothing, more personable. Amble into a town meeting wearing cowboy boots. Be spontaneous. Practice empathy. Smile. Keep smiling and the whole country will wonder why the heck you're smiling so much.
In a culture where imagemaking is a booming business, how can Gore make a transformation appear to happen naturally? How does he accomplish change under a microscope without it being minutely analyzed?
He could embrace the Madonna Principle. Change is good. I change, therefore I am. Gore could tout his chameleon-like behavior as a way of emphasizing his ability to expound on the cultural Zeitgeist. His malleable image could be a metaphor for flexibility, adaptability and spontaneity.
There is, of course, a risk of being called a cultural gadfly, stirring up trouble and roiling emotions with relentless image overhauling. Madonna may have a reputation for being ready to embrace all challenges and possibilities, but reliability and practicality aren't often associated with her.
Another possible option utilizes the Oprah Philosophy. Share the pain of being a man in search of a public persona that is loose but confident, strong but emotional, funny but appropriately solemn.
"Just take the heat," Estrich says, until you finally "come up with something that works." The change has to be public. How can it not be? "You have no choice," Estrich says. "You're not allowed to do it quietly. You can't go to the bathroom quietly at a certain point in presidential politics."
Indeed, this is a fine time to be a man struggling to define your image. Famed feminist Susan Faludi has documented the dilemma of manhood in "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man." Gore could exploit the moment and identify himself as just another baby boomer fellow searching for meaning in his masculinity, seeking a new definition of self.
Take note, however, that the key to manhood does not lie in those cowboy boots. It's a presidential campaign, after all, not a rodeo.
"I think with Gore, the image is not so much the dress," says Art Cooper, editor in chief of GQ magazine and a man who knows a thing or two about men, image and the role of clothes. "It's the perception, his shouting. He always seems to be shouting at people. . . . It's the whole package. He seems so often uncomfortable in his own skin."
Cooper is a proponent of asserting that the problem lies not with the man, but with the times. In short, inflate the problem to massive proportions, and suddenly it's not your problem but rather a cultural phenomenon.
"I think guys are more confused by the whole sense of . . . what it means to be a man," Cooper says. "Women are considered cool and much more self-assured than ever. Al Gore has had a very celebrated career--vice president, senator. You'd think if anybody had inner peace, it's him. But it's a work in progress."
Which leads to the third method for dealing with change: Call it evolution.
"The press assumption is that the politician is engaged in an attempt to manipulate the audience. Once the press thinks it has a take on a candidate, everything that questions that [take] is considered manipulation, when in fact it could just be learning," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Candidates do learn. They can progressively become more comfortable, allowing traits typically reserved for private encounters to emerge during public meetings.
"Change doesn't have to be Machiavellian," Jamieson says.
Don't seriously address the perceived need to change; that only legitimizes the criticism that any new behavior is unscrupulously calculated, she adds. "An attempt to make light of [the criticism] is a way of saying this isn't true."
Regardless of which road to a sparkling public personality Gore ultimately travels, the reality is that he doesn't need to progress very far. Because, unless Robin Williams or Chris Rock suddenly forms an exploratory committee, the competition to keep the electorate mesmerized remains less than daunting.
CAPTION: Now that Gore has been labeled a bore, any attempt to revise and extend the image will be viewed skeptically.
CAPTION: When Gore tries to loosen up, critics accuse him of being manipulative.