This is not your father's Al Gore.
This is the new model. It is leaner and sleeker, buffed by weightlifting and trimmed by diet. It comes in new colors, too--not a somber Beltway gray but a bold black shirt and khaki pants and, on occasion, cowboy boots. The vice president of the United States is no more. He is now your pal Al.
Your pal Al is a determined fellow. Some candidates may swoop into an event, deliver the standard speech, take some questions and split--but not Gore. He will stay until there are no questions left to be asked--until his audiences signal with body language that they have given up, exhausted. A Gore campaign event is like a dance marathon of old. It ends when he's the last one standing.
Gore's frank intention is to show that he is willing to fight for the Democratic nomination. He will do so not as some glamorous flyboy but as an infantryman down in the trenches. This is politics as hand-to-hand combat. Once the nomination was considered his for the taking, an inheritance from the president. The prince would become king. Then Bill Bradley came along. Now Gore plays the pauper.
Gone is the panoply of the vice presidency--the blue backdrop, the lectern flourishing the official seal, the pose of president in waiting. Gore tells the story himself.
"I began to notice that I was responding to questions in a way that was more characteristic of a vice president than someone who wanted to learn" from the voters, he said in response to a question from a voter here. "I began to respond . . . by pausing at least a split second by asking myself how can I help the administration. That was a weakness.
"What you want to know is, what is my spontaneous reaction to a question?"
Yes, precisely. And sometimes we get it. The New Gore materializes episodically, moments of connection with his audience followed--or preceded--by a numbing retreat to vice presidentialism. Then he is the Great Proposer. For every problem he has a solution--a law, a regulation, an act. The questioner is smothered in laws enacted because Al Gore is on this earth.
But the New Gore is starting to make a difference. New Hampshire is a needy state, craving time and attention. Gore is giving it that. Moreover, he is becoming more and more effective as a campaigner. His open meeting here was a success--part politics, part policy, part Oprah.
An earlier event for disabled persons was similarly successful. Speaking to people in wheelchairs, people without speech, people without one ability or another, Gore was not only empathetic but was able to fling open his chest of government programs and suggest this one or that one. He knows his stuff and he knows, too, that a politician's job is not only to provide leadership but sometimes to make one person's life a little better.
My notes are full of criticisms of Gore as a campaigner. His visit to a sheet metal plant was a disaster. He talked about pensions in the emotionless voice of a benefits officer giving a widow the bad news. He told a high school audience his reasons for not ducking the Vietnam War (he opposed the war in principle), making it sound like choosing between sausage and pepperoni for a pizza order. He knows too much and often sees the other side of the argument.
Just how Gore will become the vice president who isn't the vice president is hard to see. After all, he is guarded by the Secret Service, and his motorcade never stops for traffic lights. Just how he will not be perceived as disloyal or, worse, a phony, is also hard to see--and, anyway, Bill Clinton is leaving a bounty of prosperity and peace. Gore is bound to claim it as his own sooner or later.
The New Gore is a work in progress, a slow emergence like a chick breaking out of the egg. He says he is liberated, a happy campaigner at last. On Air Force II, he joshed with the press and exhibited his hidden gift of laughter. This was the pre-vice presidential Al Gore, not the one who talked in the gobbledygook of "no controlling legal authority" but the one who could throw back his head and laugh, even at himself. He'll never be a great campaigner--he's no natural--but he's starting to be the man he once was. With enough time, Al Gore could become Al Gore.