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An Acquired Taste

Illustration by Patrick Oliphant

Al Gore is the most lethal debater in politics, a ruthless combatant who will say whatever it takes to win, and who leaves opponents not just beaten but brutalized. But Gore is no natural-born killer. He studied hard to become the man he is today

by James Fallows

(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part two, part three, or part four.)

AL GORE has often been mocked for his speaking style -- even by himself, in wooden jokes about his wooden manner. He stopped telling those jokes a year or two ago. Through this year's presidential campaign he has become more aggressive and animated on the stump. Yet oratory is still classed among Gore's liabilities; like the elder George Bush in 1988, he is a Vice President who inevitably suffers when his speeches are compared with those of a sitting President with unusual rhetorical gifts.

But Gore has accomplished something Bush never did. Over the course of the 1990s, so gradually and methodically that it was not fully appreciated, Gore emerged as America's most lethally effective practitioner of high-stakes political debate. Political debate is not, of course, like other forms of debate. It is not primarily a dispassionate contest of logic, in which ideas are pitted against each other to see which is most compelling. It is debate as political combat, in which the contest of ideas is subordinate to the struggle for dominance between the debaters. Victory requires knowing all the details of the opposition's proposals, and it's no surprise that Gore should excel at that. But it also requires a taste for face-to-face confrontation, and a sense of showmanship. In these, too, Gore has, less predictably, excelled.

Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

More on politics and society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"A Talk With Bill Clinton," by James Fallows (October 1996)
The President shows himself to be at once confident about what we should do to better life for the next generation and guarded about how much we can achieve toward that end.

"A Visit With Bill Clinton," by The Editors (October 1992)
The conflict between the "A student" and the "pol."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Fallows@large: "The Election 2000 Time Capsule Project," by James Fallows
An informal and proudly unscientific means of tracking the conventional political wisdom through the campaign season.

Politics & Prose: "Bush vs. Gore," by Jack Beatty (March 8, 2000)
Scenes from the first presidential debate of the 2000 election campaign.

Politics & Prose: "Playing Politics With the Planet," by Jack Beatty (April 14, 1999)
A forecast of the 2000 election predicts squalls and continued global warming.

Comment: "The Era of Serious Public Policy Is Over," by Jack Beatty (September 4, 1996)
Gore's lachrymose exploitation of his sister's death from lung cancer was so grotesque that it made me want to go and have a good smoke.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

"Dilemma of the Ruthless Democrat," by Jacob Weisberg (April 25, 2000)
"In a tight spot, the vice president did not hesitate to grossly distort [Bradley's] record, to imply that he was insensitive to blacks, or to mock him as an impractical egghead. If you know Gore, you know he'll do essentially the same thing to Bush: rip into his flesh like a crazed weasel while grinning and promising never to make a 'negative personal attack' against an opponent." An article in Slate.

"Golden Mean," by Jonathan Chait (June 22, 2000)
When vice presidents attack. Jonathan Chait makes the case for Gore going negative and staying there. An article in The New Republic.

Al Gore 2000
Al Gore's official Presidential campaign site.

George W. Bush
George W. Bush's official Presidential campaign site.

Debate has also been the medium in which Al Gore has displayed the least attractive aspects of his campaigning style: aggressiveness turning into brutality, a willingness to bend the rules and stretch the truth if necessary. A generation ago Gore was a divinity student who said he was repelled by the harsh realities of politics. Now he is the political combatant most likely to leave his victims feeling not just defeated but battered. He is also the one best able to change, purely through debate, the momentum of a political or policy contest.

One week before Gore's televised 1993 debate with Ross Perot over the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Clinton Administration's prospects for getting NAFTA through Congress were chancy. Perot, with his talent for simplifying the economic arguments against NAFTA into punchy one-liners, was heavily favored to bring public opinion to his side. Ed Rollins, a consultant who had worked with Perot, predicted on TV, "He's going to kill Gore." One week after the debate many of the previously undecided Democrats in Congress had lined up in support of NAFTA, many of them citing Gore's performance as the decisive factor, and Perot was on the way down as a serious public figure.

When Bob Dole chose Jack Kemp as his vice-presidential candidate, in August of 1996, Republicans hailed Kemp as a quick-tongued charmer who would not only buoy Dole but also appear in attractive contrast to the stolid Al Gore. Two months later Gore sailed through ninety minutes of an embarrassingly one-sided exchange with a flummoxed Kemp, effectively quashing Kemp's ability to lead a Dole comeback.

Four months before this year's New Hampshire primary Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan endorsed Bill Bradley as the Democratic nominee, saying what many Democrats believed at the time: Gore was simply not electable. In a series of debates Gore repeatedly crushed Bradley -- defining the topic, playing to the crowd, throwing Bradley off balance time and again. In October, a few weeks after Moynihan's endorsement, with polls showing Bradley ahead by eight points in New Hampshire, Gore and Bradley held their first face-to-face debate, at Dartmouth College. Gore lit into Bradley's health-care plan, saying that it was costly and would badly hurt the poor. Bradley, staying grandly above the fray, pooh-poohed the attacks. Within a week Bradley's lead in New Hampshire had disappeared. Gore won in New Hampshire and every other contested state.

Campaigns are not necessarily good vehicles for candidates to demonstrate the best of their true governing potential: that the elder George Bush could assemble and lead an international coalition; that Bill Clinton could cooperate with Republicans, bankers, and entrepreneurs to set the conditions for the longest-ever economic boom. But some of a President's essential character is always revealed in the campaign. The part that's revealed is the negative part: Nixon's vindictiveness toward enemies, Reagan's detachment from the details of decision-making, Clinton's evasiveness about truth. We can't be sure what will be best about Al Gore if he becomes President. But what will be worst is probably closely connected to the way he has learned to destroy opponents in debates.

GORE'S current climb to success as a debater began seven years ago, when he decided to take on Ross Perot over NAFTA. At the time, this decision seemed reckless. Although Perot's standing with the public had been diminished by his temporary withdrawal from the 1992 presidential race, a year before his debate with Gore he had received 19 percent of the total popular vote for the presidency -- half as many votes as President Bush. And the Gore-Perot debate was to be held on ground familiar to Perot -- the CNN program Larry King Live, on which Perot had originally allowed himself to be "drafted" for a presidential run and which he regarded as a second home.

Perot had spent the early months of 1993 running ads in favor of deficit reduction, which had been his main cause in the presidential campaign. He had grown increasingly upset about NAFTA. With Pat Choate, an adviser who later became his running mate in the 1996 campaign, Perot wrote a manifesto called Save Your Job, Save Our Country: Why NAFTA Must Be Stopped -- Now! It was published as a paperback original in mid-August of 1993 and reached No. 2 on the national best-seller list (behind Rush Limbaugh's The Way Things Ought to Be). As he had done with his deficit presentations, Perot spent his own money -- at least $5 million -- to buy infomercials denouncing NAFTA. His argument was that free trade might make sense between fundamentally similar societies such as Canada and the United States, but that adopting it between countries on such different economic levels as the United States and Mexico would create a "giant sucking sound" as American jobs and industries zoomed southward. Former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bush had lined up beside Bill Clinton in the White House to say that the agreement should be passed. But in September, as the deadline for a vote drew near, NAFTA was, as Gore's longtime adviser Roy Neel recently told me, "on the ropes." National polls showed that more people were against the agreement than for it.

Perot and his associates were eager for a debate. They assumed that Perot would be matched against the likes of Mickey Kantor, who had been the chairman of the Clinton-Gore campaign and was now the U.S. trade representative. The Clinton NAFTA team tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Lee Iacocca, who favored the agreement, to take on Perot in a battle of the CEOs. "We had no idea they'd give us Gore," Pat Choate, who helped Perot prepare for the encounter, told me.

Initially, the Administration also had no such idea. The very decision to support NAFTA, rather than abandon it as a George Bush legacy, had been divisive within the Administration. The Clinton advisers with close ties to organized labor, including George Stephanopoulos, Clinton's strategist, were unenthusiastic about the agreement to begin with. The advisers thought that if the Administration were to offer up anyone to Perot (who was not even an officeholder), it shouldn't be someone with the high visibility of the Vice President. In the early months of the Administration, Gore had proved to Clinton his earnestness, his willingness to work hard, and his mastery of substance -- particularly on the merits of NAFTA. But his capability was more questionable in exactly the areas that a showdown with Perot would, it was believed, expose. Gore was considered a bad speaker, especially in settings where quickness and agility counted most -- such as debates. "He's very intelligent, but he comes across a little slow," John White, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told Newsday just before the debate. Because Bill Clinton had chosen not to run for President in 1988 and had picked Al Gore as his running mate in 1992, the two men had never faced each other in debate. But Clinton had watched Gore fail, as he viewed it, in debate against -- of all people -- Dan Quayle.

Disconcerted by Dan Quayle

QUAYLE'S 1992 advisers correctly regarded his 1988 encounter with Lloyd Bentsen ("You're no Jack Kennedy") as a disaster that must not be repeated. Four years later Quayle was rigorously prepared for the vice-presidential debate by a team determined to position him, psychologically and strategically, to outflank Al Gore. Among its members were Marilyn Quayle; William Kristol, then Quayle's chief of staff; Richard Porter, a lawyer and adviser; Al Hubbard, a businessman from Indiana who was the executive director of Quayle's Council on Competitiveness (and who now advises George W. Bush); Bill Gribbin, his congressional liaison; and Kenneth Adelman, the head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under Ronald Reagan. Using flash cards, briefing papers, and comments at extensive practice sessions, the team emphasized two tactics again and again.

One was not to discredit or disagree with -- or even spend much time on -- Al Gore but to attack Bill Clinton, through Gore, on what the team had identified as Clinton's greatest vulnerabilities: character, veracity, and trustworthiness. Whatever question the moderator asked, whatever the provocation by Gore, Quayle was to turn the discussion to Clinton and ask the Republicans' main question: Are you willing to trust this man? A briefing memo from Adelman said, "Note: almost every policy area should give you the opportunity to raise the integrity/trust issue."

The other tactic was intended to take advantage of a little-understood truth about political debates: no matter what the rules are, there really are no rules. Quayle should do whatever was necessary to attack, confuse, disconcert, and even insult Gore. The immediate point was to make Gore look bad; the larger goals were to establish Quayle as a vigorous figure, not the famous "deer in the headlights" of the 1988 debacle with Bentsen, and to prevent Gore from doing anything to repulse the onslaught against Clinton. Warren Rudman, a senator from New Hampshire, who played Gore's role in practice debates, stressed the importance of keeping Gore off balance. Rudman argued that Gore's methodical intelligence equipped him to do his best when he could stick to his own plan; he was at his worst when forced to improvise or deviate from the script. A debate memo said that Quayle should pre-empt Gore's ability to control the discussion (and should react if necessary to "Gore's Zingers, Putdowns, Showboating, Acting Outraged") while keeping him off balance through intentional hyperactivity and provocations:

**The key: Be indignant and outraged in response. Look at him.
"Get real, Al."
"Lighten up, Al."
"Take a breath, Al. Inhale.... "
"You and Bill Clinton may think (family values, or whatever) is a joking matter, but we don't -- and the American people don't."

Quayle performed exactly as his side hoped. (This debate also featured the heroic but spectacularly miscast James Bond Stockdale, the retired admiral and former Vietnam War POW who was Ross Perot's running mate. Stockdale opened with the memorable words "Who am I? Why am I here?" and responded to the moderator with such replies as "I'm out of ammunition on this" and "You know, I didn't have my hearing aid turned up. Tell me again.") Quayle started with an attack on Clinton's veracity, ended with another, and hit the trust theme at every step in between. He even turned an argument about Gore's recently published book about the environment into a slam at Clinton.

In this Quayle claimed, falsely, that Gore had said in his book Earth in the Balance that U.S. taxpayers should spend $100 billion yearly to fix environmental problems in the rest of the world: "It's in your book, on page 304!" What that page actually says is that the United States should try to enlist Europe and Japan in a Marshall Plan-like effort to protect the world environment -- and that if the United States made a commitment equivalent to its commitment under the original Marshall Plan, the cost would come to $100 billion. ("Everyone understood it was a stretch," Kenneth Adelman says now about the Quayle camp's thinking. "But on balance it seemed justified. And it had the advantage of suggesting that he had read the whole book and could remember the page number.") When Gore, spluttering, denied the charge (without specifying why it was wrong), Quayle looked with a "Can you believe it?" expression at the moderator, Hal Bruno, of ABC News. "You know, Hal," Quayle said, "I wanted to bring the Gore book tonight." Why? "Because I figured he was going to 'pull a Bill Clinton' on me, and he has." In an earlier disagreement during the debate Quayle had helpfully defined this phrase, which his team had conceived and urged him to use as often as possible in the debate: "You know what 'a Clinton' is? 'A Clinton' is when ... he says one thing one day and another thing the next day. You try to have both sides of the issues."

Gore mouthed "No, no" when Quayle criticized him or (more often) Clinton in the debate. But Quayle resolutely stuck to his message, in manner and content -- always deliberately abrasive, always looking past Gore to the real target, Clinton. And Warren Rudman was proved right. Gore did not adapt in response. Not once in the ninety minutes of the debate did Gore try to counter Quayle's increasingly dismissive references to Clinton or to answer his baiting question: Why does this man deserve to be President? Instead he stuck to the agreed-on script, which called for emphasizing "It's the economy, stupid" issues and for casting George Bush as passive and out of touch. Quayle snarled away at Clinton, but Gore ended with a tepid summary beginning "Bill Clinton offers a new approach" -- the closest he came to unambiguous praise of Clinton.

After the debate, the Clinton-Gore spinners presented it as another embarrassing performance by Dan Quayle and another sign of the Democratic team's determination to let nothing distract it from the challenge of getting the economy moving again. Gore's team rationalized his failure to defend Clinton as a necessary battlefield decision. "Do you want the headlines the next day to be 'QUAYLE AND GORE SPAR OVER CLINTON ETHICS'?" an adviser to Gore recently recalled thinking at the time. "On the spot he decided it was better to stay with a Bush attack than a Clinton defense." Even now, nearly eight years later, Gore's associates say he was just sticking to the master strategy that he and Clinton had worked out. "Al did not go into that debate with the principal objective to defend Bill Clinton personally," Roy Neel, who had known Gore when both were newspapermen in Nashville, and who had joined his congressional staff in 1977, told me. "Nor did Clinton want him to do that." But this perspective was not shared in the Clinton camp at the time. "He certainly wasn't doing what Clinton wanted, in terms of defending Clinton," David Gergen, who joined the Administration seven months after the debate, told me recently. Gergen says he recalls a residue of suspicion lingering because of Gore's passivity against Quayle. "It would be fair to say that the governor was surprised and unhappy that night," said one person who watched Clinton's face turn red as Gore let Quayle slug away.

So in contemplating the NAFTA debate, the danger was obvious. If Quayle had caught Gore flat-footed, what might Perot do? To Clinton's advisers the Quayle debate had made Gore look disloyal at worst and slow-witted at best. His was not the name they thought of first when it was time to face Perot. You don't bring out a big gun if you think it might backfire.


(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part two, part three, or part four.)

James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent.

Illustrations by Patrick Oliphant.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; An Acquired Taste - 00.07; Volume 286, No. 1; page 33-53.