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.
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.
Close In and Mean
Jack Quinn had seen Gore in other debates, and what he had seen made him think that Gore was just the man to take on Ross Perot.
Quinn was a friend of Gore's who had been for many years a lawyer with the Washington, D.C., firm of Arnold & Porter. When Gore became Vice President, he named Quinn his chief of staff; Quinn later succeeded Abner Mikva as Bill Clinton's White House counsel. During Gore's first run for the presidency Quinn had been an influential issues adviser. When Gore had announced his candidacy, in April of 1987, he had presented himself as an all-purpose, forward-looking idealist. "We should establish a goal of having the lowest infant-mortality rate in the entire world," he said in his opening speech. "We should establish the goal of having a job for every American who wants to work. We should have international efforts to combat health threats such as AIDS and Alzheimer's." And on and on it went, through a long list of goals. When a questioner asked which of these many goals would be his priority, Gore summed up: "The arms race and making America competitive and cleaning up our environment and creating the best education system in the world. Those are the four top."
By the time he withdrew from the race, in April of 1988, after a defeat in the New York primary, Gore had repositioned and refocused himself as an aggressive, combative campaigner who could be the voice of the recently formed Democratic Leadership Council—the candidate who could move the party back to the pro-defense, strong-America, anti-crime, pro-family center, where it could win. Along with Roy Neel and Bruce Reed, a young speechwriter in Gore's Senate office, Jack Quinn played an important part in this shift. Gore adopted an assertive demeanor designed to pressure the other candidates and to get him noticed for his toughness. "Al was about the last one into the race," Roy Neel says. "The debate strategy was a way to go hard at the other opponents and try to get in the first tier."
The first successful test of the strategy took place at a debate in Des Moines, Iowa, in the fall of 1987. The other Democratic candidates, some with qualifications, supported a proposed nuclear freeze. Gore opposed it. "None of the other guys seemed to have thought about global or national security in a thorough way," Neel told me. "So when he got the question at the debate, he was primed. With this big, sweeping gesture he said, 'All of my opponents have gone mindlessly and in lockstep in supporting this dangerous scheme,' and so forth. Those other guys were caught completely off guard. He nailed them." "The next day The Des Moines Register wrote it exactly as we wanted it. We caught total hell from the Democratic establishment. But it basically got Al into the race—and it provided a reinforcement for working really hard on these debates. It made the debates a centerpiece of his message, not just the substantive message but the impression that he was a fighter."
Before he withdrew from the 1988 campaign, Gore went through more than two dozen debates. He held preparation and practice sessions before every one of them. Jack Quinn time and again saw Gore's ability to fight close in and mean.
By 1993, though, when Gore was Vice President and Quinn was his chief of staff, memories of Gore's prowess had been blurred by his performance in the Quayle debate and by his four preceding years in the Senate, where the prevailing style is indirect and woolly—swathed in layers of "my distinguished colleague" and short on zingers and pithy remarks. When a senator speaks, there are usually no time limits. This has a predictable effect. The more years a person spends in the Senate, the worse an orator he is likely to seem to any audience outside the Senate chamber. Bob Dole is a case in point. Career senators who remain effective short-form speakers generally developed their habits somewhere else. Former Senator Dale Bumpers, of Arkansas, for example, was a trial attorney from his mid-twenties through his mid-forties.
Gore certainly had his share of bad senatorial habits. But before entering the Senate, in 1985, he had spent eight years in the House. There he had developed the skills needed for success in that very different environment—namely, the Crossfire-style ability to get the point across quickly and, if at all possible, to needle the opponent while doing so. The most noticeable representatives of recent years include Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, Barney Frank, Charles Rangel, and the pre-senatorial Chuck Schumer. Politicians like these feel right at home on TV and radio argue-talk shows, because the modern House rewards talk-show behavior. When he was in the House, Gore adapted successfully to its requirements—learning how to ask of a hearing witness a confrontational question that would seem interesting enough for the evening news; learning to be comfortable with face-to-face disagreement that in the Senate would be considered impolite.
The more Gore played by House rules during the 1988 Democratic debates, the more attention he got. Like the House, the debates featured too many participants competing for too little time. Initially there were seven contenders—"the seven dwarfs" to the press: Gore, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, Paul Simon, Jesse Jackson, Bruce Babbitt, and Dick Gephardt. (In 1987 Gary Hart was briefly out of the race and Joe Biden was briefly in, still leaving a field of seven.) Each candidate struggled for time on camera while a debate was under way and for the even scarcer resource of recap coverage on the evening news. As with House debates, these large-scale encounters rewarded the person who was willing to initiate personal confrontation, who could boil down his argument to a slogan, and who was able to present a caricature of an opponent's views that was just short of an easily exposed lie. In the early debates Gore's main opponent was Gephardt, who had a surge in the Iowa caucus. Later Gore and everyone else aimed at Dukakis, to keep him from wrapping up the race.
In one particular debate Gore demonstrated his ability to inflict deliberate damage. This debate took place on February 18, 1988, at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. By then, three weeks before the "Super Tuesday" wave of mainly southern primaries, Dukakis was moving ahead of the pack, and Gore and Gephardt had each identified the other as the chief obstacle to hanging in as No. 2. Gephardt's main strength was his appeal to the traditional Democratic little man on themes of trade policy and unfair tax policy. His main weakness was the suspicion that he had developed his views recently and opportunistically to fill the populist gap. "Gephardt still had the best operation in the South, so Al had to go at him to send a signal to his southern supporters," Roy Neel told me. "Much of the support for Gephardt was from people who were concerned about Dukakis, so to steal that Gore had to take shots effectively at Dukakis." Neel, Jack Quinn, and others in the campaign had discussed Gore's talent for identifying and then exploiting an opponent's most vulnerable spot.
Gore had been asked a question about the Democrats' habit of pandering to interest groups—making anti-free-trade speeches to unions, offering support to farmers. In reply, Gore devoted one sentence to the question itself. Now that Bruce Babbitt had dropped out of the race, he said, he was the only remaining Democrat who was not pandering in support of a certain farm bill. Then he turned his gaze from the questioner to look straight at Gephardt, a few feet away, and delivered the prepared attack. "Standing up to pressure is something the next President is going to have to do," he began. "I'm gonna lay it on the line here, Dick. Now, look, you voted against the minimum wage every time you had a chance to in the Congress. If you had your vote, it would still be two dollars and thirty cents an hour. Now you say you're for it. You voted against the Department of Education. Now you say you're for it. You voted for tuition tax credits. Now you say you're against it. You voted for Reaganomics. Now you say—well, where are you this week on Reaganomics? I'm not sure."
[The camera cuts to Gephardt, who is looking daggers at Gore. Gore keeps going.] "Even on the subject that's probably the most difficult issue in this entire campaign, the subject of abortion, where everybody here has given it a lot of thought, it's a difficult issue, I don't know why you did a hundred-and-eighty-degree reversal on that issue. But the fact is you did. [The camera again cuts to Gephardt, who transparently is thinking 'I hate you.'] And the next President of the United States has to be someone the American people can believe will stay with his convictions, and if pressure comes from Gorbachev, from domestic interest groups, from wherever the pressure comes, you've gotta be willing to stand your ground and be consistent."
With this delivered, Gore stared into the camera. His jaw muscles kept flexing after he had finished. Gephardt didn't have—or, at least, didn't seize—a chance to speak for several minutes. If he had been Gore's kind of House combatant, he would have popped up and said, "May I answer that? Mr. Moderator, this calls for a reply!" (Though he came to the House the same year Gore did, Gephardt behaves like a figure from the pre-TV version of House demeanor; he is visibly uncomfortable with direct, in-person confrontation.) The attack was particularly galling because Gore's own views on abortion had, like Gephardt's, changed since his first years in the House. But Gephardt waited his proper turn. When next asked a question, about energy policy, he dealt with it in a few words. Then he turned to Gore: "While we're on the subject, Al [icy emphasis], I enjoyed your lecture on consistency, but you know the oil import fee is a place where Ithink you've been inconsistent. You voted against it every time, now you say, when you're in Texas you say that you would consider it as a way to deal with the budget. [Camera on Gore, who is turning his head from side to side and miming "No, no."] So when you make a lecture on consistency, maybe you'd better look at your own record first. [Jerry Springer-like sounds of "Oooooohhh!" from the crowd.] When you started this race, you decided you needed a southern political strategy. So you decided that you'd better move to the right on defense and a lot of other issues. And lately you've been sounding more like Al Haig than Al Gore." Gore [interrupting]: "That line sounds more like Richard Nixon than Richard Gephardt."
"It was just devastating," Paul Begala, who was working then for Gephardt, told me recently. "Gore turned to him and seized on Dick's greatest perceived weakness, that he flip-flopped around on issues, and gutted him with a perfectly crafted sound bite. It was really very tough, but not across the line of being unfair. It was right up to that line, because it was so personal, and that was because of the way he delivered it." "What hurt Gephardt so badly in 1988 was that he had no money," Robert Shrum, who is advising Gore now but was on Gephardt's staff at the time, told me. "But that debate hurt too." Gore's campaign excerpted his blast at Gephardt and ran it as a TV ad, complete with the cutaways to an abashed Gephardt. Begala says, "It looked like a completely fair attack, because the guy was right there listening, and there was nothing much to say."
Dispatching Gephardt was important, but the real target was Dukakis. Gore had gone after him in the Dallas debate even before confronting Gephardt. Practically the first words out of Gore's mouth that evening were a "comment" on a preceding answer by Dukakis, in a form designed both to create doubts in the minds of the audience about Dukakis's credentials and to fluster Dukakis. Gore was asked about a hostage situation in Lebanon. He spent a few seconds on that subject and then said, "I'd like to comment on the responses we've heard." The only response he could mean was one by Dukakis.
Gore: "I think it's awfully important to have a President who can deal from a position of strength and a President experienced in foreign policy. We're not just selecting a manager of the federal bureaucracy. [Get it, Mike?] We're selecting a President of the United States in this election. Now, I listened to Mike talk, and it sounds a little bit different from what he said in Iowa about a week ago, on the eve of the caucuses there, when he implied that it would be all right to have a Soviet client state established in Central America …"
Dukakis [starting to splutter]: "I never said that—I'm not going to—sorry, sorry—I'm not going —"
Gore [plowing ahead]: "And if a President of the United States made a statement like that in office, it could have catastrophic consequences-"
Dukakis [appealing to Roger Mudd, the moderator]: "Roger! I'm not going to sit here and listen to that. I never said that, Al! I never implied it —" [Dukakis is really angry, at least for him.]
Gore [serene, acting out "There he goes again!"]: "Well, that's the way it was reported, and I read the transcript, and what you said is if they had offensive missiles there, offensive weapons, then you wouldn't tolerate that, but if they didn't, then a Soviet client state might be just fine —"
Dukakis: "I never, ever said that! Please get your facts straight."
Mudd: "Senator, the governor has denied it."
Dukakis: "If you're going to be President of the United States, you'd better be accurate. That's the first thing you better be."
Viewers watching the debate might well have drawn two conclusions: Gore was the tough guy on foreign policy, and Dukakis had said something questionable and possibly unpatriotic about the Soviets and Central America. Surely a United States senator would not simply invent such an accusation. If Dukakis sounded so touchy, Gore must have hit a nerve.
If Gore had not wholly invented the accusation, he had taken large interpretive liberties. Earlier that month Dukakis had been quoted as saying that the Monroe Doctrine had been superseded by the treaty establishing the Organization of American States and other agreements. This could be interpreted as meaning that the United States should be more careful about throwing its weight around in the Americas, which in turn could mean "tolerating" regimes it did not like. But Gore did not need to rely on these interpretations, because he had heard Dukakis directly address the question. Two months earlier, at a debate in Washington, D.C., Tom Brokaw had asked Dukakis, "If there is a Soviet satellite state in Central America, another Cuba, and it's called Nicaragua, would that bother you?" Dukakis replied, "It would bother me. It would depend on whether or not it had offensive weapons. If it does, we have a perfect right to go in with our partners in the American community and take the steps we have a perfect right to take."
The "would" in "It would bother me" was slightly swallowed, so it could conceivably have been heard as "wouldn't." But Gore was five feet away as Dukakis said these words, and he could hardly have misunderstood Dukakis's point. In the second part of the answer Dukakis was clearly, if implicitly, referring not to the issue of whether a Soviet state in Central America would "bother" him but to the circumstances that would justify taking action. Was this a distortion? "It was an opening," Roy Neel told me. "For us it showed a kind of weak-headed thinking about these things. Basically we wanted to put Dukakis on the defensive and see if he could take that kind of treatment." All the major papers reported the following day that Gore had been "aggressive" and had launched sharp criticisms of Gephardt and Dukakis. Most also reported Dukakis's annoyed denial. But there was no time to go back and make clear that the denial was justified.
Making Perot Lose It
This was the debater Jack Quinn had seen in action: one with the discipline to master enough data to exploit an opponent's essential weakness and the ruthlessness to frame—or distort—facts in an argument of devastating effect. The Clintonites might have lost sight of this Gore because of the 1992 debate with Quayle, but Quinn was confident now, one year later, that the same tough fighter could apply the same tough tactics to Ross Perot. Quinn made the case to Gore, who after some hesitation agreed. Gore then went to the President, who had enough confidence in Gore's mastery of the substance of NAFTA to think that his taking part in the debate made sense.
When Perot and his associates learned that instead of, say, the U.S. trade representative they would have a crack at Al Gore, they were amazed—"and ecstatic," Pat Choate recently told me. They immediately accepted the idea and began negotiating over specifics. Pat Choate and Russell Verney, representing Perot, suggested a big public forum, perhaps in Florida or wherever else Gore might prefer. The White House was not interested; it wanted to avoid any sort of town-hall setting, which it feared might be full of cheering Perot partisans. David Gergen, who had recently supplanted George Stephanopoulos in directing Clinton's communications efforts, called Ross Perot at home early one morning. What about having the discussion on his old friend Larry King's talk show on CNN? Tom Johnson, the head of CNN, had already, and enthusiastically, okayed the idea. Perot agreed, expecting the kind of comfortable forum he had enjoyed there before.
This did not turn out to be purely the discussion of jobs and "sucking sounds" that Perot and his team had in mind. Instead it was a contest defined by Gore's ability to find and exploit an opponent's vulnerability. "What is most in character for him is his thoroughness in study," says Elaine Kamarck, who was a senior member of Gore's vice-presidential policy staff at the time of the Perot debate. "On the basis of analysis, he believes he can identify the one essential weakness in the other party—and then hammer at that point." In hindsight it may not sound like an act of genius for the Gore team to have concluded that Perot's essential weakness was his temperament; Dana Carvey's Perot snarling "Kin ah finish?" was already a fixture on Saturday Night Live. But there was genius, or at least cunning, in the decision to prepare Gore to push Perot's flaw to the breaking point—to stake the debate on Gore's ability to make Perot lose his temper. "If you're dealing with a hothead, you make him mad," Greg Simon, a longtime Gore aide who was then Gore's domestic-policy adviser and part of the team that prepared him for the debate, told me. "You've got a crazy man, you make him show it."
Perot's side cruised toward the discussion as if it would be another episode of the Ross-and-Larry mutual-admiration show. Perot had spent the preceding three months touring the country to speak about NAFTA. He had his charts; he had his arguments; he constantly advertised the fact that he had read the full NAFTA draft. Gore, meanwhile, spent the two weeks before the debate studying Perot's bearing and his character, while relying on his staff to dig up the goods on Perot's past. "He is at his best if he is confident that every possibility has been covered," Lorraine Voles, his former press secretary, told me. "If you can tell him Greg is covering the speeches and Jack is looking at the videos and the whole team is giving him everything he is going to need, then he'll feel secure and not worry that someone has forgotten to dig up an old speech." At Gore's request his staff prepared an omnibus edition of Perot's speeches, statements, and interviews about NAFTA, and also tapes of Perot in action. Gore studied them on his own and then assembled a team at the Naval Observatory—the Vice President's official residence—for a formal mock debate.
The team included Mike Synar, a congressman from Oklahoma, who took Perot's role in the debate; Mark Gearan, the manager of Gore's 1992 campaign and later the director of the Peace Corps, who played Larry King (and who, with his smooth choirboy face, looked as unlike King as can be imagined); Paul Begala, who after working for Gephardt had become a White House political counselor; David Gergen; Roy Neel; Jack Quinn, who was known within the White House as the man who would take either the blame or the credit for the Gore-Perot debate, depending on how it turned out; Greg Simon; Elaine Kamarck; Gene Sperling, from the White House economic-policy staff; Marla Romash, then Gore's press secretary; Bob Squier, a veteran Democratic consultant who could be relied on to steady Gore and give him confidence before big performances; and Tom Downey, a close friend of Gore's who had won a congressional seat from Long Island when he was twenty-five, in 1974, but had just lost his seat in the 1992 election.
Several days before the scheduled debate the team gathered at the Naval Observatory, around a huge table. As usual when Gore was preparing for a debate, there was informal banter—what Paul Begala, using baseball lingo for fast practice, calls "playing pepper," in which Gore and his associates tossed questions and sound bites back and forth to develop his debating reflexes and find the sharpest way to make a point. This time Gore didn't complete the mock debate, ending it when he grew testy about what he considered heavy-handed programming by his advisers. Gore's attitude toward preparation is more selective than his reputation for plodding diligence might suggest. When the normal circumstances of his working life keep him up-to-date on issues—and, in his view, sharp about the ways to discuss them—he feels it is needless to spend hours demonstrating that he knows what he knows. "You know, I've done this before, guys," he said in the middle of yet another pitch about how he should handle questions from King and Perot, according to an adviser who was present. "I was a newspaperman for years. I used to have congressional investigations and subcommittees. I know what I'm doing."
What Gore really wanted to talk about was how to get at Perot. Everyone knew that Perot loved charts. "He's got every kind of chart," Greg Simon said to me recently. "The price of eggs matched to the number of seats on an airplane." Sperling was in charge of matching Perot chart for chart, especially to show that Mexico could be a significant market for U.S. goods. Simon, Neel, Quinn, and others pooled ideas about the best ways to make Perot lose his composure. Their starting point was that Perot was like an overbearing grandfather. "He'll be fine as long as everybody sits there and listens to him," Simon said. "But if you start interrupting him, he'll lose it." Perot, a graduate of the Naval Academy, was extremely proud of his image as a self-sacrificing patriot. Several aides reasoned that if Gore could find a way to gibe at or raise doubts about that reputation, Perot would be unable to contain himself. Perot had virtually no experience with being treated disrespectfully, least of all in the friendly confines of Larry King's studio.
Mike Synar, Perot for a Day, had mastered the anti-NAFTA arguments, but no one could act as flappable as the real Perot. "This was really good, because the Vice President had to work harder at it," Greg Simon told me. "You didn't want to start by firing right at [Perot], because people would then say he had an excuse to get mad. You just wanted to drop in those little depth charges and five minutes later they would go off. Gore is an expert in knowing how to do that. He is very good at the offhand annoying comment."
There was one particularly annoying gambit Gore had in mind. During the 1988 campaign he had attacked Dick Gephardt's trade proposals by linking them to the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930, which helped turn a stock-market panic into a worldwide depression. This was a hoary but nonetheless effective way to discredit a political position—a milder equivalent of Clarence Thomas's reference to a hostile committee hearing as a "high-tech lynching." The world economy in 1988 was different in every way from that of 1930; high tariffs did bring on the Depression, but in the 1950s and the 1960s high tariffs coexisted with trade and growth. Never mind. The important thing was that Gore knew that Perot would not be able to stand being compared to Reed Smoot and Willis Hawley.
Reading an article on foreign policy, Gore had come across an old photo of Smoot and Hawley. The very morning of the debate Gore told Greg Simon about the picture and said that he wanted to have a framed copy of it by that evening, to hand to Perot. Simon's assistant, Kristin Schneeman, had previously worked as a documentary-film researcher. She helped to track down the picture at the Bettmann Archive and asked for a copy, pronto. A Gore supporter living in New York dashed to Bettmann, got the print, and carried it onto the next flight to Washington. Schneeman shopped for a suitable frame and rushed to the television studio, where she met the courier. Just before Gore walked into the studio, his assistants handed him this prop. Bob Squier talked to Gore shortly before he went in: You're going to be great, just follow your instincts. Another staff member thought that the scene was like a trainer talking soothingly to a thoroughbred in the tense moments before a race.
Following the plan, less than five minutes into the debate Gore was deliberately interrupting Perot. As Perot began to list his complaints about NAFTA, Gore jumped in. "How would you change it?"
Perot: "Very simply, I would go back, and study—first, we look at this, it doesn't work —"
Gore [interrupting]: "Well, what specific changes would you make in it?"
Perot [crabby]: "I can't unless you let me finish, I can't answer your question. Now, you asked me, and I'm trying to tell you."
Gore: "Well, you brought your charts tonight, so I want to know what specific changes you would like to make in the treaty."
Perot: "How can I answer if you keep interrupting me?"
Gore [this part of the mission complete]: "Go ahead."
Thirty seconds later, as Perot paused for breath, Gore was saying, "Okay, can I respond now?"—further flustering Perot and launching the next attack. "We've had a test of [Perot's] theory," Gore began. Perot squawked, and Larry King asked, "When?" Gore continued, employing a super-slow and pedantic style of emphasis that is irritating in itself. "In 1930, when the proposal by Mr. … Smoot and Mr. … Hawley was to raise tariffs across the board to protect our workers. And I brought some pictures too. This is a picture of Mr. Smoot and Mr. … Hawley. They look like pretty good … fellas. They sounded reasonable at the time. A lot of people … believed them. The Congress passed the … Smoot … Hawley … protection bill. He [gesturing at Perot] wants to raise tariffs on … Mexico."
At this point it seemed only fitting—practically polite—to give Perot an attractive remembrance of his intellectual heritage. Gore offered the framed photograph with a thin smile. Perot took it, glowered at it, and slammed it face-down on the desk. The debate still had seventy-five minutes to run, but the competitive part was over. By giving in to anger, Perot had defeated himself. "The only surprise was how well Perot lived up to our expectations," Elaine Kamarck told me. "He got mad and stayed mad."
"The debate was a real turnaround for Gore with the Clinton team," David Gergen told me recently. "He turned all the skeptics into believers. And the President was doing handstands. I think it was extremely important for their relationship."
Scenes From Debate Camp
On the strength of his performance against Ross Perot, Gore did not have to persuade anyone that it would be a good idea for him to take on Jack Kemp in 1996. But the problems he faced in preparing for that debate were entirely different.
The team working with Gore was largely the same one that had helped him three years before. David Gergen had gone on to other pursuits, but Jack Quinn, Greg Simon, and Elaine Kamarck were still closely involved. So were Gene Sperling, Tom Downey, Paul Begala, and Bob Squier. Leon Fuerth, Gore's longtime adviser on foreign policy, played a role, as did Mark Penn, a pollster. The two people officially responsible for organizing Gore's debate-prep effort were Andrew Cuomo, then an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (and now the Secretary), and Ron Klain, who had served in various roles on the President's and Vice President's staffs and became staff director of the Democratic caucus in the Senate in 1995.
In Jack Kemp the debate team feared that it might encounter Gore's most formidable opponent. Kemp had a reputation for charming audiences. His campaign, which favored Reagan-style supply-side tax cuts, was in spirit even more optimistic than Reagan's, because Kemp's fiscal optimism was not darkened by the need for simultaneous struggle against the Soviet threat. When critics tried to show that this or that tax proposal could never pay for itself, Kemp used Reagan's "There you go again!" strategy, suggesting that it was small-minded and penny-pinching to look only at the ledger books when what really mattered was the boundless opportunity of America's tomorrow. "We knew that if we didn't keep him off balance, he could just soar with his optimistic rhetoric," Gene Sperling, who briefed Gore on economic policy before the debate, told me. "At his best he had that wonderful optimism." Kemp was fit and handsome, still carried himself like an athlete, and indeed missed no opportunity to remind audiences of his impressive record on the football field.
What Gore had learned to do so well—irritate an opponent to make him show his ugly side—would probably not work with Kemp. Kemp had shown no inclination to blow his top; if cornered on specifics, he just started talking generalities, like Reagan. His most obvious weakness seemed to be his differences—ideological, intellectual, emotional—with Bob Dole. Practically until the moment Dole chose Kemp as his running mate, the two men had represented opposite strands of Republicanism—Dole fretting about the deficit and studying the sky for rain, Kemp promising sunshine and surpluses if only taxes would go away. Much as Quayle had used his vice-presidential debate mainly to attack the presidential nominee, so Gore's team decided that its job was not to hurt Kemp but to embrace him and apply his own criticisms to his temporary ally, Bob Dole.
GORE'S team also tried to be realistic about his vulnerabilities. Everyone around him recognized how pompous he could sound—particularly after his several years of isolation in the White House. A few of his associates, mainly Bob Squier and Gore's longtime associate Carter Eskew, and also Gore's eldest daughter, Karenna, could tell him so, in private. Even as a senator Gore had shown a tendency to sound condescendingly professorial when discussing what he liked to consider his fields of expertise—technology, the environment, arms control. One man who observed Gore closely during the 1988 campaign says that Gore adopted this patronizing tone not when he was sure of his subject matter but rather when he was still trying to master it—"suddenly using all kinds of arcane terms as if he was teaching you about them."
When Gore had been actively campaigning four years earlier, he could be kidded or jostled out of his starchiness—and out of the maddeningly pedantic speech pattern in which he pauses for agonizing intervals before any … complicated word, and sounds as if he has to slow down for an audience of dullards. Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist from MIT, says this style of speech is known as "motherese," after the way in which parents talk to children. It is also the way native speakers of a language address foreigners, and the way doctors and nurses often address patients, especially the elderly. Except when used with babies, it is grating because of its inherent condescension.
Roy Neel, who knew Gore before he entered politics, says that this speaking style stems not from arrogance but from perfectionism: "I think this is part of an overall style of communication that has evolved since he got into public life. He has an intense concern that what he says is crystal clear and precise. Al has wanted to be so damned sure that what he says is perfectly articulated that it could come across in a stilted way." An incumbent Vice President, who spends much of his time listening attentively to the President and the rest being listened to by respectful crowds and staff members, is like an athlete on a long layoff. His reflexes slow and his bad habits can go unchecked.
Gore's time away from the road also dulled what his associates considered a crucial (if carefully husbanded) asset: his sly, quick wit. Everyone who has worked closely with Gore says the rapier remark is noticeable in his private discourse: he'll use it to punctuate and lighten a stretch of plodding, serious policy talk. Of the dozen or so aides who have made this point to me, none has been able to offer anything so vulgar as a specific example. Fortunately, one exists on the public record. During the 1988 campaign Gore and Jesse Jackson were elbowing each other for the mantle of the "real" southern candidate. In a debate at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C., Jackson prefaced a question to Gore with a reminder that he, Jackson, actually was from the South. "South Chicago?" Gore sneaked in with a grin. It took Jackson a second—but then he erupted in laughter, as did the crowd, and reached out to shake Gore's hand with a "Good one!" expression.
The remedy decided on was Debate Camp. The encounter with Kemp was scheduled for October 9, 1996, in St. Petersburg, Florida. For most of the previous week Gore and several dozen advisers moved to the Mote Marine Laboratory, on the outskirts of Sarasota, to get their man in tip-top physical, intellectual, psychological, and rhetorical shape. The assistants who were on the government payroll rather than the campaign staff were careful to use vacation time while at camp.
As organized by Andrew Cuomo and Ron Klain, the camp was analogous to a heavyweight boxer's encampment in the Poconos before a title bout in Atlantic City. One staff member who was there describes Gore retrospectively as "Champ." At the direction of Tipper and Karenna, Champ had a wholesome training table: lots of fruits and vegetables, no Clinton-style chips and junk food. In the mornings he would hit the light and heavy bags, going through the issues with his domestic-policy and foreign-policy advisers. (These were the familiar crowd: Fuerth, Sperling, Squier, Kamarck, Stephanopoulos, Begala, Penn, Voles. An addition was Gore's speechwriter, Dan Pink.) In the afternoon he'd take a look at some of the lab's environmental exhibits or shoot baskets at the hoop that had been brought right into the practice-debate hall. (Sports moved indoors when Tropical Storm Josephine hit the area, midway through camp.) One afternoon Gore was playing an increasingly intense pickup game with his aides, many in their twenties and thirties (he was nearly fifty). As the teams split up into Shirts and Skins, Gore, a Skin, revealed an impressively fit and muscular torso. George Stephanopoulos said to Gene Sperling, "I guess this is his subtle way of saying, 'You guys think you're so cool, but try to look this way in a dozen years.'" Then, in the evening, after a healthful dinner, the climax of the day: a full-scale mock debate between Gore and his favored, most demanding sparring partner—Tom Downey. The debate took place on a stage exactly like the real one in St. Petersburg, at lecterns the height of the real ones, with a moderator, Ron Klain, sitting where the real moderator would sit, and with Gore and Downey both dressed in suits. The debate started and ended on the same schedule as the real one, so that Gore's body clock would be properly set.
Ron Klain liked and respected Downey, but he was known to be skeptical that a former politician could suppress his ego enough to be an effective sparring partner. Klain and others were therefore delighted and relieved by Downey's ability to re-create Jack Kemp's mannerisms, arguments, and spirit. "Every time he would come back not with the best response to Gore but the best Kemp response to Gore," one participant recalls. "This is what made the sessions so successful."
In contrast, at his training camp Jack Kemp had the Republican senator Judd Gregg playing Gore in mock debates—and playing him like a cartoon liberal who was extreme about the environment, who yearned for taxes and big government, and who walked right into Kemp's traps.
Even before Debate Camp began, Dan Pink and other aides had reviewed hours of tapes of Kemp giving his stump speech, and they felt they had identified the areas that would require specific planning and preparation. Although Kemp could sometimes be glib and underprepared, at his best he had a jock bravado that audiences loved. Gore needed to find a way to overcome that charm and block those metaphors. In a late-afternoon discussion Karenna Gore proposed that in his comments at the beginning of the debate her father should offer Kemp a deal: if Kemp would hold off on the gridiron allusions, he would agree not to deploy his amusing stories about chlorofluorocarbons. Gore's delivery should be self-deprecatory and deadpan.
For the tax-cut plan as a whole Gore's strategy was to hit two points whenever he could. One was a reminder that Gore wasn't the only person to criticize Bob Dole's tax plan. Jack Kemp had criticized it too—until shortly before Dole chose him as his running mate. The other was a warning about the risks of cutting taxes too much. Every time Gore discussed the Dole-Kemp proposal, he was supposed to call it a "risky tax scheme" and say that it would "blow a hole in the deficit" and endanger "Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment." In contrast, the Democrats had a "positive plan" that would balance the budget and protect these four areas.
Gore had a specific way in which he liked to take in data and prepare debate themes. He sketched out ideas and arguments—points Kemp might make, and his possible responses—on large pads of paper, placed on easels. He would rip off pages as he came up with more and more refined versions of his arguments; when he was satisfied, he would hand the sheets to his staff. (He now has an electronic "whiteboard" in his office, which prints out replicas of what he has written.) "He had an exact formulation that he liked in his briefings," Gene Sperling told me. "He'd tell us, This is how I like to get it: for each issue, the three main points, and the ten best supporting facts, and the best reply, and so on. It's very rewarding to do things the way he says, because once he has it how he likes it, he owns the information. It was impressive."
When Debate Camp was over, the participants took away souvenir T-shirts that read
VICE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE PREPARATION TEAM
"MOAT" MARINE LABRATORY, SARASOTA FL
AND 1 HURRICANE
According to Plan
The training paid off. In the ninety minutes of the real debate Gore executed his strategy so relentlessly that the only surprise for his team was how weak a showing the real Kemp made. "Where's Downey?" Andrew Cuomo began calling in the green room halfway through the debate. "Suit up Downey! This guy can't hack it!"
The debate's sole questioner was Jim Lehrer. Candidates increasingly prefer single-moderator debates; journalists on a panel of questioners compete for air time and feel pressure to outdo one another with more-elaborate and nastier questions. Lehrer's opening question invited Kemp to lay out his main debating points: In ninety seconds, what would he say were the main personal and ethical differences between his candidate and Bill Clinton? In his practice debates against Downey, Gore had placed tremendous emphasis on honing his standard answers so that they would exactly fit the allotted time. Downey had encouraged Gore in this, saying that a debater who chronically ran long, forcing the moderator to say "You're over time, please wrap up," looked sloppy and unprepared. Gore's team suspected that Kemp would not be disciplined about shrinking his answers to the proper time, making Gore seem all the sharper. Their suspicions proved to be correct. Within the first few minutes of the debate, when Kemp was asked to make a ninety-second statement and Gore to make a sixty-second reply, the audience saw the difference between a candidate trying to breeze through on natural charm and one carrying out a plan.
Kemp [smiling and relaxed, the football captain addressing the pep rally,]: "Ninety seconds? I can't clear my throat in ninety seconds! [No laughs from audience. Bad start.] Jim, Bob Dole and myself do not see Al Gore and Bill Clinton as our enemy. We see them as our opponents. It's the greatest democracy in the world."
Kemp continued in similar off-the-cuff style until, noticing that his ninety seconds were about to run out, he concluded with this feeble appeal:
"Abraham Lincoln put it best when he said you serve your party best by serving the nation first. And I can't think of a better way of serving this nation in 1996 than by electing Bob Dole the President of the United States of America. … Ultimately [we] leave it to the American people to make up their minds about who should be the leader of this country into the twenty-first century."
Gore [very polite, not interrupting, but knowing exactly what he has to say and how long he has to say it]: "I'd like to thank the people of St. Petersburg for being such wonderful hosts. … And I would like to thank Jack Kemp for the answer that he just gave. [No kidding!] I think we have an opportunity tonight to have a positive debate about this country's future. I'd like to start by offering you a deal, Jack. If you won't use any … football stories, I won't tell any of my warm and humorous stories about … chlorofluorocarbon abatement." [Deliberately wooden expression, delayed small laugh from crowd, but does the job. Only two football references in the rest of the debate.]
Kemp [too eager to please]: "It's a deal."
Gore [laying out the plans for the rest of the evening]: "What I do want to talk about tonight is Bill Clinton's positive plan for America's future. We have a plan to balance the budget while protecting Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment. Creating millions of new jobs, including one million new jobs in America's inner cities. I'm excited about the chance to talk about this plan and even more excited about the chance to work on it if you the people of this country will give Bill Clinton and me the privilege of doing so for four more years."
Half a dozen more times in the debate Gore mentioned fixedly the positive plan that would balance the budget while protecting the big four: Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment. ("Don't give him a line if you don't want him to use it," one of Gore's advisers told me.) The only theme Gore emphasized more often than his own positive plan was the risky tax scheme from the other side. He repeated this like a catechism during the debate. "The press was all over us for repetitiveness, but it was a good strategy," Paul Begala says. "In the flow of debate it may seem redundant—but it will be cut up by news editors after that, and this way the bites will all have your central theme."
Gore had no single climactic moment in the debate, nothing comparable to handing Perot the Smoot-Hawley picture or wheeling to confront Dick Gephardt. He didn't need one; Kemp simply failed to fight back.
Gore's team introduced one other approach in that debate, which has heavily influenced his rhetorical behavior this year. During Debate Camp, Andrew Cuomo searched for ways to make the Vice President's points seem more vivid and human. Why not tie them to actual human beings? In his first State of the Union address Ronald Reagan had pioneered what came to be called the "Lenny Skutnik moment"—the time when the President would point to a guest sitting next to the First Lady, in the balcony, and explain how this citizen symbolized some important national theme. (Skutnik had rescued a victim of the 1982 Air Florida jetliner crash from the ice-covered Potomac River.) Since then the Lenny Skutnik moment had become obligatory in State of the Union addresses. But until now no one had thought to use it as a weapon. Ron Klain, directing many of the day-to-day operations, thought it was a mistake to emphasize these sob stories. Cuomo won: Gore closed the debate with a reference to the Macneale family, which was worried about how to save for tuition for its kids. The Clinton-Gore Administration had a positive plan to help the family! The Macneales would be endangered by the Dole-Kemp risky tax scheme. For the debate against his next opponent Gore salted the audience with his Lenny Skutniks and asked them to stand as he read their names and told their stories.
The Bradley Debates: "Making It All Up"
THE debates against Bill Bradley showed how well Gore had learned his lessons. He practiced before each debate—though not for as long or as formally as at the 1996 Debate Camp.
As he had done when preparing for Ross Perot, Gore worked on restoring his elbows-out skills. The stultifying effects of a second term of isolation were so profound that they seemed to threaten his ability to mount a presidential campaign at all. "This is a guy who did hundreds of town meetings when he was a congressman and senator, and was terrific at it," Robert Shrum, who has played a major role in Gore's debate and speech strategy this year, says. "Then all of a sudden that stopped, and everything about his life was in a framework. He had to break out of that framework or he would have lost the nomination." Thus the flurry of rearrangements and fresh starts for the Gore campaign at the end of last year and the beginning of this year: moving the headquarters from Washington to Nashville ("from K Street to … Kmart," as Gore so winningly put it); edging out Bob Squier as the campaign's dominant figure and replacing him with Carter Eskew; the alpha-male advice from the feminist writer Naomi Wolf; the revamped wardrobe and more aggressive speaking style.
Gore worked hard to identify his opponent's essential weakness, so that he could exploit it. Bradley's, as Gore and his advisers saw it, was his proposal for changes in government health-insurance plans. And Gore analyzed or intuited what behavior on his part would most annoy Bradley. The result was a devastating win.
As when he faced Jack Kemp, Gore's team was surprised by how feeble the resistance was. "We had telegraphed from the day Bradley first announced his health plan that the weakness would be the impact on Medicaid," Elaine Kamarck says. "He had three months to explain how he was going to repair and improve Medicare benefits, but he never did it. We realized after a while that we could keep hitting him the same way and he would never come back." So Gore hit, again and again, with the charge that Bradley was going to eliminate the Medicaid program and replace it with a voucher worth $150 a month, which obviously couldn't buy private coverage with benefits comparable to Medicaid's. The charge was misleading at best. Under Bradley's plan, people who received Medicaid would get vouchers to buy their own insurance coverage. This was part of a broader effort to expand coverage to people who now lack Medicaid, private insurance, or any health insurance at all. The $150 figure was the result of a complicated calculation, and it applied to people without dependents—not families, who might get two or three times as much. More important, Bradley's argument rested on replacing Medicaid with a voucher program, which would create a new market for health-insurance coverage and would in turn lead private insurers to offer new forms of low-cost coverage. (This is like the contention that a school-voucher program, by creating a new market for education, would lead to the creation of new kinds of schools.) Agree or disagree with Bradley's plan, his $150 estimate was based on "dynamic" rather than "static" assumptions. He did not contemplate sending today's average poor person out onto the street with $150 in hand—but that is just about what Gore accused him of wanting to do.
Through the campaign Gore's team kept waiting for Bradley to launch a counterattack making clear that his plan would give more than $150 to many families, that a new market would create new forms of coverage—and besides, that Gore's slower approach would leave some people totally uncovered. The Gore team was ready with retorts of its own.
But the replies never came. Eric Hauser, who was Bradley's press secretary during the campaign, says, "What we should have done is make clear that the Vice President was making it all up, and that you can't have a debate with someone who is willing to make up the facts. He knows just how to come up with something that has the ring of truth to it even though it's not actually true."
An exchange at the debate last February at the Apollo Theater, in Harlem, illustrated how much better Gore understood the realities of debate. He had again gone after Bradley on the $150 issue—this time adding a racial element. Bradley's proposal would, by Gore's reckoning, hurt people now on Medicaid, who were disproportionately black and Latino; Bradley was thus proposing an anti-minority plan. Worse still, Bradley's plan would reduce some coverage for AIDS, and since AIDS victims were disproportionately black and Latino …
Bradley tried to explain what he really meant but floundered with these half-coherent words: "We've talked a lot about my health-care proposal in this campaign. In its terms, [AIDS is] a disability, a disability under Medicaid. It saves the same amount of money. It's the same services. It's the same benefits. The only difference is that now if you have HIV, you can qualify for insurance, and if you're in the neighborhood, you get … a community health benefit. That's the only difference. And tonight I pledge that any health-care bill that I would sign would have every Medicaid patient a better health plan than Medicaid is today."
Except for the pledge in the last sentence, this would be incomprehensible to most listeners. Gore immediately delivered the perfect retort: "Well, that's not a plan, that's a magic wand, and it doesn't work that way. [Lusty cheers from the crowd.] The problem that people with AIDS and cancer and muscular dystrophy and other diseases have in the private health-insurance market is that the insurance companies don't want to take them. They want to get rid of them. You give them a hundred-and-fifty-dollar-a-month voucher, they can't buy it."
Gore's arguments about the racial impact of this plan were calculated to infuriate Bradley, whose greatest point of vanity concerned his belief that he, because of his NBA past, was especially sensitive—even noble—on all issues of race. Gore knew he could get deep under Bradley's skin with even one dig suggesting that he was just another uncaring white man.
The debate at the Apollo was full of such digs—for instance, an insinuation that Bradley was calling the Congressional Black Caucus stupid: "You know what? [Exaggeratedly folksy manner.] In my experience, the [Congressional] Black Caucus is pretty savvy. They know a lot more than you think they know.… Congressional Black Caucus is not out there being led around, you know. They know what the score is. And they also know that their brothers and sisters in New Jersey said you were never for them walking the walk, just talking the talk."
Even before the Apollo event Bradley had confessed how much this needling was getting to him. In a debate in January, in New Hampshire, Peter Jennings had asked each candidate whether the other had misrepresented his views at any time. Gore finally said no. Bradley, clearly stewing, said yes, of course: "The one that was most particularly offensive to me was when he said in this campaign that I was going to hurt African-Americans, Latinos, with the health-care program that I have offered. … To say to me, who's had the deep commitment to the issue of racial unity in this country since I started in politics, that I would go out and hurt African-Americans and Latinos consciously as a part of a policy Ithink really offended me."
Gore [blandly]: "Harry Truman said in 1948, I'm not giving him hell, I'm just telling the truth and he thinks it's hell."
Whatever It Takes
I asked Roy Neel, who has known and worked with Al Gore for so many years, what he thought Gore's strategy would be for debates with George W. Bush. "I think he has to be brutal on the issues where the differences between the two are crystal clear," Neel said, meaning gun control, Social Security and Medicare, and other classic Democrat-versus-Republican issues. "He's got to do it with the right touch. But he can't miss the opportunity to be brutal on those basic issues. If Bush has an Achilles' heel, it's that he doesn't know much about international affairs. While Gore doesn't know everything, he is extremely confident in those areas. So he's got to really drive the knife in on foreign affairs, national security, plus those core Democratic issues." Gore shouldn't store up attack lines to unleash no matter what the question, Neal said: "He should look for Bush to give him an opening, and be so well prepared that when that opening arises, he goes right in for the kill." This kind of assault would be the natural culmination of Gore's evolution as a debater.
Neel said he hoped for something else, too. "I don't have any fears about his performance in a Bush debate. He has a first-rate group working with him. They will be very disciplined and will have everything thought out. But what I would like to see is for people to be able to look at him and—without hearing anything specifically that he's saying—think, 'You know, I like that guy. That guy makes me feel comfortable.'"
I kept a straight face as Neel said this, but he had identified the major liability of Gore's mature style. I can imagine that many people would respect Gore, or fear him, based on the way he has learned to destroy opponents. It is hard for me to imagine anyone's watching his technically strongest performances—against Gephardt, Dukakis, Perot, Kemp, Bradley—and thinking, You know, I like that guy.
I feel especially qualified to talk about the emotional impact of Gore's rhetorical style because of a recent concentrated exposure to it. In April, I spent several days in Nashville, at the Television News Archive at Vanderbilt University, viewing dozens of hours of Gore's speeches, press conferences, and debates in chronological order from 1987 into this year. The image that kept coming to mind was the physical transformation in the Michael Corleone character as played by Al Pacino through the three movies of the Godfather, saga: in the beginning a clear-eyed young idealist; in the end a heavy-lidded, stone-faced man of respect who has outgrown illusions and faced up to the responsibility of doing what is necessary. (This was before I saw Jake Tapper's fantasy, in Salon, of Al "Gore-leone" avenging slights against his father.) "One of the reasons he's such a good debater is that none of this is personalized," Robert Shrum says of Gore. "The disagreements aren't personal, so they don't distort the way he thinks." It's just business.
What does Gore's success as a debater suggest about the traits he might display in office? Much of the evidence is hopeful. Ours is a culture that admires unforced natural talent—Bill Clinton rather than Bob Dole, John McEnroe rather than Ivan Lendl—but feels reassured by the idea of steady, dutiful effort from those in prominent positions. Without exception, the several dozen Gore associates I spoke with told me that effort—or some synonym, such as "discipline," "focus," "preparation"—was Gore's most striking trait. One called me back a few hours after our interview to say, "I can't emphasize it enough: this is a man capable of total focus on the job at hand." Another, asked to compare Gore's intelligence with his willingness to work, said, "For him, it would be a meaningless distinction. His intelligence is his willingness to work." This, of course, is the contrast Gore will try hardest to draw with George W. Bush, whose greatest appeal is his affability and whose weakness is his apparent distaste for dull, drawn-out work.
A President's success depends not just on his own efforts but also on his ability to assess the people who will advise him and to use them in an effective way. Here, too, Gore's record as a debater is reassuring. His group of formal assistants and informal advisers has been stable over the years, with relatively few huffy defections or internal wars. In interviews these people seem loyal without being robotic. Gore clearly has figured out how to delegate and how to rely on them without feeling that his primacy is threatened. It is impossible to quantify how much Gore's current attack-dog approach reflects his intrinsic tendencies and how much is the result of shrewd counseling and coaching. Surely both are important. The telling point is that Gore has found a way to work with his advisers toward an effective approach. In his public presentations Gore has done worst when caught by surprise—just like most people except true naturals. (Remember that Bill Clinton ad-libbed his way through the opening section of an address to a joint session of Congress when the wrong speech showed up on the TelePrompTer. If Gore had been at the lectern, an assistant says, "that would have been a very short speech.") A President is called on for snap reactions and decisions less often than a presidential candidate is. A President usually has time to get advice and consider the options—the sort of deliberate procedure at which Gore has excelled. Gore's willingness to fight with whatever tools are necessary would be easier to stomach in a President than in a candidate. His excesses have all come in the pursuit of office, not in the exercise of official powers. He has given no sign whatever of persecuting his opponents in a Nixonlike way. He dismantles them only when they stand between him and a victory he desires. It's like a military operation.
That's the good side. There's a bad side, too. Gore is manifestly willing to lie for political convenience. Bill Turque, in his authoritative biography Inventing Al Gore (2000), and the reporters Walter V. Robinson and Michael Crowley, of The Boston Globe, have detailed Gore's habit of hanging on to claims that can easily be disproved. The Globe reporters wrote this past April, "Starting as a junior congressman and continuing through this year's primaries, Gore has regularly promoted himself, and skewered his opponents, with embroidered, misleading, and occasionally false statements to a degree that even some of his allies concede is rare for a politician of his stature." To take just one example of needless small-scale distortion: during his first run for the presidency, in 1988, he said, "My wife and four children and I live on an active farm today outside of Carthage, Tennessee." At the time, the children were enrolled in schools near Washington, D.C. Gore must have known that he was distorting Michael Dukakis's views about foreign policy and Bill Bradley's about race. He and his advisers show no squeamishness about having done so; it was up to the other side to fight back. His relentlessness is both impressive and unattractive. This may account for the contradictory view expressed in opinion polls: significant positive rankings because of Gore's competence and impact, but also significant negatives because of his crudely transparent attacks.
There is very little lightness, modesty, or self-awareness (as opposed to New Age self-inquiry) in the persona Gore now presents. His least poised moment in this year's debates came at the Apollo Theater, when Tamala Edwards, of Time magazine, pointed out that although Gore opposed school vouchers, he and his children had all gone to private schools. "Is there not a public or charter school in D.C. good enough for your child?" she asked. "And if not, why should the parents here have to keep their kids in public schools because they don't have the financial resources that you do?"
Gore, furious, replied, "All of my children—you know, you can leave them out of this if you want to—but all of my children have gone to both public schools and private schools. The reason I have opposed vouchers is …" This was Gore at his most efficient—moving on to the policy point and brushing aside the personal challenge. Afterward his advisers told me, in all seriousness, that what Gore objected to was "bringing his family into politics." This about the man who used his son's critical injury as the centerpiece of his convention speech in 1992, and used his sister's death in the same manner four years later.
Having studied Al Gore's record in some detail, I now respect his capacities more and like him less. Since mid-century the Democrats have liked to think that they will have natural, glorious winners (John Kennedy is the model) or losers who go down fighting the good, high-minded fight—a lineage that runs from Adlai Stevenson through Jimmy Carter in his re-election bid to Walter Mondale to Bill Bradley. Bill Clinton's achievement—becoming the first Democratic President in sixty years to win two terms—has reminded the party how high the price of victory can be: the constant need to compromise, the willingness to endure humiliations that would break normal people. But with his natural dazzle, Clinton could make most of it look like fun. Gore can provide none of that illusion. His appeal starts and ends with grinding out a win the hard way.
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