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

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."

Illustration by Patrick Oliphant

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.

From the archives:

"The Democrats in '88," by William Schneider (April 1987)
The party's possible candidates divide into four categories -- rejuvenators, revisionists, reconstructionists, and revivalists.

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."

From the archives:

"A Democrat Who Admits It," by James Fallows (November 1997)
Richard Gephardt is unafraid to say that the government should spend money on big public programs -- things that other Democrats said before they echoed Republicans.

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."

Illustration by Patrick OliphantViewers 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."


(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part one, 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 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 1; page 33-53.