The Road to the White House

As astute readers surely remember, Chatterbox opined right before the election, “Traffic is back as an unchronicled sleeper issue in this year’s congressional campaigns.” But even Chatterbox was surprised when Al Gore went out of his way to decry suburban sprawl in Wednesday’s “I’m tan, rested and ready” presidential campaign kick-off address to the Democratic Leadership Council. As the vice president noted with alarm, “Drivers in our nation’s capital spend an average of two full work-weeks a year idling in traffic!”

Alas, Gore’s innovative efforts to court the city-planner vote went unnoticed in Thursday’s papers. (A personal note: Chatterbox’s 89-year-old father is a card-carrying city planner and a lifelong foe of local zoning laws that encourage suburban sprawl). Political reporters instead stressed the vice president’s let-the-campaign-begin attack on George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” But Chatterbox finds it fascinating that Gore, in searching for a few issues to brand as his own, zeroed in on “the sprawl that breaks our heart and separates us from one another, and our homes from the environment around them.”

This topic, it turns out, is one that Gore has road-tested before. Back in early September in a little-noted speech at the Brookings Institution, Gore unleashed a full-scale attack on “bad planning [that] has too often distorted our towns and landscapes out of all recognition. We drive the majestic scenery, but in too many places, the land we pass through is often burdened by an ugliness that leaves us with a quiet sense of sadness.” This cause, far too subtle to simply be the product of focus groups, seems to be an outgrowth of Gore’s environmentalism combined with years of listening to big-city mayors complain about out-of-control growth just beyond the urban borders.

As a political columnist, steeped in the cynicism of the trade, Chatterbox knows that he should now come up with some edgy putdown to belittle Gore’s obsession with suburban growth patterns. Michael Dukakis, after all, was the last Democrat who passionately believed in such outlandish causes as mass transit and the quality of life in our cities. But if you’ll forgive Chatterbox a rare moment of earnestness, Gore deserves considerable credit for injecting a fresh issue into the arid debates of a presidential campaign.

Walter Shapiro