Ballot Box

Styles of Stiff

Al Gore and Bill Bradley have a lot in common. In addition to being centrist Democrats, former colleagues in the Senate, and policy mavens who agree on almost every known issue, the two contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination are both–as one or two close observers have already noted–somewhat dull. To be more specific, they’re both physically stiff, wooden public speakers, who lack spontaneity or humor in public. They share the kind of inverted charisma that can suck energy from a room and reduce a cheering convention throng to stupor. Starbucks, I imagine, will contribute heavily to both candidates.

How did they both get that way? The explanation may have something to do with a shared lack of personal misery. Both men grew up in prosperous, loving homes. Gore’s father was a senator; Bradley’s owned a bank near St. Louis. Both matured into wildly successful adulthoods without encountering any real travail, and both appear to have happy family lives. The absence of buried pain distinguishes them from the likes of Bob Dole, who grew up in the Depression and suffered a catastrophic war injury, or Bill Clinton, who survived a dysfunctional and broken family. Gore and Bradley have no chips on their shoulders, no dark sides, and not much to prove to the world.

Yet there are differences. Happy families may be all alike, but boring politicians are all boring in their own way.

You might say that Gore is actually a bore, while Bradley is merely boring. The vice president’s dullness starts with his fascination with difficult, technical subjects like ballistic missiles and global warming. Convinced that such topics are beyond lesser intellects, and that it is virtuous to care about them, Gore discusses them in a way that is at once pedantic and condescending, as if instructing a young child or training a dog. When he speaks about chlorofluorocarbons, Gore pulls off the impressive trick of making you feel guilty, insulted, and bored, all at once.

Bradley, on the other hand, simply fails to capture attention. He shares Gore’s taste for the arcane–though his specialties in the Senate were economic topics like tax policy, Third World debt, and complicated water rights disputes. He masters these subjects with a plodding diligence that he learned from his basketball training. But unlike Gore, Bradley doesn’t preach the urgent necessity that everyone else share his enlightenment. His attitude is more that he did the hard work so we don’t have to.

Gore and Bradley are both numbing public speakers, but again in different ways. Bradley is a technically poor orator, who lacks the basic tools of the trade. He cannot communicate passion or excitement. He fails to make eye contact and trips over words uttered in a low-pitched monotone that makes him sound as if dosed with Benadryl. He is self-conscious and can’t wait to get off the stage. In his book, Bradley says he tried for years to become a better speaker, absorbing all sorts of advice. After a while, he concluded it was hopeless and gave up.

Gore, by contrast, has most of the ingredients of public-speaking skill: He can thump the tub, lead a chant, and tell a joke with plausible timing. He looks the camera in the eye, and bites off his words crisply, without mumbling or hesitating. Still, the soufflé doesn’t rise. What he lacks is the talent for creating a bond. Gore’s technique has a studied, rote quality, like an 8-year-old prodigy playing Bach. He follows Clinton’s steps, but never captivates his audience the way Clinton does so effortlessly.

Part of the problem for both Bradley and Gore is that they talk too slowly. But even this they do in different ways. Bradley’s delivery seems lethargic because of the speed at which his mind works. Though intelligent, he’s not quick. When Bradley was first elected to the Senate in 1978, colleagues wondered whether there might actually be something wrong with him. Gore, on the other hand, thinks quickly but talks slowly because he assumes his audience can’t keep up with him.

You might say that Gore’s dullness stems from his insecurities, which lead him to be alternately boastful and falsely self-deprecating, as when he brags about pioneering the Internet or joshes about his stiffness. Trying too hard to compensate for his flaws, he comes across as a bit fake and a bit pompous. People who know him are always insisting that his real personality is more appealing, and you suspect that must be true.

Bradley, on the other hand, is dull precisely because he is so secure. Comfortable with who he is and what he has accomplished in life, he scorns the notion that pleasing the crowd is a worthwhile goal. He wants to serve the public, but he isn’t sure that what the public wants is what he has to deliver. As a result, he self-consciously observes himself running for president, instead of just running for president. This approach runs the risk of making Bradley’s campaign more interesting to him than it is to us.

These qualities show themselves in books written by both men. Gore’s is called Earth in the Balance. Bradley’s is called Time Past, Time Present. Both are impressively dull titles. But Gore’s writing is pervaded by the same, “Here, Fido,” tone as his lectures. “Bear with me: although complicated, Relativity Theory can easily be explained with the help of a picture showing how time and space are shaped by mass,” he writes. Gore worries that if he doesn’t give himself credit, no one will. He lets us know that his “comprehensive approach” to the nuclear-arms race “was actually adopted as the centerpiece of our nuclear strategy” and that he’s busy thinking “about the course of our nation and our civilization.”

Bradley’s book has a more modest tone, but no real subject. It’s a little autobiography, a little political manifesto, and a lot of starry-night meditations about the country and our place in the cosmos. “Are possibilities for renewal and wonder gone?” he wonders. “Are we left with just our minds and our bodies in a duel for dominance over our personalities? Or can we see beyond ourselves? Can we give thanks for those who commit their lives to make things better for urban poor, coal miners’ wives, Native American children? … Can we respect the deep time of canyon walls or the timelessness of rivers like the Mississippi? Can we appreciate the rituals of the Sioux or imagine the awe of the Spanish Conquistadors and the plainsmen who first encountered the vastness and beauty of our land?” Are we sleeping yet?

These two books suggest a final distinction that may prove significant when we get closer to the first primaries. Al Gore unsuccessfully resists being boring. Bill Bradley runs with it.

Illustration on the Slate Table of Contents by Peter Kuper.