Ballot Box

Gore and Bradley Debate

HANOVER, N.H.–Al Gore performed this evening on a stage at Dartmouth College. He told jokes, blasted his rival’s proposed health-care reform proposal as too costly, expressed “disappointment and anger” at President Clinton, and kissed up shamelessly to members of the audience. Bill Bradley was also present at the event. 

Gore arrived on stage like some sort of feral animal who had been locked in a small cage and fed on nothing but focus groups for several days. Upon release, he began to scamper furiously in every direction at once. Assuming his stool 20 minutes before showtime, he volunteered to take extra questions from the audience. At the end of the hour-long non-debate, he promised to stay and answer even more. As of this writing (10:30 p.m.) he’s still at it, sitting on the edge of the stage with his wife, talking about human rights in Africa and offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico with a few dozen New Hampshirites. 

Gore came across as a kind of manic political vaudevillian. He oozed empathy from every pore, getting all over every questioner like a cheap suit. First he would ask the person about his circumstances, his family, or his job, in a desperate effort to bond. Then he would respond with an explosion of gesticulation, sympathy, and agreement. At the very first question, which referred to “behavior by members of your administration,” Gore came out with a blast of empathy for emotions the questioner never expressed. “I understand the disappointment and anger you feel toward President Clinton,” he proclaimed. “I felt it myself.” In fact, the questioner didn’t even mention Clinton directly. Not content with the six debates Bradley has already agreed to, Gore challenged his opponent to debate every week.

At first, you think: Hey, this new Al Gore’s not such a stiff after all. Then you think: This new Gore is a bit over the top. By the end of an hour, the impression is of someone as desperate as he is unable to achieve Clintonian union with his audience. “Tell me about your family,” he asked a questioner who asked him what he was going to do about school violence. “I have one daughter 17 months old and a husband,” she answered. “Which one do you have the most trouble with?” Gore joked, smarmily.

A clinical psychologist who asked about the problem of HMOs limiting coverage for mental-health patients also got a full Gore-bombing. “I guarantee you I’m committed to it,” Gore said. “Give me a chance to roll up my sleeves and go to work on this. This is one I want to fix for you.” He then told a strained joke about managed care: An HMO employee who arrives at the pearly gates and is told by St. Peter, “You can come in, but you can only stay three days.” This elicited groans in the room where several hundred reporters watched the debate on video monitors, as did Gore’s fulsome expression of thanks to the people of New Hampshire for the wonderful lessons they had taught him.

Gore’s problem, I think, is that he has watched Bill Clinton for seven years, so he knows just how seamlessly a politician can bond with an audience. But even as he copies the steps, he lacks the music. When he tries to emulate Clinton’s audience-meld technique, he overdoes it, grossly. The problem isn’t that Gore can’t be personal and expressive. It’s that as a performer, he has no emotional range. When he pumps up to the volume, he always turns it up to 10. This makes him seem insincere, inauthentic, and just generally fake, in a way Clinton seldom does. Television somehow heightens Gore’s plasticity. I saw him in person after the debate, when he sat on the stage answering questions. He was calmer and seemed much less phony.

Bill Bradley, by contrast, makes almost no personal impression. Dowdily dressed and gravel-voiced, he is as close to affectlessness as anyone who I can remember running for high office. Aside from one direct and passionate defense of gay rights, which got the biggest applause of the night, I’ve already forgotten most of what he said. Challenged repeatedly by Gore on the high cost of his health proposal, he finally responded by uttering, in his unmodulated, low mumble: “I want to make one clarification. We all have our own experts. I dispute the cost figure that Al has used.” Other than that, he didn’t rise to Gore’s bait.

But running against the world’s most eager salesman, refusing to market oneself may be a plausible stance. Bill Bradley doesn’t have to win you over with his charisma. He just has to wait for you to get sick to death of Al Gore.