Ballot Box

Nonprescription Drugs

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Gore went a full 90 minutes today without talking about Medicare. He did talk about drugs, but not for seniors.

The occasion was an MTV “Choose or Lose” town hall forum that airs tonight at 8.

For 90 minutes, Gore fielded questions from college students about such topics as Napster, gay marriage, medical marijuana, racial profiling, global warming, and censorship of popular entertainment. It’s a good show. The best part was a jaunty biographical video narrated by MTV reporter Gideon Yago that described Gore as “into PDA” and noted that in the 1960s, “He listened to rock, rode a motorcycle, and even smoked the herb.”

The vice president’s more recent efforts at cool tend toward the awkward. For starters, there’s the attire that screams, “I hate casual Friday!” Gore wore a sage-colored shirt and Dockers, but with dress Oxfords. It looked very Sunday school. Then there are his efforts to sound like a fan of (sexless, nonviolent) popular culture. When asked in the concluding “rapid fire” round what’s in his CD player, Gore mentioned the inoffensive rock band Sister Hazel. Asked what entertainers he would ask to perform at his inauguration, he took a long time to come up with the name of Lenny Kravitz, announcing it in the manner of “Eureka!” A better and more honest approach to this territory might be, “I’m a very busy 52-year-old government official, and I don’t keep up with pop music that much.”

Most of the audience’s questions were extremely intelligent. What they were not was spontaneous. Each was the product of careful vetting, casting, and rehearsal. Before the show, an MTV producer could be heard reminding the handpicked participants, “We ask you to stick with the questions that we’ve worked with you on.” The idea seemed to be that each of the questioners should exemplify the issue he or she was concerned about, because young people can only relate to politics in personal terms. So a young black man asked about racial profiling, and a gay man asked about gay marriage. A guy with a do-rag and baggy clothes defended rap music. And only women asked about abortion. As a result of this message crafting, there was no wackiness of the “boxers or briefs” variety, and the event was less an authentic “town hall” than a highly produced effort to make politics attractive to the MTV demographic. That said, the producers did a good job.

Gore did not fail to pander to the audience. He told the college kids the same thing he tells the Medicare set: I’ll do more for you than the other guy will. Chief among his offerings for students is a $10,000-a-year tax deduction for college tuition. A smart answer to this proposal came from a student who noted that the plan wouldn’t help him. “That seems to be more beneficial towards the upper middle class because the lower class already doesn’t pay much in taxes,” the student pointed out. But Gore was ready with a battery of other programs: increased spending on Pell grants, Hope scholarships, Stafford loans, AmeriCorps, and work-study programs. And Gore drew a favorable response from the audience when he said it was unfortunate that students often graduated with so much debt that they had to get on the “fast track” instead of pursuing idealistic goals. “The country loses a lot when the idealism of young people is sort of channeled just into making money,” Gore said. “That’s not right.”

Another compelling answer came in response to a question about racial profiling. Gore told a young man who said he had been stopped unfairly by the police that he would make a ban on the practice the first civil rights act of his presidency. “Sometimes I hear people say, ‘Why don’t we just get along?’ Why don’t we just be one people?’ ” Gore said. “And that sounds good, but it’s all too easy for somebody in the majority to say something like that without having any real deep thought given to the kind of experience you just described.” It wasn’t quite Clintonian, but Gore’s empathy came across as real.

On two other topics, Gore weaseled. The first was gay marriage. A man asked why he and his committed male partner should be denied the same rights and benefits available to any straight couple that gets drunk and drives to Las Vegas to get hitched. Gore said he thought civil unions should have the same protections as marriage, but then added, “Our nation should debate the difference–I think there is a difference–between marriage as the institution has traditionally been known … and civic unions.” I assume Gore meant that we should debate whether such differences ought to exist, because a debate makes no sense if the assumption is that marriage can’t include gay people. The message he seemed to be trying to convey was: I’d be for gay marriage if I could.

Gore also unconvincingly sidestepped a tough question on medicinal marijuana. “I don’t agree that it’s medically effective,” Gore told a questioner who said she had a family member in prison, in part for distributing marijuana to sick friends. “Doctors have studied this question pretty extensively, and so far there is absolutely no evidence that it has the effect that some people say.” The efficacy of medical marijuana may not be proven conclusively, but it’s not accurate to say there is absolutely no evidence for it. Accounts by patients with AIDS and cancer who say they’ve been helped certainly count as “some evidence.”

Gore made up for these unimpressive responses with a good joke off camera. When told that the next segment would deal with the Internet and the environment, he quipped, “Did you know that I invented the environment?”

After it was over, he headed for another event at a community center for the elderly. There Gore talked about the more familiar topics of Medicare and drugs, prescription only.