Ballot Box

The Tin Can Lady

ALTOONA, Iowa–Another day, another senior center.

But this morning, it was a little different because Al Gore ran smack into a terrific human-interest story. When he finished his regular speech about Medicare prescription-drug coverage and asked for questions, a fellow rose and told him there was a woman in the audience with a tale to tell. Without much additional coaxing, Winifred Skinner, a feisty 79-year-old with white hair stood up and spoke.

She’s a retired auto-parts worker who lives in Des Moines. As she explained, she lives on a Social Security benefit of $782 a month plus a union pension of $129.50, of which $111 goes to pay her Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurance premiums. Because the prescription drugs she takes cost about $400 a month, she has had to go back to work, picking up cans on the street and taking them to a recycling center for a nickel apiece.

“How much do you make doing that?” Gore asked.

“You’re not going to tell the government are you?” she asked. The crowd laughed and applauded.

“I don’t want to know the answer,” Gore answered. “I withdraw the question.”

Mrs. Skinner went on to tell him about a recent incident. She was walking along the road collecting her tin cans when a man she described as a “35-year-old smart aleck” yelled at her from his pickup truck, “Get a life!”

“That kind of cut me,” she said. Because without picking up the cans to pay for her medications, she explained, “I wouldn’t have a life.”

Gore, resisting his obvious urge to return to policy discussion, went over and gave her a big hug. “I think you’ve got a wonderful life,” he said.

It was a sweet moment, the kind that candidates live for. You can bet that Gore will be talking about Mrs. Skinner a lot in the weeks ahead. In fact, I’d wager that he’ll mention her in next week’s debate in Boston–just a hunch. But what was most interesting about this episode was how strongly Gore’s traveling press corps reacted to it. Before the question period with the vice president was even finished, journalists engulfed Mrs. Skinner to press her for additional details. Other reporters camped out in the adjacent filing center rushed in to find out what was happening. It was a miniature feeding frenzy.

The reason for this excitement, bordering on desperation, is that the press corps covering Gore is starved for news. Convinced that he’s ahead, the Democratic nominee has been trying to sit on his lead, holding monotonous Medicare prescription drug events like this one every day for the past several weeks. These appearances are nearly identical and there’s little for reporters to say about them that they haven’t said already.

In fact, Mrs. Skinner’s story was actually a lot like dozens of others Gore hears from hard-pressed elderly people at events like this one. Ten minutes after she finished, another man told an affecting but much harder to hear and follow story about his illness and rising insurance premiums. No reporters went over to follow up. The difference was that Mrs. Skinner was pure central casting. She spoke clearly and knew how to use detail to make her story poignant.

In this case, Gore and his staff couldn’t have been happier with the press’s reaction. But I think the response shows that the vice president’s attempt to play it safe has itself become a dangerous strategy. The news vacuum that Gore’s single-minded message discipline has created is an explosive environment, one in which small sparks are capable of igniting large conflagrations. A minor misstatement of the kind Gore made last week about the cost of his dog’s arthritis drug can become a dominant, running story. Seeing reporters pounce on today’s juicy anecdote should be a reminder to him that underfed journalists can be dangerous animals.