The Magazine

The Secret of Gore's Success

Whether it's with Oprah, the voters, or the media, flattery works wonders

Sep 25, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 02 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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There are many reasons that Al Gore has been able to revive what until recently looked like a moribund campaign. But one of them, depressing as it is to admit, may be that he is the sort of politician who can do well on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Gore made the pilgrimage to Chicago last week to appear on Winfrey's show. While he and his staff made their way to the studio at Harpo Productions, the press was shunted to a restaurant across the street to watch the program on monitors. A couple of reporters complained, but to no effect. Oprah's orders, explained a Gore aide. "She's got tighter security than the vice president."

And more florid promotional material. According to the "fact sheet" distributed by Harpo ("Oprah" spelled backwards), Winfrey believes the "mission" of her talk show is "to make viewers see themselves differently and to bring happiness and a sense of fulfillment into every home." The accompanying bio describes Winfrey as "one of the most important figures in popular culture," whose influence extends "beyond the world of television and into areas such as publishing, music, film, philanthropy, education, health and fitness, and social awareness."

There are grounds to suspect that Oprah Winfrey is susceptible to flattery. Gore, who is nothing if not well prepared for interviews, seemed to know this. Once on the set, he immediately went into full suck-up mode. He opened by congratulating Winfrey on the four Emmy awards she had won the night before. Then he gushed all over her show. Several years ago, Winfrey switched the program's focus from prurience to self-help. (Oprah was an early pioneer of the Transsexual-Priests-And-The-Men-They-Love genre.) Gore seemed positively thrilled by the transformation. "When you started believing in what you were doing -- then look at you: You're a one-person media conglomerate."

Gore spoke with authority about Winfrey's career. He had memorized details from every stage of it. He recited the call letters of the local radio station where she worked as a teenager. He knew the name of the television station she moved on to from there. He even claimed to remember her from the early 1970s, when they both worked in journalism in Nashville. ("I remember specifically one crime scene we went to together. . . . I was at the newspaper. You were with Channel Five.")

Gore had mastered Winfrey's biography. But he had also been well briefed on her sensibilities. Oprah likes redemption stories. Gore provided one. After his son was hit by a car and badly injured, Gore said, he changed his life. Until then, "I had become a little bit of a workaholic." Since then, "family is first -- family is first. Nothing goes onto the schedule until after all of the family time and personal time."

Even Oprah had trouble with this claim. Aren't you the guy who campaigned for 27 hours straight the other day? she asked. Gore drowned her skepticism with a torrent of mush about his wife and kids. In a pre-taped segment that was aired on the show, Gore and his wife sat cuddling on a couch, reminiscing about their marriage. "I gave her a bracelet a few years ago," Gore recalled, "with an inscription on the inside of it: 'To the bravest person I know.'" Tipper gazed at him lovingly. "In many ways," Gore went on, "the feeling that we have for one another is deeper and more intense now even than during the first romance."

It was all pretty over the top, and at times hints of Gore's clinical personality poked through. (His daily, scheduled phone conversation with Tipper, he said, "works extremely well" because "both of us bring the same set of expectations.") But for the most part it was an effective performance aimed with pinpoint accuracy at the show's largely female audience. At retirement centers, Gore talks Medicare. On Oprah, he brags about giving his wife jewelry.

There is much that is off-putting about this level of pandering, and Gore has been criticized for it, rightly, since he entered politics in 1976. But it helps during a campaign. What is instantly recognizable as shameless opportunism most of the time can suddenly look like useful flexibility two months before Election Day. Gore is very flexible.