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
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.
From Oprah, Gore traveled to an elementary school in Belleville, Ill., a small town 25 miles from St. Louis, where he gave a speech to parents and teachers. Within about five minutes it became clear why George W. Bush has had trouble engaging Gore effectively on ideological grounds (apart from Bush's own natural reluctance to do so): Gore doesn't sound like much of a liberal these days, at least not in front of certain audiences. While campaigning in the Midwest, Gore rarely mentions abortion. He virtually never brings up affirmative action. When he talks about gun control, he is careful to include "homeowners" (along with "sportsmen and hunters") among the groups that would remain unaffected by his proposals.
On some issues, Gore even comes across as an unapologetic right-winger. Gore spent much of his speech in Belleville slamming "the popular culture," which he said "competes with parents in raising our children." Companies that market violent movies, music, and video games to underage consumers are particularly heinous offenders, the vice president thundered. And they had better knock it off. Now.
Gore told the crowd that, once elected, he and Joe Lieberman plan to give the entertainment industry six months to shape up. "If at the end of that six-month period there is not yet an acceptable industry response," Gore said, "then we're prepared to go to Step Three." The way Gore said it, "Step Three" sounded a lot like DEFCON Three -- the crank-up-the-sirens, head-for-the-lead-lined-basement, there-could-be-casualties final warning. Step Three, Gore explained, is the step where he and Lieberman haul Hollywood executives before the Federal Trade Commission on charges of "deceptive advertising."
There are a couple of problems with this. For starters, it's not clear that the entertainment industry has ever formally pledged not to advertise violent material to teenagers. So the charge of "deceptive advertising" is weak, if not ludicrous. In any case, it is a wild overreach by government. And it is probably in conflict with current understandings of the First Amendment.
There is also the problem of Gore's obvious hypocrisy. As the Bush campaign frantically tried to point out to news organizations, Gore has accepted huge amounts of money from Hollywood over the years. The same merchants of moral ruin he savaged in Belleville continue to be among Gore's biggest supporters and contributors. Three days after his Illinois speech, Gore attended a fund-raiser in Manhattan hosted by Harvey Weinstein, the head of Miramax. The party was packed with actors and entertainment types, including Matt Damon, David Crosby, Lenny Kravitz, and Jon Bon Jovi. When Gore spoke at the end of the evening, he thanked "the creative community" profusely. "I'm very, very grateful," he said. He didn't mention Step Three or the FTC.
It's easy to attack Gore's attack on Hollywood. But just because it was hypocritical and mildly authoritarian doesn't mean it wasn't significant. As I listened to the speech, my first thought was, Does Bill Bennett agree with this? Bennett has beaten up on the entertainment industry quite a lot over the years, often with Joe Lieberman at his side. Does he think the Federal Trade Commission ought to go after studio heads? The answer to both questions, it turns out, is "no." In other words, phony or not, Al Gore has officially taken a stand on the entertainment industry that is to the right of Bill Bennett.
Has Gore become a social conservative? That's unlikely, given his stands on gay rights and abortion (he is enthusiastically for both). But Gore has shown that he is willing, perhaps even more willing than Clinton has been, to borrow from the other side when it suits him politically. And when Gore borrows, he tends to amplify. Consider his rhetoric on crime.
Gore still talks about gun control, domestic violence, and the need for hate-crime legislation, but these are no longer the central planks in his crime platform. These days Gore is just as apt to cite the "broken windows" philosophy that inspired New York mayor Rudy Giuliani's successful war on crime. Or to call for a victims' rights amendment to the Constitution. Or to go on about why the death penalty should be imposed more often. At a speech in Boston last year, Gore said that as president he would make it a federal crime to "stalk our children on the Internet." He also promised to outlaw "gang-related clothing." (Neither Gore nor his campaign has defined either of these offenses more specifically.)
Gore has gone even further this year. At a crime policy speech in Atlanta in May, he assailed "the old Democratic approach, which was tough on the causes of crime, but not tough enough on crime itself." According to Gore, people who commit violent crimes against children should go to prison. But so should those who commit crimes "in front of" children. They should get "more time in jail," Gore said.
Al Gore has become a fanatic for law and order. This is not surprising. Gore instinctively moves to the fringes of whatever issue he takes an interest in: the environment, abortion, and now crime and children's entertainment. Republicans often accuse Gore of being a raving lefty. That is not quite right. Gore adopts many roles, not all of them consistent with doctrinaire liberalism. He overplays every one. Gore is not an ideologue. He is a zealot.
Why doesn't anyone seem to notice when Gore says extreme things? (Gang-related clothing?) The Bush campaign sometimes cites liberal media bias. This is true, but only partly. Reporters generally are liberal, but few have great affection for Al Gore. Gore is difficult to cover. He rarely makes himself available to the press, and when he does, his quotes are stilted and predictable.
On the other hand, he has a capable staff. Gore aides are quick with background information they think will help their candidate. (The night before the "RATS" story appeared on page one of the New York Times, the campaign held a midnight briefing so the traveling press could see the Bush ad with the supposedly subliminal message.) And they try not to senselessly antagonize reporters.
The Bush campaign could learn something from this. Bush's press handlers, for instance, have alienated some photographers by instructing them not to take pictures of Bush in a variety of scenarios: smoking cigars, carrying his own bags (too reminiscent of Jimmy Carter), wearing a necktie that has been loosened in an unpresidential manner, or holding a beverage of any kind, lest it be mistaken for an alcoholic beverage. Restrictions like these can cause resentment. (Bush's manners haven't helped, either; he has addressed at least two adult photographers as "boy," and been pointlessly rude to others.)
Gore's campaign has been less rigid and friendlier with photographers, and it has paid off. During the river-boat trip Gore took immediately after the Democratic convention, an inexperienced member of his advance staff hung a sign at one event that read "FAMILIES" in large print. From one angle, Gore's face obscured the first four letters of the word. It made for an embarrassing image (and a natural New York Post cover). The picture never ran -- proof, says one of the photographers who shot it, that it's worth being nice to people with cameras.
Ultimately, details like this don't mean much, as Bob Shrum, Gore's chief media consultant, is quick to point out. Neither, Shrum says, do many of the nuances of campaign strategy. What really matters, he says, is what the man running for president says to win over voters. "It's like the old Bobby Kennedy quote. After the 1960 election, someone described him as a 'genius.' He said, 'Change 60,000 votes and I'm a bum.' Two months ago, they were the geniuses and we were the bums. Staff doesn't have anything to do with it. It's the candidate."
In Al Gore's case this is true. Gore has recovered in part because he understood early what many Republicans didn't: Even an awkward man with high negatives can become president if he's willing to be flexible enough.
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.