Saginaw, Michigan

IT'S 7:30 ON A RECENT WEEKNIGHT and the gym at Arthur Hill High School in Saginaw is not packed. There are maybe 200 people in the room, which, judging from the championship banners on the walls, is a smaller crowd than the school's basketball team draws. All have come at the invitation of local Democratic activists. They are here to participate in one of Al Gore's "open meetings." They are in for a long night.

Gore stands at the end of the basketball court and addresses the group with a microphone. He opens by telling his life story, beginning with selective biographies of his parents. ("My mother was a poor girl in West Tennessee at a time when poor girls weren't supposed to dream." "She worked as a waitress at an all-night coffee shop for 25 cent tips." She took her blind sister to school every day, etc.) He follows with a short campaign speech, then he opens the floor to questions. Gore promises to answer every single one. "I don't care if there's only one person left, I'll stay here," he says. He means it.

The reporters covering Gore dread these events, known informally as "Last Man Standing," a kind of contest in which Gore always emerges the winner. (The record for a Gore open meeting, recorded in April in Albuquerque, is more than 4 hours and 20 minutes.) Tonight is no exception. Gore prides himself on being patient. After answering the same question about Social Security for the third time, he seems perfectly happy to answer it again. "If you want to stay afterwards to talk more about this," he says calmly, "I'd be happy to."

After an hour or so, the gym begins to get uncomfortably hot. Camera crews from the campaign are filming the event for commercials, and there are large, movie-type floodlights positioned around the room. Each throws off more heat than a steam radiator. Sweat has begun to roll down Gore's face, soaking through his polo shirt, and dripping south to his pleated Dockers and cowboy boots. The questions keep coming.

But mostly people want to give lectures. Self-important, boorish, stunningly long-winded lectures. An Asian kid about 18 (a self-identified "APA" -- Asian-Pacific American) rises to complain that the Mattel toy company did not include an Asian Barbie in its "Barbie for President" set. A fiftyish man makes a complicated point about the spread of algae in the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. A large woman with dozens of warts on her face, a college English teacher, scolds Gore for selling out to right-wing corporate interests.

None of them shows any awareness that Gore is the vice president of the United States, a man who -- whatever else he is -- is generally considered too busy to spend an entire evening responding to pointless and impolite "questions" from the citizens of Saginaw. Gore never betrays the slightest irritation. He never changes his tone, never becomes sharp. He answers each question, sometimes in excruciating detail. He is condescending, of course. But that's always the case.

What is striking is that, unlike Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and other natural politicians, Gore doesn't appear to take pleasure or draw energy from interacting with the crowd. He doesn't wade in. As the night wears on, he shows no evidence of a speaker's high. But Gore doesn't seem to be suffering, either. He seems dutiful. He plows forward.

After a couple of hours, the meeting officially ends. Most people leave, but several dozen don't. They form a receiving line. Gore talks to each one, sometimes at length. Every other person has something time-consuming for Gore: an anecdote to share, a mutual acquaintance to ask about ("My cousin Bob used to live in Nashville. Did you know him?"), or at the very least, a camera. The pictures slow things down the most. Often, the people taking them get so nervous that they fumble shot after shot. Each time, Gore is left stranded with his arm around a sweaty stranger, a smile frozen in place.

One woman is having what seem to be severe problems with her disposable box camera. The flash won't go off. She pauses to read the fine print on the back. Reporters are getting tense just watching. Gore acts as if he'd be delighted to spend all night helping her get the perfect photograph. "Take another," he says with no discernible edge in his voice. It is a remarkable feat of will. Gore is, I decide at that moment, the Robo-candidate.

Thanks to weightlifting and a low-carb diet, Gore looks fit. Even so, events like this are physically demanding. (No bathroom breaks, for one thing.) They are also expensive. Gore brings along press secretaries and policy experts and schedulers. There is the press, the people who feed the press, the aides who plan the route for the motorcade, the guy who brings Gore's limousine out from Washington. And then there is the security detail -- I counted nine Secret Service agents within a 20-foot radius of Gore as he spoke. (Not to mention the huge contingent of local police wandering the empty halls of the high school.) It takes two planes to carry the whole entourage. It takes most of a day to set up for the show. Who knows how much it all costs.

Which makes you wonder: Why does Gore subject himself to this? He held open meetings in Iowa and New Hampshire during the primaries because he had to. He doesn't have to now. Nor does it seem a wise use of his time or money. At no cost to his campaign, Gore could reach far more voters in three minutes sitting alone in a television studio in Washington than he does in as many hours in a gym in Saginaw. And yet since he secured the nomination, Gore has continued to barnstorm the country hosting his own makeshift political talk show -- usually untelevised.

Bob Shrum, Gore's chief media consultant, explains the meetings as a chance for the candidate to interact with "real people." They are also, Shrum says, "a pretty good continuing drill for all the stuff he'll be dealing with in the campaign" -- meaning, for the most part, the debates. This is true too. Shrum doesn't even bother trying to defend the meetings on the usual practical grounds. "The standard notions of retail politics say they're not worth doing," he says. "But he likes them."

He must. After three hours, most of the traveling press give up and depart for the airport. Gore keeps chatting with the dozen or so citizens still standing. As the reporters walk out, he is deep in a conversation about real estate prices in Saginaw. According to his staff, once everyone finally went home, Gore stayed even later to shoot a public service announcement for local television.

Clinton used to do things like this, most famously during the primaries in 1992, when his willingness to work almost continuously helped push him to victory. But Clinton always seemed like he might be campaigning at midnight even if he weren't running for office. With Gore you get the feeling he has decided he has no choice.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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