Al Gore, Robo-candidate
The vice president is running a relentlessly weird campaign
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.