LOS ANGELES--If Al Gore really did write the speech he delivered tonight, we learned something new about him: He sounds a lot like his speechwriters.
It was a competent, workmanlike job. Gore stroked the delegates in all of their erogenous zones (no education vouchers, protect Roe vs. Wade and Social Security, to hell with HMOs). He drew some pointed contrasts between his positions and those of his opponent. He offered some personal reflections that sounded only slightly forced and disingenuous. And he included the requisite dose of Shrumanian I'm-on-your-side populism, as when he blared, "As president, I will stand with YOU!"
As a text, it was a pudding without a theme. It felt to me more like a State of the Union address than a nominee's acceptance. The speech touched on dozens of secondary topics in brief, as if Gore's future Cabinet members had all lobbied to have a line about their pet issues included, at the expense of the whole. There was very little to hold the laundry list together--by the time Gore got to the foreign-policy section, I was ready for bed. It lacked the elegant writing and flashes of wit that characterized Bush's equivalent in Philly two weeks ago. It also had no structure and no natural flow.
Gore's delivery, as usual, made matters worse. He stepped on the audience's applause to the point that some of his better lines were inaudible. Toward the end of his speech, he adopted a frantic pace, as if he couldn't wait to get finished, and began emphasizing random words in a weird way, as in, "from THIS CITY that marked both the end of America's journey westward and the beginning of the New Frontier ..." He sought no laughs, and received none. As predicted, it was impossible not to compare his oratorical klutziness to Clinton's pitch-perfect expression on Monday night. On the other hand, it wasn't a bad performance for Gore, given his abilities. He evaded his two antipodean perils, the shout and the drone. And he managed to avoid making the Staples Center feel like world's biggest doggie obedience school.
The essential purpose of Gore's address was to give voters a compelling reason to vote for him and against Bush. And despite its failure to be a good speech, it served that purpose fairly well. The case Gore made, and made fairly effectively, was that there really are genuine and significant differences between him and his opponent. Gore wants campaign-finance reform, health insurance for all children, a big investment in public education, gun control, environmental protection, and fiscal responsibility. Bush wants tax cuts for the rich, tax cuts for the rich, and additional tax cuts for the rich.
I thought the best passage came about halfway through, in Gore's second pass at arguing he would do a better job in keeping the economy humming. "I will not go along with a huge tax cut for the wealthy at the expense of everyone else and wreck our good economy in the process," he said, putting the contrast starkly. He added the Republican tax cut would amount to 62 cents a week for the average family--enough to buy a Diet Coke. "Let me tell you: that's not the kind of change I'm working for," he said. (One problem: That figure--which amounts to just over $32 a year per family--can't possibly be correct. According to the prepared text, Gore was meant to say 62 cents a day, which is much more plausible. But there he goes again.)
Just as he wants to make the election a contest of issues, Gore wants to make sure the election does not become a likability contest. "I know my own imperfections. I know that sometimes people say I'm too serious, that I talk too much substance and policy," Gore said. "... But the presidency is more than a popularity contest. It's a day-by-day fight for people." He's shrewd to define the fight in this way, as one he can win.
Gore comes to this year's election with a huge, inbuilt advantage in the form of a nation at peace and the strongest economy in 40 years. He faces one major peril, which is his own ineptness as a candidate. The basic question of the campaign is whether Gore's natural awkwardness is sufficient to overcome his inbuilt advantage. On the evidence of tonight's speech, I'd say that the answer is: perhaps not quite.
Photograph of Al Gore on the Slate Table of Contents by Scott Nelson/AFP Photo.