Carthage, Tenn., is one of those sweet small towns that feels like it was special-ordered from the factory for events just like today's. If it didn't exist, Dick Morris--or whatever imp is doing Morris duties for Al Gore--would have manufactured it. Red, white, and blue bunting drapes the postcard-perfect courthouse. The bank across the street sits under a big sign that reads only "Bank." There is a high-school band in the bandstand and a multiracial gospel choir onstage.
Never mind that Gore spent more of his childhood on the playing fields of St. Albans than in the hayfields of Carthage. The (semi-)native son returns to his (putative) hometown today to launch his campaign. Carthage is the first stop on a three-day epic that will also take him to Iowa, New Hampshire, New York, California, Washington (state), and Pennsylvania.
A specter is haunting Gore's nascent campaign, the specter of W. The first sign I see in Carthage this morning reads: "Gore jumps over a Bush!" Even though it's a year till the conventions, eight months till the first primary, and only one week into the official campaigns, even though a dozen candidates are competing hard for the GOP nomination and two for the Democratic, the press is already treating this as a two-man race. This has cast a shadow onto Gore's announcement. Bush's campaign swing this weekend lived up to the hype that preceded it. The Texas governor was loose and natural (if content-free). Bush's showing is the only topic of discussion on the press plane, and it has raised the bar for Gore. This question for today: Will Gore will unveil Al 2.0, a jauntier version for the 21st century?
The media may be interested in Bush, but the several thousand folks outside the courthouse are homers. They are toting the requisite signs ("G2K," "I Love Tipper") and decorated with the requisite buttons. Of the dozen people I stop at random, 10 are personally acquainted with the veep or his family. (One coached the Gore kids in waterskiing, another bought the Gores' tractor when they quit tobacco farming, another went to school with Gore's father, etc.) When I ask the Carthaginians about Bush, they invariably return the same answer: "I didn't like his father, and I don't know anything about him. But Al will beat him."
(There are about 50 burly men in "Firefighters for Gore" shirts. This, coupled with the fact that the Carthage Fire Department has been vacated to serve as the press filing center, worries me. What happens if there's a fire, I ask one of the firefighters. "We're in baaad trouble," he replies.)
After several speakers have warmed up the crowd, Karenna Gore (a Slate alumna, we note proudly) finally introduces her father, calling him the "Best Vice-President This Country Ever Had." The earlier speakers had used the same cumbersome phrase, and I suspect we'll be hearing it endlessly throughout the campaign. For the sake of paper and time, I propose we shorten this to its acronym, BVPTCEH.
The BVPTCEH bounds to the podium, hugs Karenna (who is 8 and 1/2 months pregnant and hence hard to hug), and swings calmly into his speech. This is not Al 2.0, but it's an improvement. He traces his family history, congratulates himself on the mighty state of the American economy, and begins building toward the actual announcement. Suddenly, a huge whistle pierces the air. A small pod of HIV-rights hecklers near the stage begins screaming, "Gore's greed kills." They whistle. They toss pamphlets in the air. They wave signs. It takes several long minutes for Gore supporters to surround and stifle the hecklers. The veep soldiers through the disruption, but his voice rises and quickens to the Gore we know too well. The crowd is distracted. The cameras swing away from Gore and toward the hecklers. When Gore shouts the magic words, "I announce that I am a candidate for president of the United States," the crowd cheers, but the damage has been done. I am standing next to Gore's press secretary as this unfolds, and I watch his face fall and fall and fall.
Gore's talk continues after the announcement, and it is here that he lays out the broad theme of his campaign: Clinton polices and Gore values. Call it Clintonism with a chastity belt. Gore, full of fiber, ticks off policy proposal after policy proposal. All are Clinton status quo, good-time centrist ideas. He promises to protect Social Security and Medicare, raise the minimum wage, fight polluters, reward teachers, focus on education, support abortion rights and the death penalty. The word of the day is "family," which appears 26 times in the speech. "Families deserve" better schools. "Families deserve decent affordable health care," etc. Foreign policy is almost absent, even though it's a Gore specialty. (Gore sideswipes at Bush throughout the speech, mentioning his own Vietnam War service and nipping at "compassionate conservatism.")
But as he celebrates these Clintonian ideas, understudy Gore makes one clear distinction between him and his boss: "I will take my own values of faith and family to the presidency." He refers to the "decency deficit" facing American families. This is Gore's basic campaign promise: I'll run the country just as well as Clinton did--I can do the economics, the microproposals, the town meetings--but I will never embarrass you like he did.
As the talk winds up, it occurs to me that commentators have misdiagnosed Al Gore's speech problem. Some criticize Gore's speechwriters and say he just needs better words. But today's speech is perfectly eloquent. Some insist that he should lower his voice. Some insist that he should stop talking down to his audiences, addressing them as if they are 3-year-olds. I think his problem is something else. Gore overarticulates every syllable. This not only makes him sound loud and condescending, it also has a more detrimental effect. The overarticulation distorts his face. Every sound requires him to exercise muscles that most of us never use. His mouth is a constant grimace, his cheeks always in a twist. No matter how he sounds--and I don't think he sounds as bad as everyone else does--he looks extraordinarily uncomfortable.
Which brings me to the greatest threat to the Gore campaign. These are tranquil and prosperous times, thanks in large part to policies Gore himself has pushed. But because these are tranquil times, only a hairsbreadth of difference--and I'm not sure what that hair is--separates mainstream Democrats like Gore from mainstream Republicans like Bush. If nothing major happens to disrupt the country between now and fall 2000, this will be a cheerful and issueless election. We just had such an election in 1996, and the candidate of cheerful ease, Bill Clinton, spanked the candidate of awkwardness, Bob Dole. Every time I see Gore, I am reminded of how Dole-like he is: A lovely and smart and funny and wise man who will never look happy on the stump.
George W. demonstrated little but ease this weekend, but in this election, that may just be enough. Al Gore demonstrated everything but ease this morning, but in this election, that may just be not enough.