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Tonight, we go in search of the real Al Gore

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 17, 2000


LOS ANGELES -- During the past quarter-century, we have been introduced to many Al Gores.

The Senator's Son. The Farm Boy. The Environmentalist. The Arms Control Expert. The Government Paperwork Specialist. The Internet Jockey. The Reinventor of Government. The Fighter for Middle Class Families.

Given this wide array of images, is it any wonder that the American people still don't know who is the real Al Gore?

When the vice president takes the stage at the Democratic National Convention tonight to accept his party's presidential nomination, according to his advisers, he will be introducing himself once again.

This time, they say, we are going to meet Al Gore, the Young Patriot, the Family Man, the Opponent of Special Interests.

Gore's advisers think the reason Americans are still confused about the real Al Gore, despite his nearly 25 years in public life, is that he is vice president -- a job that, by its very nature, obscures a man's persona.

"Gore is completely defined by being vice president," says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. ". . . Every attribute that comes with "weak' attaches itself to being vice president."

Gore's daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, has her own theory. She says her father's reputation is similar to that of a network news anchor, a Dan Rather, for example -- a person whose name is known by everyone, but whose life story is not.

"As vice president, he's famous," Karenna says, "but he's not well known."

Gore's critics, on the other hand, say that the public does not know the real Al Gore because he has reinvented himself too many times -- he has offered us so many different and contradictory glimpses into his personality that we do not believe any of them.

Some see this problem as just the natural result of a varied public career in the media age. Others say it comes from a fundamental weakness in Gore's character -- a bad habit he has of trying to be all things to all people.

Whatever the cause, the cure is going to be hard to achieve.

When Gore receives his so-called "introduction" as the official Democratic presidential nominee, he will not be writing on a blank slate. He will, instead, be trying to erase many of the old images.

Unlike George W. Bush, who was a virtual unknown when he ascended to the podium of the Republican convention two weeks ago, Gore will be competing with himself. And that is a tough act to follow.

Perhaps the most dramatic image to be offered tonight is that of the Young Patriot -- the fresh-faced fellow who volunteered for the military draft in 1969 at a time when his contemporaries were anxiously grasping for alternatives to serving in Vietnam.

"There he was, the son of a senator, who could have taken the easy way out," said Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway, previewing some of what will be said about the vice president. "Instead, he volunteered for the draft and went to Vietnam."

John Tyson, a college chum of Gore who went with him to register for the draft, is one of the principal speakers who will introduce the vice president. Robert Dalabar, who served in the Army with Gore, also will have a prominent place on the evening's program.

Although Bush's name will not be mentioned by Gore or his friends, the point of presenting the Democratic nominee as a young patriot is to draw a contrast with Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War era.

"You didn't hear much about George Bush's life and career at the Republican convention," quipped Hattaway.

Gore, the Family Man, will be the subject of a scheduled speech by Karenna Gore Schiff immediately preceding her father's appearance. Her description of him as a warm, loving father is intended to counter the prevalent view of the vice president as a stiff-necked policy wonk.

To illustrate the image of Gore as the Opponent of Special Interest, his video biographers will dip into his lengthy legislative record -- recalling how he was an early critic of high prescription drug prices and how he called for the first congressional hearings on dumping of toxic wastes.

The point of this is to enable Gore to portray his opponent as a captive of special interests.

Although Gore's advisers insist they are confident his speech can accomplish the desired transformation of the vice president's image, some admit privately they are a little worried it might fail at this purpose. What worries his advisers most is that Gore is writing this speech himself and, in the past, he has been responsible for drafting some of his least successful speeches.

He is getting a lot of advice, however.

Former vice president and 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale told Gore to be himself.

"It's not a night he should try to be a Clinton or somebody else, but be confident in his own skills, his own directions," Mondale said. "This is his party, and he can be himself. I would play, if I were he, on my own strengths. Let American people see who I am."

Likewise, from Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.: "He knows what's inside him. He doesn't need consultants to tell him that."

Good advice -- that is, if the vice president does know who the Real Al Gore is.

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