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Jewish World Review Sept. 13, 1999/3 Tishrei, 5760

Tony Snow

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Candidate 'what's-his-name' -- LOS ANGELES -- September has proved a cruel month for Vice President Al Gore. The press has dismissed his campaign as chaos in motion. Bill Bradley has pulled even with him in the New Hampshire polls. And last Wednesday, the commander of the American Legion introduced him to a national convention as "Alan" Gore Jr.

John Nance Garner once likened his duties as FDR's vice president to "drinking a warm bucket of spit." Gore surely must agree. Bill Clinton looms over his would-be successor as the Ghost of Future Catastrophes. An astonishing poll conducted by The Washington Post and NBC indicates that 53 percent of the public wishes the man from Hope would just go away -- and that few consider Al Gore's faithfulness a career-enhancing asset.

The night before Gore's speech to the American Legion, veterans milled in an Anaheim, Calif., hotel lounge. When asked about the vice president, many groused about "Slick Willie" instead and grunted their disapproval of the commander in chief.

Not surprisingly, when Gore addressed 4,500 vets the following day, he got the silent treatment. Literally. He would tell a joke and the words would echo off the distant auditorium walls, as if he were delivering an oration at the mouth of Mammoth Cave.

He spun a poignant tale about how people in Czechoslovakia kept American flags tucked away for 50 years, awaiting the day they could celebrate freedom -- and how, when communism collapsed, grateful men and women proudly displayed those flags with 48 stars. There wasn't a wet eye in the house.

The peak-capped men and women sat back in their chairs, not so much in defiance of Gore as in revulsion toward his boss. One woman vet, sympathetic to Gore, complained: "Listen to them! They say they have no politics, but they do!"

Indeed, as the vice president made his way off stage, he crossed paths with the next speaker, who was soon after was introduced to a cheering throng as "our friend, our champion, Sen. Orrin Hatch!" They even got Hatch's name right.

Incidents of this sort make it clear that the time has come for Gore to undergo a rite of passage familiar to any vice president who seeks a promotion. He must establish an independent identity, knowing he will appear at best faintly disloyal to the person from whom his power and opportunity derives.

The minuet is particularly ticklish because he wants to succeed not any president, but William Jefferson Clinton. He can't run as Clinton's heir the way George Bush ran as the kinder, gentler Reagan. Every paean of praise for the incumbent necessarily includes the qualifier, "but."

The veep already has differentiated himself in small ways. His daughters travel with him -- not as props, but as colleagues and workers. He sticks to his schedule and often finishes events ahead of time. And he is doing what his predecessors have done in similar situations. He is trying on personalities.

Democratic audiences get an avenging liberal. Gore assails Republicans as heartless clods and peppers them with a series of road-tested jokes and one-liners. He even utters the "C" word -- Clinton.

His liberal stump speech adopts the Dickensian view that we live in the best of times and worst of times. Even in our prosperity, he warns, we commit undetected vices and sins. Just as his fellow Southerners once cast a blind eye toward the evils of slavery, the comfortable majority today overlooks horrors that will appall later generations of Americans. This is not a chipper argument -- people seldom cheer when accused of ignoring the latest iteration of Jim Crow -- and audiences tend to sit numbly through such preachments.

But there are other Gores: You have the computer wonk who wows younger audiences. There's the war-vet, family-man Gore who talks politely -- an amalgamation of Eddie Haskell and Horatio Alger. And in unguarded moments, you get a nice guy who enjoys talking about policy and wants people to like him. Last week, for instance, he introduced me to his daughter Kristin: "Tony's a right-wing television host, but he's fair."

He was right, of course, but later felt compelled to say quietly, "I hope you know I was kidding when I called you a 'right-winger.'"

The one strain running through all the Gores is that the vice president is a liberal politician eager for an ideological fight and confident that his opponents almost surely will underestimate him. He is smarter and has a broader intellect than his foes acknowledge, and his self-conscious rhetorical style belies his knack for hard work and political tenacity.

There is no graceful way for a vice president to escape the gravitational pull of his predecessor, and the task itself accounts for some of Gore's problems (such as trying to answer questions about the FALN soap opera). Still, he figures there's smoother sailing ahead, especially in terms of his press clippings.

"I've been around long enough to know that things even out," he says. "I just hope they'll even out sooner rather than later."

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©1999, Creators Syndicate