In an acceptance speech tonight as the Democratic nominee, Al Gore steps out from Bill Clinton's shadow. But in what direction?
Like any vice president, he's had to stifle himself as he serves the nation's leader and waits his turn.
But more than that, the talented and experienced Mr. Gore seems remote and reserved to many Americans, with low ratings in appeal - especially after efforts to reinvent his image (from changing wardrobes to changing cities).
But a prime-time speech can reverse a reputation in one hour, much as George W. Bush's acceptance speech two weeks ago helped dissolve an image as a light-weight. Gore, despite a plodding and cautious style, deserves a fresh chance to show leadership on issues and character rooted in core principles.
The Los Angeles convention tried to show that Gore did have a life BC (Before Clinton). His father was a New Deal-style US senator who influenced his son to attend the best schools, learn Washington's insider ways, join the Army during the Vietnam War, and then move on to a career as a journalist, congressman, and senator.
The convention's first three nights highlighted speakers reflecting Gore's key traits: On Monday, it was Clinton the political pragmatist; on Tuesday, idealistic Kennedys; last night, Joseph Lieberman the moralist.
But a highly intellectual Al Gore mostly wants to be known as a futurist, someone who can simplify complex trends and "see around corners," as his staff says. He wants the next 10 years, for instance, to be the "environmental decade" in order to deal with global warming.
Such an approach lets Gore be a visionary in his own right and not just a keeper of the Clinton flame. But a visionary needs listening skills and an ability to persuade Americans to make sacrifices.
Gore now takes over a Democratic Party only half shifted by Clinton toward the political center. His background suggests he may return the party to old polarizing themes, as just the opponent of powerful interests.
Having never served as a governor, unlike Clinton and Bush, Gore holds more faith that the central government can find solutions to both local and individual problems, even if it's just as a catalyst and even if in limited ways, such as through tax breaks. He may saddle states with federal mandates.
But unlike his father's party, he's a hawk on budget discipline, free trade, and an assertive America. He's more willing to commit troops overseas and pay off the national debt.
Sometimes, Gore's intellect drives him to find holes in his opponent's positions rather than expound his own. That's why this speech will focus on his differences with Bush's tax-cut and Social Security plans.
But this critical speech is mainly aimed at ending doubts among swing voters that Gore is likeable and trustworthy, or just not enough of a change from eight years of Clinton.
The real Al Gore can surely move beyond the caricatures, the different masks, the ambiguity, and speak from the heart. We need a vision of Gore, as much as one for America.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society