WASHINGTON — Why was a vice president who was so personable, relaxed, and easy to be around when he was in a private setting such a stiff, cardboard figure in public?
I asked this again and again, of veteran journalists attending seven Monitor breakfast/lunches at the Democratic convention preceding Al Gore's acceptance speech. The frequent answer: He's trying too hard to be loose and engaging and that the effort, itself, showed through and helped create a less-than-appealing image. And I couldn't agree more.
So it was that Mr. Gore was expected to be less than great in his speech - or even to do poorly. But, instead, he provided a boffo speaking performance. Of course he wasn't a Franklin Roosevelt or, even, a Bill Clinton. But he rose to the occasion as the confident, friendly, and very persuasive fellow reporters have gotten to know over the years.
And so, like George W. Bush in Philadelphia, Gore got the job done.
How much of a lift did he get from the convention and his well-
received speech? Post-convention polls are showing Gore has narrowed the Bush lead to almost dead-even - one showed him taking a slight lead. As he barnstorms down the Mississippi River, the vice president looks like a new man. There's clearly a spring in his step; he's campaigning with a new confidence. Above all, he isn't distorting himself by trying to be someone else and trying too hard to appear likable.
The convention bounce for Gore may show he finally has found himself and is now set to give Bush a run for his money. But let's wait and see. If by Labor Day, Gore is still hanging up close to Bush or even a bit ahead in the polls, then we can be sure this has really developed into a horse race. But if the convention-related euphoria fades and Gore, in a couple of weeks, drops back to his pre-convention polling position some 9 to 16 points behind Bush: Well, Gore will be heading for an uphill fight all through the fall.
I also have a reservation about the convention and its usefulness to Gore outside of his terrific speech. The Republican convention carried through with just one theme: That the compassionate-conservative Bush would bring about a needed change.
The Democratic convention left me confused. What was the theme of this pudding?
First, Mr. Clinton seemed to be making the prosperity he claimed he singlehandedly ("I, I, I," was all we heard) had put together the theme for the campaign: Americans should vote Democratic because he, Clinton, had made life so good for them.
And later speakers, particularly the Kennedys, also seemed to be saying "Keep the good times rolling" was the theme Gore would win on.
But then, at a time when unemployment is at an all-time low and people, generally, are saying they never had it better economically, Gore's populist vow to fight for the economically disadvantaged seemed strangely out of sync with the good life most people are enjoying and Clinton was boasting about.
But I'm probably nitpicking. Gore had his magical - and very surprising - moment. It could carry him on to victory.
Now, quickly, let me sum up my other observations on the Democratic convention:
The best speech: Joseph Lieberman's, like that of Colin Powell's in Philadelphia, was memorable. He brings so much grace, modesty, and class to the ticket.
The protests: They were a continuous sideshow - but, unlike the Vietnam War protests in 1968 - they didn't intrude on the convention.
Television coverage: This was my 24th convention, and I well remember the days when the TV networks gave us gavel-to-gavel coverage. Now TV only shows us parts of the convention, and during those abbreviated portions the anchors so frequently pull away from the speaker to let us hear all those talking heads tell us what really is going on. Sad, sad.
And, finally, a memory I shall always cherish: When Robert Strauss, that noble public servant and adviser to presidents, came as a guest to one of the Monitor breakfasts.
Mr. Strauss was Democratic National chairman back in 1976 when he met with the Monitor group just before the convention in New York that nominated Jimmy Carter. As we closed our session, Strauss said, "How about meeting with me at the convention?"
And we did. And that's how the Monitor got started holding breakfasts/lunches at all the presidential conventions over the years.
Once again this year, Strauss gave us very valuable insights on the political scene - always with a touch of humor.
And then I saw something I've never seen before. When Strauss finished and said, "I hope to see you in four years," these veteran journalists, who shy away from showing any personal feeling about public figures, stood and gave him a standing ovation.
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