When Al Gore stepped out of the shadows

Via TV, I was able to watch the reemergence of political recluse Al Gore. He was speaking at a Democratic convention in Florida, and he was, to hear the tumultuous response of his audience, knocking 'em dead.

Was he providing a clue as to whether he would run for president again? Well, if the exuberant way he cut up the Republicans was telling us anything, it was this: He was out of hiding and back in the political arena.

But was he going to run again? Well, there were no Gore words that amounted to that declaration of intention.

Politically, Mr. Gore did quite well – witness the warm audience response. But I thought that he was showing – in a performance that leaned heavily on old-time political oratory – that he hadn't learned from his 2000 run that the voters really want a presidential candidate who doesn't entertain them but, instead, talks sense to them. Afterward a TV commentator observed: "Gore was throwing raw meat to partisans – and they loved it."

Harry Truman was ahead of his time in realizing that the voters wanted unadorned, no-nonsense speeches. So was Adlai Stevenson. He said he "just talked sense to the people." Come to think of it, this has always been an effective approach. Remember Abraham Lincoln?

Not that George Bush hasn't made his share of political speeches filled with exaggerations and pure baloney. But I thought that during the campaign – particularly during the debates – Mr. Bush's was the more reasonable voice while Gore was the candidate with the flourishes, always the actor.

And while it is arguable that it worked for Gore – he did win the popular vote – I think he would have beaten Bush decisively and thus avoided that controversial ending if he had simply been himself and just talked in a reasonable low-key way to us about the issues and his intentions.

But whatever the edge that Bush had over Gore in his speeches last time around, it will be even greater next time – unless Gore begins to just talk "naturally" to the voters. And why? Because Bush has lifted his speaking skills so much since becoming president – and particularly since Sept. 11.

Bush is still no great orator. He can't touch a Bill Clinton or a Ronald Reagan when it comes to that. But as he talks slowly – and, oh, so earnestly – he has become a most effective communicator. The bumbling and stumbling seem to be behind him. I hear reporters who used to ridicule Bush's scrambling of words now hailing the president's speeches.

Back when I was a boy in a small city in Illinois, I used to go to hear the political candidates at election time. First the candidates for state senator would speak. Then lesser candidates would perform. All would provide great entertainment as they shouted and waved their hands and bragged with fists raised how they were going to beat their opponents to a pulp.

My father, the county surveyor, would be the last to speak since he was the lowest on the ballot. (He never understood why the county surveyor had to be elected.)

I can still see my little dad, all 5 feet 2 inches of him, walking slowly up to the front of the stage and then quietly telling us simply that he would try to do a good job. I'd be in the front row, you can be sure.

Afterward, I would hear some of the other candidates comment that he should "speak up" more – that he wasn't giving the people what they wanted.

I LEARNED quite early that the voters like to be treated as if they are seriously interested in what a candidate has to say. My dad – an independent-minded "Lincoln Republican" who at times, such as with Woodrow Wilson, had voted for the Democratic presidential candidate – was elected again and again for more than 40 years.

Furthermore (I have mentioned this before; please forgive another mention of it from an admiring son) when Champaign County, Ill., went Democratic for the first time in history as a result of Roosevelt's overwhelming 1932 landslide, my soft-spoken dad was the only Republican on the ballot to survive. He won by only a handful of votes.

And so it is that I will on occasion tell my friends that my father once "beat" the unbeatable Franklin Roosevelt. Then I explain – and we have a good laugh.

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