VICE President Al Gore Jr. was out early the morning following the president's state of the union speech, doing his part to sell Bill Clinton's economic plan. One of Mr. Gore's first stops was at the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel, where he met with nearly 50 print journalists assembled under the sponsorship of The Christian Science Monitor. He was exuberant. And why not? He carried with him overnight polls showing that the president had scored amazingly well with his TV audience.
The morning after the Gore breakfast, GOP House leader Bob Michel met with this same group. He was a rather sad figure. The angry public response to his TV rebuttal speech had simply bowled him over. Even in Peoria - in his own district - the criticism had been strident.
Thus, in a real sense, the physical appearance and demeanor of these two leaders became a visible signpost of the direction in which the two parties now are heading:
Certainly, the Gore enthusiasm reflects an administration that got off on the wrong foot but now seems surging forward and gathering steam. And certainly, too, the downcast Mr. Michel told of a Republican Party that is now somewhat in disarray - really not knowing what to say when the heavy bulk of the American people is hailing an eloquent presidential call to action.
The vice president spoke of the emerging political scene in this way as he described to us the response of Congress to the president's words where "one side of the chamber stands and applauds widely while the other side sits with their hands folded." To me he added, "It was like an image of a great ship changing course with one side out of the water and the other sinking." He noted that it was just the reversal of what happened when President Ronald Reagan made his first speech to Congress.
The crestfallen Michel was in no mood to argue with such imagery - although it should be said right here that this gentlemanly and well-liked fellow will doubtless soon find a way, along with his colleagues, to once again put up a spirited fight and present a strong GOP counter-economic program.
He told us he never had wanted what he knew would be the thankless job of responding to Clinton. Indeed, he seemed quite rankled over Senator Dole's ducking of this dubious opportunity and passing it along to him.
Several journalists I talked to before the Michel breakfast said they thought that Michel had preformed well in what really was an impossible assignment. And from them I was hearing an assessment along this line: that a public that had been carried away emotionally by the Clinton oratory and vision was in no mood to hear any kind of criticism.
"It was an awfully tough act to follow," one reporter at the breakfast table observed, and Michel nodded. When another reporter spoke of Michel "being run over by a truck" the Illinois congressman was not moved to put up any dissent.
The press get-together with Gore presented an opportunity to ask him about his working relationship with the president.
"I'll have some areas of special responsibility," he said, "on environmental policy; on technology policy; on helping to get his program through Congress; I also will be a trouble shooter. But my principal job will be that of a principal adviser to the president."
When a reporter spoke of the fate of many vice presidents - of being promised a major role and then being left out in the cold by the president - Gore said this would not happen to him. "We are quite good friends," he said. "This closeness comes between two individuals when they both are moving toward the same objective. We share a lot of the same goals and dreams with this country."
Then came this question of Gore: "Do you feel comfortable with the first lady's role and the way it is emerging?" His reply: "Oh, absolutely. She is a source of extremely good advice to the president on a whole range of issues. Those who could hear her advice would ask why she didn't have a bigger role."
After an hour with the breakfast group the still-ebullient Gore said goodbye, eager to get on with a selling job of a program that the public, at least initially, seemed willing to consider and, perhaps, accept.