Al Gore’s speech last night was like a meal you expected to be awful that turned out to taste only bland. It exceeded expectations but its quality fades quickly in memory. Throughout the speech there were two hissing noises. The first was the unfortunate lisp the vice president has acquired with his new lower teeth. “Thiths election isth abouths the future…” The second seeping sound was the steady leak of his hopes for victory.
Gore has said for some time now that he should get the credit or the blame for his speech, since he wrote it. Fair enough. Again, it was not an awful speech, and if it were a State of the Union address it would have gotten high marks. But, as a re-introduction to a man painfully in need of re-introducing, it was fairly miserable. “I know that sometimes people say I’m too serious, that I talk too much substance and policy. Maybe I’ve done that tonight,” Gore conceded. “But the presidency is more than a popularity contest.” Rarely has wishful thinking been more powerfully misrepresented as fact.
The vice president didn’t invoke Harry Truman tonight by name; odd considering how hard he’s been trying to channel his spirit lately. But Gore did use the words “fight” or “fighting” 20 times, which he clearly considers to be Trumanesque. Another thing that was Trumanesque was Gore’s near-constant pandering to various constituencies and groups. He mentioned local unions and old people by name; he listed the sorts of people who deserve targeted tax cuts and free drugs, and teachers who deserve big raises. He did not want to mend affirmative action, but only to defend it. When it was over, one was reminded of H. L. Mencken’s observation, “If there had been any formidable body of cannibals in the country, Harry Truman would have promised to provide them with free missionaries fattened at the taxpayer’s expense.”
The most heart-wrenching pander was Gore’s mention of the Malone family. These apparently wronged people (and I say “apparently” only because one should always question the authenticity of dramatic props) were allegedly told by an HMO that they wouldn’t get any more medicine for their child. “No family… in America should have to go on national television to save their child’s life,” Gore declared. True enough. One wonders if he realized the irony that going on TV was precisely what the Mayberrys — the tenants on his own Carthage estate — had to do to get Gore to make minimal repairs to their home.
I do not know what the public reaction to Gore’s speech will be, but if positive, I doubt it will be long-lasting. Gore did not prove himself to be all that different from the caricature he came in with. And, by proposing some 24 program initiatives without a single over-arching theme except that he will “fight” for the people not the powerful — in ways he presumably has been incapable of doing for the last eight years — the vice president has made it clear he is running on the Dukakis agenda. Indeed, when he explained he wasn’t running in a “popularity contest” the C-SPAN cameras cut to the “competence not ideology” candidate of 1988 — grinning like he was going to get another tank ride. If that’s not the political equivalent of seeing a black-robed skeleton in your rearview mirror, I don’t know what is.
Indeed, from beginning to end this convention was a reenactment of Monty Python’s “dead parrot” sketch, with Gore as the deceased bird and his spinners saying “he’s not dead, he’s resting.” According to the voter.com poll, George W. Bush’s lead has gained slightly every day this week. When your opponent — already ahead by double digits — goes up even further, after hearing your party’s best sales pitch, that’s not good.
So, sure, Gore may get a bounce out of tonight’s speech. But remember even dead parrots bounce.