The Democratic National Convention got underway in Los Angeles in mid-August with security precautions worthy of Berlin’s old Checkpoint Charlie. The fabled or, if you prefer, notorious Los Angeles Police Department clad itself in black helmets and body shields and stood in long ranks, each officer hefting a three-foot-long club. The security forces erected steel and concrete barricades and chopped down saplings around the Staples Center, in an already treeless and dreary area just south of downtown, lest their scrawny trunks be used for cover by a much-feared army of militant vegetarians, pacifists, opponents of the death penalty, and, most dangerous of all, nonbelievers in David Ricardo’s argument that free trade ultimately benefits everyone. Anyone entering this bunkerlike setting had to wear a tag around the neck which was subject to inspection by ultraviolet rays lest it prove to be a counterfeit. All that was missing were the signs saying “You are leaving the American sector.”
Inside the battlements, many Democrats felt beleaguered politically as well as physically. Their about-to-be-anointed candidate, Vice President Albert Gore, had trailed George W. Bush, the Republican nominee, in every poll taken since the campaign began in 1999. Bush had just provided a climax to the Republican convention in Philadelphia with an efficient and workmanlike speech in which he easily surpassed the low expectations that had been held out for him. In addition, Bush’s running mate, the dour former defense secretary Dick Cheney, had delivered a Dutch-uncle acceptance speech that suggested—prematurely as it turned out—that he might be a talented campaigner as well as Bush’s experienced guide to the workings of the federal government.
Not even the momentary excitement over Gore’s selection of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate, the first Jew on a major party’s national ticket, had changed the momentum of the race. It was a perplexing situation. Polls showed that the public agreed more with Gore’s positions on the chief issues: health care, education, saving Social Security, and maintaining the current economic growth—even though its blessings had not reached much of the population. Yet voters deemed Bush to be the stronger and more likable leader, more honest, amply experienced, a welcome change from the sleazy parts of the Clinton years. “I think it’s over, don’t you?” a leading national pollster said to me as the delegates assembled at the convention center. “I don’t see how Gore turns it around.”
At this low moment, Gore’s pollster, Stan Greenberg, a Yale professor, said his candidate’s problem was that the public didn’t really know him. This was a curious assertion. Gore is the son of the late Senator Albert S. Gore of Tennessee, a prominent opponent of the Vietnam War. He has been in federal office for twenty-three years, including eight as probably the most active and visible vice-president in history. He had written a best seller,
Earth in the Balance, about the environment, for …