The morning after Al Gore and Bill Bradley’s first joint appearance in the presidential campaign, at a “town meeting” at Dartmouth College, the New England edition of The New York Times ran a picture on the front page of Gore responding to a questioner, his arms extended in a gesture of empathy and entreaty, while in the background a slightly out-of-focus Bradley looks on warily. The front page of the Rutland [Vermont] Herald had Gore in a Kennedyesque pose—forefinger jabbing, chin jutting—while behind him a slightly out-of-focus Bradley looks on a little incredulously. On the front page of the Hanover paper, the Valley News, Gore is standing and speaking animatedly while Bradley sits, glaring at Gore, arms folded, cheeks puffed out in an expression of exasperation.
The “town meeting” was, of course, really a television program. Audience members, chosen by lottery, were required to submit questions to the event’s sponsors—CNN and WMUR-TV, a New Hampshire station—who selected the questioners and the order in which they would address the candidates. Reporters and people not screened by CNN were not permitted in the hall. There was not a lot of contingency built into the format.
The result was a simulacrum of a call-in television show, in which “ordinary citizens” raised issues the producers considered suitable, and which were then presented in a carefully balanced pattern. There were two questions—one for each candidate—about campaign finance reform, two questions about the environment, two about gay rights (both posed by women), three about foreign policy, four about health care, four about education, and (a boon to Bradley) eight questions about “leadership.” The screening of the audience was not, as it turned out, quite foolproof. Gore’s first questioner, an older man who asked whether public cynicism about politics had been increased by the scandals surrounding the Clinton administration, was accused, several days later, of being a field organizer for the Bradley campaign.
Some columnists complained afterward about the me-centeredness of the questions (“Vice President Gore, my child has diabetes,” and so on), but the audience was not to blame for that. Before the meeting went on the air, Gore and Bradley (at Gore’s instigation) took a couple of warm-up questions from people in the hall whose questions had been rejected; one of these concerned American relations with Cuba. Later Gore met with members of the audience who wanted to stick around after the meeting was over, and he got questions about Russia, Rwanda, and his administration’s foreign policy (or, as the questioner suggested, its lack of one). The human interest topics that got on the air were just the ones the news organizations running the event judged televisually appropriate. One of the questions to Gore, for example, was about Alzheimer’s disease; the response was accompanied by shots of elderly people in the audience listening raptly. These faces had obviously been picked out to illustrate the exchange before the show.
The stories accompanying the photographs in the morning papers all treated the encounter as, substantively, more or less a draw, and on the ground in Hanover, Bradley seemed, if not the “winner,” a term everyone agreed it would be bad form to use for an event billed as a town meeting rather than a debate, at least the sentimental favorite. In the “media center” at Dartmouth, where three hundred members of the press watched the event on monitors, Gore’s somewhat antic performance was received with skepticism. Gore forced embarrassed questioners to engage him in friendly banter, a mode of interchange for which his gifts are small, and in which he invariably comes across as condescending; he emitted appreciative “umms” after especially thoughtful questions, an annoying variation on Clinton’s equally annoying “That’s a tough one” lip-biting routine; and when he bounced up at the end, unscripted and unbidden, to announce his intention to remain in the hall after the cameras were off and take questions “as long as you want,” his impetuosity was greeted with some derision.
The press was similarly bemused by the frequent appearance, during the event, of a youthful Gore “rapid response team” distributing xeroxed “Reality Checks” about statements Bradley had just made (“Reality: Bradley failed to support a bill to reduce logging in the Tongass Forest”).
Dartmouth students supporting Bradley ran a sound truck through Hanover all afternoon broadcasting a “He’s one of us” pitch (“He attended Princeton University. He took two years off from the NBA to study at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar”), and during the evening the Bradley demonstrators outside the hall (almost all students, probably few of them New Hampshire voters) were a lot more vocal and enthusiastic than the larger but relatively subdued contingent of students for Gore. The mood inside the hall, to judge by the warmth and apportionment of the applause, was distinctly pro-Bradley (as one would expect in a college town: if Bradley can’t carry Hanover, he can forget it). But on a night when most television viewers were probably tuned in to the final game of the World Series, which ran past the eleven o’clock news, the image on the front page of the next day’s paper was possibly the key battleground, and Gore plainly won it. It was the best night he had had in a very long time.
But Gore must be campaigning under a curse, because only a few days later the story broke in Time about the role played in his campaign by the popular writer on women’s issues Naomi Wolf, and the New Hampshire accomplishments blew up in his face. According to Time, Wolf had advised the Vice President to present himself as a take-charge male in earth-tone suits as a way of appealing to younger women (voters he has always had trouble attracting), and this news largely undid the positive effects of Gore’s performance. He had forced, with at least superficial success, a contrast on Bradley—telegenic and engaged versus rumpled and laid-back, in-focus versus out-of-focus. And then, with the ball clearly in Bradley’s court (the next day, Bradley visited a New Hampshire shoe store to have himself photographed “spontaneously” purchasing a new pair of shoes), the story about Wolf confirmed precisely the image Gore had been at such pains to remake:that he is overprogrammed and inauthentic.
Time was elliptical about Wolf’s own contribution to the story; the magazine said only that she had declined to talk about her role “for the record.” Wolf had recently had her salary, originally $15,000 a month, cut to a third; possibly she did not mind having it known that she was indeed an influential figure in the campaign. But most voters probably don’t care who a candidate is getting fashion tips from, and though the episode has lost Gore some respect in the press, where he had hardly been running a surplus, he can get a lot of it back the minute he starts winning primaries. The significance of the Wolf story may be in what is happening on the opposite side of the campaign, which is, so far, very little. Bradley has been no doubt reluctant to step on a story that is giving his opponent such delicious embarrassment, but he might also choose the moment to make some news himself, and in a way that would remind Democratic voters that there is an alternative to the consultant-driven, identity-challenged Vice President. It is a questionhow high Bradley can climb on Gore’s mistakes.
The New Hampshire primary is on February 1, and Bradley must win it. He has a decent chance. He is running even there in the polls right now, and New Hampshire has never been Gore’s favorite state. He skipped its primary in his first presidential campaign, in 1988, and he still seems a little clueless. Few economies in the country rebounded more vigorously during the Clinton years than New Hampshire’s, which had been clobbered by the Bush recession. The evidence of the new prosperity is palpable, particularly in the area around Hanover, where, in towns like Lebanon, West Lebanon, and Lyme, property values have soared, the malls are booming, and mocha latte has arrived. Gore ought to have known the evidence and cited it at Dartmouth—it was the best argument he could have made for the fiscal conservativism he wants to champion against what he portrays as Bradley’s big spending proposals—but he left his administration’s economic record virtually unmentioned.
There is also the New Hampshire tradition of rewarding candidates who run as outsiders. Gary Hart beat Walter Mondale in the Democratic primary there in 1984; Paul Tsongas won, and Bill Clinton made his self-described “comeback,” in 1992; Pat Buchanan won the Republican primary in 1996. Bradley is currently enjoying all the benefits of an insurgent candidacy. He has identified a disaffected constituency—the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which has always regarded Gore with suspicion, plus independents disgusted by Clinton—and is playing to it with considerable success. He is closing the gap in the polls, which gives him the appearance of momentum even though a lot of the movement is probably less a repudiation of Gore than a reflection of wider public awareness that Bradley is a serious candidate. In a poll conducted two days after the Hanover event (which few of the people polled said they knew about), he had moved to within fifteen points of the Vice President nationally. Most importantly, he is still, even as the newspaper photos seemed to suggest, slightly out of focus. This is a valuable, though temporary, advantage: it allows voters to project onto him the leadership qualities they crave.
The diffidence is therefore crucial. Bradley’s supporters don’t want him to fill the air with facts and views. The basis of his appeal is trust, and trust isn’t supposed to justify itself with words. In the town meeting Gore continually pressed the argument that Bradley’s proposal for universal health insurance, which Bradley estimates will cost as much as $69 billion a year, would eat up most of the projected federal budget surplus, “shred the social safety net,” and (uttered in dire tones) “put Medicare at risk.” Bradley ignored several of these assaults, and then, almost offhandedly, said only, “I dispute the cost figure Al has used.” He got a vigorous round of applause.
It was not an argument, except to say, in effect, “Anybody can have experts; I have a vision.” The day before, Bradley had had himself photographed, in White River Junction, sitting in a rocking chair on the set of a theatrical production of To Kill a Mockingbird; after the town meeting one of his speechwriters told reporters that Bradley had been in his best “Atticus Finch” mode. There is still a sense in which the more above ordinary politics he is, and the less he engages with his opponent, the nobler and more desirable he seems.
Bradley retired from the Senate in 1996, at the end of his third term, and toyed with the idea of leaving the Democratic Party and running for president as an independent. Gore tried early on to make an issue of this as a betrayal of the party’s interests: he has complained that an independent Bradley candidacy in 1996 would have put Bob Dole in the White House. But party loyalty is not of overriding importance to voters anymore—in New Hampshire, independents can vote in the primaries, which is one of the reasons candidates have had such success there running against their own parties—and Bradley’s “outside the box” self-presentation is working for him. It has already forced Gore to move his campaign headquarters from K Street, in Washington, to Nashville, an expensive piece of symbolism.
The Democratic insurgent Bradley seems most to resemble is not Tsongas, who ran, after all, as a deficit-killer, but Eugene McCarthy (who, contrary to political legend, did not win the New Hampshire primary in 1968 but who came close enough to drive Lyndon Johnson out of the race). Bradley has the same physical languor, the same hint in his personality of dark and lonely introspection, the same laconic indifference to ordinary political glad-handing. He has declined, for example, to answer questions about his religious faith. (Bradley’s family was Presbyterian, but he seems to have gone through an evangelical phase; when he was a high school senior, in Missouri, and was asked by a reporter who his heroes were, he named Billy Graham first.) Bradley has even managed to make Gore (despite Naomi Wolf’s best efforts) seem reincarnated as a kind of preppy Hubert Humphrey, exhaustingly upbeat, bouncing around on stage, talking and talking into the night (he was still taking questions from the tiny group remaining in the hall an hour and a half after the meeting was over). It is as though Gore has inherited Humphrey’s old burden, running on the record of a president about whom the party’s attitude is: Thanks, and good riddance. It’s a weird replay of 1968.
Except, of course, that the stakes seem so much smaller now. The trouble with political independence is that it obliges you to remain aloof even from the enthusiasm of your own supporters. If you cannot be shaken from your course by the demands of the press or the attacks of your opponents, you can hardly appear to be swayed by the importuning of your fans. You are forbidden to pretend. Diffidence was, in the end, part of the reason for McCarthy’s undoing. Even after he had engaged the passions of his party, he remained austere, elliptical, remote. Robert Kennedy caught fire and stole much of his constituency. McCarthy seemed to prefer the road of high-minded disaffection, and though that road may lead to sainthood, it does not lead to the White House. Still, his candidacy was a light in a great darkness. He stood for an idea few national politicians were courageous enough to speak for in 1968.
Bradley stands for an idea, too. It is that prosperity has made us selfish. He wishes to move middle-class voters with the thought that they owe something to the less fortunate—and that they are even, in their reluctance to spend money on things like public education and health insurance when they can spend it on mocha lattes and sport utility vehicles, short-changing themselves. It is a good thing to say. The question his campaign will answer is whether there is enough passion out there to raise the stakes in this election. To find that out, he may have to stoop to the attack.
—November 4, 1999
December 2, 1999