The day after Vice President Al Gore spoke at the Democratic National Convention about the death of his sister, a victim of lung cancer, a local newspaper announced that slow sales had prompted the Peterbilt truck manufacturing plant in Madison to lay off 345 workers.
Gore and President Bill Clinton had visited the same plant in January during an early campaign stop in Tennessee. In town for a fund-raiser, the duo had stopped at the plant, where they had spoken to the blue-collar workers and held the manufacturer up as a symbol of the booming economy their administration had helped to create.
Admittedly, there’s no relation between Gore’s undeniably moving speech about his late sister’s tobacco-related illness and the Madison layoffs. But both are examples of how rhetoric and reality diverge in political seasons. With all the prime-time opportunities afforded by political conventions, the rhetoric dominates. The reality gets ignored.
At the two recent conventions, the rhetorical device-of-choice was the confessional speech, a vehicle that often has little to do with the complete truth. Instead, it is rich with emotional accounts of hospital-room heroism, triumphs over drug abuse, and whatever other deeply personal and intimate affairs the politician cares to share with a salacious American public. He digs up an experience that is hard to talk about but that, in the end, demonstrates his distinctly American character, his courage, sensitivity, and optimism. He delivers his confessional because he is sure that it will wow the millions of us who, in the age of therapy, find dignity in talking about ourselves. According to the Nielsen ratings, and to judge from what we see on morning TV, the majority of Americans love to hear other people talk about their sick and troubled lives.
To another part of America, a more Protestant and prim and repressed America perhaps, such displays seem both vulgar and embarrassing. When Gore talks about his sister or Clinton talks about his brother’s drug struggles or Dole tries to talk about his war injury, it’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln had gone to Gettysburg and compared the nation’s great war wounds with his wife’s struggles with depression. The first-person, touchy-feely speech is more sentimental than substantial. And the Democrats, who take this route more often than the Republicans do, probably for reasons both personal and political, face clear dangers doing it.
First of all, such speeches usually don’t say anything. They don’t tell us the direction in which the country should go. They don’t encourage sacrifice, motivation, or compassion. Instead, they focus attention on the person delivering the speech. They are speeches designed to push personality, not policy. And they make the private life of the public figure the central message of the campaign.
If, as the Clinton administration has seemed to say, the press has gone too far in investigating the private lives of its officials, then it is also easy to turn the blame on an administration that, in its Kleenex-abusing speechifying, has only escalated its own problems. We all know the Gore-Clinton households to be therapy-enhanced. Sometimes, that is about all we need to know.
What is worse, however, is that the unfettered truthfor instance, the real-life stories of the people working at the Peterbilt facilitygets lost in all the folderol. Given the facts of the Madison layoffs, voters have the right to ask whether the Clinton-Gore campaign is counting those lost jobs when it brags about the 10 million jobs the Democratic White House has created. Voters should also ask whether Clinton and Gore believe their own claims. The Clinton-Gore ticket is hammering home the theme that it has been strong in creating jobs. On the other hand, it has consistently raised the question of whether there will be enough jobs to support federal welfare reform.
As the campaign season progresses, those issues are the ones that will determine how voters will cast their votes. Voters may remember Gore talking about his sister, Clinton talking about his brother, and a lot of other fuzzy stuff. But their decision to pull the lever will be driven by something else entirely.
Throughout his political life, and his private life as well, Al Gore has had an unusual relationship with tobacco. Given the fact that his sister, Nancy, died 12 years ago, voters may well be wondering why he is just now getting around to denouncing the influence of tobacco and touting a policy to regulate nicotine as a drug.
“Three thousand young people in America will start smoking tomorrow,” Gore said in his convention address. “One thousand of them will die a death not unlike my sister’s. And that is why, until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking.”
Gore’s position on tobacco seems like something of a new development. His sister died in 1984. Four years later, during the 1988 campaign, then-presidential candidate Gore was quoted as saying he had been proud to grow and harvest tobacco on his family’s farm in Carthage. He characterized himself as a friend of the tobacco industry. He had accepted campaign contributions from cigarette companies while he was a U.S. senator.
He traveled the Southern region, making appearances in North Carolina, where tobacco farming provides a livelihood for many people. He worked the tobacco vote and said it was still important to help tobacco farmers.
Even during Gore’s U.S. Senate race in 1984which took a hiatus for several days following his sister’s deathhe had continued to show his support for tobacco and tobacco farmers. At the time, reporters didn’t know what type of cancer his sister had had, and the tobacco question didn’t become an issue.
On the other hand, it should be noted that Gore has also supported in-flight smoking restrictions. In 1983, he supported tougher warning labels on tobacco warning products. Specifically, he supported a bill that would have required cigarette companies to rotate a series of warning labels. The theory was that smokers might be more inclined to pay attention to the warnings if they raised a variety of health-related concerns.
In 1985, however, Gore voted against raising cigarette taxes. That same year he sided with Dole to allow the sale of tobacco from federal stockpiles to cigarette companies.
In the days since his convention speech, Gore has not done a very good job of explaining away the discrepancies between what he is saying now and what he has said in the past. His explanation is that “it takes time to fully absorb the lessons in life.”
“Dredge up as many quotes as you want,” the campaign defensively told the Associated Press. “The bottom line is Bill Clinton and the vice president stood up to tobacco companies and said stop poisoning our children. Bob Dole on the other hand has gone off and counted his cash.”
While Dole has accepted much more in tobacco industry contributions than Gore, the vice president’s campaigns have not been free from the influence of cigarette companies. Gore has accepted $14,640 in tobacco industry donations since 1984. Another $10,000 has gone to the Clinton/Gore campaigns. Tobacco companies had a strong presence at the Democratic National Convention. They contributed thousands to host parties and hung corporate banners inside the convention’s venue, the United Center.
Perhaps it was Clinton’s strategists who pushed Gore into his tobacco quandary. Perhaps, too, the story about Gore’s sister was too relevant to pass up, even if it didn’t match the vice president’s track record on tobacco. If so, Gore’s situation is not unlike that of Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, who, presumably in the name of consistency and unity, recently altered his long-held support for affirmative action. He now says that, instead of supporting preferences and quotas, he’s for economic renewal in poorer areas and for the active recruitment of women and minorities by private companies, universities, and government. He calls it affirmative action with “a little ‘a.’ ”
If nothing else, the tobacco issue has pointed up for both tickets that the electorate has a collective short-term memory and that this fact has not been forgotten by those in the campaign trenches. Gore is not the only one who came out of the week looking a bit foolish for the short-term, especially when you look at where Dole has stood on tobacco all along.
As for his recent implication that nicotine may not be addictive, Dole recently pulled an about-face. A few weeks ago, he said, “We know it is not good for kids, but a lot of other things aren’t good.... Some would say milk is not good.” Just a few days ago, he told CBS News that he simply didn’t know whether tobacco is addictive, but he conceded that it may be. “OK, let’s say it is addictive,” he said, trying to steer the conversation to the skyrocketing, 144-percent rise in marijuana use among teenagers, a statistic he blames on the Clinton administration.
Gore may have been fine-tuning his speech for days. Clinton, apparently, was still writing his address as his limousine pulled up in front of Chicago’s United Center. In its final form, the president’s speech lasted 69 minutes. Not only was it criticized for being too long; critics also found it too specific. It seemed as if Clinton were taking credit for almost every administrative accomplishment of the last 40 years. In 1988 Clinton had delivered a convention speech that dragged on so long that delegates began partying and milling about. They applauded when he came to the words “And in conclusion....”
But Clinton has a proven ability to appeal to people, to make them know that he cares, to convince them that he feels their pain. The actual meaning of his words is nearly moot. Give him a crowd, and he wraps them in full embrace.
That warmth makes a sharp contrast to Dole, who is almost painful to watch when he’s out stumping for his votes. The right words are there, but the delivery resembles a low-flying glider, its wheels intermittently touching the ground. Maybe that trait appeals to voters disenchanted with the shallow political process, but it is a turn-off to others who look for Kennedy-esque slickness.
As for Kemp and Gore, just the opposite analysis is true. Gore needed the dramatic story of his sister. Otherwise, he might have been mistaken for a piece of the podium. Kemp, on the other hand, holds a room with ease and typically finds ways to appeal to listeners of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
During a recent stop in Nashville, where Dole and Kemp spoke to the National Association of Black Journalists, Kemp received hefty applause for his work as secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under former President George Bush.
“At HUD, I knew that people in poverty may be poor in material goods, but people are not poor in spirit, in dreams, in the desire to improve their lot in life.... This is the reason that, on my swearing in at HUD, I quoted Dr. Martin Luther King: ‘I have an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind.’ ”
As for the wives, Elizabeth Dole’s break from tradition in walking the convention floor during her tribute to her husband in San Diego dictated the first lady’s behavior in Chicago. Hillary Clinton talked openly about motherhood and the challenges of raising her daughter. It was a soft speech that showed little flair, warmth, or originality.
After the Republican convention in San Diego, the Dole campaign got a significant “bump,” as analysts call it, in the national polls. After the Democratic convention in San Diego, that bump of approximately 10 points flattened out once again, leaving Clinton with a 21-point lead.
Maybe this means that, when it comes to half-truths and airbrushed policies, the two tickets tend to balance each other out, especially when they’re given equal airtime and equal newspaper coverage. Anyone is capable of armchair analysis. When voters do a little of it on their own, remembering that the truth is always somewhere in the middle, the conventions can serve a purpose. They can get us right back to where we were in the first place.
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