at the opening
Sweating the details as Bush and Gore put their shows on the road
BY ROGER SIMON
U.S. News 6/28/99
|Newspaper and Journal Articles-Quoted||Al Gore stands in the sheltering
shadow of a giant maple in the square of his boyhood
hometown, two thirds of the way through one of the best
speeches of his life. He's belting it out, bringing it
home, when he feels ... a tickle.
Which turns into a trickle, a trickle of sweat, which he cannot avoid wiping away from his upper lip. This happens during nearly every speech, inside or outside, air conditioned or not, and he just can't help it, reaching out quickly with his left hand and executing a backhand swipe. It can happen four or five times in a 20-minute speech, but he has been trying so hard to avoid it during this speech, the speech in which he announces that he wants to be president of the United States. To no avail. Al Gore may have the heart and soul of a moderate Democrat, but his sweat glands are positively Nixonian.
Think it doesn't matter? Think such things are so trivial that a presidential campaign does not care about them? Think again. In Campaign 2000, which began in earnest last week, every gesture and intonation, every wink and every nod is already being analyzed for its effect on the public. The power to connect with people through word and deed, through eye contact and handshake, not only helped Bill Clinton get elected and re-elected but sustained his poll numbers and salvaged his presidency through one of the most humiliating scandals in presidential history. Which is why both the campaigns of Al Gore and George W. Bush, the front-runners of the Democratic and Republican parties, tried to leave nothing to chance as, within days of each other, they announced their intentions to become president.
At a time when most voters are paying little attention, the candidates and their handlers are at least as worried about shaping the image as the issues. The job is to use the tools of the campaign to make their man as likable as they can, while voters slowly begin to focus on the crucial question: Who are these guys?
Last Tuesday night, the night before Gore announced in Carthage, Tenn., his campaign flew in a secret weapon: Michael Sheehan. A former actor educated at the Yale Drama School, Sheehan coached Clinton on gestures, lip curling, forehead crinkling, and general body language in his 1996 presidential debates. Sheehan also picked out his suits and ties. Tony Coelho, Gore's campaign chairman, brought Sheehan down from Washington and whisked him to the garage of longtime Gore aide Alberta Winkler, who lives not far from the Gore family farm. Gore delivered his speech as Sheehan videotaped. Gore was dropping his voice at the end of sentences, Sheehan told him, giving himself "lows" instead of "highs." Gore gave the speech again, Coelho shouted "Perfect!" and hustled Sheehan out of town. It wasn't perfectGore on the stump never isbut as Coelho said later: "This is going to be a 17-month campaign. I'm not going to psychoanalyze everything Gore says and does. I want to let Gore be Gore."
But which Gore is Gore? Although he is known today for self-deprecating jokes about his woodenness ("How do you tell Al Gore from his Secret Service agents? Al Gore is the stiff one"), when he ran for president in 1988 there was barely a mention of this drawback in any of the thousands of news accounts about his campaign. In 1988, during the New York primary, Gore instead became known for his slashing attacks, for raising the Willie Horton issue against Michael Dukakis way before the Republicans did and pandering to the Jewish vote by attacking Jesse Jackson. Now, a new Gore has been assembled, more palatable if not overly engaging. He delivers his speeches more swiftly, with greater modulation, and, on occasion, in gravel-throated, rip-roaring revival-tent tones. He still sweats, but some things are beyond coaching.
He faces an opponent, however, who may lack his experience but compensates with a great strength: George W. Bush is comfortable within his own skin in a way that Gore still seems to be learning. It is no small thing in politics. Ronald Reagan was no great intellect, yet he connected with people. "Fundamentally, a presidential campaign is about communicating with the public," says presidential scholar Gil Troy. "The 20th century is the age of the visual image, and so we speak with words and we speak with pictures and campaigns must master both." To a large extent, campaigns have become theatrical productions, just as political journalism now resembles theatrical reviews. "Artifice has become supremely important in politics," adds Troy. "It is more important to act rather than to be. The role of the candidate is to fulfill the role not of commander in chief but celebrity in chief. Clinton was excellent at it, but he learned it from studying Ronald Reagan."
So whether by design or through simple affability, when Bush pushes a meal cart down the aisle of his campaign plane, shaking the hand of every journalist on board, and actually snapping the suspenders of one, it makes an impression and builds an image. "He's very good connecting with people, both in person and on TV," says Don Sipple, a Republican media consultant who worked for Bush in his campaign against Ann Richards in 1994. "He has good eyes." One thing Bush can do is slow down his blink rate and laser his eyes into whatever he is looking at, a single voter, a crowd, or a TV camera. "Eye contact is everything in this business and he knows how to connect, in person or through a TV screen," Sipple said.
But just like the Gore campaign, the Bush folks are already using every tool available. So in May, in South Carolina, Michigan, and Californiathree critical states in the election of the next presidentthe Bush campaign assembled groups of average citizens to watch films of Bush. Each person held a meter in his hand with a knob that he turned one way or the other, depending on whether he liked what he was seeing or not. Bush and his aides later watched graphs superimposed on the films, showing exactly what lines, what gestures, what facial expressions made people like or dislike Bush.
Passion play. It is called people metering and, ironically, Bush's father made it famous, though some would say infamous. In 1988 the Bush campaign put together people-meter groups, telling them that Michael Dukakis had let convicted murderer Willie Horton out of jail. This scored big people-meter negatives and helped persuade Bush to launch his attacks against Dukakis. George W. Bush's campaign uses only real footage in its people metering, a senior campaign aide says, and is being used not to select issues but speaking styles. "The more passion he showed, the more involved he looked, the better he did on the people meters," says a Bush aide. "When he struggled through a speech or was unprepared, the people didn't like it."
But for all the attention to detail in last week's rollout, both the Gore and Bush campaigns are still capable of some considerable gaffes. It is virtually written in stone at the Clinton White House that at outdoor events the stage is never less than 4 feet high so sign-waving crowds won't block the TV cameras. But the stage in Carthage was only about 3 feet high, and during much of his speech, Gore's face was obscured by waving signs. "We wanted the stage 3 feet high so the backs of people's heads would be in the medium TV shot," a Gore aide says. "But signs were supposed to be banned!"
The Bush campaign also screwed up: It allowed its candidate to get tired. Bush was visibly fatigued when he set out from Austin, Texas, to Iowa. "I only got six hours' sleep last night," he said, with a weary shake of his head. "I need more than that." He was lucky to get the six. Typical of new-campaign infighting, the fund-raising people had grabbed the day before the announcement speech and scheduled two closed fund-raisers for Bush, one in St. Louis and one in Chicago. The events would end up raising $1.5 million, but the Bush press staff was not pleased.
"We didn't think it was a good way to start the campaign to have him going to two fat-cat fund-raisers that excluded the press on the day before he announced," one aide says. A compromise was worked out: Bush would go to the fund-raisers, but he would also go to a reading center and a baseball game. Then somebody told the candidate about it. "What you're telling me is that because you guys f- - - up, I got to break my ass all day and won't get home until midnight?" Bush said. "We're going back to Plan A." The reading center and baseball game appearances were canceled, but Bush still didn't get back to Austin until 11 p.m., resulting in a tired candidate and a nervous staff.
"When you have such a large lead, people expect you to perform twice as well," said a senior Bush staffer on announcement day. "There'll be some slips. We know we'll get good reviews todaythe press has given us todaybut sooner rather than later, there will be tough times ahead."
Incoming! The Democrats want them sooner and will try to force them. They want Bush to be rattled, to be looking over his shoulder, just as Bob Dole was rattled by the Clinton campaign in 1996. So while Bush was still delivering his announcement speech in Cedar Rapids, the Democratic National Committee was launching its first attack, handing out a flier to reporters that quoted a line from Bush's speech, an advance text of which had been distributed to reporters about an hour before the speech was delivered. How did the DNC get a copy? "I think from a reporter," a DNC staffer says. "Can you believe that?" Bush said afterward. "I come out and they're right on me. Well, I like it. I'm talking about me and they're talking about me."
Campaigns are about more than style and stagecraft and strategies, of course. They are also about issues and substance and, sometimes, character. But both front-runners in this race seem firmly convinced that you can't get people to concentrate on the latter without perfecting the former.
"I am loving this," Gore said after his speech. "I am glad to be fully announced."
"I felt I connected with the people and they appreciated it," Bush said. "And I'm glad it's over."
One day, at least, was over. Only 514 more to go.
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