Banal, Boilerplate Boob-Bait

Al Gore’s acceptance speech was a rhetorical failure and, in my view, a strategic blunder of significant proportions.

It failed as rhetoric not, as his defenders quickly claimed, because it lacked “poetry” and “song,” but because it lacked thought. It was relentlessly banal and formulaic, its sound shaped not by the simple speech of the honest man but by a reflexive politico-bureaucratese: “The future should belong to everyone in this land. . . . We’re entering a new time. We’re electing a new president. . . . In our democracy, the future is not something that just happens to us, it’s something that we make for ourselves together.”

It was boilerplate boob-bait punctuated by tired vows. It has been called specific but was only declarative—specific only in the way a shopping list is. Would that seasoning, even just a bit of pepper, had been on the list.

It seemed written by a committee of second-tier communications aides, but Mr. Gore says he wrote it, and we must take him at his word. It certainly didn’t have much Shrum in it. I had imagined reading it with reporters and producers when the text was released before it was delivered and, finding a word that’s just right or a passage in which thought was linked to feeling, shouting with delight, “Shrummy! Page three, graf seven, Shrum strikes!” But Bob Shrum, the fabled Democratic speechwriter, did not strike—or, if he did, it was perhaps in the second way in which the speech failed, its seeming strategic miscalculation.

Mr. Gore’s speech seemed to aim purely at his base, at the left of his party and the more leftward part of the electorate. The text hit every liberal pleasure point—from creation of a national health care service to affirmative action to no school vouchers to a woman’s right to abortion to a federal pre-school daycare system to class warfare featuring greedy polluting nicotine-head oil-company gangsters vs. decent people like you and me.

It was unleavened by any hint of doubt and unshaded by the assumption that decent people can disagree. It was, in short, amazingly . . . retro. It sounded not at all like what one might have expected—a post-Clinton era rallying cry informed by the insights of the Democratic Leadership Council, and brought to a new level in the new century.

Instead it sounded like Walter Mondale in 1984, or Teddy Kennedy in 1980, or even Hubert Humphrey in 1968. It sounded like something untouched by the history of the past 15 years or so. It sounded like something Rep. Maxine Waters would like. It was playing to the base in a way that seems so narrow, so constricting and unsophisticated that it has left me full of questions I did not expect to be asking at the end of the Democratic National Convention.

Why would Al Gore on his big night play to the left of his party, and ignore most of the assumptions and views of the middle—of independents and Republicans who are still looking around, of McCain people and young professionals?

Because he had to forestall the threat of Ralph Nader on the left and Buchanan on the blue collar-protectionist right?

Because he believes he doesn’t really have his base, even now, and must win it?

Because he thinks he can, in the coming weeks and months, pivot to the center, hoping no one will remember his acceptance speech? Was the speech therefore brilliantly boring in that it effectively communicated to the left in such an unmemorable way that no normal person could be expected to remember any of it? Was it deliberately boring as a tactical matter—that is, did he anticipate that America would turn it off 14 minutes in, while the left would like it and remember it?

Or, as some are asking, does he think he’s going to lose, and if you’re going to lose you might as well lose standing for something? But if he thought he was going to lose, why did he choose Joe Lieberman?

In the entire speech Mr. Gore mentioned Bill Clinton only once, at the very beginning of his speech. He used the word “future” 12 times. By contrast, in his 1988 acceptance speech Vice President George Bush mentioned Ronald Reagan three times by name and devoted several paragraphs to a discussion of the Reagan-Bush administration’s accomplishments. Mr. Bush admired and respected Mr. Reagan and sought to be associated with him.

Clearly in this speech Mr. Gore sought to break from Mr. Clinton, and he at least achieved that. All of those wholesome family films and speeches by family members conveyed the message: I am not a weirdo like Clinton. But to break with Mr. Clinton, was it necessary also to break with the DLC insights Mr. Gore once cared so much for, and to return to the old Mondale-era sound and reality of the Democratic Party?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I suppose time will reveal them—or whether the questions were the right ones.

But I must tell you that right after the speech I did some talking-head commentary and tried to express my disappointment, and was told by pols and pundits alike that “this is the real Gore,” and that we should feel some satisfaction that he showed us who he is. Well, if that’s who Mr. Gore is, he’s a loser.