A Last Weekend in Memphis

Candidate Gore implores a home-state crowd to 'breathe life' into his campaign.

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Hilary J.D. MacKenzie is the Washington bureau chief of the Southam News, a news service for Canadian and British newspapers. Her mission to Memphis this past weekend was simple: make a decision about where to be on Tuesday -- election night and the final act of the 2000 presidential race.

With 11 electoral votes and the political bragging rights to Tennessee, Vice President Al Gore's home state, at stake, the winsome, thoughtful MacKenzie, a Jane Wyman lookalike, wanted to give Gore one last look.

For the last several months she had been following the presidential campaigns of both Democrat Gore and Republican George W. Bush. She had already made hotel and reservations for both Tennessee's capital city of Nashville, where Democrat Gore maintains headquarters, and Austin, Texas, where Republican rival George W. Bush has his.

MacKenzie would have some help covering election night, but she preferred to be in the city of the winner herself-- which meant that she had to make up her mind which way to go -- West or East. Gore's two weekend events in Memphis -- a Friday night rally in Court Square and a Saturday morning prayer breakfast at The Peabody would, in effect, decide the issue.

Friday night: Though some would appreciate outdoors evening rally and the dedication of the thousand or so souls who attended it in an intermittent rain, MacKenzie and others would judge it in retrospect to be a "disaster" or, at the very least, a disappointment.

Strange in a way: Any public occasion which has Al Green doing "Let's Stay Together" (an almost overtly symbolic song which rocked and, swear to God!, temporarily stopped the rain) ought not be discounted overmuch.

It was an impressive fact, too, that staying together for this occasion -- as for events over the last several weeks -- were U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.; his father, former congressman Harold Ford Sr.; Mayor Willie Herenton; Assessor Rita Clark; Shelby County Commissioner Shep Wilbun; state House Speaker Lois DeBerry; register candidate John Freeman; and a number of other potentially disparate types.

Clark, who has proved herself one of Shelby County's most accomplished politicians, came up with one of the evening's best lines. "You pray for George Bush," she urged. "You vote for Al Gore!"

And Gore, when he came out, preceded by wife Tipper and daughter Kristin played a fair game of politiccs, too, adding the phrase ". . .like Willie Herenton" to a reprise of his convention line, "I know I won't always be the most exciting politician. . . ." and boosting the mayor's chief rival, young Ford, by intoning the date "2008!" meaningfully.

But when it was all over, almost nobody could remember much else of what Gore had said beyond his standard talking points ("prescription-drug benefits for seniors," "Social Security-plus, not Social Security-minus," unjust HMOs, the iniquity of a big tax cut for the "wealthiest one percent," etc., etc.)

And the crowd, in retrospect, was seen as being too small, rain or no rain.

As a homecoming to the place where, as Gore noted, he and Tipper had summered for a Memphis State session in the dismal watershed year of 1968, it may indeed have been more dampened than fiery.

Saturday morning: All this while, the news of opponent Bush's 1976 DUI arrest had been given a chance to play, and the next morning, as a sizeable crowd gathered in the Peabody's Memphis Ballroom for the prayer breakfast, such backers as Shelby County Democratic chairman David Cocke and former U.S. Senator and Ambassador Jim Sasser were hopefully talking up the possibility of further November surprises, more skeletons.

This was a true prayer breakfast, and as the crowd waited for Al and Tipper to appear, Rev. Bill Adkins, the host, and a series of other African-American ministers prayed for victory -- or perhaps it was for deliverance -- with intensity, proclaiming, in the words of one, that "the vice president must win here," and in the words of another, reminding the crowd (and the Lord) that Gore had been "called upon to save the Clinton ticket in 1992."

When the candidate himself came on, he begin with a false start, mistaking Aurelia Kyles, wife of Rev. Billy Kyles, for the wife of Mayor Herenton. But this mistake was indulged with good humor on all sides, and Gore was encouraged by the warmth of his reception.

Indeed, he quickly segued into one of his stump gimmicks of the last few days, whereby he said, "I’m getting warmer" and stripped himself of suit coat.

Soon, this was matched by the phrase, "I believe that we are getting warmer" and followed up with, "I believe that America has a rendezvous with redemption."

Gore sprinkled some of his usual talking points into the occasion (although "a woman's right to choose," among several others, made no appearance at this breakfast, so well attended by black fundamentalists).

But he himself was into what sounded vaguely like preaching, the real kind, and did not obscure his message by the shouting he sometimes affected to simulate a passion that might not actually have been there.

Gore didn't seem to be faking it this time when he told this group, "I am taught that good overcomes evil" and asked for its help in overcoming the last obstacles to victory in this campaign.

"I have a feeling," he said, prophesying victory. "I feel it coming."

This was a group, he said, which surely had not cared that he might of an occasion have sighed overmuch (and, to laughter, he demonstrated the breathy sound that millions of Americans had heard --and been disturbed by -- during the televised first debate with Bush. "You have known what is in my heart," he declared with confidence.

Gore exhorted the crowd to go with him into "the valley of the dry bones," where the Lord Himself breathed life into that which had been thought dead. "I need your help to breathe life into this campaign. I need to you to lift me up. And Tuesday night I'll say, 'Thank you, Memphis!'"

There was real emotion in this (as there had been when Gore preached a secular homage to the principle of the Good Samaritan at Mason Temple a year earlier), but there was a kind of pathos, too, one that the closing, arms-linked mass rendition of "We Shall Overcome" could not altogether efface.

Having lunch in the Peabody later in the morning, Hilary J.D. MacKenzie mused on the "presumptuous" pattern she had discerned of "Number Twos" in America trying to become "Number Ones," and how it didn't usually work out. Yet she had been moved by the solidarity of the prayer breakfast, (if not by the Court Square rally of Friday night), and she thought out loud about staying over another night in Memphis while she decided whether she was Nashville- or Austin-bound.

She was still undecided when she went up to her room to write an evening dispatch. When, later on, she read her account over the phone to a newly made Memphis friend, even she was surprised at how fatalistic the events she described had been made to seem.

An hour later, Hilary MacKenzie said her farewells. She had a 9 o'clock flight to Austin.

If Al Gore were to end up, as promised, saying "Thank you, Memphis," from his Nashville election headquarters on Tuesday night, she would have to catch it remotely, on television, the way the rest of the nation would.

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