Politics » Politics Feature

Gore on the Stump in Tennessee

With Tennessee a political battleground, the Veep comes home.


NASHVILLE -- "Too dark, it’s way too dark in here, I can already tell," said a cameraman to a mass of media types, none of whom were listening to him because cell phones were pressed to their ears. It was just after 10 a.m. and Tennessee State University’s Poag Theater was beginning to fill on this Wednesday morning. First in was a seemingly endless string of journalists. Cameramen lugged oppressively heavy equipment, trudged to the camera platform and began the Sisyphean task of checking light and sound, assembling and disassembling gear. Reporters settled into seats in the theater, not caring that their view was completely obscured by the camera platform. Apparently after sitting through a few of these speeches, seeing the candidates becomes unimportant. Secret Service men, betrayed by the squiggly cord trailing out of their ears, stood rapt in the doorways and attentive at the metal detector, giving each entrant a through, albeit brief, once over. Meanwhile, the reporters continued to mill about, sitting first in one seat, then another, flipping through copies of The Tennessean, then walking upstairs to the balcony, most of them more concerned with finding an available electrical outlet for their notebook computers than gaining a better vantage point. "Does anyone know what this one is about?" asked one reporter to about a dozen others. "Education," came the answer from a disembodied voice. "Does anyone have the text of the speech?" asked the first reporter. "Not yet," came the mystery person’s answer. After about 20 minutes passed, students at the historically black college began to enter the theater. The rows in front of the media riser filled quickly. Students who sat in the reserved press seats were asked to move to accommodate the visiting reporters, and there was a bit of back-and-forthing, with the same groups of people standing, then sitting, then being asked to stand again, until it was realized there was a seat for everybody, or at least an out-of-the-way place to stand. After the din of gossip and one-sided cell phone conversations had subsided, a noticeably nervous TSU student body president managed to say a few encouraging words to his fellow students before introducing Senator Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate. Lieberman greeted the group by saying that he’d never had a bad day in Tennessee and then proceeded to tell a joke about a couple of college students who overslept an exam and asked their history history professor for a make-up on the excuse that they'd had a flat tire on the way to take the exam. The prof said fine, okay, then sat the students down in separate rooms, and gave each of them a two-part make-up exam. First part: for 5 points: Who was president during the Civil War? Second part: for 95 points: Which tire? Thus was the credibility issue, so often vented during this campaign year, vented again at TSU. Ultimately, Lieberman wrapped it up and introduced the head of the ticket, Vice President Al Gore. The two men hugged on stage before Gore took the mike to ask the crowd, "Wouldn’t Joe make a terrific vice president?" The question, like most of the speech which followed was expressed in the vice president's patented Golly-gee-give-him-a-gold-star Eddie Haskell speaking style. Shortcuts Gore's speech itself was mostly centered on education, and the day's leitmotif was the word "shortcut." As in: "If we want our children to learn and grow, there aren’t any shortcuts." Or: "If we want to raise the standards for every child, there aren’t any shortcuts." Or: If we truly want to reform American education, there aren’t any shortcuts." Gore criticized his Republican opponent, Texas Governor George W. Bush, for talking about education reform, but not acting on his reform promises in Texas. The vice president then set out to debunk a Rand Corporation study that Bush had evidently used as proof of education reform in Texas by citing a new Rand study, released only this week, showing, said Gore, that the education gap in Texas is widening. An audible groan arose from the 200-plus students gathered in the theater, with echoes from the several hundred more who listened to the speeches through speakers positioned in an amphitheater outside of the building, when Gore maintained that Bush’s education reform plan would only increase the number of Pell grants awarded to freshman students, not the number granted to all students. "That’s not a path to a college degree. That’s a path to a college dropout," Gore said to enthusiastic applause from the students. He concluded his speech by saying-- what else?-- that Bush’s education reform plan was a "shortsighted shortcut in education policy." Immediately following his speech, the room came alive with the sounds of rhythm and blues music. First, the Jackson Five’s "ABC" blasted over the PA system and many of the students cautiously danced to the song as they pressed forward to get near the vice president. When that song ended, Arrested Development’s "Tennessee" began to play, and the students who weren’t already dancing, began to sing along softly. By the time James Brown’s "Feel Good" came coursing through the room, the crowd had become even less inhibited and the two candidates had left the building, off to meet the plane that would take them the day’s next stop at the fairgrounds in Jackson, the West Tennessee home of Gore's maternal ancestors, the LaFons. ”Who's Related to Me?” Indeed, when Gore and Lieberman and a number of regional and state Democratic dignitaries-- former governor Ned McWherter, state Gore-Lieberman director Roy Herron, U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Clark, state House Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry, et al, et al.-- ended up on a platform at the Jackson fairgrounds, the vice president issued a public call: "How many of you out there are related to me?" A generous number of hands protruded from the 2,000 or so people gathered in the July-like heat. What the crowd heard was standard Gorefare-- the usual talking points about "revolutionary changes" in education, protection of the environment, shoring up Social Security and Medicare, paying down the national debt, and "fighting for the working people" of Tennessee and the nation. Stripped of his coat and with white shirt-sleeves rolled up to the elbow, the vice president got downright shucksy. The man who was famous for having his surrogates leak his international derring-do to the national press, his friendships with foreign heads of state and so forth, told this crowd: "You know, the local newspaper wants me to talk about foreign policy. I don't usually do that, but I will." He then talked, in a brief and obligatory manner, about his ability to handle foreign crises and quickly resumed the catch phrases of his domestic concerns-- "fighting for you," "an equal day's pay for an equal day's work," "pledge to treat teachers like the professionals they are." Gore eventually wound to his peroration: "I want you to fight for me so I can fight for you. I want you to feel my passion." (To which an unfriendly demonstrator-- one of several anti-abortion protesters who had infiltrated the rally with their signs-- muttered audible, "I want you to feel my passion!" At the end, though, just before some impressive fireworks and strings of confetti shot from guns, there was impressive enough applause from the crowd, and Gore departed the platform and set to shaking hands and pressing the flesh while the portable soundtrack played the usual staples, including, once again, James Brown's "I Feel Good." Then the veep was off to Kansas City for a rally while running mate Joe Lieberman headed west to Memphis for a private big-ticket reception. {Jackson Baker contributed to this story.] (You can write Rebekah Gleaves at gleaves@memphisflyer.com)

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