Interview: Anthony Brooks, US political commentator

JANA WENDT: Anthony Brooks, welcome to Dateline.


Why aren`t Americans

buying Al Gore?

ANTHONY BROOKS, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: I think it might be a little early

to make that conclusion. The polls that I think are most interesting are the polls that

show a very small percentage of Americans – maybe 15% – are tuning into this race. But

I think one of the challenges Al Gore is facing right now is that he`s been an understudy

– he`s been that rigid, very correct Vice-President who stands at attention behind the

President for year after year.

So he`s famous but he`s not well-known, and I think that`s one of the biggest challenges

that`s facing him right now, is to cross the threshold between being a loyal Vice-

President, a loyal understudy, and being somebody Americans are comfortable with.

But that`s what today`s event here in Monroe, Michigan, was all about.

How did that handover look? Did Mr Gore look comfortable in the role?

ANTHONY BROOKS: I think he looked comfortable, but the issue he faces is that

when he`s on the same stage with Bill Clinton, he casts a big shadow, Bill Clinton does,

and that`s a bit of a problem for Al Gore. So today was an effort to sort of say the

standard-bearer for the party is now Al Gore.

Bill Clinton appeared with him on the stage behind me, spoke to 15,000 people; it was a

very enthusiastic rally, well-received. And then Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary and their

daughter Chelsea walked off the back of the stage, and Al Gore and his wife Tipper

turned to them and waved, and they sort of went off…and in fact, Bill Clinton went off to

McDonald`s – if you really want an interesting detail, he had a Crispy Chicken Sandwich.

And Al Gore turned and thanked the crowd and dealt with it on his own terms, and so

from this point on, that`s the effort – Al Gore has to come out of Bill Clinton`s shadow.

This is a very unusual situation, in the sense that Bill Clinton is currently enjoying

very high approval ratings, and yet Al Gore has been almost desperate to cut the cord

between them. Tactically, is that smart?

ANTHONY BROOKS: The campaign has to walk a fine line between on the one

hand allowing Al Gore to be Al Gore and come out from Clinton`s shadow; on the other

hand, Bill Clinton is an enormous draw, and Bill Clinton can do a lot for them in the

South, where he`s very popular, and he can do a lot for them in minority communities,

African-American communities, where he`s enormously popular. So I don`t think this is

going to be the last time you`re going to see Bill Clinton campaigning with Al Gore or for

Al Gore. I think that would be a big mistake, and I think the campaign recognises that.

Earlier in the campaign, one commentator was moved to say that this election is

really about a `stain` that is Bill Clinton`s scandals. Is that stain still hanging around, or

has it been dry-cleaned, or is Al Gore tainted by it too?

ANTHONY BROOKS: I think that`s certainly what the Republicans would like to

see. They made a strong case for that at their convention, and if you remember, Dick

Cheney, George Bush`s vice-presidential running mate, said wherever Al Gore goes,

we`re going to remember Bill Clinton, or words to that effect. So they`re certainly trying

to do that.

But I think Al Gore is in an interesting situation, because the rap against him for years

was that he was Dudley Do-Right, that he was a Boy Scout, and now suddenly he`s

dealing with, as you call it, the `stain` of the Clinton Administration. So he`s sort of

caught between a rock and a hard place.

But on the other hand, Al Gore is himself a little shop-soiled, isn`t he, given the

question marks over his conduct in campaign funding during the `96 campaign. Has that

issue played out at all this time around?

ANTHONY BROOKS: Well it`s funny – it hasn`t, really, and I think that`s partly

because the Attorney-General decided not to go forward with a special counsel to do

the investigation, so that`s sort of fallen off the front pages. But clearly that is an issue

that is out there, but I don`t think it`s top of voters` minds right now.

For a man who is reputedly usually preoccupied with policy, he`s been accused of

running dry on it this time around. Why?

ANTHONY BROOKS: Well, I don`t think he is. I think his problem, maybe, is that

this is a complex guy who isn`t very good at summing up his policy positions in very

brief soundbites, and this is one of the things journalists who`ve sat down with him have

noted. He can be very cultured, he`s very informed, he`s very studious, he knows the

issues better than anyone else, but he comes across as a smarty-pants, and I think

sometimes that can be difficult for voters to appreciate – especially given the media by

which these campaigns are conducted.

He`s not the kind of guy who lends himself well to brief soundbites, and not the kind of

guy who gives quick, pithy syntheses -he can`t synthesise well his positions. Everything

is nuanced, every thing is “on the other hand”, everything is a 10-point plan.

A low voter turn-out for this election is said to favour George W. Bush. How do you

believe Al Gore – who is frankly seen as dull and patronising by a lot of people – how is

he going to convince Americans that leaving home for him on election day is worth the


ANTHONY BROOKS: I think what he`s going to try and do again is to talk about

these issues. There`s an interesting discrepancy in these polls, in that most Americans –

according to polls and voter surveys we`ve seen, and one after another confirm this –

favour Gore on the issues. The trouble is, not a lot of Americans are actually tuning in

and paying attention to this.

What George Bush has done very skilfully and what the Republican Convention did is

he`s talking about the same issues. So if you`re not focusing on the details of the

issues, you`re going to hear two guys talking about education, two guys talking about

healthcare, two guys talking about tax cuts and so forth. And if you`re not really focused

on the details, those issues might be awash, and what you`re going to focus on instead

is, “Who`s the nice guy? Who`s the guy I feel more comfortable with?” And George W.

Bush seems to have an edge on that right now.

We`re working our way up to the crescendo of his address to the convention; can

this colourless, dull guy, as seen by many Americans, remake himself in this speech?

ANTHONY BROOKS: That`s the question. I`m not sure I have the answer to it. But

I can tell you what he`s going to try to do and I can tell you what his advisers say. I think

he`s taking a bit of a chance, because these conventions, as you probably know, are

made-for-TV events, and Al Gore has made the decision to talk about policy specifics

on Thursday.

His speech is going to be very laden with policy specifics, because the Democrats claim

the Republican Convention was all about image and all about blurring the distinctions

on important positions, so they want to be the party and present the candidate who`s

serious and really has these issues down to a detail, in a way that will help most

Americans. So he`s going to be very policy-specific. I think he takes a chance doing

that, because as I mentioned, this is a made-for-TV event; people want entertainment

and they`re going to get a policy seminar.

Anthony, thank you very much for your time – we`ll have to leave it there.