Richard Reeves

The Difference Between Clinton and Gore

NEW YORK -- "POTUS" means "President of the United States" in the jargon of the White House. There is rarely, if ever, mention of "VPOTUS."

The presidential acronym is part of the title of a fascinating new book by President Clinton's former chief speechwriter Michael Waldman. For the moment, though, it is most fascinating because it offers some new insights into the relationship between POTUS and Vice President Gore -- "strikingly" different men, says Waldman.

The author, a young New York lawyer who had written a populist book on Congress, served in the White House for seven years, but he did not come as a speechwriter. He was hired during the 1992 campaign as a policy adviser. When he was introduced to Clinton on the campaign plane, someone said: "Governor, here is our foreign aid expert."

Oh, well. That happened to be a subject Waldman knew maybe two paragraphs about. But there he was sitting across from Clinton and Gore. This is what it was like:

"Clinton pulled out a USA Today crossword puzzle. Gore opened a three-ring binder that his staff had prepared. ... I was waiting to see if Clinton would try to seduce me, forge an instant connection. ... Instead he frowned at his crossword puzzle and marked it up with a ballpoint pen. ... I began to recite facts and figures about foreign aid and job loss in the textile industry....

"Gore piped up eagerly. Evidently he had studied his notebook. They began discussing 'the Caribbean Basin Initiative' and 'parity' and 'transition assistance.' The discussion was friendly but competitive. Each seemed eager to show how well he understood policy...."

Then Clinton went to sleep and Gore back to his notes. They are both amazing students. Clinton absorbs knowledge, sending out signals like radar and reading the waves as they come back -- the words said and unsaid, the expressions, the body language. Gore studies as if drilling a well, going deeper and deeper until he can think of no more questions -- at least no more questions that can be answered by the paper or people in front of him.

"Both were committed wonks who enjoyed the arcana of policy," Waldman writes. "The president would often leap to the political consequences, doing a mental 'cross-tabs' of demographic trends, polls, electoral votes and comgressional committee jurisdictions. ... He could squeeze issues into the modeling clay of a practicing politician without losing them. Gore's approach was more formal, more professorial, more linear. Here he was talking about how globalization was pulling power to the global level...."

Or to put it another way, Waldman says: "The vice president was carefully dressed in casual clothes."

Gore often disapproved of the way Clinton worked, says Waldman, describing the scene during the preparation of the 1995 State of the Union message in the White House: "Al Gore had been summoned to the family theater to work with Clinton on the speech. Now he stood in the aisle, his eyes cold and his jaw muscles clenched, as he surveyed the scene. His fury -- at Clinton, at the disorganization, at the spot the administration was in now -- was obvious. Watching him from a nearby seat, I imagined his thoughts: When I am president, this will not occur. After moments of silence, he turned and left."

Almost certainly the vice president went back to his computer. He spends hours on it and online each day. Gore is a man who is comfortable alone; he likes to be alone. The president's life is about never being alone. Clinton only learned how to use the damned thing when his daughter went off to college and he wanted to stay in touch.

That is the great difference between Al Gore and Bill Clinton. That is also the big difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Clinton and Bush, whatever their politics, are extroverts. Gore is an introvert -- and not many introverts rise as high as he has in the business called politics.

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