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Al Gore Cuts Loose

The Democratic Presidential Nominee Plays for Laughs

Here's a little-known fact about the man consistently derided as America's most boring public servant: He has a wicked sense of humor. The Al Gore you don't see is loose, quick-witted, and given to spontaneous mischief-making. His aides and confidants offer a few favorite off-camera anecdotes.

By Daniel Kurtzman

Vice President Al Gore took his campaign to the late-night comedy circuit in September with back-to-back appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman and the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. His zeal to make the rounds testified to the rising political influence of the late-nights and to Gore's comfort level as a would-be comic.

Gore busted up the audience on the Letterman show when he prattled off his own Top Ten list of rejected Gore/Lieberman campaign slogans (#9: "Remember America. I Gave You the Internet, and I Can Take It Away.") On Leno, he participated in a winning gag in which Leno said, "Now, according to the latest polls, Al Gore is the handsomest, smartest, most qualified -- what?'' The camera then panned to a beaming Gore, who was holding up Leno's cue cards.

His impressive showing provided most viewers with a rare glimpse into a different side of Gore. The public has long known him as the stoic and wooden butt of late-night television gab -- a man who has occasionally busted out with some good self-deprecating jokes, but otherwise has succeeded in lulling the country to sleep over the better part of the last decade. But there is another Al Gore who bears surprisingly little resemblance to that caricature: a man who, in private, is disarmingly loose and funny, blindingly quick and given to spontaneous mischief-making.

Gore's wry humor has been visible to the public only in flashes over the years. In 1994, just as the stiff jokes about Al Gore were reaching their peak, two aides, wearing hard hats and jumpsuits, loaded the vice president onto a dolly and wheeled him onstage at the annual Gridiron Club dinner. As they propped him up next to the lectern and the emcee signed for him, the crowd at the Fourth Estate's annual talent show convulsed in laughter. A perfectly rigid Gore just stood there, barely blinking -- for nearly a minute.

"He has a good sense of timing," said Elaine Kamarck, Gore's chief domestic policy adviser. "For somebody who's reputedly not a good speaker, it's surprising what a sort of expert comedian he is."

The truly vintage moments, however, have occurred off camera. That's where Gore's zany tendencies, dry wit and appreciation of the absurd have truly shone, according to current and former staff members and advisers.

Take his 1992 campaign plane -- the "flying zoo," as one reporter described it. Then-Sen. Gore, trying his hand at a time-honored campaign sport, would sit at the back of the plane and roll oranges up the aisle during takeoff to try to hit the crew's door. He also proved an expert "aisle surfer" -- standing on a plastic tray during takeoff and using the plane's thrust to propel him past rows of cheering staff members and reporters.

The veep's playful antics are particularly legendary among staff members. On one flight home after a trip to the former Soviet Union, Gore ambled back through the staff section and came across his national security adviser, Leon Fuerth, fast asleep against a window. Sensing a photo op not to be missed, he sat down beside him and launched into an animated discussion of U.S. policy toward Russia. Gore leaned into him and grew increasingly demonstrative as Fuerth remained slumped down, totally oblivious to the tongue-lashing, the photographer and the circle of giggling staff members who had gathered around. According to his aides, Gore is notorious for such stunts -- and usually makes sure his unsuspecting target receives a copy of the photo.

Many a staffer has also fallen victim to one of Gore's favorite bits of chicanery: the deadpan dressing-down. One morning during the 1992 campaign, then-deputy press secretary Steve Silverman stumbled onto the plane with a deadly hangover after a night of carousing in New Orleans' French Quarter. Having already thrown up in the press van, he buried himself in his seat, only to be jostled awake by Gore shortly after takeoff. Gore, stern-faced and all business, said he was confused about the Iran-Contra chronology and asked him to reconstruct it for him in a memorandum before their next stop. The aide wallowed in a moment of pale-faced terror before Gore walked back to his seat -- and let out a hearty laugh.

Afterward, Gore proudly sported a button reading, "I was there when Silverman blew -- New Orleans '92."

"He almost made me pee in my pants a few times," confessed a former senior staffer who traveled with him extensively. "He has a very sharp, biting wit and he just picks his moments."

Much of Gore's humor is purely situational. Some of it just rings funnier because he is the vice president of the United States. "He has an awareness of that and can play off of that," noted a former aide. Often what cracks people up is quite subtle -- a facial expression, a raised eyebrow, an inflection, an a side. Or it will be a playful gesture, like ordering the lights of his motorcade dimmed in honor of Elvis while driving past Graceland. Or stopping short while walking in front of over-aggressive Secret Service agents, causing them to barrel into him.

"He is someone that can find the humor in something faster than almost anyone else," said Marla Romash, the former Gore communications director who is now a consultant with the campaign. Sometimes, she said, she felt as though she had another older brother, t he way he would tease her and "make me laugh to the point of tears."

Around the president, Gore has skillfully used humor to lighten up the mood as well. As George Stephanopoulos recounted in his book, "All Too Human," the Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt sag a used to be one of Gore's favorite running gags. For weeks, he would begin Oval Office briefings with a detailed update on Bobbitt's surgical condition.

Presidential adviser Paul Begala called Gore's dry wit "a really rare gift because it deflates egos, it eases tension. In a very deadpan, exaggerated, comic sort of way," Begala said, "he'll make fun of the president or of other big-shots by sort of pretending to be an absolute yes man: 'That's a great idea. We should definitely do that. Why stop there?' It's a kind of humor that requires a deep reservoir of self-confidence, a sense of real familiarity with your colleagues ... and obviously high intellect to be able to turn it around."

At the same time, the vice president is not above a little bathroom humor. Asked by a reporter to recount one of his own favorite comedic moments, he pointed to one particular morning when he was in the shower. It was around the time he was starting to lose his hair, and he called out to Tipper to tell her he really liked her new shampoo. He said it was great stuff, felt "really tingly." Horror washed over her face as he poked his lathered head out from behind the curtain and she saw what he was holding: a bottle of Nair hair-removing lotion.

At the urging of his advisers, Gore has spent much of the past year angling for more spontaneity on the campaign trail. The effort has generally met with success, although at times the looser, no-holds barred Al Gore has come across as overcaffeinated -- and still prone to lapse into wonkery,

But many voters who have watch Gore engaging in witty banter on the stump or going for rim-shot zingers on late-night TV say they have been surprised with what they have seen. The real-life Al Gore, they say, is a lot funnier and livelier than they imagined.

As Gore himself likes to quip, "I benefit from low expectations."

This article originally appeared in Salon.com in December 1999.

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