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Nashville Scene Who'll Write Al's Story?

The media suddenly pays attention to Gore.

By Daniel Casse

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  In late January, the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University held a lunchtime discussion of Vice President Al Gore's coverage in the press. Two weeks ago, the local Sigma Delta Chi chapter, an organization of Nashville reporters, held a panel discussion to do much the same thing. Major profiles of Gore have already appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and The Washington Post. In late December he adorned the cover of Time magazine alongside the headline, "Does Gore Have What It Takes?"

Many more such profiles are on their way. National editors have already realized that, with Clinton a lame duck, Gore is the only political figure of national standing who could be the logical successor. As a result, newspaper and television reporters from across the country will soon be trooping across Tennessee to write the basic Gore bio piece. It is a ritual of every campaign that typically starts two-and-a-half years before the next presidential election.

And so CNN camera crews will soon be marching through the antique mall that is still run by the vice president's parents in Carthage, Tenn. New York Times reporters will be walking around Vanderbilt, learning about his unfinished law school career. Researchers from Newsweek, The Dallas Morning News, the Los Angeles Times, and George will be roaming around Middle Tennessee, interviewing residents about Al Gore's early campaigns. By December, we will be reading about Al Gore everywhere.

Everywhere, it seems, but The Tennessean and the Nashville Banner. While the rest of the national press will want to write everything they can about Gore as early as they can, our hometown papers seem uninterested in taking advantage of their privileged perch from which they can write the official Al Gore story. They report on Gore as if he were merely vice president, not the leading candidate for president in the year 2000.

True, Al Gore is hardly news in Tennessee. But The Tennessean and the Banner are missing the opportunity to establish the official line on Gore. Out-of-town reporters looking for background stories will always start with the best pieces of local journalism they can find. In the months ahead, Tennessee papers could set the tone for the Gore stories that will invariably appear across the country over the next 18 months. Here are a few story topics waiting to be written:

Gore's Life in Tennessee. When The Washington Post reported on Gore's experience as a cub reporter for The Tennessean, it ran the story on the top of the front page of the Sunday edition. There are many other such stories, and many reporters will be interested in what Gore did during the little time he actually lived in the state. Why did he leave divinity school? What did his former law professors say about him? How do his erstwhile colleagues at The Tennessean feel about him?

The Tennessee Fund-Raising Team. During the last few election years, Tennessee has emerged as a powerhouse political fund-raising state. In Federal Election Commission data, two zip codes--Belle Meade and Brentwood--show up among the top 10 zip codes for political contributions nationwide.

Al Gore has strong national fund-raisers in New York and California. But he also has loyal money people here in Nashville and around the state. Who are they and what is their strategy for filling the vice president's war chest?

Gore's Popularity in Tennessee. Isn't it time someone sponsored a statewide poll comparing Gore's popularity with other Tennessee political figures, including Sundquist, Thompson, Frist, and Alexander? These types of polls rarely have any long-term meaning, but they are a terrific indicator of how Gore is doing in an increasingly Republican state. Should Gore prove to be less popular in a head-to-head match-up with any of his Republican rivals, you've got the makings of a national story.

His Political Team. Who will form the nucleus of Gore's political team for the 2000 campaign? Which Tennesseans will play a role as political advisors? What role has Charles Burson, the former state attorney general, played since he moved to Washington last year to become Gore's counsel last year? In politics personnel is policy. Identifying and profiling the team around the vice president could reveal a lot about what kind of campaign Gore will run.

Gore's '88 Campaign. Hardly anyone remembers Gore's failed 1988 bid for the presidency--and with good reason. Deciding to skip the critical Iowa caucuses, his campaign never got off the ground. It might be worth looking back on the failures of that effort to see what mistakes the vice president must desperately try to avoid the next time. Tennessee reporters who covered the '88 campaign and are still active might be called on to remind us of what Gore was like on the hustings.

The House and Senate Record. By the time the Iowa caucuses arrive, every single vote that Al Gore ever cast in Congress will be scrutinized, analyzed, and debated. Why not start the examination process now? A number of articles have already discussed the apparently contradictory positions he has taken over the years. A comprehensive look at how he voted in Congress would probably raise more questions than it answers.

Personal Finances. Just how wealthy are the Gores? Their tax returns are made public every year, but no one pays much attention. A year from now, every major newspaper will have a team of forensic accountants going over the Gore finances. Why should the Tennessee press wait that long?

The story of the Clintons' finances is still front-page news, in part, because no one paid much attention to them prior to Bill Clinton's 1992 victory. Gore's financial dealings are probably far less colorful, but we shouldn't have to wait until he is a declared candidate to learn more.

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