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Gridiron Gag Time: Making of a President?


A felt a bit frisky myself as I moved through the happily chatting crowd as attendees departed from what many were calling the "best" Gridiron show (the annual gala of Washington press and politicians) they had ever witnessed. Indeed, I found myself humming "Nothing Could Be Finer Than to Be in Carolina in the Morning" and remembering how the Gridiron chorus had looked out at that venerable Carolinian, Sen. Strom Thurmond, and sung a slightly rowdy parody in tribute to his longevity.

I had looked over at Senator Thurmond. He was beaming. At the end he rose to his feet and clasped his hands above his head in a prizefighter's gesture of triumph. He got a standing ovation. And we in the audience - including Vice President Al Gore, members of the Cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the military, the diplomatic corps, and the press - glowed in the warmth of a special moment.

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A video from a sidelined president

The president wasn't there in person. But he put on a little video performance from his bed where only a few hours before he had been hospitalized after a knee injury. Mr. Gore picked up the ball in what some observers were calling something more than just a funny speech - something significant that could well reignite a career that recently had been severely damaged.

Gore said that earlier, when he had asked the president if he was looking forward to the dinner, Mr. Clinton had responded: "Al, I'd rather fall down a flight of stairs." "Ironic, isn't it?" Gore deadpanned.

A few minutes later, there was the president on the big screen on a ballroom wall, smiling and joshing that "obviously I'm in no condition to do a stand-up routine." A pause and then: "I feel my pain." Clinton wasn't about to let his vice president upstage him.

But upstage the president Gore did. No one I talked to could remember any speaker being a bigger hit. Yes, well maybe Sen. John F. Kennedy had made just as memorable a speech - back in 1958 when he was running for reelection and read a "telegram" from his father: "Dear Jack: Don't buy a single vote more than is necessary."

That's a quip that might not play today - with all these less-than-amusing fund-raising activities going on. But it did back then. Soon I heard many people in the political world saying of Mr. Kennedy: "He's a comer." Historians have observed that Kennedy's speech marked the first time he was seriously looked at - among the politicos - as a possible presidential candidate.

Sobbing over what Senator Thompson said

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It's most difficult to tell how a person has been "funny." As they say, you have to be there. But Gore, to use another clich, had us in the aisles. At one point he was sobbing over all those nasty things the Republican speaker of the evening, Sen. Fred Thompson, had said about him. It could have fallen flat. But Gore put it over. He had a good speech writer: Comedian Al Franken provided his immense skills, it is said. But Gore's delivery, his timing, was superb. One highly respected long-time observer said what others were saying: "It's a career-saving and career-making performance."

At one point Gore - so often poking fun at himself - said of the news conference on White House fund-raising where he had bombed:

"I'm proud of that news conference - and as a matter of policy I promise never to do it again." And, of the scandal about Democrats having had to return millions of campaign donations from questionable sources, Gore said:

"From now on we're going to require donors to enclose self-addressed stamped envelopes."

Yes, it had been a special moment for Strom Thurmond. But it was Al Gore's evening.

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