VP cashes in on golden opportunity: 'Oprah'

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 9/12/2000

HICAGO - Oprah: ''You know, we have to talk about that kiss!''

Al Gore: Throws back head, roars with laughter. (Cut to commercial.)

Back on the air, the kiss clipairs. The vice president, often derided as uptight, gives his wife, Tipper, a long kiss at the Democratic National Convention. (Cutaway to women laughing and applauding in the television audience.) Oprah herself loves it so much she tells her producers to air it again.

How do you say demographic heaven? How do you reach millions of women whose votes may choose the next president? How do you shed the image of stiffness? For Gore, the answer was an incalculably valuable hour on ''The Oprah Winfrey Show'' yesterday - an opportunity born of a turnabout by the megastar host, who for the first time in 15 years has invited the Democratic and Republican nominees on her show.

Next week, it is George W. Bush's turn on the nation's top-rated daytime television talk show, but yesterday it was hard to imagine a more sympathetic screening for the vice president.

He joked, he was empathetic, he told love stories, he mocked himself and even traded high-fives with Winfrey before another commercial break. In turn, Winfrey seemed enthralled. As the closing credits rolled, Winfrey paid him what may be the rarest of compliments. The vice president, Winfrey told her US audience estimated at 7 million, was a ''fun, funny guy.''

''Hard to believe,'' Gore said, laughing.

By playing along with Winfrey's quest for the intimate details of his life, however, Gore might once again revive questions about whether he is too willing to exploit for political effect parts of his life some people might deem too personal. At various times yesterday, Gore retold the story of the near-death experience of his son, Albert Jr., and revealed he had given his wife a ring inscribed, ''To the bravest person I know.''

But Gore wouldn't get too personal. When he was asked by Winfrey to reveal the ''thing he likes to sleep in,'' the question hung in the air like the famous MTV query to President Clinton about whether he preferred boxers or briefs.

''A bed,'' Gore responded. ''You get the picture?''

He would reveal such things as his favorite book, ''The Red and the Black,'' by 19th Century French author Stendhal; favorite movie, ''Local Hero,'' and favorite quote, Bob Dylan's ''He not busy being born is busy dying.''

The audience clearly loved it, and if the show has an impact remotely akin to Winfrey's influential book selections, it will have been one of the most worthwhile hours of Gore's campaign. Winfrey zeroed in on Gore's perceived weaknesses, airing the common complaints that Gore is stiff, boring and out of touch. But she softened the blow by airing videotapes that showed Gore in numerous adoring moments with his wife. At every opportunity, Gore told viewers that his most important values are centered on his wife, his children and his faith - which also happen to be daily themes of Winfrey's talk show.

The show was especially important because it is aimed primarily at women, who are Gore's strongest supporters. Gore leads Bush among women by anywhere from 14 to 20 percentage points in various polls, with the race in a dead heat overall. Gore hopes to win partly by widening the gender gap while regaining more of the male vote. Television rating surveys show that Winfrey's audience is almost 80 percent women, mostly non-college educated, and typically 35 years and older.

Gore, who was mocked early in his campaign for his sudden shift to beige and earth-tone casual clothing, showed up in a serious, dark blue suit, white shirt and blue power tie. Winfrey wore a tan suit, turtleneck sweater and stiletto-heeled red boots. The two sat in over-sized chairs angled toward each other, in front of a large video screen that frequently showed images of an alternately stiff and smiling vice president.

Throughout the history of ''The Oprah Winfrey Show,'' Winfrey has refused invitations to host presidential debates or interview candidates, saying that she was frustrated by the difficulty of breaking through ''the wall'' of politicians. But she changed her mind this year, convinced that an hour-long chat could provide a valuable window on the candidates, both of whom leaped at the chance to appear.

''Until today, I stayed away from politicians,'' Winfrey said. ''I never thought I could have a real conversation with them. What we hope is at the end of these two shows,'' viewers will know ''who do you trust, who feels right for you.'' She has not invited Green Party candidate Ralph Nader or either of the two Reform Party candidates, Patrick J. Buchanan or John Hagelin, a spokeswoman said.

Gore has a personal tie to Winfrey. When he worked as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean in the 1970s, she was a rising star on a local television station. As Gore recalled on yesterday's show, the two covered at least one story together.

''I remembered you, but I didn't think you would remember me.... Did you really remember that?'' Winfrey asked. Gore did, recalling that they both covered a crime scene.

Even as Gore utilized the Winfrey forum, he took on the entertainment industry, proposing that music and video game companies voluntarily refrain from marketing their products to children. Gore called for an ''immediate cease-fire'' in such marketing, responding to a Federal Trade Commission finding that the industry is deliberately targeting children with inappropriate material.

He suggested that if he is elected president, he would give companies six months to stop such marketing or they would face unspecified penalties. Gore's running mate, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, and Tipper Gore have frequently taken on Hollywood.

Gore said, for example, that he hoped the music industry would be more sensitive to the fact that some ''albums'' have lyrics that are inappropriate for some ages.

''They are called `CDs' now,'' Winfrey said, as the audience laughed.

Gore recovered quickly, saying, ''I shifted over to the MP3,'' referring to the digitized music format popular on the Internet. Winfrey, unlike many other questioners, did not bring up Gore's assertion that he helped invent the Internet. Indeed, she stayed away from controversial questions, preferring instead to ask whether Gore agreed with some of her ideas.

Winfrey, for example, said that schools need to start teaching courses in parenting. Did Gore agree?

Gore's unsurprising reply: ''I think it is a great idea.''

A more controversial question came after the show was over. Asked by a member of the audience whether he would make an issue of the fact that Bush once was a heavy drinker, Gore said he understood Bush had undergone a transformation and has served as governor without any sign of such a problem.

''I take at face value that he said that he wasn't, that he's had a personal transformation and a period of growth, and that's common in all of our lives. ...You know, he's been governor about five years, and whatever you say about it, he certainly hasn't given any reason for that question to be a matter of concern to people, I don't think.''

Gore, like many celebrity guests, expressed awe at Winfrey's sprawling publishing and broadcast empire, and her style.

''I don't have a magazine or a publishing house,'' Gore said. And, Gore said, nodding to his host's outrageous footwear, ''I don't have red boots.'' Oprah liked his comments so much that she and the vice president gave each other a high-five.

Winfrey dwelled repeatedly on what has become known simply as ''The Kiss.'' Some observers have theorized The Kiss at the convention was intended to send a message to voters who are upset with President Clinton's affair with a former White House intern and want assurances that Gore has a strong relationship with his wife.

''I was really surprised by ... all the people who said that was fake,'' Gore said. ''I felt this overwhelming surge of emotion. This was a great moment in our lives. This has been a partnership and she is my soulmate.''

As the cameras zeroed in on women applauding in the audience, Gore continued, ''One of the reporters asked if I was trying to send a message.'' Pausing for effect, Gore said, ''I said I was trying to send a message to Tipper!''

Winfrey, however, went kiss-less.

''No kiss?,'' Winfrey said as she greeted the vice president. ''I was hoping for something.''