Twelve years ago in Atlanta, a man was refused access to a secured area where the Democratic Party was holding its national convention. The poor flummoxed fellow had neglected to bring his official identification pass.
"Sorry, sir," said a security official with a fluttery voice. He looked to be all of 19 years old and struggled to hold onto his sense of authority. "I can't let you in without identification."
"Identification?" the man asked. He was polite but incredulous.
"Identification?" shouted a second guy. "Don't you know who this man is?"
"Let's not make a scene," said the first guy.
"Don't you know who this man is?" the second guy said again, his voice now tight as rubber bands. "He could have been running this whole country."
"I'm sorry, sir," said the kid, nervous but not yielding an inch.
At that moment, standing right next to him in his anonymity, I felt a little sorry for Al Gore. He'd run for the Democratic nomination and lost and become utterly unidentifiable without a name tag. And now it is 12 years later, and he was vice president for the past eight years, a man standing three feet from the famous Bill Clinton, and Gore is said to be invisible still.
This is why he needed the big speech last Thursday night, everybody said. A lifetime in politics, and we don't know this guy. Eight years as vice president, and he still must define himself for the whole country.
Which, if you think about it, is pretty funny. Because 12 years ago, that's the same thing they said about the last vice president who had served for eight years, who was said to be faceless, and whom one national magazine called a "wimp." Remember? George Bush was a war hero, for pity's sake, and they called him a wimp.
In Atlanta that year, the Democrats nominated Michael S. Dukakis to be president. Dukakis gave a convention speech that everybody said was wonderful. He talked about his Greek immigrant parents so that everybody who heard him, and recalled stories of their own families climbing out of steerage, felt that patriotic stirring in their hearts.
So, naturally, things being as they were, Dukakis came out of the convention with a huge lead and then got blown away that November. He forgot who he was. He was asked how he would feel about the death penalty if his wife were attacked, and he sounded like a bureaucrat instead of a husband. He sat himself in a tank, imagining himself a heroic figure instead of a nerd.
Two weeks ago, George W. Bush mentioned the military. He made it sound as if America's fighting force were in tatters and indicated Washington wasn't spending enough to keep the country secure. And then, last Thursday night, Gore felt compelled to assure everyone that America's fighting ability would be second to none during a Gore administration.
Are these guys kidding? I'm looking at a study released a week ago by Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty, which shows the rate of child poverty is higher now, with all our prosperity, than it was 20 years ago. We have old people holding their breath over the price of prescription medicines. There's a public school system in the city of Baltimore where the kids speak English like a second language, and some of them are dodging bullets on their way to fourth grade.
And we're worried about Gore's faceless personality? And we're discussing America's military might at a time when this is the only remaining superpower in the world?
The argument has been made here before that America has created the best-defended slums in history. The Pentagon can always find billions for warplanes and missile defense systems while cities go begging for classroom computers.
But that argument falls on many deaf ears because so many people who vote have moved away from cities. So consider this: The same arguments continually made about urban areas, we will be making increasingly about the suburbs.
Take a look at Baltimore County, as opposed to the city of Baltimore. Thirty years ago, the median income of Baltimore County residents was 126 percent that of all residents in the metro area; it is now 99 percent. Eight years ago, 17 percent of county elementary school kids were poor enough to be eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches; now that figure stands at 32 percent and there are schools where the figure is about 80 percent.
Some of the old urban problems are becoming the new problems of aging suburbs. And then we have the great national leaders debating military strength. Or we worry that, after a quarter-century of watching Al Gore, we still don't really "know" him.
We know him all right. He doesn't need a name tag anymore. Now we need to discover whether he or Bush knows what's going on right in front of his eyes.
Michael Olesker is a columist for The Baltimore Sun.