Bob Shrum Heaves Gore Under the Bus for Repeatedly Saying 'Lockbox' in Debate vs. Bush

September 26th, 2016 8:16 PM

In an effort to revive Hillary Clinton's lackluster campaign, the New York Times yesterday published an interesting "oral history" of the first presidential debate in the year 2000 that pitted Vice President Al Gore against Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Provocatively titled "Debacle: What Al Gore's First Debate Against George W. Bush Can Teach Hillary Clinton," the story includes quotes unlikely to endear Gore senior adviser Bob Shrum to Gore but may endear Shrum to conservatives, if only briefly. This comes only weeks after Shrum's spectacularly premature prediction that Clinton had won the election as of Labor Day.

"Note to Hillary Clinton," the Times analysis begins. "You can be whip-smart in a presidential debate, yet still blow it spectacularly. Just ask Al Gore."

Going into the showdown in Boston, Gore held the advantage in polling and accepted wisdom among the electorate, according to Times reporter Patrick Healy. "Like Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Gore was perceived as knowing far more about domestic issues, foreign affairs and the art of debating than the Republican nominee," Healy writes. "Many Democrats believed Mr. Bush would look like a policy lightweight compared with Mr. Gore, an assumption that many have made about Donald J. Trump. But Mr. Bush had surprises in store. And Mr. Gore was undone by impulses he could not control."

From there, Healy divides his story into five sections -- spring, summer, one week out, the debate, and the aftermath -- with quotes throughout from top advisers in both campaigns, along with observations from Cook Political Report editor Charlie Cook and debate moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS.

The story reveals that Bush began preparing for the debate in the spring, under the radar at the family compound in Maine, shortly after sealing the GOP nomination. "Nobody wanted to broadcast that Bush was prepping that early," said Bush media adviser Stuart Stevens. Gore didn't start prepping until the summer, according to Shrum, since he'd already debated "so many times."

Then came this --

SHRUM: Sometimes we over-framed an issue. In one practice session, we talked about using the metaphor of a "lockbox" to protect Social Security and Medicare. Gore didn't say it very often in our prep. I was one of the authors of the metaphor, and thought it was fine to say two times in a debate, maybe three times.

GORE SENIOR ADVISER TAD DEVINE: Saying a phrase like "lockbox" more than a few times sounds canned -- as we would eventually learn.

Metaphor co-author Shrum and another Gore adviser, Paul Begala, his stand-in for Bush, sensed trouble a week before the first debate --

BEGALA: Right away I picked up a problem about Gore during debate prep: a raw, unbridled contempt he had for Bush. It wasn't the usual "my worthy adversary and I have different ideas." He would sometimes sigh when I was talking, or frown, or roll his eyes. And his tone and language too -- it all communicated that Gore thought Bush was an idiot. "You don't deserve to be on the stage with me" was Gore's basic attitude.

SHRUM: We would tell Gore not to react to Bush, not to grimace at him -- just look down at your notepad and write something. It could be doodles for all that matters.

As for the debate itself --

SHRUM: The vice president felt good, prepared. He was kind of chomping at the bit. Watching the debate, we were winning on substance, we were winning on who was really fit to be president. But Gore was also sighing and reacting to Bush, and there were lots of reaction shots. (Earlier in the article, Devine claimed the networks airing the debate were not supposed to show reaction shots of the candidates). It was somewhat inexplicable -- as if the things that Gore had been told not to do became his to-do list. ... Gore ended up saying "lockbox" seven times. And when Bush said he had once visited the scene of forest fires, Gore felt the need to jump in and have the last word and say he had visited the fire scene too. One of my colleagues said, "Oh God, reel him in."

Once Shrum was in the spin room after the debate, he knew Gore was in trouble -- "reporters kept asking about sighs, reactions, exaggerations." Gore adviser Carter Eskew agreed -- "I have a feeling that where we lost the debate was afterwards. The Bush people sensed vulnerability and legitimately took advantage of some of Gore's performance flaws."

Extent of the damage soon became clear with the next broadcast of Saturday Night Live --

COOK: That first debate took on an even larger life five days later when Saturday Night Live did a devastating spoof where the Gore character couldn't stop talking and reacting and saying "lockbox." That SNL skit was replayed on the news so many times. It was like onion dip -- sometimes it develops more flavor on the second or third day.

DEVINE: We had to try to laugh about it. But really, it hurt us.

The election followed a month later, then the recount in Florida, "and we know the rest," Devine said, before the article concludes with this from him -- "But if Gore had won that first debate clearly and decisively, I think he would have been president. There's no doubt about it."

Not a good sign for Clinton when the Gray Lady warns she could be going the way of Gore.