The green tarnish behind Gore's polished image
by Jamie Pietras
Forget what you've heard on those TV soft drink ads. Vice President Al Gore's pit stop in Columbus last week attests that in American politics, image is far from nothing. When it comes down to the final laps of a heated Democratic presidential primary, image is the high-octane gas fueling the political engine.
Gore roared through town unexpectedly on February 2 for a campaign rally at Ohio State University's Ohio Union. From a public relations standpoint, it was a brilliant showing. High-energy music ranging from Stevie Wonder to U2 boomed in full stereo, representatives of OSU's Undergraduate Student Government led the crowd in cheers, and among the many makeshift signs floating around the audience was a banner that could only be conjured from the youthful bowels of a college campus--"Phat Albert" had arrived.
TV cameras got the closest look at the vice president, setting up on an elevated platform only a stone's throw away from the main stage. About 50 yards away in the rear of the auditorium, print and radio media were quarantined in their own taped-off section as Gore took the stage.
From the outset there was one peculiar provision: if reporters dared to leave the designated media section to talk to people in the audience, they would be kicked out. According to the candidate's rules, members of the media could watch from afar and talk to each other, but they couldn't interview Gore supporters or Gore detractors.
"That probably wasn't such a good idea in retrospect," admitted Bill Hall, OSU assistant vice president for student affairs and a university liaison for the event. "That's the way the Gore 2000 people wanted it."
Of course this didn't go over well with local journalists, since the buzz in the press area centered around a group of environmental activists expected to confront the vice president at the rally. In 1992, Gore vowed to fight against a hazardous waste incinerator in an impoverished area of eastern Ohio. Eight years later, the incinerator is still up and running, and environmentalists are furious.
But when the protesters finally surfaced inside the Ohio Union, they were stifled by Gore supporters, who ripped down the dissenting signs, and OSU personnel, who were quick to get protesters away from the crowd and away from the press.
A handful of activists from the Akron chapter of Ohio Citizen Action made the trek to Columbus to protest Gore's inaction on the $165 million Waste Technologies Industries (WTI) hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool. During his vice presidential campaign in 1992, Gore promised he wouldn't allow a test burn permit until questions about its safety were answered.
"For the safety and health of local residents rightfully concerned about the impact of this incinerator on their families and their future, a thorough investigation is urgently needed. Too many questions remain unanswered about the impact of this incinerator and the process by which it was approved," Gore said in a 1992 press statement.
The incinerator, which sits about 1,100 feet away from an elementary school, began commercial operation in April 1993. Studies since have indicated dangerous levels of mercury, dioxins and the potential for food chain contamination in the area. A 1994 EPA report concluded that small children are at greatest risk from dioxin exposures.
State and national environmental groups, including the Washington, D.C.-based Greenpeace, threatened a sit-in at Gore's campaign headquarters in New Hampshire only two days prior to his Ohio appearance. The threats prompted White House officials to agree to have an Environmental Protection Agency ombudsman investigate the incinerator. The activists subsequently called off the planned protest.
But Gore, who has long been championed as a friend of the environment, wasn't in Columbus to talk about pollution in the Ohio River Valley. As soon as the vice president uttered the "E" word, protesters began their shouts of "What about WTI?" Only seconds later, their chants were quelled by Gore's campaign team and his student supporters.
Gore turned the tide of the potentially embarrassing situation to his favor, by quickly applauding their right to free speech. "Let's hear it for the First Amendment," Gore shouted to a cheering audience, even as the press was prevented from talking to voters. It was a response not unlike President Bill Clinton's, when he had to deal with the jeers of College Republicans during a 1996 campaign speech on the OSU Oval.
Despite Gore's stated support for free speech, one protester was kicked out of the rally. The rest were told they could stay as long as they kept their mouths shut. Shortly after the chants ceded, a member of Ohio State's public relations department actually turned reporters away from a section of the press area where the protesters could be contacted. Up to that point, the press had been free to roam around the aisle leading toward the stage.
Hall said that was a wrong move, and probably just an "overzealous" reaction. For future events, he said that the university will work towards better instructions so everyone is working on the same page.
Of course, nobody's taking chances with potentially volatile political events at OSU after 1998's CNN Town Meeting debacle. Only two years ago, a White House strategy to sell the world the idea of bombing Iraq backfired when they decided to broadcast an event live from Ohio State.
CNN and the White House worked together to bring Secretary of State Madeline Albright, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and Defense Secretary William Cohen for a "town meeting" at St. John Arena. While CNN played the highly questionable role of screening questions, choosing who got to speak and even re-arranging seats so it didn't look like "too many college students were there," protesters scattered across the packed auditorium and wrought pandemonium with relentless chanting and disruptions. In less than an hour, they became the lead story on every national media outlet and put Columbus on the map for grassroots activism.
"In both situations, we had the same game plan for protests," said Hall. But at the 1998 town meeting, "we got overwhelmed by so many of them." Hall said he was pleased with the way students handled themselves at the Gore rally.
"I think it's more respect for the audience," Gore campaign spokesperson Kathleen Begala said of the quick action to muzzle the activists. "The audience came here to see Al Gore speak."
As for the reasoning behind the TV-only media accessibility, Begala said it's impossible to accommodate everybody. "The bottom line is that we get requests from everyone. There are so many requests for his time. We try to do everything that we can."
Gore did offer to meet with protesters after the rally. Ohio Citizen Action's Amy Ryder took that promise with a grain of salt. She said her group had confronted the vice president in Ohio twice last year, and made several unsuccessful attempts to meet with him.
While Gore was shaking hands after the rally, this reporter managed to fend off Secret Service attempts to take my pen amid the jostling crowd. I asked the vice president when he planned to meet with the WTI activists. "I don't know where they are," Gore snipped. "I just met with one. Where were you?"
Apparently, Gore did meet with some OSU students after the rally, but the Ohio Citizen Action crew that initiated the ruckus had left by that point.
Columbus Alive columnist Harvey Wasserman also squeezed his way to the front of the handshaking line, and got close enough to talk to the vice president for several minutes. As for the 1992 promise to shutter the WTI incinerator, Gore told Wasserman that President George Bush "changed the rules on us" and approved the plant for operation before the Clinton administration took office.
While their voices may have been silenced at the OSU rally, the WTI protesters managed to bring the issue back in the public's attention. They also see a possibility for Gore to redeem himself. The ombudsman investigation is a step in the right direction, but environmentalists "would like him to clarify that he and the EPA would accept the request of the ombudsman," said Greenpeace's Rick Hind.
So would OSU student Elizabeth Estell. A native of East Liverpool, she made sure to attend last week's rally. In her hometown, the WTI incinerator is an omnipresent, but unspoken evil. "When you're in school," she said, "you stay away from the subject."
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