Operation Time.com Rescue, vol. 2

 Another bit saved from the crumbling infrastructure at Time Inc.:

Anatomy of a vice-presidential e-mail

August 23, 2000

TIME.com’s Mark Coatney tells the tale of how Al Gore banged out a digital diary of his trip along the Mississippi:

The trail of Al Gore’s e-mail from a campaign laptop PC to our inbox started with a terse phone message sent from the lobby of the Los Angeles Mondrian hotel — “Lehane? Tumulty. Call me about an e-mail” — and ended at a Gore rally in Hannibal, Missouri, four days later when a guy named Mouse, sitting in a BBQ joint called Buddy’s, clicked Send. In between, well…

This was in Los Angeles, on the last night of the Democratic convention, and I was getting ready to travel on Gore’s four-day “Charting America’s Course” riverboat excursion. I was filling in for Karen Tumulty, our regular correspondent assigned to Gore. I’m a rookie when it comes to this stuff, so Karen left a message for me on the cell phone of Gore campaign spokesman Chris Lehane. You’re all set, she tells me, and I sprint for the press charter flight out of LAX to La Crosse, Wisconsin.

At some point during a harried and sleepless night and next day, I hook up with Lehane, a sort of higher-pitched, 78-rpm Mike McCurry who likes to use words like “indefatigable” and ask reporters if they’re sure the world wouldn’t be a better place if they quoted him using the word “indefatigable.” On the trip, Lehane is the semi-porous membrane between reporter and Big Cheese, and press requests are supposed to go through him. So I’m more than a little worried when he tells me the e-mail proposal sounds fine, but that he doesn’t know when the vice president will have time to write an e-mail. I tell him that it’s just a five-minute bit about what’s happening on the trip. Oh, we should be able to do that, he says. Great. Everything is under control.

Saturday. Everything is not under control. By day’s end Lehane still hasn’t given me the hookup. I’m getting nervous; access to Gore himself has been virtually nonexistent so far; only daughter Karenna and her husband, Andrew, have been spending much time down below decks with the newsies. My editor’s getting nervous; he wants this to work. Maybe I can ask Kristin to take up a note? Maybe pigs will fly. Lehane promises an answer by Sunday. I think about how to arrange an honorable death for myself.

Sunday. We’re in. Lehane says the vice president will do it sometime on Monday. My editor loves me. I’m king of the world. I sleep the sleep of the righteous.

Monday. It’s 3 p.m. Where’s my damn e-mail? The vice president is rewriting. I consider the advisability of shouting “Gore! Where’s my copy!” up the stairs. I consider whether this would cause the Secret Service guys to politely and firmly toss me overboard. I reconsider.

Hannibal, 7 p.m.: We pull into town. The rally’s rocking. There are little Tom Sawyers everywhere. Everybody runs off the boat. I’ve only got about an hour left before everybody in the campaign packs up and flies to an event tomorrow in Milwaukee. I don’t have the e-mail. I’m totally screwed.

I’m saved! Word comes that Brian Reich, the campaign’s briefing guy, nicknamed Mouse after the can-do character in “The Matrix” — which, incidentally, is one of the veep’s all-time favorite movies — is in the media filing area with the laptop. He’s ready to send, if I can just get over there and give him my editor’s e-mail address.

And so it is that Brian and I transmit from the temporary media filing area, a dim restaurant called Buddy’s, as the reporters eat ribs and send in their stories and the piped-in sound of Gore’s rally speech makes Joe Lieberman sound strangely like Winston Churchill. As Lieberman says, only in America.

Here are Some Fun Al Gore E-Mailing Facts: The veep types his own e-mail, and is a touch-typist. (“Remember, he’s a former reporter,” one staffer reminds me, which in fact did nothing to reassure me at the time. I’ve been in newsrooms. I’ve seen journalists both hunting and pecking.) He “banged it out” sitting atop the Mark Twain riverboat on a gray and sultry Monday afternoon after a morning in which he was up before dawn to appear on seemingly every network morning show. He followed that with a lengthy chat with the reporters on the boat, headlined a rally in Quincy, Illinois, conducted an onboard town hall meeting about tax reform, and I think sometime in there made and packed some very nice fried-chicken box lunches for a hungry press corps.

By the way, the vice president violated all my instructions. He wrote a first draft, printed it out, and then expanded on the original in a 20-minute rewrite session. This despite my exhortation that this should be a breezy, five-minute note, as if he were writing a quick, funny-thing-happened-today e-mail to a friend. Of course, this may be how the vice president dashes off e-mails.

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