FLOOD NOTEBOOK: Let’s See, Are We Forceful and Effective, or Effective and Forceful?
GRAFTON, Ill. (AP) _ Vice President Al Gore was a man with a message on his hectic tour of flooded communities along the swollen Mississippi River.
At each stop in Illinois and Missouri on Monday, Gore proclaimed the federal government’s flood response would be ″forceful, coordinated and effective.″ Or ″forceful, thorough and effective.″ Or ″very effective and very coordinated.″ Or ″faster, quicker and better coordinated.″
Or, as he summed up his message more succinctly at one stop: ″We care.″
Aides made sure there was no missing the point.
As the vice president went from flood site to flood site, he was rarely far from a wireless microphone or a boom mike and generator-powered sound box on wheels, piping his every word to the throng of reporters in tow.
And he choppered into a deserted railroad yard just in time to join NBC’s Tom Brokaw for a live shot on the evening news, with the sprawling river and St. Louis arch as a picturesque backdrop.
Back in Washington this morning, the vice president lost little time in making his point again, this time with a round of early morning television interviews recalling the ″dramatic″ and ″unbelievable″ things he saw on his tour.
″What we saw was an awful lot of people who have lost their homes, a lot of farmers who have lost their crops, a lot of businesses wiped out and an economy ... that has really been hit hard,″ Gore said in interviews on ABC, CBS and NBC broadcast live from the White House.
″We are going to make certain that we have the best-coordinated, most effective response our country has ever seen to a disaster like this,″ Gore said. ″We are on top of the situation and were going to stay on top,″ he promised. ″We have a comprehensive plan ... We have people right on top of it.″
Folks in Grafton, population 800, couldn’t say enough nice things about Gore’s visit.
″He seemed very friendly, he seemed very interested - he also seemed very handsome,″ said Pat Arnold, who owns the local phone company. Of the vice president’s looks, she confessed, ″That’s what we were all talking about.″
Gore, clad in blue jeans and cowboy boots, was popular with the older set, too.
″To think that someone like that would come to a little bitty town like Grafton,″ declared 70-year-old Anna Hopley, born and raised there. ″I can’t praise him enough.″
This from a woman who has seen many a flood - and many a politician - come and go. A 1973 flood forced her family from their home, she recalled.
″We got through, but this is much worse,″ she said.
Grafton - which Gore toured by air, foot and flat-bottomed boat - was almost a ghost town, much of it already evacuated, its main roads vanishing into the water.
Those people left in town quickly got used to being media celebrities of sorts, as they sailed or ambled out to catch sight of the vice president.
Beauton Seib, calmly delivering her third interview of the day while Gore was inside the town hall talking to President Clinton by phone, predicted the vice president’s visit could only help speed federal aid to the area.
″I don’t think you can realize how bad it is ’til you see it in person,″ she said.
Of course, some exchanges were less than enlightening.
St. Louis TV stations went live with the vice president’s visit to suburban Lemay, where Gore talked with townspeople whose sandbagging efforts were thwarted when their emergency levee was overpowered by rising floodwaters.
″What have they been telling you?″ one correspondent yelled out to Gore.
″They’re flooded out,″ Gore called back.
Gore’s long afternoon shuttling about in a Blackhawk helicopter got him thinking back to his six-month stint in Vietnam, where he was an Army journalist.
″I used to fly these things with the doors open, sitting on the ledge with our feet hanging down,″ he told James Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as they flew along with the doors tightly shut.
The conventional wisdom at the time, he recalled, was ″if you flew low and fast they wouldn’t have as much time to shoot at you, so we’d just dangle our feet and zoom along above the trees.″
Those memories seemed to embolden the vice president.
On the last leg of the trip, he suggested, ″let’s leave the doors open.″
Then he got an idea. ″You know what would be really funny? A Secret Service blooper show.″
″I was thinking a bungee jump out of this helicopter right now would be a scream,″ Gore said as he glanced out the open door at the swollen Mississippi below. ″The footage would be great.″
″That would probably end my career, sir,″ his agent soberly replied.