That's the Al Gore I know and love.

I had a best friend in college named Amy. I'm a month and two days older than her, but we were baptized the same day (in different states), because my parents were a little slow to get me baptized, and her parents were a little rushed. I was raised atheist and she was a minister's daughter, but we were both baptized Lutheran on Halloween, 1971. I'm still not sure what that means for either of us, spiritually.

But I am sure what being born in 1971 meant for the two of us, politically: the first presidential election we could vote in was the 1992 race. So, back in the summer of 1992, I took Amy to an Al Gore campaign rally in downtown Toledo. We both came away from the rally thinking the same thing: Al Gore is a really good public speaker.

No doubt you're questioning my grasp on reality at this point, but I stand by my opinion. See, this is one of the funny things about our former Vice-President: he can be an incredibly animated, charming, likable fellow in an open-air rally in the Midwest, but put him on camera before a national audience and he turns into "Al Gore, Robot Senator from Tennessee." I've never been sure if it was some sort of extreme camera-fright, or a side-effect of overpreparing for important appearances, but something seems to suck all the personality of Gore whenever he has to give a big speech. For years, it reduced him to being the wooden guy who stands next to Clinton.

As many have pointed out, however, Gore has loosened up considerably in the past year or two. In speechs to MoveOn and other policy groups, he's been fluid, funny, emotional, and, again, really likable. Maybe it's because all the pressure to win is gone. Maybe it's because he's learned to be less scripted and more spontaneous. Maybe he's just connecting with his passions better. In any event, the new-and-improved Al Gore was front and center Tuesday morning, when Gore officially endorsed Howard Dean for the 2004 presidential race, and sent the various talking heads of CNN into Full Interpretation Mode.

Many commentators suggested this was sign that Gore has moved from "moderate" to "liberal", but that's not it. In many cases (environmentalism, gun control, health care) Gore was already more liberal than Dean. I think it's more about Gore sympathies moving from "insider" to "outsider". He's spent his time since the 2000 election playing college professor and lecturing to the MoveOn constituency -- that's a lot of time with a younger, more energetic demographic than he associated with as a senator or as a vice-president, and it probably affected him. Gore hasn't turned into a bomb-throwing radical, but he has regained his faith in the grassroots. As someone who's been a shoe-leather Democrat (I canvassed half of Phoenix for the party last year), I appreciate that in a politician. It's what I want to see in a politician. I like it in Gore, I like it in Dean, and I'm enjoying the fact that the two are teaming up to shake up the establishment.

(That said, a shout-out to Tucker Carlson, who kept accusing Gore of being "disloyal" to Clinton and other Democrats today: Personally, I'm against too much loyalty in politicians. Since the Nixon administration, "loyalty" has become a codeword for "standing behind criminals". Nixon's people were loyal during Watergate. Reagan's people were loyal during Iran-Contra. I don't want so much loyalty in politics that it keeps people from doing or saying the right thing. If Gore's endorsement of Dean was disloyal (and I'm not convinced it was), then being disloyal was the right thing to do, because Dean is the candidate who will stand up on issues that matter the most, especially War on Terror. This is not an election where petty loyalties determining endorsements. The issues are bigger than usual, and we can't afford to nominate mealy-mouthed candidates.)

Posted at 04:02:42 AM EST on 10 December 2003 from Trenton, MI