The Wooden Indian Ticket?

A Gore vote in 2000 could send Brown back to D.C.

"They have an excellent working relationship," confirms Bill White, who recalls Gore phoning congratulations to Brown on the night of his victory. Gore frequently chaired cabinet meetings when Clinton was out of the country and got to know Brown through their mutual passion: policy discussions.

The impeachment roller coaster that is apparently ending next month has also created an environment in which Brown's perceived liabilities, such as his limited base and rather bland public persona, might translate into strengths. A Democratic consultant says there's a widespread feeling in the party that the monolithic support of black Democrats has been a key element in Clinton's Houdini-like escape. What better payback to that sector of the party faithful than making history with the first black nomination to a presidential ticket? Other than former Joint Chiefs head Colin Powell, a Republican, Brown is the only African-American positioned to make the race.

"The mayor would be a great choice from that perspective," comments a top member of his city staff. "If Gore wanted to make a move from a historical perspective."

If George W. Bush becomes the GOP presidential candidate, any Democratic hopes of carrying Texas would vanish. But McClung figures the Texas factor doesn't affect Brown's value to the party.

"That is not why they would choose Lee Brown to begin with," says the consultant. "He is not particularly well known in Texas ... and he wouldn't have any big sway over Texas voters even if he were on the ticket. [Former senator and treasury secretary] Lloyd Bentsen was a hell of a lot better at that, and it didn't work for him in 1988 [as vice presidential running mate with Michael Dukakis]. They'd choose Brown because he is a national black political leader."

White questions whether Brown and his resolutely apolitical wife Frances would welcome the scorching national spotlight.

"He certainly has a very compelling personal story to which many Americans can relate," says White. He refers to Brown's upbringing in a poor California migrant-worker family and his saga of working his way through school. "[But] whether Lee and Frances would want to be subject to the scrutiny of being a potential vice president, I don't know."

Whatever his personal ambivalence about that scrutiny, Brown would likely weather it better than just about anybody. His appeal lies not only in what he's done with his past, but also what he hasn't.

"There aren't many people who started out where he did in life who haven't screwed up somewhere along the way," chuckles McClung. "He truly has not, best anybody can tell."

Brown is a political Mr. Clean, having been vetted by the FBI for his Clinton appointment as drug czar. On a national political landscape that has taken on the volatility of the Pacific ring of fire, be assured there are no bimbo eruptions in Lee Brown's political future.

You want safe? Brown is even safer than Gore on the morals front, and that's as safe as it gets. Neither one could attract or catch a carnivorous intern if his life depended upon it. With these two, the adjective stiff applies strictly to their speech delivery and physical posture.

Consider the chemistry of the possible ticket. In his early sixties, Brown makes the 50-year-old Gore seem positively youthful. For anyone who has suffered through Brown's meandering speeches, watching concrete dry is a heart-thumping experience by comparison. Gore's oratorical style, reminiscent of a schoolmarm reading underlined phrases off a blackboard to a special ed class, seems positively Periclean in contrast to the mayor's.

So what if a glacier could run for president faster than these two? They may be just what America requires to forget Monica, Clinton and the morals-mongers of the GOP right. If the country is really yearning for a safe, secure, sane presidency after Clinton's Melrose Place on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Democrats might do well by offering the no-messin'-around, solid, stolid duo of Al and Lee.

Midway through his first term, Brown's performance has not been a liability to his future advancement. Conservative City Councilmembers Joe Roach and Orlando Sanchez, among others, are quick to criticize the mayor's communications problems with Council and largely rhetorical policy initiatives. However, Brown has also avoided anything that might be described as a scandal. Compared to predecessors, his record has to be considered satisfactory.

Mayor Kathy Whitmire had a rocky road in her first year in office, with running battles against City Council and the media. Because of Bob Lanier's mastery of both the media and Council, his public works and parks department follies -- which qualify as real scandals -- went largely unchallenged during his three-term tenure.

Brown keeps a low-key, low-risk approach that maintains his popularity while avoiding serious mistakes. It's a measure of his success that aide May Walker's issuance of a pamphlet rife with misspellings is considered one of the major snafus in his tenure.

Should Brown follow the siren song of national ambition, he would be a two-term mayor, given the widespread expectation in Houston political circles that no major candidate will oppose him for re-election next fall. That would dovetail well with the city's term limits, which would have made Brown a lame duck in his third term anyway.

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