Prince Albert in a Can
What's the meaning of Al Gore? Or George Bush? No matter which name brand ends up occupying the master suite of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it will be tough to conjure up the appropriate high concept with which to peg him. The Frat-Boy President (son of George)? The Student-Body President (son of Albert)? Either tag is small-scale when compared with the grand labels that can be applied to our previous top dogs: the Glam Prince for a Modern Age, the Paranoid Champion of Middle-American Resentment, the All-American Boy Who Could Play the Part, the Yuppie Generation's Know-It-All. As public figures, neither aspirant Gore nor aspirant Bush seems to symbolize, embody or otherwise represent an age, a social moment, a cultural shift or a significant slice of the population. (No, Ivy League sons of famous, powerful men do not count as a demographic cohort.)
With Inventing Al Gore, Bill Turque, a correspondent for Newsweek, presents a straightforward and occasionally engaging biography of the Vice President, a book that has more heft than the slapdash campaign bios that often pop out of reporters' notebooks in election years. But Turque's book is no life-and-times chronicle, for Gore, as depicted here, was never emblematic of the world around him. Yes, we all know that the Senator's son was incubated in a hermetically sealed Washington hotel on Embassy Row. (Think Eloise Goes to Washington.) But Gore Jr. did attend Harvard during the which-side-are-you-on sixties, did pull a short stint in Vietnam as a military reporter and did put in time as a politically disenchanted, promising young Nashville journalist in the morning-after seventies, before hearing The Call and entering the family business. Nevertheless, his tale is...his tale, and does not appear to be much more.
This is no criticism of Turque but a comment on Gore. Gore does turn out to be more interesting than might be guessed by the average Leno watcher--not by a helluva lot, perhaps, but some. Turque, naturally, tries to depict him as intriguingly as possible, and on the second page of the book he reminds the reader (perhaps it is more of a plea) that no one--not even the vice-commander-in-stiff--is a "caricature." Turque, though, offers no revelations to blow apart the public Gore persona: that of a wooden, careerist political climber. But let's not blame Turque for failing to unearth evidence that Gore is a boozehound or incest victim: hooray for a public figure who does not appear to have a dark side. Turque's "discovery" is that Al Gore is a paradox: He has, the author notes, both "stood on principle and deferred it to political ambition." He has cultivated a "Dudley Do-Right image" but been a truth-stretching, ruthless attacker when necessary. His record, Turque observes, "reflects the impulses of caution and daring that compete within." In other words, Gore is pretty much like most politicians.
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The drama in this account arises from what Turque sees as Gore's lifelong attempt to become his own man. Gore must escape the shadow, first, of his father, Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee, who bucked Southern sentiment in supporting civil rights and opposing the Vietnam War, and then, of Bill Clinton, the champion politicker who's left a hotelful of baggage on his bellhop's cart. Gore's life and career, Turque asserts, have been "punctuated by separations never quite achieved, and by bold strokes never quite converted into personal or political liberation." The burning question: Will Al the perpetual junior, by winning the presidency, finally be fully actualized? Well, all bios need story lines. To his credit, Turque steers clear of melodrama and excessive psychological speculation. After all, his account shows that Gore's life is not loaded with mysteries requiring sophisticated explanations. The Vice President is not a guy who is hard to figure out.
Gore was born in 1948 to a son of a farmer, who had studied law and pulled himself up the political ladder: county superintendent of schools, campaign aide, state labor commissioner, congressman, senator. His mother was the lone woman in the 1936 class of Vanderbilt Law School. And when Al Gore entered the world, his dad--then a congressman--lobbied for and received a front-page news story on the birth in the Nashville Tennessean, thereby one-upping a political rival whose newborn daughter had warranted merely an inside-the-paper mention. From the beginning, Gore was a political prop. His father was a New Dealer--"Nothing cures poverty like money," he once said--whose liberalism admirably did not stop at black neighborhoods or the nation's border. He was a fiddle-playin' populist and a Washington aristocrat at ease in the salons of the capital city. Al Gore would inherit this dichotomy--and the difficulty his father had in shifting between both worlds.
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Gore grew up the dutiful son, groomed to be handed his father's franchise. He attended the tony St. Albans school, but life was not all room service. He spent summers working his backside off on the family's tobacco and cattle farm outside Carthage, Tennessee. The caption beneath his portrait in the 1965 Albanian yearbook read, "People who have no weaknesses are terrible." (Even then, he was irritating--an ambitious overachiever, like Clinton but without the charm.) Next came Harvard, where Gore was "invisible" during the antiwar "politics of upheaval." A friend from that time recalls, "He always wanted to blend in as one of the guys in a wild period but was never quite all the way there." Never quite all the way there--a fitting description of Gore then and now. In the somewhat infamous seminar conducted by Martin Peretz, a left-wing celeb-dissident on campus (now chairman and editor-in-chief of The New Republic), Gore avoided voicing provocative positions, while instructor and classmates riffed on Marx, Freud, Tocqueville and the problems of an alienation-ridden industrial society. And yes, Gore did serve as partial inspiration for Oliver Barrett, the protagonist of Erich Segal's weepy Love Story. Last year, when he suggested that he and Tipper, then his girlfriend, were the models for the novel's couple, he was only partly wrong. Segal had not used Tipper but he had based Barrett on both Gore and Tommy Lee Jones, Gore's college suitemate. Gore's off-the-cuff reference to Love Story, pounced on by the press, was hardly an error of consequence. Yet when you transmit I-have-no-weaknesses vibes, the anti-goody-two-shoes crowd (which is most of us) will tear you apart for the slightest slip-up.
What appears to have been Gore's first tough decision occurred when he was at Harvard: to Vietnam or not to Vietnam? His dad, up for re-election in 1970, was taking tremendous flak for opposing the war. Gore Jr. believed that in Vietnam the United States was propping up a "fascist, totalitarian" regime. But if he ducked service, that could help sink his father, so after graduating in 1969 he volunteered for the Army. There is something a touch noble, or maybe endearing, in what Gore did. It might have required more courage to give the war the finger than to be the good son, but it does seem that he was thinking about someone other than himself. Cynics can dismiss Gore's move as nothing more than an effort to preserve electoral politics as a future employment option. But compare Gore's Vietnam record with Clinton's slippery maneuvers of the time.
As it turned out, Gore's enlistment did not save his father. Senator Gore lost an ugly race in which he was the target of Republican smears and slush money. His son was shipped out to Vietnam two months after the election. (There is some evidence his Army superiors attempted to keep him from harm's way, but no indication that Gore asked for preferential treatment or was aware of any. Does a military commander need to be told what to do with a senator's son? There's even the possibility that Gore's Vietnam orders were delayed by the Nixon Administration so his father's opponent could continue to depict the elder Gore as an unpatriotic elitist.) Albert's defeat left Al Jr. bitter--it also scarred the young man. After watching his father, a public servant of thirty-two years' standing, get booted out of office by an ungrateful public, Gore absorbed a pointed lesson: Be too bold as a politician, and you provide ammunition to the other side. But at the time, the lesson wasn't too relevant. When Gore returned from Vietnam, he wanted no part of politics.