Prince Albert in a Can
Gore became a reporter at the Nashville Tennessean. He also studied at Vanderbilt Divinity School and then Vanderbilt Law School. One of his teachers considered him a "searcher." Another said, "Al Gore had always been a role." That is, Gore did not possess the trait that writer John McPhee attributed to the young Bill Bradley: having "a sense of where you are." Sure, this was the seventies. Who knew where they were going? But Gore did appear to be struggling with a question: Was he indeed the template that life (mainly, his family) had imposed upon him?
In a word, yep. But it took him a few years to yield to destiny. At the newspaper he was a solid beat reporter. He smoked dope once in a while. (The actual amount is in dispute, but who cares?) He was down on politics, yet he still accepted the perks of lineage. He was asked to deliver testimony to a Senate subcommittee regarding a story he had covered. (How many local reporters who are not the sons of former senators receive such invitations?) He benefited from a financial deal concocted by his father and industrialist Armand Hammer, which left Gore with the family farm and $200,000 in zinc-leasing fees from Hammer's company. In 1976, when the local Congressional seat opened up, the 27-year-old Gore renounced his renouncement of politics and jumped into the race. "I must be my own man," he told his father, relegating the old man to the back seat of the campaign.
Gore's bid was certainly not his father's campaign. Gore the Elder had eschewed attacks on the other fella and had not shied away from unpopular causes. According to Turque, this was Gore Jr.'s MO: "a relentless work ethic; tactical caution; passionate advocacy of worthy but low-risk issues; and a willingness to revise, or simply muddy up, politically inconvenient positions." Al Gore--the pot-smoking, son-of-a-liberal, longhair reporter--reinvented himself as a conservative. He decried homosexuality as "abnormal" (even though it was not an issue in the race), opposed gun control (telling a pal there was no way he could win if he backed restrictions on guns) and questioned a woman's right to have an abortion. It worked; he won.
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In Congress, Gore was a self-proclaimed "raging moderate." He pressed several consumer initiatives and developed a taste for high-tech topics. He had a "good knack for finding issues that were not terribly controversial," said Dan Glickman, a Congressional classmate who is now Secretary of Agriculture. Gore was not a go-to guy on environmental matters. He became chummy with lobbyists. In the early eighties he molded himself into an arms-control expert. While scary Reaganites talked of winnable nuclear wars and a nervous nuclear freeze movement won public support, Gore sought to position himself between the two sides. He advocated replacing multi-warhead missiles with single-warhead missiles. In terms of stabilizing nuclear forces, this was not a bad idea. But Gore, in his smarter-than-thou mode, tried to broker a deal under which the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives would approve President Reagan's request for the controversial (and arguably destabilizing) multi-warhead MX missile; in return, Reagan would build the single-warhead Midgetman missile Gore fancied. In the end, Reagan snookered the Congressman. With Gore's help, the Republicans won several close House votes on the MX; the Midgetman never got off the drawing board. In a similar episode involving health warnings for cigarettes, Gore, again seeking to be a voice-of-reason middleman, was played the fool by Big Tobacco. He was, one staffer said, "the kind of guy you'd like to have sitting across from you at a poker game." A darn-smart fellow who was not as clever as he believed.
In 1984 Gore beat a weak candidate and ascended to the Senate--fourteen years after he had witnessed Tennessee's rejection of his father. According to one old friend, Gore became even more serious, calculating and "an expert at hiding his true nature." In his first year as a senator, the biggest impact made in Washington by a Gore was achieved by Tipper, whom he had married in 1970. Her campaign against obscene music lyrics--in which she was joined by other Washington wives--overshadowed any of her husband's initiatives. In one particular silly instance, Tipper's outfit, the Parents Music Resource Center, decried a Twisted Sister song for supposedly celebrating rape and bondage. Actually, a band member told the Senate Commerce Committee (during circuslike hearings that Gore helped orchestrate), the tune had been written about surgery after a band member underwent an operation to remove throat polyps. Afterward, Tipper slowly distanced herself from the cause, reminding anyone who would listen that she played the drums and grooved on the Grateful Dead.
Did Tipper withdraw, or was she shoved by her husband? Less than two years into his Senate term, Gore had begun contemplating a presidential bid. Did he want his wife out front on an issue that pissed off the music industry, the creative community and Hollywood--all sources of Democratic succor and support? In any event, as she turned down the volume, Gore got busy sweet-talking potential funders. In April 1987, days after this pol-in-a-hurry turned 39, he declared he was ready to be President.
The 1988 presidential race was a professional low for the man. He was an awful campaigner. He constantly altered his message: arms-control whiz one day, friend of the workingman the next. In order to collect support in North Carolina, he pulled a nasty flip-flop on an environmental dispute and came to the assistance of Champion International, which was polluting the Pigeon River. He viciously blasted other Democrats vying for the nomination. For instance, one Gore ad said of Dick Gephardt, "As a candidate he'll say or do anything to get elected. What about as President?" Hmm, that's a good question for you-know-who. The only raison d'être for Gore's campaign was that he was a Southern boy who could clean up on Super Tuesday. But Jesse Jackson whipped him there. And then in New York, the rookie hooked up with demagogue Ed Koch, who was obsessed with trash-talking Jackson. As Turque delightfully notes, "Gore began to look less like a President than a well-dressed Jethro Clampett, led around by the nose from borough to borough as Koch pursued his vendetta against Jackson." A desperate Gore also slapped front-runner Michael Dukakis for being soft on crime and introduced into the 1988 campaign the Willie Horton ammo that Vice President George Bush would later deploy against Dukakis with dead-on effectiveness. On primary night in New York, Gore placed third and called Jackson to apologize. His first presidential race was kaput.