Prince Albert in a Can

Prince Albert in a Can

What’s the meaning of Al Gore? Or George Bush?


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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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.

* * *

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.

Back in the Senate, and chastened, Gore did help to create the Internet–by advocating funding for its predecessor. He gravitated toward environmental issues, and Turque does a fine job of showing how psychological and political impulses merged as Gore remade himself once more, this time into a bold champion who would heal the earth and the human spirit. Gore’s bestselling book, Earth in the Balance (just reissued), was a passionate diagnosis of environmental ills and a compelling call for change. “We must take a bold and unequivocal action; we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization,” Gore proclaimed. He maintained that he was fed up with the tendency of politicians–including himself–to place a finger to the wind and listen to the ever-present murmurs of caution. “The time has long since come to take more political risks,” he observed.

But Gore could not heal himself. When he accepted Clinton’s invitation to be his running mate, he had to realize he was putting aside the chance to live up to his own words. As Vice President, he could not be a damn-the-polls hero willing to say and do whatever it takes to save Mother Nature. Was this a compromise so he could one day gain control of the ship and steer the course he advocated? Or a sellout for career purposes? Gore did manage to turn this joke of a job into one of importance, becoming a close adviser to Clinton. But it has been difficult to assess Gore’s impact on the Clinton presidency. Turque writes: “He was, as one aide put it, ‘a New Age pragmatist’ with no consistent ideological coloring, capable of landing on Clinton’s left or right, depending on the issue.”

In the first year Gore eagerly played deficit hawk, willing to forget the campaign promises about funding government investments that put people first. He also pushed for an unorthodox green-friendly energy tax that went down in flames. (Here was that caution and boldness side by side.) In 1995, after Newt Gingrich and his Republican marauders assumed control of Congress, Gore sided with toe-sucking consultant/mercenary Dick Morris in urging Clinton to offer a balanced-budget plan that could compete with Gingrich’s proposal. Clinton’s more liberal advisers thought this was ceding too much to the Republicans. But when Morris then advised Clinton to cut a budget deal with Gingrich, Gore egged the boss to kick the GOPers in the teeth on what Washington wonks call E2M2–education, the environment, Medicare and Medicaid.

Turque does not unearth any oh-shit revelations about Gore’s Veep days. Nor does he illuminate a pattern. Gore pushed Clinton to be daring on gays in the military. Yet after the energy tax flopped, he became timid on environmental policy. “With each passing year of his vice presidency,” Turque notes, “Gore’s environmental evangelism seemed increasingly to give way to conventional incrementalism.” Instead, he devoted more energy to streamlining the federal bureaucracy and hailing the information superhighway. When Clinton was reluctant to make direct fundraising appeals to big donors, Gore reached for the phone, perhaps violating an ancient law prohibiting cup-rattling in federal buildings. He made that now-famous trip to a Buddhist temple in California–then offered contradictory explanations for his involvement in what was an illegal fundraiser. Yet Gore’s true offense in campaign fundraising was not these pissant infractions but his enthusiastic collusion in the soft-money scheme adopted by Clinton and Morris (and also utilized by Republicans), which was designed to undermine existing campaign finance law by using large, unrestricted, “soft money” contributions to the party to promote the presidential ticket. Now Gore is running as a campaign finance reform advocate. How many reinventions can one man have? If there were a patent office for politicians, he’d keep it damn busy.

Through the hellish Clinton years, Gore stood by his man. And on the day the House of Representatives voted to impeach the President who had stained an intern’s dress (if not the office of the presidency), Gore gathered with Democratic members of the House on the South Lawn of the White House and pronounced, “What happened as a result does a great disservice to a man I believe will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest Presidents.” Yet when it was time to run for the office himself, Gore had trouble calculating just how close he should keep to this greatest of Presidents. His problem was not due only to Clinton’s scandalous behavior but to the nature of the vice presidency, which does not allow its holder to shine as an autonomous politician. Gore needed to prove he had his own identity–which, of course, he does.

As Turque’s book aptly indicates, there is a decades-long record revealing the man Gore is. He’s an odd combination of the perfect schoolboy and a fellow who is not quite comfortable with himself. He’s a slash-and-distort, truth-stretching competitor. He’s a hyperbolic advocate who throws himself into serious issues but who is often too quick to compromise or to place his passion on hold. He worries about global warming and the digital divide. He panders when necessary (see Elián). He flip-flops (medical marijuana, yes; then medical marijuana, no). But what does Gore really care about–besides winning elections? That question is hard to answer. A better way of putting it, perhaps, is to inquire, For what would he endanger his career? One could ask the same of most leaders and not receive a reply. Gore’s father, though, had an answer: civil rights and ending an unjust war. Against this family yardstick, the son falls short. (Gore’s father was not all nobility and public service. After he left office, he eagerly accepted a high-paying job as a lobbyist for Armand Hammer.)

In assessing Gore, Turque nicely sums up the challenge the Veep faces. The “real test” of a leader, he writes, “is his ability to take the citizenry where it is not necessarily willing or able to go on its own. For Gore, that test will be his success in building a domestic and international consensus over the long-term dangers of global warming. He will have to decide, finally, what political risks he is willing to assume in advancing the issue that he says is closest to his core. To do so will require Al Gore’s greatest invention–as a leader.” Can Gore change his life story from that of a number two to that of a number one? Sure, says Turque. He only has to transform himself into the politician his father was.

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