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.