Much of the first ten years of my life was spent on a hill above Broad Branch Road—the branch being Rock Creek itself, a clear, pure stream that rushed shallowly over rocks between wooded hills, a haven for salamanders and all sorts of fresh water life. Senator Gore owned three acres of woods above the creek where, shortly before my birth, he had built a gray stone mansion. Because of T.P. Gore’s anti-war and anti–League of Nations positions, the good people of Oklahoma had denied him a fourth term in the US Senate and so, from 1920 to 1930, he practiced law in Washington, DC, and built his house, now the residence of the Malaysian ambassador.
In the crash of 1929, Gore lost most of his money; in 1930 he returned to the Senate. Predictably, he fell foul of the new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By then, Gore was a populist turned conservative. He and the President quarrelled over whether or not the dollar should go off the Gold Standard. “If you do take it off,” said Gore, “you will have stolen the money of those who had faith in our currency.” Carter Glass, a senator present at the meeting, later told the blind Gore that the President had gone gray in the face. But Roosevelt took the currency off gold; then, of the half dozen senators that Roosevelt tried to purge in 1936, T. P. Gore was the only one to lose his seat for good.
I was ten when he was defeated in the Democratic primary. He was melancholy, to say the least, and somewhat bored during the last thirteen years of his life, practicing law in Washington as attorney for the Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa tribes whose lands had been stolen by the federal government. In 1984, thirty-five years after his death, he won a great posthumous victory when the tribes got a good chunk of the money owed them.
Rock Creek Park was very much my territory. The house itself was gray-yellow Baltimore stone. On one side, there was a steep lawn that over-looked Broad Branch Road and the winding creek while on the other side, there was the front door, approached by a circular drive at whose center was a small fountain. In those days, from the house, one saw only green woods, a rose garden, rows of flags, as we called irises, and a small vineyard of purple grapes. At the edge of the woods was a slave cabin, falling to pieces.
The main hall always smells of fried bacon, floor wax, irises, books—thousands of dusty books. There is a large dining room on the left, with a fire-place and a niche on either side in which there are two tall gaudy pink and gold Sèvres vases. Back of a screen, there is the door to the large white kitchen where the large dark Gertrude Jackson presides.
To the right of the hall, a living room with a large bay window framed by bookcases. I recall a set of Mark Twain; and a set of Voltaire in a red binding; also, the works of Brann “The Iconoclast.” A large sofa, covered in pumpkin-yellow and salad-green. Beside the fireplace, the Senator’s chair, and a smaller one where I sat when I read to him, drinking Coca-Cola and trying not to let the ice tinkle. He forbade Coca-Cola in the house because it contained cocaine.
Perversely, the Senator, who had done his best to put his rural origins behind him, insisted on keeping chickens—to impress visiting constituents?—but since there was too much shade, they moped in the woods. I found them a bit dull but I did my best to keep them amused.
One day at table I was told, “Eat your chicken.” A terrible knowledge of Edenic magnitude filled me with horror. This? On the plate? The same? The same. I would not eat chicken for many years despite my grandmother’s cunning ways to trick me into what I took to be a form of cannibalism.
The Senator called his wife Tot, which I rendered as Dot. To her, he was Dad, which I rendered as Dah, an Irish locution, I am told. Her first name was Nina. I never heard her call the Senator by his first name except once when they were in the small sitting room off their bedroom; he wore a long night shirt and she was in her usual uniform, a pale pink wrapper over a lace night dress—since he could not see her she never bothered with her appearance unless there was company. While reading to him, she noticed that his night shirt had ridden up to his knees. “Put your dress down, Tom,” she said. Otherwise he was Dad or Mr. Gore.
No one that I know of ever called him Tom or Thomas. President Roosevelt, in his squire of the manor way, addressed him once, and once only, as Tom. The Senator ignored him until he was addressed properly. As a boy in Mississippi, he had been called Guv, short for Governor, tribute to an ambition that was noticeable even then. There seems never to have been a time that he was not in demand as an eloquent and witty speaker, particularly at those political picnics which were one of the few communal pleasures during harsh Reconstruction days.
The Gores belonged to the Party of the People; hence, populists. T. P. Gore’s father was clerk of Walthall County, an elected post of peculiar power in that state, a sort of regional chancellor. Since there were few blacks in north central Mississippi, Gores had never been slaveholders, unlike Dot’s father’s family, the Kays of South Carolina, or her mother’s family, the McLaughlins of Meridian, Mississippi.
Dot and Dah complemented each other. She was dark with large eyes and high-arched brows; she was also small—hence, Tot. She had a beautiful low speaking voice. When Dah first heard it at a political picnic in Palestine, Texas, where her family had moved after the War, he said, “I’m going to marry you.” He was a twenty-five-year-old blind lawyer, practicing law with his father and two brothers. After losing an election to the Mississippi legislature, he had left the state. The campaign had been unusually dirty. Also, rather more to the point, he was already bound for the United States Senate; this meant that he must leave Mississippi, where one had to wait for an incumbent to die, which could be decades; much too long a time for a man in a hurry. First, he headed west to Texas; then on to the Indian territories, where he helped organize the state of Oklahoma. In 1907, he was sent to Washington as the state’s first senator.
Thomas Pryor Gore. He is seated in his heavy wood Mission rocking chair, now in my bedroom at Ravello. He listens as the secretary reads to him; the straight but rather small chin is held high while the head is slightly tilted to one side. The blind eyes are tight shut with concentration. He has a full head of cowlicked white hair, a rosy unlined face, and a large straight Anglo-Irish nose with the curious flaring Gore nostrils that most of us have inherited, including our young cousin who currently lives in vice-presidential obscurity, a sort of family ghost flickering dimly on prime-time television.
Dah is about five foot nine or ten; he stands very straight. He is well-proportioned except for an astonishing stomach. A parabola begins at his rib cage and extends half a foot out in front of him before it abruptly rejoins the lower body. The stomach is hard as a rock. Dot would often touch it with wonder. “When you’re dead, I’m going to have this opened up. I’ve got to see what’s in there. It’s like iron, that stomach.” Now I am getting the same stomach, but much later in life, and thanks only to alcohol. Dah himself never drank until old age, when doctors prescribed two shots before dinner. Both of his brothers were alcoholic, in the best Confederate tradition. This meant that they functioned as lawyers all day; then, work done, they drank a great deal. So, too, I fear, did Dot, to Dah’s distress. At dinner, she would begin to ramble in a story or slur her words, ending the meal by sneezing exactly five times and blowing her nose in the Irish linen napkin, to my mother’s fury. She lived to be the oldest of my four grandparents, dying in her eighties.
I have a newsreel of Dah from 1931, the year that he came back to the Senate. He is standing in front of the Capitol with another senator, also blind. Clearly, an unpolitical human interest story was on the producer’s mind. Gore’s voice is measured, precise, more Southern than Southwestern in accent, with an actor’s phrasing. Lyndon Johnson used to imitate him unsuccessfully. The Gore style influenced at least two generations of regional politicians. Much of his effect depended on a sharp sudden wit that could surprise a crowd into laughter, very like his friend and fellow Chautauqua speaker, Mark Twain. It is said that Will Rogers, in performance, most resembled Gore. But I wouldn’t know. Although I often led Dah from his office onto the Senate floor and even into the holy of holies, the Senate cloak room, I never heard him make a speech. It was a family complaint that when he was due to make a major speech in the Senate, he would tell none of us in advance. We would only know about it from the newspapers the next day. Dah ends the 1931 newsreel with an offhand, “Nice to see you,” straight to camera. Early in his career, he liked to hold notes in his hand that he would pretend to consult in order to disguise the little known, at the time, fact that he was totally blind.
We are seated on the porch—a sort of open loggia—at one end of the Rock Creek Park house. It is summer. The irises, in full bloom, have a heavy lemon smell. I am eating grapes that I’ve just picked in the arbor that separates porch from dilapidated slave cabin. Dah sits in his rocker. A woman journalist rattles away: How did he become blind? We have all told this particular story so many times that we can recite it without thinking. Eight years old. Throwing nails at a cow. Another boy’s nail misses. Hits Guv’s eye. Still has one good eye, and partial, if fading, vision in the damaged eye. Age ten, appointed page to the Mississippi State Senate at Jackson. Boards in a state senator’s house. Son of house has a birthday. Guv brings him a gun. When you pull the trigger, a spike comes out. Doesn’t work. Guv holds it to his good eye to see what’s wrong. “Now I’m blind,” were his first words after the spike found its target. The family wanted to put him in a school for the handicapped. No. I’m going to study law. How? Send someone to school with me, to read to me. A relative named Pittman went with him to the Lebanon School of Law in Tennessee. Gore learned to memorize what was read to him, including endless statistics. Learned to recognize people by their voices. Was not surprised when radar was developed in World War II. “All blind people know about radar. You can feel the sound waves bounce off a wall up ahead of you. Gives you warning.”