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Gore in the Balance

In Praise of Public Life

by Joseph I. Lieberman, with Michael D’Orso
Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 174 pp., $12.00 (paper)

1.

The Democratic National Convention got underway in Los Angeles in mid-August with security precautions worthy of Berlin’s old Checkpoint Charlie. The fabled or, if you prefer, notorious Los Angeles Police Department clad itself in black helmets and body shields and stood in long ranks, each officer hefting a three-foot-long club. The security forces erected steel and concrete barricades and chopped down saplings around the Staples Center, in an already treeless and dreary area just south of downtown, lest their scrawny trunks be used for cover by a much-feared army of militant vegetarians, pacifists, opponents of the death penalty, and, most dangerous of all, nonbelievers in David Ricardo’s argument that free trade ultimately benefits everyone. Anyone entering this bunkerlike setting had to wear a tag around the neck which was subject to inspection by ultraviolet rays lest it prove to be a counterfeit. All that was missing were the signs saying “You are leaving the American sector.”

Inside the battlements, many Democrats felt beleaguered politically as well as physically. Their about-to-be-anointed candidate, Vice President Albert Gore, had trailed George W. Bush, the Republican nominee, in every poll taken since the campaign began in 1999. Bush had just provided a climax to the Republican convention in Philadelphia with an efficient and workmanlike speech in which he easily surpassed the low expectations that had been held out for him. In addition, Bush’s running mate, the dour former defense secretary Dick Cheney, had delivered a Dutch-uncle acceptance speech that suggested—prematurely as it turned out—that he might be a talented campaigner as well as Bush’s experienced guide to the workings of the federal government.

Not even the momentary excitement over Gore’s selection of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate, the first Jew on a major party’s national ticket, had changed the momentum of the race. It was a perplexing situation. Polls showed that the public agreed more with Gore’s positions on the chief issues: health care, education, saving Social Security, and maintaining the current economic growth—even though its blessings had not reached much of the population. Yet voters deemed Bush to be the stronger and more likable leader, more honest, amply experienced, a welcome change from the sleazy parts of the Clinton years. “I think it’s over, don’t you?” a leading national pollster said to me as the delegates assembled at the convention center. “I don’t see how Gore turns it around.”

At this low moment, Gore’s pollster, Stan Greenberg, a Yale professor, said his candidate’s problem was that the public didn’t really know him. This was a curious assertion. Gore is the son of the late Senator Albert S. Gore of Tennessee, a prominent opponent of the Vietnam War. He has been in federal office for twenty-three years, including eight as probably the most active and visible vice-president in history. He had written a best seller,

Earth in the Balance, about the environment, for which former President Bush derided him as “ozone man.”

He was the central figure in a series of investigations into campaign fund-raising abuses and had become a national laughingstock, especially to late-night comedians, for his appearance at a Buddhist temple that turned out to have been a venue for illegal fund-raising. Worse than being unknown, he was altogether too well known as a national figure of fun—legendarily wooden in facial expression, robotic in his body movements, maddeningly pedantic in speech. He was widely and even persuasively dismissed by his political foes as equal parts goody-goody, self-promoter, merciless attack dog, and sleazy money-grubber.

And then, on one night, this August 17, Gore turned the 2000 campaign on its head. Introduced by his wife, Tipper, with a slide show of family snapshots, Gore made a TV wrestler’s flamboyant entry, striding to the podium through a sea of raucous delegates rather than entering through a stage door. He bounded on stage, seized Tipper, and bent her backward over his left arm for a long lingering kiss straight out of a Harlequin novel. “Disgusting,” scowled the conservative commentator Robert Novak, and Democratic hearts brightened everywhere at this first, faint hint of good news for their champion.

Gore’s speech was more notable for its friendly, substantive, and animated delivery than for any flights of rhetoric. He rushed his words right over the mounting applause, confounding some of the theater critics of the press but conveying by this adroit device a sense of urgency to his message. To separate himself from President Clinton, he announced himself to be his own man (as he had done in his first race for Congress in 1976 to separate himself from his father). He then began a quasi-populist, carefully targeted attack on polluters, drug and tobacco companies, and health maintenance organizations. He defended Social Security, Medicare, welfare reform, gun control, community policing, and free trade. He would fight, he said, for “working families,” a phrase he had used in his own earlier campaigns that suggests he is on the side of all those of us who do not sit around our swimming pools waiting for our trust fund checks to arrive.

To millions of Americans, this was a Gore they had never seen before, able to talk easily and accessibly about vital, kitchen-table issues like the retirement age or the cost of prescription drugs. Initial polls showed that he had instantly closed the gap with Bush. Within two weeks he was, according to two polls, as much as ten points ahead. This margin then dropped, but Gore’s unexpected surge was enough to create momentary panic among Republicans who had long believed the presidency was a plum for their picking.

Bill Turque’s biography, Inventing Al Gore, makes it clear that Stan Greenberg was right. Americans did not know the real Al Gore. He emerges in Turque’s study as a three-dimensional figure rather than the caricature that had been so widely accepted (with Gore’s own ample assistance) and so assiduously promulgated both by his foes and by lazy journalists. Turque’s chief contribution to this campaign is that he reminds us of Gore’s breadth of experience—in arms control, the environment, high technology, the workings of Congress and the executive branch.

Turque also sweeps away much—indeed, virtually all—of the unflattering conventional wisdom that has made Gore out to be a perpetual exaggerator of his own achievements. Though he was born and educated in Washington, Gore as a child did indeed work cruelly hard on his father’s Tennessee farm. He was in fact a model for one of the characters in Erich Segal’s Love Story. He really did have an important part in creating the Internet. He did hold the first congressional hearings into pollution at New York’s Love Canal.

Behind the frequently wooden exterior, Turque shows a playful human being who, as his official plane takes off, plants his feet on a plastic tray and “aisle surfs” downhill toward the tail. But he also reveals what must have been a confining, oppressive childhood as the only son of Senator Albert Gore Sr., an apparently loving but often absentee father who seemed to see in his dutiful son the instrument of revenge for his own political failures.

The book by Maraniss and Nakashima goes over much the same ground, but devotes most of its energy to Gore’s youth and virtually none to his eight years as vice-president. “Many of the behavioral patterns of the figure who would run for president in 2000 are best explained by the boy he once was,” Maraniss and Nakashima write. This perspective allows them, for example, to quote Barbara Howar, a teenage friend of Gore’s older sister, Nancy, saying of Gore, the child: “He was an egregious little tattle-tale.” As a small child, he was also, the authors say, the sort of pest who repeated television commercials in a singsong voice. This sounds like a normal kid to me, but Maraniss and Nakashima present this behavior as though it affords a revealing insight into Gore the man. In any event, it seems a little gratuitous to dwell so much on childhood influences and then ignore so many of Gore’s adult achievements.

2.

When Bill Clinton chose Al Gore in 1992 as his running mate, Gore’s father exulted, “We raised him for it.” Taken literally, and it should be, this is a confession of child abuse. The elder Gore molded his son from birth for the role he now plays, much as the golfer Tiger Woods or baseball star Mickey Mantle were drilled by their own fathers for a stardom that had eluded the parents.

Gore was born March 31, 1948, at Columbia Hospital for Women in Washington, about a dozen blocks from the White House. The elder Gore goaded the Nashville Tennessean to print the news on page one, and saddled his son at birth with his own name, giving him an implicit mandate to replicate the father’s life. (Coincidentally, all five of the leading Republican and Dem-ocratic contenders in this presiden-tial race—Gore, Bush, William Warren Bradley, Malcolm S. (Steve) Forbes Jr., and John McCain—bear their fathers’ given names.)

Young Albert grew up mostly in a two-bedroom apartment at Washington’s Fairfax Hotel, which was not quite as posh then as it is now. From the age of twelve he did fifty pushups a day because his father demanded it. Casual boyish questions provoked long, explanatory lectures. In the summer, his father removed him to the family farm in Tennessee, where he was worked mercilessly. He rose at dawn to slop out hogs and chop tobacco, and was forced to use hand tools to clear a hillside. “Even the local kids, who might have enjoyed watching a city slicker sweat some, were appalled at how Gore was worked,” Turque writes. He quotes a woman as saying of Gore’s workload: “It was horrendous.”

Gore shares with George W. Bush the experience of having a largely absent political father. Though Gore loved his parents, it is clear that they were more interested in their political lives—Gore’s mother, Pauline, was his father’s chief political adviser—than in staying at home with their son. He ate many meals alone or with a servant in the Fairfax apartment. And the father who so drove him to be physically fit never attended one of his son’s high school football games.

In a passage Turque cites from Gore’s 1992 book Earth in the Balance, Gore seems to allude to his youth:

A developing child in a dysfunctional family searches his parents’ face for signals that he is whole and all is right with the world; when he finds no such approval, he begins to feel that something is wrong inside. And because he doubts his worth and authenticity, he begins controlling his inner experience—smothering spontaneity, masking emotion, diverting creativity into robotic routine, distracting an awareness of all he is missing with an unconvincing replica of what he might have been.

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