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.
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.
Turque might well have quoted another passage that appears to explain Gore’s inability to rebel against the beloved father who drove him so mercilessly:
Infants or developing children are so completely dependent that they cannot afford even to think there is something wrong with the parent, even if the rules do not feel right or make sense. Since children cannot bear to identify the all-powerful parent as the source of dysfunctionality, they assume that the problem is within themselves.
Maraniss and Nakashima speculate that Gore’s ponderous formality was inherited, via his father, from Representative Cordell Hull of Tennessee, a Gore mentor (and later secretary of state under Franklin Roosevelt), who was eager to prove that he was not a hillbilly. What a quaint notion. Today, we have highly educated Tennessee politicians like former governor Lamar Alexander, Senator Fred Thompson, and the Ivy League Gore donning plaid shirts and work boots in attempts to suggest that they are indeed hillbillies, fully capable of asking for the borry of a chaw of that-air tobacky. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York said in another context, such rapidly alternating visions of reward-producing behavior have been known to cause catatonia in rats. And we wonder why Gore is stiff.
Gore attended private schools in Washington, graduating from St. Albans, an Episcopal prep school hard by the Washington National Cathedral. It was there, at a dance, that he met Mary Elizabeth (Tipper) Aitcheson, just before he headed off to Harvard. Gore was not an especially good student, but he impressed two older men who gave him advice, presidential scholar Richard Neustadt and Martin Peretz, who taught a course that mixed sociology, political science, and psychology (and who later, as publisher of The New Republic, championed Gore’s political ambitions).
One of the oddities of Gore’s career is that, at Harvard, he wrote a prescient paper on the impact of television on politics. He has known from an early age what he had to do to succeed as a politician, yet he has never mastered it. In person, those who know him say, he can be warm, funny, relaxed. On TV he is either too stolid, too animated, loud, or soporific. He has been the constant subject—at least until the Los Angeles convention—of that saddest of political sayings, “If only you could see him in person….”
Upon graduation in 1969, Gore enlisted in the army to serve in a war in Vietnam that both he and his father opposed. While in active service, he married Tipper. Although it has been suggested that the army protected him from hazardous duty, the evidence indicates that it tried to shield him from being harassed as the son of an anti-war senator. He was assigned to Vietnam as an army journalist and served less than five months there, never seeing combat. This was shorter than the normal thirteen-month tour. Gore now speculates that the Nixon White House delayed his departure to Vietnam so that Albert Gore Sr., who was running for reelection in 1970, could not point to a son serving in the war to defend himself against the suggestion that he was unpatriotic in opposing the war.
The elder Gore lost his Senate seat to Bill Brock in a race marked by veiled racism and crooked fundraising on the Republican side. Brock received more than $200,000 in contributions from “Operation Town-house,” a secret three-million-dollar fund financed by Walter Annenberg, W. Clement Stone, Richard Mellon Scaife, and others. This defeat may account for Gore’s willingness to do whatever it takes, even at the margins of the law, to raise campaign contributions. Campaign financing is indeed an instance in which good guys usually finish last.
Gore became a reporter at the Nashville Tennessean and part-time divinity and law student, getting degrees in neither subject. He seems to have been an enthusiastic user of marijuana at this stage in his life although he insists that his dope-smoking was only sporadic. Since George W. Bush has successfully drawn a veil over his own youthful drug use, it is not likely that Republicans will make much of an issue of Gore’s.
In 1976, a House seat opened up, and Gore seized the opportunity. Like Bush, he benefited from voters’ remorse at having voted against his father. He soared to prominence as a junior congressman, holding hearings on consumer issues and immersing himself in the arcana of nuclear arms control. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, recalls being summoned to Gore’s congressional office to be quizzed in detail about the assumptions in a nuclear war-fighting scenario Woolsey had helped draft as an army lieutenant ten years earlier. Gore became a proponent of the single-warhead Midgetman missile, which he saw as strategically more stable than the multiple-warhead MX and its Soviet counterparts.
Gore has been much mocked for telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in 1999 that as a young congressman he had taken the lead in creating the Internet. But his assertion is true. He did not claim—as Republicans now charge—to have invented the Internet, which was a Defense Department computer network dating back to the 1960s. But in 1986, he sponsored a bill that would have extended computer networking to libraries, rural schools, and minority institutions. In 1989, he testified before a House committee that if his bill was passed it would “create an environment where work stations are common in homes and even small businesses.” President Bush, by the way, signed Gore’s bill into law in 1991, predicting that the new technology “holds the promise of changing society as much as the other great inventions of the twentieth century, including the telephone, air travel, and radio and TV.” In his speech, Bush gave no credit to Gore.
In 1986, Gore’s father pressured him to run for president in 1988. Turque speculates that the elder Gore, then seventy-eight, was driven by a desire to see his son in the White House before he died, but he reports that the father never said this in so many words. Maraniss and Nakashima say the elder man was explicit, but they put his words in italics rather than quotation marks.
Son, said the father, I want to see you elected president before I die. The old man was seventy-eight and had no way of knowing he would live another twelve years.
Turque says the younger Gore was frightened by the proposal and told his father, “You can’t mean it. Absolutely not. No!” But Maraniss and Nakashima say the father’s pressure merely reinforced the son’s ambition.
Gore was then thirty-nine years old, as well prepared as anyone else in the race, but without a national constituency. White Southerners were moving into the Republican Party, so that in running in the Southern primaries he had to compete against Jesse Jackson for black votes. He had a disastrous experience in New York, where he was led around by Mayor Ed Koch, who used Gore as a club to beat up Jackson for his alleged anti-Semitism.
Gore’s hard-driven manner softened after his son was hit by a car and nearly killed as the family left a baseball game in Baltimore in 1989. Gore and his wife remained at the child’s side for weeks and vowed to spend more time with their four children—three older girls, and the boy, Albert III. Tipper, whose mother appears to have been depressive, was stricken with depression herself at this time. Apart from any genetic cause, she had ample reason to fret: she had abandoned a promising career as a photographer to become a perpetually smiling political wife, she had been mocked as a prude for her campaign against violent and obscene song lyrics, and her son had been run over by a car. To remain cheerful all through this would have been a symptom of dementia.
Gore threw himself into the writing of Earth in the Balance, which became one of the principal books alerting the public to the dangers of global warming. Turque describes the book as “at its best, a prodigious feat of reporting skill and intellectual virtuosity.” With much technical information, Gore writes clearly about disappearing rain forests, the risk of rising ocean levels, unrestrained dumping, and the disappearance in history of entire civilizations. In a foreword to a later edition, he reemphasizes the urgency of the original warning, writing that a prehistoric rush of thawed fresh water into the western Atlantic Ocean disrupted the Gulf Stream and plunged Europe into an ice age that lasted five hundred to eight hundred years. “The change occurred in less than two years, but it took centuries to undo itself and restart the Gulf Stream.”
After publication of this book at the start of the 1992 presidential campaign, Gore was also mocked for calling for replacement of the internal combustion engine. To this day, Republicans suggest that he wants to abolish the automobile—or, to alarm their key target audience, the pickup truck. But Gore stands by his belief that the world should shift from pollution-emitting engines to nonpolluting new technologies like hydrogen fuel cells in order to power automobiles and pickup trucks. This shift, he says, will create jobs, not kill them.
Gore’s views on other issues have shifted over the years. As a Tennessee congressman, he was opposed to abortion and gun control and thought homosexuality was “abnormal.” As vice- president under Clinton, he was the leader in advocating military acceptance of homosexuals in the ranks. He has also advocated restrictions on assault weapons, favors background checks on handgun purchases, and is now firmly pro-choice on abortion.
The rough and tumble of political reality has muddied any ideological consistency Gore may have tried to maintain. Though he preferred the Midgetman, he accepted a limited deployment of MX missiles as part of what he thought was a deal with the Reagan White House, for which he was rebuked by his fellow Democrats. Though intensely committed to the environment, he advocated passage of NAFTA with Mexico and Canada despite its weak environmental clauses. Though he poses as a populist and champion of campaign fund-raising reform, he has been aggressive in tapping the richest and most powerful American corporations for money. And then there is his support for granting temporary citizenship to the Cuban castaway Elián Gonzalez; this was an action explicable only as a base political appeal to Florida’s Cuban-American community. Gore says he was acting on principle, but, as the courts subsequently ruled, there was no legal principle to justify his position.
Though Gore’s fund-raising, especially his controversial appearance at the Buddhist temple, has been unseemly, it is not illegal. Attorney General Janet Reno has repeatedly found no grounds to name an independent counsel to investigate him. Most of those in the Justice Department and FBI who have argued for an independent investigation say they are doing so only to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest, not because they suspect Gore has committed any crimes. Gore was damaged chiefly by his clumsy defense that there was “no controlling legal authority” governing aspects of his aggressive campaign fund-raising.
Gore’s most dramatic departure from what seemed to be a pattern of obsessive caution was his selection of Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew from Connecticut, to be his running mate. One of the more amazing sights at the Los Angeles convention was the spectacle of thousands of Democratic delegates, including burly mine workers from Pennsylvania, holding up a sea of placards bearing the name of Lieberman’s wife, Hadassah.
By coincidence, Lieberman has published an engaging semi-autobiography this year aimed at encouraging young people to think better about politics and even to consider it, despite its occasional ugliness, as a career. Lieberman, son of a Connecticut liquor store owner, describes himself as an outsider at Yale, lost “among the preppies from Andover and Exeter.” (Dick Cheney, his opponent, was at Yale at the same time, and as a public school graduate from Wyoming, must have been even more of an outsider. He dropped out.)
In the fall of 1963, Lieberman traveled to Mississippi to register black voters for a “mock” election—illustrating a point of contrast in this presidential race. While Lieberman was involved in the civil rights movement and Gore served in Vietnam, Bush and Cheney sat out both those battles.
Lieberman ran for state senate in 1970, and made use of the services of Bill Clinton, a volunteer campaign worker from the Yale Law School. He won the seat and soon adopted the centrist policies he holds today, including his toughness on crime and advocacy of the death penalty. He divorced his first wife, he tells us, in part because he had grown more deeply religious. Oddly, he had difficulty in winning the support of Jewish organizations when he ran for the Sen-ate against Lowell Weicker in 1988. Weicker was also a friend of Israel, and the Jewish organizations, Lieberman says, had a “hard-and-fast rule of not giving any support to challengers facing incumbents with a pro-Israel voting record, no matter who the challenger was or what his stance on Israel.” Even odder, what helped him defeat Weicker was support from Republican conservatives who could not forgive Weicker for his criticism of Richard Nixon while on the Senate Watergate committee.
Lieberman makes much of his bipartisanship in politics, citing his votes in favor of the Persian Gulf War and cutting the capital gains tax and his criticism of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. But his examples are in one direction: he moves to the right. He gives no example of using bipartisan arguments to persuade conservatives to move to more liberal positions.
In his book, Lieberman repeats the view that incurred criticism from the Anti-Defamation League after a recent speech, his belief that religion should be more prominent in public life. He writes that courts and public officials who have barred expressions of faith in government settings were “mistaking the Constitution’s promise of freedom of religion for a policy of freedom from religion.”
This is a formulation most often used by the religious right, and it is a skewed interpretation. The Constitution is not merely neutral among religions, as Lieberman suggests; it has also been held not to allow the preference of religion over nonreligion. Under the Constitution, no one can be disqualified from public office, for example, for atheism. He is arguing that government-sponsored, denominationally neutral, generic piety would meet his definition of separation of church and state. Religious conservatives have cheered him on. In speeches shortly after his nomination, Lieberman also said that religion was the only basis of morality, repeating a line from George Washington. When he was challenged, he agreed that he knew nonbelievers who were indeed moral, but then dug himself even deeper. “Iknow religious people who I consider not to be moral, and Ialso know people who are not religious who I consider to be extremely moral,” he said. “So, you know, I’m talking here about probabilities.” This is an admission of prejudice; it is his presumption that, by and large, nonreligious people are less moral than the pious. Said about any group other than nonbelievers, it would be termed religious bigotry. The remark did not seem to trouble many voters, however.
In Gore and Lieberman, the Democratic Party has once again shunned its left wing, moving away from its former bases in labor unions and among minority voters, and opted for the center, hoping to take advantage of the vacuum left by the Republican Party’s steady drift to the right, particularly in its positions against abortion and in favor of privatizing Social Security and schools. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” frightened the Democrats for a moment, but as the race has gotten closer, Bush has come under pressure to resort to negative campaigning instead of posing with minority school children and worrying about the tax burden on single-mother waitresses. We’ll see how long compassionate conservatism survives.
I have read Turque’s book twice and I strongly recommend it. The first time I was impressed by his account of Gore’s record of achievement, the second by Turque’s wisdom and insight as he sought to understand the complexities of Gore’s elusive personality. His is not a worshipful book by any means. Turque can be as tough on Gore as anyone else, especially on his aggressive fund-raising (and refusal to acknowledge its unseemliness)and on the perpetual overcalculation that can make so many of his statements seem phony, even if they are not. But his criticism is based on fact, not on myths about creating the Internet or shaking down Buddhist nuns. As Gore’s chances improve, Turque’s book is the best guide so far to what may lie ahead.
October 19, 2000