Smoke in his eyes

After Newsweek pulls a story about Gore's pot-smoking past, a former friend speaks out.


Jake Tapper
January 22, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

As Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign prepared for its anticipated win at the Iowa Caucuses Monday, Washington media circles were agog with news having to do with crops other than corn. After Newsweek pulled a report on Gore's pot-smoking past, the story's main source started speaking out.

At the last minute on Friday, Jan. 14, editors at Newsweek magazine pulled an excerpt of "Inventing Al Gore: A Biography," a book by their own reporter Bill Turque. According to a knowledgeable source, the editors were concerned that the excerpt focused too much on Gore's past drug use.

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The chapter in the book addresses the veracity of Gore's claim in 1987 that his past pot smoking was "rare and infrequent." That same year, as Gore was gearing up for his doomed presidential run, he said to reporters that it had been approximately 15 years since he last toked up.

But Newsweek editors were worried about the credibility of one of Turque's main sources for the story disputing Gore's claim to "rare and infrequent" pot use -- former Gore pal and colleague at the Nashville Tennessean, John Warnecke, a recovering alcoholic currently in a 12-step program. Warnecke told Salon that he suffers from depression and that schizophrenia runs in his family. He says he used to regularly smoke pot with Gore, and that the vice president's marijuana use was far more extensive than Gore has indicated.

Newsweek editors apparently tried to water down the language and descriptions in Turque's book, scheduled to be published in February. But since Turque and his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, own the rights to the excerpts, he had final say about what Newsweek would publish. (An excerpt about Gore's time in Vietnam, which included scenes in which a distraught Tipper sought solace with Warnecke and his wife, had already been published in December.)

After all, Turque devoted three years of his life to the book, had confirmed Warnecke's allegations with other sources, and didn't want any of his research watered down.

Turque, it should be noted, is no J.H. Hatfield, the since-discredited writer whose book about George W. Bush was quickly pulled from shelves last fall for containing shoddy sourcing, and after it was revealed Hatfield had served time in prison for hiring someone to murder his boss. Turque was Newsweek's White House correspondent for two years, a senior writer about national affairs for the magazine for five years and worked as a newspaper reporter for a decade before that, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 with a team of reporters at the Kansas City Star.

After much hand-wringing and head-butting, according to the source, Turque and his editors agreed to pull the story to be reworked so that it could be given more context. In return, Turque was promised more space -- though there's no guarantee when or if the piece will run. Turque then called Warnecke to let him know about the delay.

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But Warnecke, now living on disability in the San Francisco area, decided to take matters into his own hands. A former member of the Tennessee chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Warnecke alerted the Web site of the Drug Reform Coordination Network that the piece had been pulled, hoping to somehow get his story out.

It worked. The group's online site, DRCNet, published an interview with Warnecke on Friday that was picked up and linked to by Mediagossip.com, a Web site popular with reporters and editors.

Gore spokesman Chris Lehane says, "This is old news. [Gore] brought it up himself in 1987 and was definitive at that time that he's never used it since entering public office." Lehane continued, "He's said he used it in college, used it in Vietnam and used it in Tennessee, but definitely hasn't used it since entering public service."

Warnecke, an oft-quoted source as a former Gore friend, says that he has covered up for Gore in the past, downplaying Gore's pot use to reporters. Now, he says, he wants to set the record straight.

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So who else have you spoken with?

The New York Times, to whom I lied to about his drug use in 1988. I've talked with the Tennessean. They're the paper that I lied to and made up the story about Al's drug use. And you.

Could you explain what you mean when you say you lied to these reporters?

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Al was putting out a story, and I helped him. In 1988, when Douglas Ginsberg withdrew his nomination to the Supreme Court because he admitted he had smoked pot, that was in the middle of the 1988 campaign. So they asked all the candidates if they had smoked pot. And Al called me and asked me to stonewall. I argued with him, I said, "If you get everybody to stonewall, then you're just raising the red flag, and the press will scrutinize you even further." But he put pressure on me to stonewall.

What do you mean by "pressure"?

He called me three times in one morning, and he said, "Don't talk to the press at all about this." That's a stonewall, and it's another form of lying. But I couldn't do that. But I was torn. I felt a debt to the Tennessean, a paper that taught me everything about the truth. And I had a friendship with Al. So I came up with this half-truth. And that was, that Al had tried it a couple of times with me and he didn't like pot.

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Whose idea was this story?

That was my idea. He wanted me to stonewall. But the story I said was the opposite of truth. Because he and I smoked every day for I don't know how long. And he loved it. But by saying what I did to the Tennessean, that basically killed the issue.

[When asked about this, Gore spokesman Lehane says the vice president has no recollection of this conversation.]

But Al Gore never specifically asked you to lie, right?

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Now we're getting into lawyerisms. Al asked me to not tell the truth. You tell me what you call that. He asked me to not tell the truth. He said, "I want you to not talk to them. I want you to tell them that's private." Did Al ask me not to lie? He asked me not to tell the truth. That's what he wanted. And to me that would look like a coverup. So I said, "Don't worry, I won't hurt you." So I ended up telling them this thing which ended up not being the truth. I said, "Al smoked a couple times" -- that was a lie. I said, "Al didn't like it" -- that was a lie.

Now, did he ask me to say those words? No. But he wanted me to not tell the truth. I went to seminary for four years. We call that in religious terms a sin of omission. It's a lie. But Al implied that what he wanted me to do wasn't lying.

But it's not actually asking you to lie, right?

I'm not going to be a lawyer on this. That's what Clinton did. He twisted reality around so much we didn't know right or wrong anymore. I feel sorry for you guys, having to go through these statements while the country has been lawyered like this.

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In 1987, Gore said that he hadn't smoked pot approximately since 1972. When was the last time you smoked pot with him?

It was in 1976, the year he first ran for Congress. I smoked with him right before he ran and if my memory is correct I smoked with him one time during the campaign.

So why come forward with this?

Well, I've been living with this for years, and feeling horrible about it. And talking with my therapist -- I hate to get too New Agey here -- but he thought I was under tremendous pressure because of this.

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So then I heard [Turque] was writing this book. And this was a part of Al's life that was real. In all the biographies of Al out there, there was this false story going on about Al, and a false story about his drug use. And I felt that I had to be straight. I was part of that lie. So I called Bill.

So I told him what I knew. And when I told Bill, he was dead silent. I gave him some names of people who could verify what I was saying. And he put down part of it in his book, though not all of it.

So why talk to me -- or anybody else?

Well, I like your stuff. I enjoy reading it. And I knew you'd be fair. But you can do whatever you want with it. If you want to give me a beating, give me a beating.

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But is this part of some vendetta against Gore?

Not at all. I like Al. I'm going to vote for him. He was a close friend and now I still like him. I don't think this is enough to vote against him. I think he's the best candidate of them all.

But ...?

But I want to see the American people vote for him on honesty and the full story and not a fabrication. That's why I'm doing what I'm doing. I want the whole story to get out. And of course, this is just part of it.

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So you're doing this for the American people?

No, I'm doing this to clear my conscience. I've felt terrible about this. Really. I've felt depressed about this for years and years. And my psychiatrist said this is terrible and he said I got to do something about this. I am in AA and we do go about things like this in this way.

But why now?

Well, I didn't plan on this timing. This is Newsweek's timing. I thought this excerpt was going to be published in December, but what came out in Newsweek was the other part of that interview with me, which had to do with Al going to Vietnam and Tipper coming to my house and having these breakdowns. In December, I thought instead of that story they were going to run with the drug story. And then I thought this was going to come out last Friday. But Bill called me and said that his editors killed it, or at least pulled it.

And you don't think Newsweek's going to run this?

I do, but they'll print the watered-down version. And who knows when they'll do it. And it's an issue that needs to be discussed on the campaign trail before the primaries are over, before March. Al will be coronated by then. And I think they're going to print such a watered-down version. It's not going to resemble what I told Bill or what actually happened. Plus, if anything, I think Bill has watered down some of the stories of our pot-smoking expeditions.

Can you explain a little bit about the media food chain by which this story came to DRCNet and Mediagossip.com?

Well, after Bill called me, I thought that the only democracy left is the Internet. So I called the drug legalization people because it wasn't another media, so I wasn't going to be betraying Bill by going to another competing media. It's a nonpartisan group, a clearinghouse for drug reform news. And it's only a little publication, it only has like 10,000 readers and it comes out on Thursday on the Internet. And with them there was no chance of editors coming in and changing things, or lawyers taking stuff out, or all of that crap when you deal with corporations.

Some people might see this as a way for you just to get famous.

I'm not anxious to do a lot of media. But I'm going to wait and see what Al has to say, and their reaction. If they make this a war of who is telling the truth, then I've got things ... and I'll keep coming back with more and more information. He's running for the highest office in the land. And we have a drug policy that's been a total failure. And he's been part of it for the last eight years. And not one debate has even brought this up.

So you think drugs should be legal? Is that a major reason behind your coming forward?

I think certain drugs should be decriminalized, like pot. I was on the board with NORML in Tennessee. Cocaine should definitely be criminal, though. But that's not the main reason I'm going with this.

Do you still smoke pot?

I don't smoke now. I have not smoked in 21 years. I don't drink. But that doesn't mean I want to prohibit it. I just think throwing people in jail, giving them records that follow them around their whole lives, doesn't help the problem. And I don't see pot as a big problem. I've always been for decriminalizing pot.

So when did you and Gore smoke pot?

We started in 1970, I think. At my house in Nashville. He likes pot. He told me he smoked it before. I smoked it with Al before he went to Vietnam. And he told me he smoked over there in Vietnam. But now that I know how Al talks about it as opposed with what he really does, I don't know what to believe.

You know, he's very uncomfortable whenever the subject comes up. He gives you that cold stare. He'll cold stare you down. He does not want to talk about it.

But he was a senator's son at the time. Wasn't he worried about being caught?

He was paranoid. When he smoked in my house he would run around in my house and he would close all the blinds. If it was night, he'd turn all the lights out. He'd look out the windows and make sure that no one was watching. And then he would light up. Talk about paranoia! We played pool in the dark once! That's how a senator's son smoked pot.

My dad was kind of famous, he was an architect, he designed John F. Kennedy's grave, and I didn't see the big deal. Back then everybody was doing it.

But I liked Al. We hit it off like brothers when we met. He was more conservative than I was. I didn't like it when he went to Vietnam; I wish he'd lived up to his principles. I knew he didn't like the war in Vietnam. He did it just to please his father. But I never understand why he did that. Of course, his father was a very powerful man. I covered his father's last campaign for the Tennessean. I loved the senator, I loved his wife, Pauline, and I loved Al's sister, Nancy.

Your objection is that he's not being -- in graphic terms -- honest about his past use. But isn't that understandable?

Well let me ask you this: If there was a behavior that could cost you your [future] job and you did it anyway, what would you call that? I mean, if he's not doing it now what is the problem about not talking about it? If he did it as little as he claims. But the reality is he didn't do it so little.

As a lover of politics and policy, and a former member of NORML, how much of what you're doing has a policy component?

It's not that big a part. The main reason has to do with the fact that I reached a point in my life -- and in my sobriety -- when I realized I was carrying a lot of people's lies. And I was tired of carrying other people's lies. People were putting me in positions that I had to say something about them that we both knew just wasn't true. And I had been working with my psychiatrist on this lie I told about Al, and about the truth of Al's pot smoking with me. I did it with his pressure. And I've never been comfortable with it. He did it at a time, in 1988, so he could stay as a viable candidate. And later he was picked to be Clinton's VP. And all the while there was this story out there, that I had told, and it wasn't the truth.

And the media kept asking about it?

No, I wasn't hounded by reporters or anything like that. Pretty much when I told the story to the Tennessean, that Al smoked a little bit and didn't like it, that pretty much killed it. But reporters would interview me about Al and it would come up. And it would come up in his political campaigns.

Look, I mean, I worked for the [Grateful] Dead. I was an acidhead. I rode on the bus with [Ken] Kesey. I had a reputation of being a real heavy druggie in my younger days. So people would assume that my close friends, I would pick them to play with. So that question eventually would come up.

And I couldn't keep it quiet either. You know when you're telling a lie and you make, what do you call it, a Freudian slip? It would come out. Eventually it would come out. So it must have been bothering me.

Why do you see a psychiatrist?

I suffer from depression.

Do you have any concern that will be used to discredit you and this story?

Sure, they're going to try to make that an issue. Despite all their big talk about mental health, about removing the stigma and Tipper coming forward about her depression.

But this lie was getting to me. My therapy would be taken up talking about it. And I felt weak. I felt emasculated by Al. That Al, my good friend, would do this to me. Ask me to lie. And then not talk to me for 10 years.

You haven't talked to him in 10 years?

No, he hasn't called me since the day that he asked me to stonewall in 1988. And here I've been holding this lie up. I lied to the New York Times; I was in tears when I lied to them. And when my [second] wife died, I didn't get a letter or a note from him.


Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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