Al Gore: Born to run

A child of Washington is within arm's reach of the Democratic presidential nomination.

Published February 14, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

When Bill Clinton tapped Al Gore to be his running mate in 1992, Gore's father exalted to the New York Times: "We raised him for it." And it does seem that Gore was groomed for national office from the day his birth was announced on Page 1 of a Tennessee newspaper. By the age of 40, the vice president had passed through both houses of Congress and mounted a failed presidential bid. Four years later, he landed in the White House, albeit not in the wing he would have chosen.

But as the candidacies of both Gore and Republican front-runner George W. Bush indicate, being the annointed candidate of the establishment is no guarantee of smooth political sailing. Gore faced an early, well-financed challenge from Bill Bradley, though Gore seems to have regained momentum after victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the Bradley surge is indicative of Gore's flaws as a candidate.

He's had trouble connecting with voters. For most of last year his campaign was a Washington-centric operation that spent money hand over fist and seemed to regard the vice president's ascension as a foregone conclusion. The media had a field day writing about Gore's wooden presence and the shifting chairs on his campaign deck. As Melinda Henneberger put it in the New York Times, "Most of the press about Gore on the stump could run under the headline, 'Stiff Man Still Stiff.'"

Gore is a scion of Washington, raised in the city's most powerful circles. The second child and only son of Sen. Albert Gore and his wife, Pauline, he prepped at the tony St. Albans high school and soaked up the words of the Fulbrights, Cliffords and Alsops at his parents' cocktail parties. Gore did spend time in Tennessee. Each summer he decamped to the family's farm, where his father put him to work in the fields with the hired hands. Still, Gore was not the product of rural Tennessee life his campaign video would have you believe. As David Halberstam, who covered Gore's father in the Senate, said, "Gore is a prince of American politics."

Harvard came after St. Albans, and in 1969 the newly minted graduate faced a wrenching quandary over whether to serve in Vietnam to help save his father's political career. Gore's father, an outspoken critic of the war in a conservative state, was mired in a difficult reelection bid. Al Jr. was an entrenched opponent of the war himself, but he thought that skirting duty could tip the scales in his father's election (not to mention hurt his prospects in his own future campaigns). Gore ultimately enlisted, and appeared in a TV commercial where his dad told him: "Son, always love your country."

Albert Gore Sr. lost the election, and his son went off to war.

Gore was so embittered by the experience that when he returned to the United States he insisted he wanted to steer clear of politics. He enrolled in divinity school and began writing for the Nashville Tennessean. By this point he was married to his high school sweetheart, Tipper Aitcheson, and they had the first of four children in 1973. Gore has said in interviews that his days as a hack were some of the happiest of his life. But when the local congressional seat opened up in 1976, Gore jumped into the political fray. He won the election handily, as he would in his next three House bids and two Senate elections in 1984 and 1990.

From the beginning, Gore stood apart from his House colleagues. "He wasn't intimated by the institution," says Roy Neel, a former Gore staffer. "He hit the ground running, and that helped him make his reputation early." While the Tennessee lawmaker was respected by his peers, he never insinuated himself into the Hill's cliques. Rather than achieve national prominence by scaling the rungs of the Democratic leadership, Gore catapulted into the spotlight by developing an expertise in recondite, technical issues such as defense, information technology and the environment. After his years in a newsroom, Gore had a good feel for how to attract media attention to his work. His subcommittees held more hearings than anyone else's, and he racked up press clips like few junior congressmen.

In a town where everyone is in a hurry, Gore seemed to be in overdrive. In 1988, at the age of 39, he launched his first presidential bid. It quickly became apparent that the Tennessee senator didn't have qualms about going for the political jugular. It was Gore who first brought up Willie Horton in the Democratic primaries. Horton was a black convicted murderer who was given a furlough under a program supported by then-Massachusettes Gov. Michael Dukakis. While Horton was on furlough he raped a Maryland woman. The Republicans later wielded the racism-tinged issue against Dukakis in the general election.

Gore also hammered on Jesse Jackson's lack of political credentials with enthusiasm. His aggressive candidacy, however, didn't draw crowds. Despite Super Tuesday wins in the South, it became obvious Gore wasn't going to capture the nomination. His withdrawal from the race was his first, and only, political defeat.

Gore was reportedly galled by the setback, but the real seismic shift in his life was yet to come. In 1989, Gore's 6-year-old son Albert was hit by a car and nearly died. The accident prompted an intense period of introspection for Gore. The lifelong workaholic cleared his calendar for months to care for his son. He also embarked on one of the gutsier moves of his political career. In his parents' Capitol Hill apartment, he penned "Earth in the Balance," a controversial call to arms that employed his own spiritual struggle as a metaphor for man's degradation of the environment.

Gore wasn't conservative in his rhetoric or proposed solutions. He recommended eliminating the internal-combustion engine within 25 years and asserted that the environment should be the central organizing principle for civilization. While Republican strategists have delighted in combing Gore's fevered prose for potentially embarrassing assertions, Gore hasn't distanced himself from his jeremiad. "There is nothing in the book that I would write differently today," he said in a phone interview. "Or rather, there is nothing in the book that causes me any particular discomfort. I'm sure I would write things differently because I'm older now."

In 1991, Gore sidestepped another presidential campaign. It was too soon after Albert's accident, he said, and his family needed him. His decision opened the door for another baby boomer Southern politician, and a year later, Gore was criss-crossing the country by bus, campaigning as Bill Clinton's running mate.

Unlike most vice presidents, Gore has amassed a solid track record in his White House years. His first major project -- reinventing government, or REGO -- was one of the administration's few successes in its first two years. Gore's biggest REGO accomplishment was cutting the federal bureaucracy down to the smallest it's been since the Kennedy administration.

Some critics, however, point out that most of the reductions were accomplished through voluntary buyouts. Workers were offered a chunk of cash to leave, regardless of their job performance. Obviously, more competent workers were in a better position to find work in the public sector, and they were more apt to jump ship. Critics charged that on Gore's watch, the government became smaller without becoming any smarter. Still, after the health-care fiasco, REGO's emphasis on a lean, more efficient government was a harbinger of the centrist tone the administration would soon adopt.

Gore also became an important voice in foreign policy, frequently urging the president to flex U.S. muscle abroad. He argued for early intervention in Bosnia and Haiti, for example. And Gore's negotiations with former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin helped draw the Kosovo crisis to a close last year.

The vice president stayed true to his green roots in the White House, prodding the president to propose pro-environmental initiatives. Clinton was hardly known as a green champion in his five-term stint as governor of Arkansas, but environmentalists generally give the administration high marks for designating swaths of land as national monuments, instituting tougher limits on automobile pollution and placing dyed-in-the-wool greenies in top positions. Green activists also praise Gore for jetting to Kyoto, Japan, to save the fraying global climate change negotiations in 1997, even though most regard the resulting treaty as inadequate.

Gore's first real misstep in the Clinton administration didn't have to do with his policy role, but his overzealousness as a fund-raiser. The Republican rout of 1994 spooked the administration, and the White House fund-raising machine began operating at full throttle. The vice president was knee deep in a money-soliciting operation, an issue that haunts his presidential campaign.

Gore gave conflicting accounts about his participation in a Buddhist-temple fund-raiser where he apparently collected checks from monastics. In 1997 he defended calling donors from the White House with the infamous assertion that "no controlling legal authority" prohibited the practice. The unfortunate trope, which Gore repeated seven times in a hastily called press conference, made the vice president look like an old-style, machine-sanctioned pol.

To Chuck Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, the fall-out from Gore's fund-raising was unsurprising, and perhaps overdue. "Gore got a pass until 1996," he says. "He's always had this image of a wonky idealist, or squeaky-clean Eagle Scout. But he was raising tons of money in 1988. There really was a dichotomy between his image and reality. He was always a pol."

That characterization flies in the face of Gore's desire to be seen as more noble, visionary and pure than other political leaders. His book is a virtual paean to idealistic, and principled, political decisionmaking. But there is an obvious tension between Gore's idealism and political pragmatism. In his book, Gore declared he had "become very impatient with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously."

He mounts a strong case against poll- and sound bite-driven candidacies. But he is waging precisely that sort of campaign. And while most environmentalists are pleased with Gore's green record, they note he has soft-peddled the issue on the hustings. Gore declared in his book that the environment should be the central organizing principle of civilization. He hasn't even made it the central organizing principle of his campaign.

It's not just the breach between his book's lofty pronouncements and his behavior on the stump that make it hard to pinpoint where the vice president's loyalties lie. In some of his more high-profile speeches, Gore has come off as opportunistic. For example, at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, Gore spoke about his son's accident, at one point comparing Albert's recovery to the resurrection of the Democratic Party. Some observers accused the candidate of trading on the near-tragedy to further his political ambitions.

He attracted similar criticism in 1996 when his keynote address focused on the death of his sister Nancy from lung cancer. Gore used the story to segue into an argument for a tougher line against tobacco companies. But media types quickly pointed out that the vice president had thrown out some conciliatory lines to Big Tobacco in his 1988 presidential campaign, four years after his sister's death. Highlighting an issue on which he had a mixed record was just another example of Gore's political tin ear, some opined.

But if the veep can be awkward on the stump, he's still regarded as a well-versed and competent policy maker. Gore's occasionally flat-footed campaign and leaden public presence may push Americans into the arms of a more charismatic candidate. But if the public's choice of its next president hinges on the candidates' politics and record, the man who was groomed for the presidency since birth could ultimately realize the ambitions his father harbored for him.

By Alexandra Starr

Alexandra Starr is a freelance writer based in Washington.

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