Al Gore-leone

Is the vice president really a nice guy or a goodfella?

Published February 23, 2000 11:28AM (EST)

The father -- feeble but still wise -- is talking to his son in the family garden. The son, with a chiseled face and jet-black hair, looks at his dad with a mixture of reverence and sympathy as the old man bestows his last bit of wisdom upon the young man who has succeeded him in the family business.

"I worked my whole life -- I don't apologize -- to take care of my family," the father says. "And I refused to be a fool dancing on the string held by all those big shots. I don't apologize, that's my life. But I thought that when it was your time that you would be the one to hold the strings. 'Senator Corleone.' 'Governor Corleone.' Something."

How about "Vice President Corleone"?

In the early 1970s, "The Godfather," by Mario Puzo, became a runaway bestseller, and the film versions -- "The Godfather" and its sequel, "The Godfather, Part II," co-written by Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola -- instant classics. No less mesmerized by the saga was a young man in Tennessee who lauded the saga of the Corleones, calling it "the true American story." He would grow up to become Vice President Al Gore.

That young Gore was so fond of Puzo's novel -- as first revealed in "Inventing Al Gore: A Biography" by Newsweek's Bill Turque, should surprise no one. Turque describes how Gore buddy Andy Schlesinger couldn't help but think that "the saga of a son having to take over the family business had struck an intimate chord with Gore."

That "intimate chord" is more like a Puccini aria. For "The Godfather" -- both novel and the first two films -- is the Sicilian gangster biopic of the vice president in a number of eerily similar ways.

Both the story of Michael Corleone and that of Al Gore star an Ivy-educated noble son (Dartmouth for Corleone, Harvard for Gore), fresh home from a war (World War II for Marine Corleone, Vietnam for Army vet Gore) -- a war in which he had enlisted, surprising both friends and family.

Upon his return, the son is thrust reluctantly into the family business after a well-backed rival essentially takes his father out of commission. For Corleone it was Virgil Sollozzo, supported by the Tattaglia and Barzini families. For Gore it was Rep. Bill Brock of Tennessee, backed by the Republican National Committee and the Nixon White House.

Though observers wonder if the son is up for the task, in both cases he inevitably proves to be a more effective -- and ruthless -- leader than the old man whom he follows into the family business, and whose failures he vows never to repeat.

The films "The Godfather" and "The Godfather, Part II" (we won't trouble ourselves with the dismal third picture) provide plenty of grist to show that the rough-and-tumble worlds of gangsters and politicians aren't so different.

A Nevada senator comes to Michael Corleone to try to shake him down, for instance. Corleone tells him that "we're part of the same hypocrisy."

At another point, Corleone insists to his girlfriend, Kay Adams, "My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator."

"Do you know how naive you sound, Michael?" she retorts. "Presidents and senators don't have men killed!"

"Who's being naive, Kay?" Corleone says, and his question hangs in the air like a noose.

But if politics and La Cosa Nostra bear striking similarities, so too do Gore and Corleone. Their travels and struggles are remarkably similar. Forget "Love Story" -- "The Godfather" must have been secretly based on our vice president's life.

At the beginnings of their stories were the fathers.

"It's not easy to be a son, Fredo," Michael Corleone tells his brother. Indeed. Especially if your father is Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore, a powerful, stately, strict man.

Both Albert Gore and Vito Corleone were self-made men who rose up from poverty. Downfalls came for both men when they struggled to change with the times. For Vito Corleone, it was an adherence to the values of the Old Country -- and a refusal to recognize that the future of the Mafia was narcotics. For Albert Gore Sr., it was an inability to reconcile his Washington liberalism with the rising Republicanism of the South.

What's so amazing about the Machiavellian transformations of both sons is that each began their adult lives insisting that they wanted no part of their father's world. And each did so with a touching naivete.

"That's my family, Kay," Corleone tells his young bride. "It's not me."

Seconded Gore, "I didn't want anything to do with it," he says repeatedly on the stump. "Politics was the last thing I thought I would ever do."

But Don Vito Corleone was shot, and Sen. Albert Gore faced the reelection fight of his life, and both sons were on hand to help out. Corleone hung around the house, making a few phone calls when asked; Gore put on his Army uniform and campaigned for his father.

To no avail. Corleone's health would never return and he soon resigned as Don. Gore Sr. lost to Brock in 1970.

Still convinced of their purity, both Corleone and Gore devoted themselves to the ephemeral task of bringing down corrupt public officials. Gore, a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean, worked with prosecutors on a case that inspired the prosecution of Morris Haddox, a prominent city councilman who was on the take. Corleone killed a crooked policeman, Capt. McCluskey, who was being paid by Sollozzo.

And then, before plunging into their father's chaotic worlds, both Corleone and Gore had moments of bucolic bliss -- Corleone in Sicily, where he fled after killing McCluskey and Sollozzo; Gore in Tennessee, where he listened to the Grateful Dead, got baked, had fun.

"I loved that time," Gore once said to the Washington Post. "The freedom ..."

Dragged back in the reality of the Big City, however, the sons took to the family business like fish to water. In 1976, Gore won a multichallenger race by working his butt off, shaking hands, kissing babies, doing what he needed to do.

Corleone, too.

And once there, it all seemed so natural. Like Corleone, Gore seems to have made his peace long ago with the ugly world of politics. "I'm really comfortable with the trade-offs involved," Gore once said. "I have no complaints with this job, I really don't ..."

"It's the eyes," said one observer. "The one way he is most like his father is that he does have that distant look in his eye. It's a mountain thing. It's the look of people who don't quite trust anybody. I see that distant look in Al and it reminds me of his father." This from Charlie Bartlett, longtime Tennessee reporter.

Rep. Gore, while a Democrat, never strayed too far from the Tennessee reservation -- unlike his dad. Gore was pro-NRA, he leaned pro-life on more than one occasion. He embraced issues that were bold but relatively uncontroversial, like the environment. He was a military hawk, where his dad had opposed the war in Vietnam.

As Bradley pointed out during Monday night's debate at the Apollo Theater in New York, Gore was once "a conservative congressman. And when he was a conservative congressman, he voted with the NRA, and the head of the NRA said that he was the poster child or man of the year."

When it came time for Corleone and Gore to take their act to Washington, both were willing to adapt, as their fathers couldn't. Called before a Senate Special Committee on Organized Crime, Corleone profiled like a successful businessman. Gore, picked to be Clinton's No. 2, found liberal religion on abortion and guns. In the White House, Gore reportedly held up a number of appointments of former staffers who once worked for his rival, Dick Gephardt -- they belonged to the wrong family, after all.

Both sons would make sure to avoid the errors of their fathers. Corleone dealt in drugs. And while his father had extended an olive branch to the heads of the other crime families, Corleone hit back hard and had them all killed. Neither man, in fact, would lie down for their enemies the way their fathers had.

Hyman Roth, Dick Gephardt, Sal Tessio, Mike Dukakis, Fredo Corleone, Bill Bradley -- "I don't want to kill everyone, Tom," Corleone says. "Just my enemies."

It is Gore's very lack of inner turmoil that makes so many observers and former colleagues in the Senate regard him as shameless, even soulless.

But for Gore, as Corleone once said to his older brother, "It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business."

Such is Gore's motto as well. Throughout his presidential showdown with Bradley, Gore has expressed a similar ability to compartmentalize.

"He [Bradley] thinks it's a fight between him and me," Gore told one New Hampshire TV station on Jan. 31. "He takes it personally -- I don't."

Like Corleone, Gore is more of a pit bull than his father ever was. He shuts down friendships, practicing his own brand of omertà. He's fired long-loyal staffers and replaced them with tobacco flack Carter Eskew and ethically sullied political hack Tony Coehlo because of what they can do -- not who they are.

Gore has shown that he will do or say anything to win. During Monday night's Apollo theater debate against Bradley, for instance. He came at Bradley with the totally bogus allegation that "racial profiling practically began in New Jersey, Senator Bradley." When Bradley suggested that Gore was endorsed by members of the Congressional Black Caucus because they weren't fully aware of Gore's conservative past, Gore then insinuated that Bradley was challenging the intelligence of the African-American congressmen.

"In my experience, the Black Caucus is pretty savvy," Gore said. "They know a lot more than you think they know."

He seems willing to do almost anything he can for political points -- whether exploiting his family's personal tragedies for rhetorical gain, demagoguing an opponent's ambitious proposals, or fudging his own record. This he does because he knows his heart to be in the right place, and his agenda for America the only correct one.

As Corleone promised his wife that, "In five years the Corleone family will be completely legitimate," Gore believes it all will work out in the end because of the higher ground where he wants to lead the rest of us. The ugliness and the snipes and fibs are OK because of his ultimate goals. The ends justify the means, no matter how brutal.

Other than the obvious fact that Gore's "whacking" of opponents is done with words instead of bullets, one other key difference separates the two men. Gore is beholden to public opinion; Corleone was not. So as Gore moves closer and closer to the presidential nomination, he runs the risk that his ruthless techniques may alienate voters and Democrats and journalists and others who care about how an election is run, and not just the fact that it is won -- just like the front-runner in the other party has learned.

Michael Corleone died alone and friendless. That surely, hopefully, won't happen to Al Gore. But he could end up a lot more alone and a lot more friendless than he ever would have wished. The American people like a scrapper. They don't like a thug.

By Jake Tapper

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

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