Daddy's girl

Karenna Gore Schiff may be personable (if a little programmed), but she stays on message -- except when it comes to the death penalty.


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Jake Tapper
September 14, 2000 5:00PM (UTC)

When coaxed, Karenna Gore Schiff will admit that she disagrees with her father about the death penalty (she's against it; Vice President Al Gore supports it). And in its own way, it's a surprising admission from Schiff, 27, the oldest of four children, who is charged with representing the harmonious home life of Family Gore.

She's a star on the campaign trail and was a featured speaker at the Democratic Convention, so the public already knows a lot about Schiff: She's married to a Manhattan doctor, Drew Schiff, and has a 14-month old son, Wyatt, who was born on July Fourth. We know she's a trusted advisor to her father, that she was the one who prompted the campaign's move to Nashville from Washington, and that, more infamously, it was she who brought feminist Naomi Wolf into the campaign huddle to talk about Gore's need to be an "alpha male."

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Schiff insists that her role touting her father comes as naturally as her role as daughter or mother. "I don't feel like I have to spin anything at all right now because I care a lot about these issues and I know exactly what I want to say on them," she insists Monday in a Manhattan cafe. "And I think it's so much better to err on the side of talking freely."

But then she adds, disconcertingly: "I think my dad's been able to do that really well, actually. I think he's totally in his stride being who he is."

Actually, her dad really is someone who chooses his words carefully, measuredly. He's often cautious to a fault, as he himself has said. Al Gore might be a lot of wonderful things -- and it is Schiff's role to tell us -- but someone who enjoys "talking freely" is not one of them.

Welcome to Karennaland. She lives in a world of negotiating extremes, of alternating between sounding canned and sounding candid.

Is she a pol-in-training or just the daughter of a public man, struggling to maintain a side of her that's independent? That decision, it would seem, has yet to be made, but in this murky terrain, one foot in each world, she seems to have fashioned a fairly together life and a pleasing persona, if occasionally plastic on the stump.

It's also made her too savvy by half. Told that Salon had prepared a Gen X Quiz for her, the Gore campaign's ambassador to young voters says, "Oh, no!" Then her mood immediately brightens. "Bring it on, baby!" she says.

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Then she shifts again. "Do you know all the answers to these questions?" she asks.

When I confess that, sure, I wouldn't know them all, she beats me to my own punchline: "Then again, you don't hold yourself to be reaching out to Gen X." She says it with a smile and a laugh, reminiscent of her dad's own rare glimpses of a funny, wiseass smugness.

She is capable of completely human reactions. I ask her about a critical essay that once ran in the now-defunct Sassy magazine that claimed she and her sisters had once made fun of poor Chelsea Clinton, then in her most awkward stage, at a 1992 inauguration event.

"Totally not true," she says, joking that reports like that are what ultimately led to Sassy's demise.

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Like her dad, Schiff seems entirely self-aware and self-possessed -- both of herself and of situations that are simultaneously serious and preposterous. At one point in the 80-minute interview, she expresses gratitude that she has a mouth full of hummus, which buys her a bit of time before she has to answer my question. When she leaves the interview, she returns a minute or so later asking if she should have offered to pay for the meal I told her I'd pay for.

"All of a sudden I just felt rude," she says, before running back to catch her dad on "Oprah" -- a large chunk of which she's graciously missed.

At the very least, it's fascinating to watch her jump back and forth between being herself, and being Karenna Gore Schiff, daughter of Vice President Albert Gore Jr. Like, say, when I ask if she and her dad disagree on anything.

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"First of all, he encourages individual thinking and debate," she says. "So I've argued with him on probably every issue. And it doesn't necessarily mean I disagree with him: Sometimes I'm trying to figure out exactly what I think."

I wonder about one specific issue where I have a hunch they don't see eye to eye. So I ask.

"I don't really support the death penalty," she admits, despite the fact that her dad is a death penalty proponent. "I respect my dad's view on it. I've debated it with him many times. And I understand where he comes at it."

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Why does she disagree with him? "I'm concerned about the statistics of how frequently it might be applied to innocent people; that's extremely troubling," she says. "My dad has a view that, in order to protect innocent citizens, you have to do things like go to war -- which is a horrible thing that you only do when there are very grave things at stake, and it's not a good thing and you're never happy about it, it's nothing to be proud of necessarily, but it's in the interests of protecting people. Which is how he feels about the death penalty."

"I have a little more trouble with the state going that far in terms of taking a life," she says.

The moment of candor is surprising -- and even seems to surprise her, too. When asked to describe any other issue where she and her father differ, she catches herself.

"I wouldn't do a whole exposé of our disagreements," she says. "Because I agree with him on the overwhelming things at stake in this election. My whole purpose in being a public person is to help get him elected."

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For someone who doesn't think she has to spin, she can revert to message on a dime -- sometimes straining credibility. "It's not because he's my dad," she says about her support for the campaign. "I don't think that's the reason I'm supporting him."

Really? She says she truly believes in his politics, and in his realistic approach to implementing Democratic goals. "Sometimes I regret the fact that [environmentalists] don't see how much my dad is with them in spirit," she says, "because he does have really a much more pragmatic approach to much of the same goals.

"He'll work with the Big Three [automakers]," she says. "Some people might see that as compromising your ideals or whatever, but I think the way he sees it is really problem-solving."

These moments of candor feel fully vetted by Gore HQ in Nashville.

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For instance: Her problems about mean coverage or cruel reporters are nothing, she says. "Meeting people on the road who have real problems, you know, sort of makes me think that it would be really self-indulgent to get in a tizzy about some bad quote or analysis," she says. "Because the truth is, it is about, you know, getting a prescription drug benefit, or making daycare more affordable, or keeping abortion legal. Those are real things. So to have a silly celebrity problem doesn't seem right."

When I ask about her reaction to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, she gives me an answer that is almost word for word what she told the New York Observer a full year before.

"It was difficult and disappointing. Really. I felt like a lot of Americans did." To the Observer: "It was difficult and, uh, disappointing, I think just like it was for a lot of Americans."

Then again, she's been at this for a while -- and it was much worse in the days when her mom was crusading to put warning labels on record albums.

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"That was the most severe experience that I had," she says. "Even now, it doesn't compare. Because I was 14 and I really wanted to be cool.

"How she was described at the time was so different from how she is as a person, so I kind of felt like, OK, you can't put too much stock in that. Also I kind of admired the way she just stuck to what she wanted to do without being too swayed by that criticism," she says. "And then in the long run, a lot of the culture came around to her concerns, or at least her approach. That experience definitely is, like, part of the prism through which I manage the emotional stuff from the campaign."

But then there are other times when she's refreshingly open. I ask about living in a universe where the common embarrassment any of us feel when our parents act like dorks in front of our friends is magnified a hundredfold and projected onto an IMAX screen, with THX sound. The world is listening.

The celebrated kiss between her folks at the Democratic Convention didn't cause her any mortification, because she's "just so used to that. That's just how they are, and I gave up on being embarrassed about that a long time ago."

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But is she ever embarrassed? Does she ever see her dad and say, 'Oh, God, Dad, why are you wearing pleated khakis?'"

She laughs. Then, suddenly, she turns to mock concern. "Does my dad run around in pleated khakis?" Yes, I tell her, he certainly does.

"You know, I just want him to be himself," she says. "Seriously. It would be so much worse if he was trying to be cool or whatever."

What about all the reports about his constant reinventions? "I have no idea what they're talking about," she says. "Honestly, I really don't." She and her mom helped outfit him in the fabled earth-toned look, she allows, "but it didn't seem that dramatic at the time. He looked great in the tan suit in the store."

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Combined with whatever blindness her love for her father causes her, however, she is not immune to his sheer dadlike-dorkiness. "I get embarrassed when my parents dance, OK?" she admits. "I remember feeling embarrassed when my dad was campaigning for president in New York in 1988, he went to a schoolyard in, like, the Bronx or something to play pickup basketball with a group of teenage boys there. Yeah, I felt really embarrassed at the time. ... It's totally the same feeling as being dropped off at the eighth grade prom, it's like 'No -- leave me a block from here.'"

"But there have been enough totally surreal moments, when you're like, 'Oh my God, my mom is talking to Jerry Garcia.' There have been so many moments like that, I've just kind of gotten over it," she says. "'Oh, no, my mom is going to debate Ice-T on national television, I'm really embarrassed.' I liked Ice-T. I was a fan."

Come on. How much of a fan of Ice-T could she possibly have been?

"I knew all the words to 'Colors,'" she insists. To prove her point, she breaks into the rap:

"'I am a nightmare walking, psychopath talking/king of the jungle, just a gangster stalking/Living life like a firecracker, quick is my fuse/Then dead as a deathpack the colors I choose,'" she raps, sort of. "I mean, the whole thing."

To be fair, I should say, for a lily-white senator's daughter who went to the National Cathedral High School, Harvard University and Columbia Law School, her rapping isn't terrible.

But she's become hardened to media attacks. She even insists that the world is better off with "Saturday Night Live" and others mocking her parents -- which, I tell her, they will doubtlessly do, with cruel abandon, when the new season begins. Isn't she worried about what they might say about her poor mother -- she of the battles with depression, weight and the spotlight?

"I think that it would be the nation's loss if we didn't have comedians imitating politicians and their goings-on," she insists. Likewise, she says she doesn't mind protesters at all.

But doesn't it get exhausting -- and infuriating -- after a while? I mean, she's not the one running for office. I mention how conservative pundits attacked her dad after he provided a guest voice on Fox's "Futurama" -- where her younger sister, Kristin, is a writer -- which they labeled a "violent" and "crude" TV show.

"Occasionally I find that sometimes you get the best news from Algore.com" -- the campaign's Web site -- she jokes. (Or at least I hope she's joking.) "Sometimes that's where you gotta go."

Her in-laws occasionally keep her grounded, she says. The Schiffs are generations-old Republicans. Drew's parents "give me a funny commentary on this stuff," she says. After her father met secretly with the Rev. Al Sharpton at her Upper East Side duplex, her in-laws weighed in.

I guess they're not big fans of the Rev. Sharpton, I say.

"No, they're not," she replies.

Still, the resulting negative stories about Sharpton's secret meeting with her dad, in her duplex, didn't bother her too much.

"The only thing that makes me mad is when people say there's nothing at stake in this election, or there's no difference between the two major candidates," she says.

Embodying her private and public worlds are her mom and dad, of course. Karenna says she goes back and forth between reading everything written about herself and her dad, and reading nothing, which makes sense.

Her father, after all, reads everything ever written about him -- or any other subject, really -- inhaling words like they were nitrous oxide in a dentist's office.

Her mother does the complete opposite, avoiding almost anything ever written about her family. She hasn't got time for the pain.

"She never reads the profiles of her, she rarely reads stuff about my dad, and that's the way she handles it," Schiff says. "For me, I generally have read everything. I may change that because it's getting to a point now that the news cycle moves so fast and to get caught up is not necessarily the best thing when you know the issues that matter and what you want to say."

The clear point: "Getting caught up" in an unpleasant story or a snarky profile expends emotional energy that, in these last eight weeks, she doesn't have time for.

Will she read this piece I'm working on right now? The one she's missing some of her dad's appearance on "Oprah" to participate in?

"I don't know," she says. "I really don't know."


Jake Tapper

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

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