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The longest shot; measuring Al Gore Jr. for the White House.


The windows were rolled up but Albert Gore Jr. didn't care. The 38-year-old senator from Tennessee, a rising star of the Democratic party, and a man Sen. Jay Rockefeller says simply, "is going to be the president,' sat screaming behind the wheel of his Pontiac 6000 Sedan. "Will you move, please?' Gore yelled to the driver of a car that blocked him in. "Will you please move?'

Gore was parked on M Street in downtown Washington, in front of the CBS television studio where he had just finished taping an interview on the homeless for "Nightwatch.' It was 1:30 on a Thursday afternoon and he had less than ten minutes to get back to the Senate for a vote on a product liability bill. Window down. Scream repeated. Car moved. Gore peeled away from the curb. At K street he ran a red light; at Pennsylvania Avenue, another. After weaving into oncoming traffic, the senator backed down only after seeing an ambulance, sirens blaring, coming head on. "Senator runs into ambulance,' he said, swinging back into the traffic flow. "Senator yields.'

Al Gore rarely yields. Pulling into the Capitol parking lot with time to spare, Gore said, "There's a section in the Constitution that allows for this. A senator on pressing business cannot be stopped.'

Albert Gore, according to friends and enemies alike, is on very pressing business. In four terms in the House of Representatives, Gore made a name for himself for being aggressive, pragmatic, and thorough. "There is no one in public life who sets about learning the issues as systematically and relentlessly as Al,' says Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic and one of Gore's old college professors. "In the next decade Al Gore will be the most talked about Democrat and deservedly so,' says Norman Ornstein, research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Even Republicans applaud Gore. "He's a terrific politician, who's very tenacious and always in control,' says James Henry, chairman of the Tennessee Republican party. Adds Victor Ashe, who was drubbed by Gore in the race for the Senate seat vacated by Howard Baker in 1984: "He's bright, intelligent, and will be on the national ticket within a decade.'

Washington, of course, is a town that thrives on overstatement. Being a political golden boy and being called one can be two very different things. After all, a quick perusal of his legislative record could leave the impression that despite the accolades, Gore is little more than a blow-dried Bob Forehead. In 1984, Gore went on record in favor of organ transplants; in 1985, he lobbied for an Office of Critical Trends Analysis and took the rock band Twisted Sister to task for writing obscene lyrics; this year he has introduced a bill on the homeless and has been named co-chair of a congressional task force on illiteracy. When it comes to motherhood issues, Al Gore takes a stand.

And then there's the grooming. The son of a former senator, Al Gore's resume appears calculatedly perfect. He married his high-school sweetheart and studied political science at Harvard. He went to Vietnam and law school. Gore even went to divinity school, for heaven's sake. Bad habits? Gore jogs every day, doesn't drink coffee, and snacks on apples, pears, and carrots. And he looks like a thoroughbred. His features are sharp and statesmanlike; his eyes deep and sincere. One look at his thick brown hair and you know he's never had a cowlick.

But could a mail-order politician garner such rave reviews? People don't just say Gore is a good politician; they say he's going to be president. Even the most cynical must wonder how this could possibly be.

Politics and war

The place to start looking for the answer is, of course, in a one-room schoolhouse--this one in Possum Hollow, Tennessee. From there, Al Gore's father emerged to become one of the nation's great liberals. Albert Gore Sr. spent 32 years in Congress--14 in the House, 18 in the Senate. Al Sr. and his Tennessee colleague, Sen. Estes Kefauver, "were liberal and sometimes radical on economic matters, all humane on race, all men of national stature,' according to David Halberstam, who covered them as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean. Gore was the author of the Interstate Highway Act and a proponent of recognizing communist China long before Richard Nixon got around to it. In 1956, he was one of only a few southern politicians who didn't sign the pro-segregation Southern Manifesto. He went on record in opposition to the Vietnam war in 1964.

There were no one-room schoolhouses for Al Jr. By the time he was born in Washington on March 31, 1948, his father had been a congressman for ten years. Young Al was enrolled at the exclusive St. Albans Episcopal School for Boys in Washington. He was an honors student and captain of the football team.

Later, Gore's time at Harvard coincided with the most turbulent period of college unrest in history. He was there between 1966 and 1969, a time marked by student demonstrations and burned draft cards, and by civil rights marches throughout the South. But don't bother looking for Al Gore in the crowd the next time you see "Woodstock' on TV. "Al was always morally serious,' recalls Peretz. "People had an intense politics then that looked serious, but which was not always as serious as it was intense. Al stood out to me because he didn't get swept up in the elan of the student movement. He had independence of mind.'

Gore's politics were serious. He spent the summer of 1968 working on Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign as chairman of Tennessee Youth for McCarthy. And though he aspired to be a writer, he quickly soured on English courses and switched his major to government, weighing in with a 103-page senior thesis titled, "The Impact of Television on the Conduct of the Presidency, 1947-1969.'

Nevertheless, Gore insists that a career in politics was out of the question at that point. "The experiences of Vietnam and the presidency of Richard Nixon left me with the conviction that politics would be the very last profession I entered,' Gore says. A personal experience, coming soon after he graduated from Harvard in 1969, added to this antipathy. Tennessee was no longer a populist state. The sons and daughters of the dirt farmers who first elected his father were no longer desperately in need of government help, and the elder Gore's liberalism left him vulnerable. Running for reelection in 1970 against candy company heir William Brock, Al Sr. was criticized as too liberal for Tennessee. The election hinged on one issue: Gore's opposition to the Vietnam war.

That year Al Gore Jr. was drafted. He was bitterly opposed to the war. "I felt strongly that our policy in Vietnam was misguided,' he says. "And for a time I thought about not going.' But the effect of his action on his father's campaign was clear: if he chose to avoid the draft, his father's career, already jeopardized by his dove image, was over. His family told him to make his own decision. If anything, they seemed to prefer he resist the draft. His mother said she would go to Canada with him if he chose to do that. "Those who know the senator,' Halberstam wrote at the time, "suspect that he would not have minded at all running a campaign with a son who refused to go to Vietnam.'

In choosing to go to Vietnam, Gore must have considered a number of factors, but none weighed on him more than the effect his decision would have on his father's campaign. Spiro Agnew had come to Tennessee during the campaign and announced that Gore was the Nixon administration's number one target. Brock, who is now secretary of labor, had successfully tagged Gore as "the third senator from Massachusetts.' If his son dodged the draft, the election was over. Once Al Jr. decided, the senator's media man put together a commercial showing the senator with his 21-year-old son in his army uniform headed for Vietnam. In the spot, the senator reaches out and touches his son's hand, telling him, "Son, always love your country.'

It was a bitter introduction to politics--made worse by the fact that his father lost by 46,344 votes. "It was a horrible time for all of us,' says Pauline Gore, Al Jr.'s mother. "And the pressure on young Al was enormous.' Adds Halberstam: "His conscience pushed him one way and his allegiance to his father--who hated the war-- pulled him another. He dealt with it with courage and grace.'

Mr. Muckraker

Gore spent his hitch in Vietnam as an army reporter with the 20th Engineering Brigade headquartered outside Saigon. By the second day, he saw combat. He sent some of his stories home to his wife, Mary Elizabeth "Tipper' Gore. She brought them to the attention of editors at The Tennessean. The editors published a number of Gore's dispatches and, when his tour of duty ended in 1971, a job as a reporter was waiting for Gore in Nashville. The Tennessean was a liberal paper that had long supported his father. Gore started out at the bottom, doing stories about dead cows and pigeon-nappers. In a story about an eating contest sponsored by a Burger King franchise, Gore wrote that "Hopes of record-breaking performances were dashed . . . when one of the contestants regurgitated his first three whoppers on the table and dampened the morale of his competitors.'

Stories like that--complete with an accompanying photo of the unfortunate contestant heaving his whoppers--might dampen the enthusiasm of even the most eager cub reporter. Not Gore. Forget the pedigree. Forget the cum laude Ivy League diploma. He was determined to learn his craft, and if that meant writing about Hillbilly Day in Madison, Tennessee, all Gore needed were directions to the moonshine still. Look back on the way Gore inched his way up the journalistic ladder during his seven years at The Tennessean and the golden boy image fades. Al Gore no longer looks like a thoroughbred. He's a terrier.

Gore spent a year as a police reporter. Working nights gave him the opportunity to enroll as a divinity student at Vanderbilt University. "I went to divinity school to study the spiritual issues that were most important to me at the time,' says Gore, who studied philosophy and phenomenology. It wasn't a calling so much as an intellectual stretch, and those studies ended when he was assigned to cover local politics in Nashville.

"He would spend hours combing through documents and reports, looking at every possible clue and angle,' recalls James O'Hara, a reporter at The Tennessean who worked with Gore. His persistence paid off. In 1974, Gore uncovered corruption in the Nashville city council. In a long investigative series, Gore reported that a councilman named Morris Haddox had been accepting bribes. As a result of his stories Haddox and several others were convicted and sent to prison. "He was one of the better investigative reporters we've had,' says Lloyd Armour, executive editor of The Tennessean. The kinds of kudos Gore now receives as a politician--that he is thorough and tenacious--he received then for his work as a reporter. "He was very dogged, and he attacked everything with intensity,' says Eve Zibart, a reporter with The Washington Post who worked in Nashville with Gore. "He's the same way now that he's a senator.'

Covering local government led Gore to reconsider his interest in politics. "Only then did I rekindle my interest in public service,' he says. "I felt intensely frustrated about policies and decisions I was writing about because I felt they were often dead wrong. But as a journalist I could do nothing to change them.'

Covering the trials of the indicted councilmen, Gore became interested in the legal system and decided to enroll in Vanderbilt law school. While there, Gore stayed on at The Tennessean as an editorial writer. He says he had every intention of finishing law school until one day in 1976 when a reporter friend called with a tip: Rep. Joe Evins had unexpectedly decided to retire from Congress; he would make the announcement in two days. Gore made up his mind immediately. "I was coming from work and on my way to law school when my friend called,' says Gore. "I went home, turned to my wife, and said: "I'm going to run for Congress.''

Motherhood's method

What sets Albert Gore apart from his congressional colleagues are, in many respects, the skills he learned as an investigative reporter. After the space shuttle Challenger exploded, for instance, Gore participated in a number of hearings concerning the accident as a member of the Senate subcommittee on science, technology, and space. Not satisfied with what the subcommittee was unearthing, Gore cultivated his own sources within NASA and came up with some startling information on his own. It was Gore who discovered that NASA had reduced by 71 percent since 1970 the number of people who monitor the quality of work and equipment. Later, when NASA refused to turn over a memo on safety procedures to the subcommittee, Gore went back to his source and got it himself. His initiative garnered him front-page coverage. It also annoyed some senior members of the subcommittee not keen on giving up the limelight to a freshman senator--a fact that doesn't bother Gore a bit. "He was my whistleblower,' he says. "I did my homework.'

Doing his homework is Gore's hallmark. Staff members on every committee of which Gore has been a member during his ten years in Congress uniformly praise his determination to master any issue he gets involved in. "He's head and shoulders above the majority of the members,' says one committee aide. "Other than a chairman, it is very unusual for a member to request a personal briefing by the relevant subcommittee staff,' adds another. "With Gore, it was routine.'

Spend a day with Gore and it quickly becomes clear that though he relies on Hill staffers, he's not propped up by them. At a breakfast meeting he breezed through a colloquy on space weapons with John Glenn; at lunch he kibitzed with Barry Manilow about copyright law. In between he handled the machinery of government with equal aplomb. With an aide only occasionally bending his ear, Gore testified before a Senate subcommittee about the need to increase the size of the Tennessee Wilderness System, ad-libbed a speech about a Democratic alternative to the Reagan defense buildup, cast his vote on the product liability bill, held a strategy meeting about the upcoming gubernatorial campaign in Tennessee, and questioned Environmental Protection Agency officials about why they no longer test disinfectants before allowing them to be used in hospitals.

Now, the responsibilities of senators are tremendous, and doubtless there are many with similarly hectic schedules. What is impressive about Gore is not so much the breadth of his scope as the depth of his knowledge. His speech on Reagan's defense buildup, for instance, was made by way of announcing a 25-page report on defense policy he coauthored with Sen. Sam Nunn and Rep. Les Aspin. Nunn is the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Aspin the chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the House. Gore has no committee assignments relating primarily to defense-- and he had none when he was a congressman. He's just an expert. Seen in this light, the fact that he'll never have a cowlick seems moot: it's not Vitalis that keeps Al Gore in Congress; it's energy and intelligence.

Consider his committee work. As chairman of the House Science and Technology subcommittee on investigations and oversight, Gore studied the problems resulting from the atmosphere's deteriorating ozone layer and fought to save the government millions of dollars by getting Medicaid to pay for generic, rather than brand-name drugs. He held hearings in Tennessee on Alzheimer's disease and in Washington on the phenomenon of nuclear winter. True, these are politically safe, media-oriented issues. But there is a method to Gore's motherhood. "He's picked issues that have staked him as the good guy fighting evil,' says Ornstein. "What's wrong with that?. As a junior member that's a good way to work the congressional process--something Gore does very well.' Ornstein notes that as a freshman Gore was appointed to the Senate Rules Committee. "That tells you he understands the importance of the process,' he says. "Those senators who understand this are the ones who end up on top.'

Political acumen aside, the issues Gore has chosen to investigate tell us something about the way his mind works. In a series of hearings in 1984, Gore examined the need for a nationwide computer system to link patients in need of transplants to organ donors. It was classic Al Gore: as a subcommittee chairman he almost always focused on narrow, definable problems for which he could offer concrete solutions. "I like to examine issues with finite answers,' explains Gore. "That's where I'm most comfortable.'

The kernel of fear

OK, so Al Gore is smart. Big deal. Lots of people are smart--even in politics. Presidential contenders, even darkhorses, can't live on liver transplants alone. There are many big, abstract problems that senators can avoid becoming expert about that national leaders cannot. Welfare. Social Security. Military reform.

But the biggest impact Gore has made as a member of Congress is in one of these troubling, intractable areas of public policy: the nuclear arms race. Gore compares the superpower relationship to a pair of jealous lovers. "A single bare fact can sustain a wild imagining,' he says. Forget that a first strike by either side sizable enough to wipe out the other's retaliatory forces would trigger a catastrophic nuclear winter. We know that and the Soviets do, too. All that matters is the possibility of a "win.' "Because of the nature of our relationship with Russia,' says Gore, "a small kernel of real fear can sustain a large cloud of illusory fear.'

The small kernel of real fear is that, given the present nuclear balance, each side could gain a hypothetical advantage by striking first. Nuclear strategies are based on the number of missiles that survive an attack, not the number of people. As long as one side can wipe out the nuclear stockpile of the other and still have some missiles in reserve, then there will be instability.

Gore didn't start thinking of ways to allay that fear until 1980. He found that as the Gold War rhetoric heated up during the presidential campaign, people in his district began to worry more about the possibility of a nuclear war. At a Girls' State program meeting that summer in Murfreesboro, 85 percent of the girls raised their hands when Gore asked them if they felt there would be a nuclear war in their lifetime. "I was embarrassed that this issue had consumed no more than 15 minutes of my time in my first four years in Congress,' he says.

That quickly changed. In December 1980, after he was assigned to the House Intelligence Committee, Gore committed himself to eight hours a week of study on the question of nuclear arms. For 13 months he studied, reading technical journals and talking with experts. "Professional scholars in arms control . . . are overwhelmed at how he mastered this very arcane subject,' says Peretz.

As an investigative reporter at The Tennessean, Gore was taught never to sit down to write until he knew more about the subject than anyone. It was a lesson learned. "I didn't want to say anything,' says Gore, "until I had developed an elaborate and comprehensive framework that for me offered a way to understand what was happening and how the problem could be solved.' In a February 1982 article in the Congressional Quarterly, Gore went public.

The article didn't get much notice. It wasn't until three weeks later that Gore sensed how influential his plan would become. In early March, a group of Americans led by Minneapolis Mayor Donald Fraser visited Moscow to talk with Soviet arms control experts. All the Soviets wanted to know about was the "Gore Plan.' When Fraser and his group sheepishly admitted that they didn't know of any such plan, the Soviets shared with the Americans their copies of Gore's article in the Quarterly.

Within months, Gore's ideas had been adopted by Henry Kissinger, Paul Warnke, and the Scowcroft Commission appointed by Reagan to study the MX missile. At the age of 34, Al Gore had cracked the hardest policy game in Washington.

Since the early 1970s, the superpowers have deployed accurate, multiple warhead (MIRV) missiles that have enhanced the possibility that one side could knock out the other's land-based missiles in a first strike. By way of example, imagine that the Soviets and the United States have two missiles each and that both are equipped with two warheads. By launching a single missile, we could knock out the Soviets' entire arsenal and still have 50 percent of our missiles left. Gore proposed that both sides move from multiplewarhead missiles to Midgetmen--single-warhead missiles deployed on mobile launchers. To guarantee knocking out a mobile missile, one side would have to launch at least two of its own. If the superpowers stockpiled only this type of missile, it would take one side's entire arsenal to knock out just 50 percent of the other's missiles. Each would have an invulnerable deterrent, but neither would have a first-strike capacity. Goodby fear. Hello stability.

The plan drew rave notices and has become the not arms control idea of the 1980s. "He's made an important contribution to the arms control debate,' says Warnke, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Carter. Writing in The Washington Post, Stephen S. Rosenfeld noted that "starting from scratch, and in a brief period of time, through personal exertion, Gore can fairly claim to have had a major role in, as he puts it, moving a central set of ideas from the perimeter of the debate to the center.' Acknowledging that room at the top of the nuclear strategy heap is tight, and that Gore's plan has been embraced by the legendary Kissinger, Rosenfeld offered some advice to the good doctor: "Move over, Henry.'

A Zappa fan

"I must admit,' Albert Gore Sr. told a Nashville reporter recently, "that in younger days, I looked in the mirror a time or two and thought I might be seeing a president. But the lightning never struck. Now you can put this on the record. My son Al has the character for national leadership. But whether the lightning will ever strike for him, only fate will tell.'

Fate seems to be smiling on Al Gore Jr. If his father's liberalism left him out of step with his times, Al Jr. is a moderate at a time when the Democratic party is desperately seeking moderation. A recent policy paper prepared by the Democratic National Committee, "New Choices in a Changing America,' treats the liberal wing of the party as an unruly rump appendage it would rather be without. The paper dumps on Russia, embraces "the family,' and encourages private investment and entrepreneurship as alternatives to government assistance. The headline of The New York Times story on the paper hit the mark: "Democrats Etch A Centrist Image In Policy Report.'

The image could be Al Gore's. He can be both cautious and a traditionalist. He is, for instance, opposed to federal funding of abortion. "It is quite correct that a position like mine in opposition to the federal funding of abortion results in unequal access to abortions on the part of poor women,' says Gore. "Nevertheless, I feel the principle of the government not participating in the taking of what is arguably human life is more important.'

While he opposes voluntary prayer in schools (despite, he says, overwhelming support for the idea in Tennessee), he has voted in favor of a bill endorsing a moment of silence for students to use in whatever way they see fit. In 1985, he voted against banning the interstate sales of handguns. Gore says stringent gun control laws "haven't been an effective solution to the underlying problem of violent crime.'

Gore took up the issue of obscenity in rock music lyrics at his wife's urging. As a member of Parents Music Resource Center, Tipper Gore is a leading advocate of getting record companies to voluntarily rate and label explicit material. Taking up her cause, the senator, at a September 1985 Senate Commerce Committee hearing on record labeling, made national new by taking to task rock stars like Frank Zappa. Although Gore, showing his hip side, assured Zappa that he was a fan, the conservative image he projected at the hearing has stuck. Gore's office receives more mail on this subject than any other, including, according to Memphis magazine, one reading: "Dear Senator and Tipper: leave my rock and roll alone.'

On defense, Gore has voted for limited funding of the Strategic Defense Initiative, and deployment of the powerful Trident D-5 missile. He is one of three Democratic congressmen responsible for saving the MX. When it looked like the House was going to kill the controversial weapons system in 1984, Gore teamed with Aspin and Norman Dicks to keep the MX alive. Their reasoning was that by using the House vote as a bargaining chip, they could get the White House to both move toward arms control talks with the Soviets and embrace the findings of the Scowcroft Commission--which had endorsed Gore's Midgetman proposal.

The lobbying worked; the bargaining didn't. The president got the MX production he wanted, but shortly after the vote, the Soviets walked out of the Geneva talks. Three years later, we are no closer to an arms control agreement. As for the Midgetman, while Reagan remains rhetorically committed to it, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger detests the idea and has stalled its progress. "Gore and the others tried to outsmart the president,' says one arms control observer. "They took a lot of bows at the time, but the fact is they got snookered.'

Still, the MX deal is less an example of Gore's naivete than of his middle-of-the-road politics. He calculated that if the Democrats killed the MX, they would be handing Reagan a political issue. The bargain enabled Democrats to have it both ways: they could be for a defense build-up and for arms limitation, too. This suited Gore fine--especially since he was in the middle of running for the Senate in hawkish Tennessee.

Unlike a number of his moderate colleagues, however, Gore can be unabashedly compassionate and broad-minded. He feels government should play an active role in protecting the consumer and the environment. He was, for instance, a moving force behind the original superfund legislation. In June, Gore proposed a comprehensive bill to deal with the problem of America's homeless. It would provide the homeless with food stamps, Social Security, and mental health services. For the long-term, it would fund the construction and renovation of low-income housing. With an estimated $4-billion-a-year price tag, it's the kind of pie-in-the-sky piece of legislation you'd expect from a liberal, big-city Democrat, not from a self-proclaimed "raging moderate' who represents a state where homelessness is not a political issue. Even when the political calculus suggests otherwise, Gore can stand on principle. In 1984, despite the fact that his congressional district had 10,000 tobacco farmers, he was instrumental in getting Congress to pass a law requiring strong, rotating warning labels on cigarette packages and advertising. "He represents the direction the Democrats should be moving in,' says Ornstein. "He carries with him concerns for the disadvantaged and the underprivileged. At the same time he is not tied to ideology.'

No skeletons showing

On the day he broke the story about the decline in quality assurance personnel at NASA, Gore momentarily became, despite his lack of seniority, the doyen of the subcommittee on technology, science, and space, which is chaired by Sen. Slade Gorton. One senior subcommittee member, Sen. Ernest Hollings, took umbrage at the turnabout. At one point Gore asked Hollings if he would yield the microphone for a question.

Gore: "Would the senator yield?'

Hollings: "No, I want to complete a thought. I have a hard time getting this mike away from you. I mean he [was] pretty good over on the House side, but we are going to have to get a little exercise, too, on this side to catch up with him. Senator Gorton, you do not have much longer to hold the chairmanship. He is going to be over in that seat before long.'

There's no telling where Al Gore will be before long. As he sat in the make-up room at CBS before taping the segment for "Nightwatch' about the homeless, the woman who was powdering his nose whispered, "When you run for president, "I'm going to vote for you.' If he can't even get his nose powdered without "Hail to the Chief' playing faintly in the background, you have to wonder: just how long a long shot can he be?

For his part, Gore demures: "I just want to be the best senator I can be for Tennessee.' Still, even conservatives like John McLaughlin, Washington editor of the National Review, seem to realize the lightning bolts are getting closer all the time. When McLaughlin interviewed Gore in July on his nationally syndicated program, "One on One,' he said: "You've got the magical name--Al Gore. Your father was in Congress for 32 years. You've got character. You've got no clay feet, no skeletons showing. You're intelligent. You're well-informed. You've got a Vietnam war record. You've been an investigative reporter, and you've got religious coloration, too. For one year, you were a divinity student and you're a devout Baptist. You're almost too good to be true. Are you too good to be true?'
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Title Annotation:Albert Gore Jr.
Author:Eisendrath, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Biography
Date:Nov 1, 1986
Previous Article:We need you: national service, an idea whose time has come.
Next Article:America's Bloomsbury; the story of the Partisan Review crowd.

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