Al in the Family

Does Al Gore know what he's doing? Close readers of his two new books, The Spirit of Family and Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family, cannot help but wonder.

Certainly no other serious politician in America has written so honestly, so refreshingly and so, well, earthily, about the contemporary American family. Nor has any likely presidential candidate ever splashed his name across the front of an art book that opens with a family snapshot of himself, bare-chested, reading Snow White to his three girls. Or a book that, on page 50, displays a shot of a nude, freckled torso whose thatch of orange pubic hair is only partially obscured by the equally orange-haired head of a cherubic, grinning infant. This photo may not be as audacious a representation of human origins as, say, Gustave Courbet's landmark 1866 painting "The Origin of the World," but it sure looks like the kind of good-hearted but frank picture most politicians wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole.

So what on earth is Gore doing?

"He's of a mind that he doesn't care," says longtime Gore friend and adviser Elaine Kamarck, now a lecturer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "The Gores are in a different place." And from that different place, Al and wife Tipper have created what to date are the two most astonishing books of the 2004 presidential cycle (though as of press time, Gore had yet to announce his White House intentions).

The Spirit of Family is a serious work of 256 art and documentary photographs that presents American family life in all its possible permutations, from green-haired young women kissing each other to gangland funerals to deer-hunting football players. The photographs are by some of the bigger names in the field: Lee Friedlander, Sylvia Plachy, Edward Keating. And they are also by some of the more controversial: Sally Mann, whose documentary photos of her naked children have been so borderline pornographic that even Artforum magazine refused to publish one; Catherine Opie, described by Knot magazine as "the internationally famous lesbian-and-leather photographer"; and Nan Goldin, who is renowned for chronicling the lives of drag queens, addicts and victims of domestic abuse. Dozens of traditional families also go about their business in the book, nursing babies and having dinners in under-furnished apartments you just know are paid for by a less-than-median wage. The book arrays its pictures along the life cycle, beginning with love and courtship, moving on to birth and childhood, and ending with age and death.

For a coffee-table book on the American family, this is pretty hip, edgy stuff. For a politician reaching out to a mass audience, it is completely unheard of -- no political consultant who didn't want to be sued for malpractice would ever approve such a thing. It is so unusual, in fact, that it's the one thing Al Gore was never able to be during the 2000 campaign: cool.

Joined at the Heart, though equally divorced from the usual language of political cant (if not, alas, from Gore's own pedantic voice), has a much heavier grounding in Democratic Party policy discussions and was deeply influenced by Gore's longtime policy advisers. The book combines the life stories of a variety of very nontraditional family groupings: gay men adopting mixed-race children; a blended family caring for a disabled child conceived through artificial insemination; a teen mother who, dumped by her abusive first husband, nevertheless journeyed from welfare to college, remarriage and a more middle-class life. It represents a serious exploration of the public and private factors that lead people to commit to each other and form loving groups in the face of the great big imperfection of the world.

Ronald Brownstein summed up, in the Los Angeles Times, the first reaction of many upon hearing about Gore's new books with an article headlined "Gore's Time Has Come and Gone on the Reshaping of America's Families." Democratic insiders are sick of Gore, polls show, and the family-values debate was the stuff of the early 1990s, not the early 2000s. Nor were Democratic politicians particularly successful cultural warriors the first time around: The battle over gays in the military may have cost Democrats some congressional seats, and the Lewinsky affair gave Republicans a national forum in which to accuse Democrats of moral laxity. More importantly, in a post-September 11 world, wrote Brownstein, Gore's Joined at the Heart might be "thoughtful and reasonable" but "Americans seem less interested in a president who will understand their ordinary stresses than one who will protect them against extraordinary dangers."

But something funny is happening as the reviews of Joined at the Heart have begun to trickle in to print: Skeptical readers are finding themselves unexpectedly charmed by the book, with its Gore family anecdotes and almost apolitical examinations of the factors that feed and destroy clans. "The Gores deserve credit for simply paying attention to what has become the unmentionable elephant in the room of Washington politics: that American families are not what they once were," noted Robin Toner in The New York Times. Kerry Lauerman at Salon.com found the book surprisingly "endearing." And thus far conservative criticism -- with the predictable exception of Stanley Kurtz at the National Review Online -- has been muted.

Can Democrats take on family-values issues inclusively without committing political suicide? Joined at the Heart sure tries to, attempting to expand the bounds of permissible political speech and revive some old Clintonian ideals. One of Bill Clinton's genius realizations, speechwriter David Kusnet once noted, was the recognition that for most Americans, the ordinary life is an achievement. In Joined at the Heart, Gore recognizes that we do not live the lives we hope to; we live the lives we can. And that very often, we need help from government to mitigate the external factors that combine with our own internal limitations to create family collapse.

Joined at the Heart is an outgrowth of a decade of Democratic thinking about the family. The summer before 9-11, Blueprint magazine published a special issue titled "It's the Culture, Stupid! The Fault Lines of American Politics," which sketched out a vision of how Democrats can convincingly talk values -- and why they need to. "A Republican definition of family values that blames broken families or secular laxness for our social ills ignores the economic foundations of much of our moral angst," noted pollster Anna Greenberg in an article from the same issue titled "The Marriage Gap." "On average, real wages for men without a college education did not grow between 1973-1995 and did not regain their 1973 value despite greater growth over the last five years. Moreover ... Americans face challenges to maintaining a decent standard of living as costs for services such as education, transportation, health care, and goods such as housing have risen faster than incomes. People are working more hours to keep up, but we have no real support for child care or family leave, some of the biggest issues facing working families. ... Americans make the connection between moral decline, the challenge of parenting, and the economic squeeze."

Democrats, she wrote, need a "values message [that] is not about exclusion or taking away rights, but about acknowledging a real desire for a society in which families and individuals have a chance for a decent moral and economic life."

The Gores' books come out of a school of post-2000 election, pre-9-11 thinking that linked values talk to economic policy. (They had been in the works since the Gores reportedly signed a seven-figure book contract with Henry Holt and Company in February 2001.) Gore's involvement with family-policy issues actually stretches back to 1992 -- the last major outbreak of the family-values wars -- when Gore was still a senator and vice-presidential challenger squaring off against incumbent Dan Quayle. That year Gore helped the University of Tennessee sponsor the first Family Re-Union conference in Nashville, which examined ways of strengthening family life in America. Since then, the now-yearly conferences -- which draw up to 1,100 policy wonks and child-development types from around the country -- have taken on such issues as the role of men in children's lives, the work-family balance, and the relationship between family and community. Plenty of the anecdotes and experts cited in Joined at the Heart came out of these conferences. So did a number of Clinton policy initiatives.

Like Gore's 1992 best seller, Earth in the Balance, Joined at the Heart was written without a ghostwriter. But that doesn't mean the books were written by the Gores alone. Both were edited by John Sterling, now president and publisher of Henry Holt. Gore's research team for Joined at the Heart included four researchers, student interns from six different schools, and an "accounting and bookkeeping team." Manuscript readers and public-intellectual discussants who reviewed the book prior to publication or otherwise influenced it run the gamut of the policy world, from Kamarck, Gene Sperling and Judith Wallerstein to Arlie Hoschschild, Juliet Schor and John Sweeney.

Perhaps it's only appropriate that a book about family be such a collaborative project. Families in this day and age need all the help they can get. The Gores have done an admirable job of reflecting American families in all their complexity at the beginning of the 21st century. Whether and how it will play in the 2004 campaign is still an open question.

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