In 2000 we face a presidential election between two men, Albert Gore, Jr., and George W. Bush, who are both sons of major politicians, who share their fathers' names, who have witnessed their fathers' political successes and bitter defeats, and who have striven to replicate--surpass? avenge?--their fathers' careers. That is to say, we have two candidates competing for the world's most difficult job while laboring under the cruel burden of a lifetime of parental expectation. A father who names his son after himself is instructing him from birth, "Be me."
Both had fathers who were, despite storybook family tales from both households, largely absent while pursuing their political careers. Both had mothers deeply involved in their fathers' careers. Both had the best of educations: Bush at Andover, Yale, and the Harvard Business School; Gore at St. Albans prep school in Washington, Harvard University, and then, for a time, divinity and law school at Vanderbilt University. Both survived the illicit drinking and drug use of their youth without getting caught and are now solid family men. And both have already won elections in part from voter remorse over the defeats of the fathers.
But the similarity ends there. The overwhelming, and overdue, message in Bill Turque's exemplary biography of Gore is that the vice president really knows his stuff. On the basis of Bush's own, ghost-written autobiography, it is clear that he waited until late in life before he began paying attention to public matters. His public service consists of just over five years as a relatively powerless governor in Texas, and he is now undergoing strenuous briefings on the world and its problems to bring him up to speed.
Gore's career history, on the contrary, is extraordinarily rich. Unfortunately for him, it has been obscured by public--or, rather, media--fascination with trivia about him: He is inexplicably wooden in public appearances. On the advice of a guru, he wears earth-tone clothing. He was embroiled in a series of fundraising scandals that, when all the evidence is in, seem to be much ado about not very much at all.
There are two striking components of Turque's story. First is a short course on Gore's impressive lifetime record of accomplishment; second is the exposure of the thinness of the many accusations that he is prone to exaggeration.
Though a mediocre student at Harvard--a surprising performance to those who think of him as a perennial wonk--he has devoted his life since then to educating himself about public policy. Seldom have we had a candidate who has done more--and more relevant--homework for the job of chief executive.
Gore, as a young congressman from Tennessee, learned the strike and counterstrike intricacies of the precarious Cold War nuclear balance and was a leading player in efforts to eliminate multiple-warhead nuclear missiles. Author of the best-selling book Earth in the Balance, he became an acknowledged expert on the environment. He held the first congressional hearings on global warming. He can engage Silicon Valley executives in the intricacies of Java-speak. He knows congressional politics; how the federal government works and doesn't work; how to talk to farmers; even, as an ex-journalist, how to write a press release.
He has so many areas of expertise and can be, at the same time, so awkward in public that he brings to mind the old doggerel about the centipede that was happy until asked which leg comes after which. "This raised his mind to such a pitch, he lay distracted in a ditch, considering how to run."
This is not a worshipful biography, by any means. But Turque lays to rest some of the bad raps that have been hung on Gore and have stuck to him. Gore is a prominent victim of the current mass media preference for reveling in gossip rather than checking facts.
Although he was born, raised, and schooled in Washington, he in fact did work cruelly hard on his father's Tennessee farm during the summer. He was part of the inspiration for Erich Segal's Love Story. The Army did keep a protective eye on him while he served in Vietnam, but the motive was to protect him from being harassed about his father's opposition to the war. He did hold the first congressional hearings into pollution at New York's Love Canal.
And he did in fact sponsor the spending that required the Pentagon to allow the expansion of the Internet from a small defense communications system into civilian life. In explaining his 1989 National High-Performance Computer Technology Act, he presciently told a House committee: "I genuinely believe that the creation of this nationwide network ... will create an environment where work stations are common in homes and even small businesses."
Does that justify his claim, "I took the initiative in creating the Internet"? It seems to me that he's close enough to the truth--good enough for government work, as the saying goes in Washington--to have been spared the ridicule that has been heaped on him by, say, former Vice President Dan Quayle.
ven Turque, in this fair-minded work, holds Gore to an unusually strict standard and accuses him of telling lies about his accomplishments when the truth would be just as good. He faults Gore, for example, for describing his summertime job as a copyboy at The New York Times as "newspaper trainee." Yet working as a newsroom copyboy has always been the classic trainee position; it is, even for college graduates, the first step up the ladder.
Likewise, Gore was legally correct, if politically clumsy, in his defense that there was "no controlling legal authority" to prevent him from making fundraising calls from the White House. The contributions he was seeking--more than $20,000 each from big donors who were technically contributing to party building rather than to a specific candidate--were not covered by federal election law.
For some reason, Gore never gets the benefit of the doubt in these ambiguous situations. In the major embarrassment of his career, a 1996 fundraiser at a Buddhist temple near Los Angeles, he was the victim of a sloppy staff operation that moved a previously scheduled fundraising lunch to the temple. Even so, while at the temple he collected no checks and--truest evidence of his innocence--thanked no one at the event for any contributions. Yet to this day, Republicans demand that a special prosecutor be named to investigate his actions--as if they were felonious.
Gore's chief problem appears to be that while he takes the positions of an idealist--on arms control, on the environment, on campaign finances--he must survive in a political world that does not often reward idealism, innocence, and purity. He has had to compromise.
While trying to shift the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals to single-warhead missiles, he agreed to a compromise that allowed the deployment of 200 multiple-warhead MX missiles. Over the years, he has liberalized his position on abortion. Though a longtime champion of the environment, he led the fight to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement, even though it did little to protect the environment along the U.S.-Mexican border. And while calling for campaign finance reform, which he has done throughout his political career, he has been an aggressive fundraiser, taking advantage of virtually every loophole in the books.
He was an early and vigorous foe of the tobacco industry, not an easy position to take as a congressman from Tennessee. Yet his family continued to hold on to their own tobacco allotment, giving them the right to grow tobacco, for seven years after his older sister Nancy died of lung cancer. And he continued to accept small contributions from the tobacco industry until 1990.
From these contradictions, it is easier to dismiss him as an opportunist than to accept the murky reality that politics is a messy business and self-preservation is its fundamental rule. The best example of this truth: In its first two years, the Clinton-Gore administration pressed for universal health insurance, a tax increase to balance the budget, stricter gun control, and free trade. It then lost both houses of Congress to the Republicans and has been hamstrung ever since.
Gore has been a loyal vice president to Clinton, even to the point of saying Clinton would rank among our greatest presidents--right after the impeachment vote in the Republican-controlled House. This too has opened him to ridicule. But it is hard to see what choice he had. If he had resigned in outrage in 1998 over Clinton's confession of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, House Speaker Newt Gingrich would have been a heartbeat away from the presidency.
"It is a peculiar thing to say about someone who has been elected to office eight times," Turque concludes, "but Gore is invariably at his worst as a campaigner, a role that tends to highlight his liabilities and obscure his strengths. His poor tactical sense and his over-rehearsed informality, which suggests phoniness even when there is none, are on constant display, while his assets, such as his keen intellect, deep knowledge of the issues, and engaging personality in smaller settings, are often eclipsed. Old friends who cringe at the new game-show-host wardrobe and the labored congeniality believe that Gore would be a significantly better president than he is a candidate, and wish that he could somehow be appointed to the job."
Turque gives us little clue as to how Gore would proceed as president. Much would depend on whether he enjoys a Democratic Congress. His career thus far indicates, however, that his life will not be a pleasant one. He has become too easy a target for conservatives and the media. As the past 10 years have shown--with the alleged Whitewater "scandal" and the hoopla over the meaningless Iraqgate, Travelgate, and Filegate investigations--it has become all too easy to make an accusation or even a sneering innuendo, presume guilt, and demand that the target prove innocence.
Both parties suffer from this, and at all levels. President George Bush, for example, was never confused as to what a supermarket checkout scanner was for. But once the false accusation entered public discourse, he could never shake it. Turque's book rebuts most of the similar sneers about Gore, but it will probably not dispel them. Gore has become a caricature figure--stiff, the over-eager student anxious to tell you all he knows, the good boy who does his homework and is held up as a model to all his jealous cousins.
He is experienced, well-informed, intelligent, hard-working, studious, a good husband, a devout Christian, and a good father. In another era, he would have been an ideal candidate for the presidency. Somehow, today, he seems to be faintly ridiculous. This is our fault, not his.