The Precarious Prince

At St. Albans, the tony prep school he attended in Washington 35 years ago, Albert Gore Jr. appeared, at least from a distance, to be a prince among princes. Even in a place populated by other ruling-class scions, Gore stood out. The class of '65 yearbook found him to be "frighteningly good at many things... Popular and respected, he would seem to be the epitome of the All-American young man," wrote the schoolboy editors. "It probably won't be long before Al reaches the top." Flattering and prescient words--but look again. His yearbook entry shows a cartoon of Gore as a statue on a pedestal, with a football, basketball and discus tucked under his arm. Gore is being made fun of, and not very subtly. The caption beneath his portrait quotes Anatole France: "People with no weaknesses are terrible."

Al Gore has been a remarkably thoughtful, disciplined and serious public servant. He is far more substantive than most politicians, including George W. Bush. Yet the jokes never stop: in 1988, when he first emerged as a national political figure, "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau dubbed him "Prince Albert," and the image stuck. No matter how many earth-tone, open-neck shirts he wears, no matter how often he tells of toiling in the fields as a youth, no matter how much hominy he drips into his voice, no matter how glowing the reviews of his bold choice of Joseph Lieberman as his running mate, he still comes across to many voters as remote and condescending--like a man in a navy blue suit, the senator's son, the Harvard preppie, the vice presidential heir apparent, waiting for his preordained turn at the top.

Gore knows that he has been a stiff ever since he was a little boy, and he admits he has labored mightily to loosen up. "It's taken 52 years to undo as much of it as I can," he declared, his voice full of mock gravity, to a pair of NEWSWEEK reporters. But, he added matter-of-factly, "I'm old enough to know that there's some things I'm not going to ever change." Sitting stock still in an empty hotel banquet room for an obligatory pre-convention interview, dressed in a navy blue suit, white shirt and red tie, Gore had the patient but long-suffering air of a man who must endure many indignities to achieve his goal.

Gore can, it's true, be annoyingly perfect. And yet, in some important ways, the caricatures miss the point. On closer inspection, Gore looks less like a self- assured prince and more like a man who is not entirely confident of his place, who feels compelled to constantly demonstrate that he is worthy. His upbringing and career path more closely resemble a precarious climb than a royal progress. He grew up in a family whose station depended on the whim of voters, and his parents never let him forget it. In Gore's public manner, so ponderous and deliberate, there seems to be a surfeit of caution, a fear of making the tiniest misstep. It's as if he had been raised from the very beginning not to let down his guard, even for a moment, lest he slip off his pedestal and plunge into obscurity. He has taken nothing for granted--not even, it would appear from accounts of his childhood, the love of his parents.

"Oh, a psychoanalytic model?" Gore deadpans when the Newsweek reporters venture that he has been shaped less by inherited advantage than by the precariousness of life. Stiffening, he begins to mimic Dr. Strangelove, twitching his arm into a jerky fascist salute. The vice president would naturally prefer to be known for his substantial record of public service rather than by journalistic attempts to plumb his psyche. But Gore himself has devoted a good deal of energy to trying to understand and explain his urgent need to please, first his parents, then the voters. He has read and expounded on books of psychology, looking for clues to his own makeup. He readily attributes his "formal bearing" to his father, who, he says, modeled himself on a Tennessee statesman, Cordell Hull, FDR's wartime secretary of State. ("An original stiff guy," according to Gore.) Gore owes more than a rigid public manner to his upbringing. The vice president's competitive drive, his boundless ambition, his earnest grandiosity--and his well-hidden wild side--were all forged by his demanding relationship with Sen. Albert and Pauline Gore. Without question, any examination of Gore's character and personality begins with understanding the influence of his formidable parents.

Pomposity appears to run in the male line of the Gore family. Vice President Gore is unusually learned for a politician, but he seems to need to show off his intellect. Guests at Washington dinner parties have been known to roll their eyes when Gore launches forth on one of his impromptu lectures--complete with charts and graphs--on global warming or the future of the Internet. Gore's father was, if anything, even better known for flaunting his erudition. Using polysyllabic, Latinate words, speaking with a kind of stilted formality, Albert Gore Sr. sent reporters and fellow lawmakers scurrying to the dictionary when he rose on the Senate floor. His father's detractors found him florid and sanctimonious, a would-be Cicero who feared that if his toga slipped, he might be exposed as a hillbilly. Gore Sr. was a liberal populist who backed civil rights, brave for a Southern senator. Yet he could exaggerate his achievements. Just as his son would appear to claim to have invented the Internet, Senator Gore took more than his share of credit for building the interstate-highway system in the 1950s.

Al Gore Sr. possessed a strong maverick streak, rigid principles and a stiff-necked pride that ultimately cost him his seat. Gore Jr. has been more politically prudent, not to say opportunistic. He has taken his cue from his strong-willed mother, Pauline, a gracious lady but a shrewd operator. "I trained them both," Pauline Gore once said of the two Alberts, "and I did a better job on my son than I did on my husband." She advocated a velvet-fisted pragmatism. As Gore was awaiting a candidates debate during the 1988 presidential campaign, he was handed a note from his mother. It read: "Smile, Relax, Attack."

Watching Gore try to methodically dismember George W. Bush this fall with carefully preprogrammed assaults, voters may feel they're looking at a robot, or a tank. But his armor is just that: on the surface. Gore's earnestness conceals a rebellious streak. When Gore lets down his guard, he can be freewheeling and fun. His jokes and teasing can be earthy and at times over the top. Indeed, he conceals his humor precisely because it can be outrageous, and hence politically dangerous. Despite--or because of--his parents' warnings to be careful, Gore can be a daredevil. Driving in a car with Gore at the wheel, weaving wildly through traffic, can feel like a high-speed chase--even as he earnestly, ploddingly expounds on some technical issue of the day.

There is an inner restlessness about Gore that occasionally pops to the surface. "Our failures eat at our conscience, our sins itch under the showy garb of achievements," he once told a Harvard graduating class, and his listeners sensed he was being as much confessional as metaphorical. He seems to feel a tug between duty and expediency, between doing "the right thing" and fearing that if he did, he could lose his hard-won place at the top. At moments--such as his decision to ask Lieberman to run with him--Gore can strike just the right balance between boldness and political pragmatism. But one senses deeply personal forces behind the vice president's diligent embrace of the issues.

Inflamed by grandiosity, his insecurities at times have been downright apocalyptic--as if he needed to save not just himself but the whole world. He developed a deep interest in arms control, he says, out of vivid nightmares about losing his family in a nuclear war; he became an ardent environmentalist, trying to rescue the globe from industrial waste, after his son was nearly killed by a passing auto. It is difficult to know how the tension between Al Gore, World Saver, and Al Gore, Senator Finger-in-the-Wind, would play out in the White House. But it is a good bet that Gore will be torn between the desire to take big, bold steps, to design a Grand Plan--and the need to vigilantly cover his rear.

Gore grew up in a world that was privileged yet pinched. The family lived at the Fairfax Hotel in Washington with other pillars of the establishment, including Sen. Prescott Bush, George W's grandfather. Yet they occupied a modest two-bedroom suite. Albert had to bunk with his older sister, Nancy. Pauline Gore took shopping trips to New York, but she also made many of her own clothes and dressed little Albert in hand-me-downs from rich cousins. As a boy, Albert listened in on the phone while his father spoke to President John F. Kennedy. Yet he was warned not to take such proximity to power for granted. Though Albert Gore Sr. served three terms in the U.S. Senate, he believed--and made perfectly clear to Pauline, Albert Jr. and Nancy--that voters were fickle and liable to turn on you at any time. "I remember Pauline telling me that Albert warned him [Al Jr.] about the political life, that you could be cut out at any time," recalls Nancy Fleming, a longtime family friend.

Rejection at the polls would mean going home to the desolate hills of middle Tennessee, where towns have names like Difficult, Defeated and Nameless. Born dirt-poor, Albert Gore Sr. seized on politics as his escape route. "There was but one way to go from Possum Hollow--that was up and out," Gore Sr. would say. Staying on top required hobnobbing with the elite. There is a photo of young Albert rather formally and bravely wishing his parents good night as they headed out in their evening clothes for another embassy ball or Georgetown dinner party. Young Al was left alone with his older sister for long stretches so their parents could go on congressional junkets abroad or campaign back in Tennessee.

Albert Gore Sr. was heavy-handed, both as a politician and as a father. He was never shy about his ambition for his only son. When Gore was nominated to be vice president in 1992, Gore Sr. exclaimed, "We raised him for it!" Young Gore was required to do 50 push-ups every morning. Little Al was sent to Tennessee in the summers to a kind of agrarian boot camp. Though his parents would build an imposing house on the hill, Gore roomed in a sharecroppers' shack, rising at dawn to do brutally hard work. "Al's father would just work the dickens out of him," recalled a cousin, Mark Gore. Pauline tried to draw the line when Albert Sr. ordered his son to plow a dangerously steep hillside. When Al Sr. insisted, she shot back sarcastically, "Yes, a boy could never be president if he couldn't plow with that damn hillside plow."

Gore never complained. Donna Armistead, his teen girlfriend, observed that Gore's whole demeanor would become more stoical around his father. "He never wanted to worry anyone," Armistead said. (Asked what Gore got from his father, she immediately answered, "Stiffness and starch.") He was an "easy child" to his mother, well-mannered and obedient. "It was 'I'm fine, Mom, I'm fine'," recalled Armistead. While Albert Sr. hailed from the hills, where people were solitary and suspicious of strangers, "Miss Pauline" came from more sociable west Tennessee, near the Mississippi Delta. She sent Albert to Mrs. Shippen's dancing class in Washington and tried to instill in him a certain courtliness. Gore saw the way to win over his often absent parents. An Army friend of Gore's, Mike O'Hara, recalled, "He told me one time that his way of getting attention was by being very polite. He said, 'I was a real little politician'."

Gore was decent and upright but had few close friends at St. Albans, his classmates say. He was regarded by some as an Eddie Haskell figure, a little too unctuous with the grown-ups. As football captain, he turned in his own teammates to the coach for breaking training with beer and cigarettes. (The squad responded by going 1-7.) In an era when most prep-schoolers wanted to sound like Holden Caulfield, sarcastic and subversive (a style perfected at Andover by George W. Bush), Gore's roommate, Geoff Kuhn, described Gore with a line from a children's story: "controlled and cleanly, night and day." Armistead, who corresponded with Gore every week, remembers a joylessness that suffused his letters, as he described the pressure to be an example to other students and, most of all, to live up to his father.

Gore's dutifulness stands in stark contrast to his sister's willful rebellion. A saucy green-eyed beauty with a sharp tongue, Nancy was seen as the anti-Al, even by her own parents. While Al tried to find out what you wanted and did it, Pauline liked to say, Nancy found out so she could do exactly the opposite. When Nancy was diagnosed with lung cancer in the early '80s (she died in 1984), brother and sister reacted in character. Al went for briefings at the National Institutes of Health; Nancy took flying lessons.

And yet Gore, too, showed his wild side from time to time as he grew up. As a teenager he totaled his father's Chevy Impala while passing a truck on a country road, and he was known to do headstands on top of an outboard motor while racing about the lake. At Harvard, Gore drove a motorcycle at white-knuckle speeds, engaged in beer-chugging contests and smoked his share of marijuana, which, at the Harvard of the late '60s, was a lot. There was an element of defiance in his romance with Tipper Aitcheson, whom he had met at a St. Albans graduation dance and who often stayed with him at his Harvard dorm while she studied in Boston. Pauline Gore apparently believed her son could "do better" than Tipper, who was not from a socially prominent family. But Gore found a warmth and tenderness in Tipper that he did not quite get at home.

Significantly, Gore was not swept up in the student rebellion that engulfed Harvard in 1969, his senior year. While other students were demonstrating and taking over the administration building, Gore was preparing for power in conventional ways. One summer he boned up on Tennessee history at Memphis State; his senior year he borrowed $45,224 to buy land from his father in Albert Sr.'s old congressional district. And at Harvard's Institute of Politics he persuaded Prof. Richard Neustadt, a former adviser to President Kennedy, to tutor him on the inner workings of Washington.

Gore was particularly interested in a government course that included a seminar on the Cuban missile crisis. Students would role-play at having their finger on the nuclear button as the superpowers went to the brink of war. The instructor, Graham Allison, observed that Gore had "a vivid sense of the nuclear danger." He got it partly from his father, who as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was close to President Kennedy. "We were very, very near war!" Senator Gore wrote his friend and patron, industrialist Armand Hammer, a few days after the missile crisis ended in 1962. In his interview with NEWSWEEK, Gore described being paraded, along with his St. Albans schoolmates, into the catacombs of the adjacent National Cathedral, where they would try to survive a nuclear attack. David Nichols, a St. Albans friend, recalls visiting Albert Jr. at Harvard and listening to him brood long into the night about weapons of mass destruction. Gore explained that his father had recently told him about a tour of a military installation out West where poison gas was stored, enough to eliminate human-kind many times over. Father and son, Nichols recalled, "were extremely concerned about the possibility that the human race was going to destroy itself."

The Gores were at the brink of a more personal disaster when Albert graduated. Albert Sr.'s stands against the Vietnam War and in favor of civil rights were costing him politically back home in the hawkish and only recently desegregated Volunteer State. In 1970 Senator Gore was up against a well-financed and slick opponent, Bill Brock, who was running vicious attack ads playing on the latent racism of Tennesseans. Gore Sr.'s liberalism had gotten ahead of the voters, and he did not help his cause by joking with a local good ole boy that he had better vote for him "or I'll take away your Medicare." Gore Sr. thought the voters were sophisticated enough to see through Brock's race-baiting ads and to get Senator Gore's arch humor. He was wrong on both counts. After 32 years in Congress, he was out. The entire family was devastated. Several lessons were burned into young Gore's political consciousness: Never get outspent. Attack ads work--and you must hit back harder. Jokes can backfire. Standing on principle is very risky. And never let yourself get outflanked on the right. Judging from Gore's later political career, the lessons of his father's defeat have never been far from Gore's mind.

Gore had made a considerable sacrifice himself to get his father re-elected. He had enlisted in the Army and requested duty in Vietnam. Tennessee boys were still volunteering in 1969, but few, if any, of Gore's Harvard classmates willingly went to war. As an Army journalist, Gore did not see actual combat, but he returned from Vietnam restless and edgy, wandering the woods of the family farm at night when he couldn't sleep. He dabbled at divinity and law school at Vanderbilt in Nashville and became a serious newspaper reporter at The Tennessean. He was rebelling--his parents asked Bill Kovach, a friendly New York Times reporter, to try to talk Al out of journalism--but in his own cautious way. Paranoid about getting busted when he smoked marijuana, Gore would "go around the room and close all the curtains and turn the lights out so no one could see," recalled a friend. Gore likes to say that he "turned off" to politics in this period, but he hesitated not a moment when his father's old congressional seat opened up in 1976. Telling Tipper about his decision to run, he dropped to the floor and began doing push-ups.

Gore asked his father not to campaign with him. "I must become my own man," he told his mother. By that he meant he must not repeat his father's mistakes. Gore carefully trimmed his youthful liberalism for voters, appealing to pro-life and pro-gun groups and calling homosexuality "abnormal." Gore says his stands were all sincere, but he has moved left and right over the years according to the political necessities of the moment. His father had been attacked in Tennessee for absenteeism; Gore planned town meetings like a military campaign, with little pins in a map marking his progress. In Congress he stuck mostly to himself, reading briefing papers before hearings while other committee members jawboned and glad-handed.

Calling himself a "raging moderate," he avoided political controversy, but his hopes and fears, for himself and everyone else, were epic. Averting nuclear war became his main passion. At a Girls State conference in Murfreesboro, Tenn., in 1980, he asked how many believed they would see a nuclear war in their lifetime. Nearly all the girls raised their hands. How many, he asked, believed that the nation's leaders could head off war? Maybe three or four hands went up. That session, as well as other meetings at which Tennessee voters voiced their nuclear fears, stirred old dreads in Gore. He began having nightmares of finding a nuclear bomb under the bleachers of the local high school. As he described the dream to NEWSWEEK, he desperately tried to defuse the bomb but lacked the tools or the know-how. "The sensation of ticking began to grow more pronounced," he remembered. Fleeing home, he had just gathered his wife and children when he saw a blinding white flash.

Studying several hours a week with his longtime national-security aide, Leon Fuerth, Gore became an expert in the arcana of nuclear-arms control during the '80s. Though a lowly congressman, he made himself a player, not as a knee-jerk disarmer but as a deep thinker looking for ways to slow what his father described as the race "to the top of the nuclear volcano." His own political ambitions were equally lofty. Elected to the Senate in 1984, he jumped--with his father's firm hand on his back--into the presidential race in 1988. "I want to see you president before I die," his father told him. Gore was not yet 40.

Gore ran a clumsy campaign, flip-flopping and demagoguing his way to defeat. But his bitter sense of loss was nothing compared with the catastrophe of seeing his son hit by a car and knocked 20 feet as he left a baseball game in April 1989. Albert III, then 6, had been holding his father's hand when he broke away into traffic. "I had him," Gore would later say. "I had him." The boy nearly died and required several weeks of hospitalization.

Gore plunged into a midlife funk. Tipper, whose own mother was prone to depression, was struggling with spells of gloominess. The couple began to see a counselor to help them cope with the strain of Albert's accident and to deal with stresses on their marriage imposed by Gore's frequent vote-getting trips to Tennessee. Gore, typically intellectualizing his own feelings, had already latched onto a book of psychology called "The Drama of the Gifted Child." The self-help tome discussed the tragedy of too-perfect children who bury their messy inner selves in a desperate attempt to please their too-demanding parents. Gore immediately saw himself.

"I felt as if my life had grown supercritical," Gore wrote, borrowing a term from physics to describe the cascading motion of grains of sand in a pile. "A number of painful experiences had piled on top of one another." His response was to closet himself in his parents' Washington apartment and write a book about the fate of the world. Passionate, heavy with science and learning, "Earth in the Balance" compares the world to a dysfunctional family. "Like a parent violating the personal boundaries of a vulnerable child, we violate the temporal boundaries of our rightful place in the chain of human generations," he declared. Gore made no attempt to hide his personal identification with the environmental crisis facing the globe. "The search for truths about this ungodly crisis and the search for truths about myself have been the same search all along," he wrote. He promised a personal battle to overcome the narrow and short-term thinking that led policymakers to allow the earth's desecration. "I have become very impatient with my own tendency to put a finger in the political winds and proceed cautiously," he wrote.

The book arrived in stores in January 1992 and became a best seller. Within six months, however, Gore was Bill Clinton's running mate, required once more to stick his finger in the wind and proceed cautiously. Gore has been a loyal and careful vice president. This is not to say that he has not urged Clinton to be more bold. Gore has been a dependable voice in favor of greater American military intervention abroad--in Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq and Kosovo. He was a forceful advocate for fiscal restraint and free trade. And he has urged the president to take stronger stands on the environment, pressing (unsuccessfully) for an energy tax in 1993 and (with mixed success) for the United States to forge an international agreement to limit greenhouse gases.

But the rockiness of the Clinton presidency heightened Gore's natural insecurities. Though Clinton has granted Gore remarkable access, it's never been enough for Gore. One former Clinton lieutenant, no fan of the veep, described him as a "real Kremlinologist," scrutinizing Clinton's daily schedule and analyzing traffic to and from the Oval Office to determine whether the vice president was being unfairly excluded from some deliberation. Gore's discovery of a meeting he did not know about would send him "scuttling" down the hall, said this staffer. President Clinton picked up on his No. 2's unease. "I like Al; he's real smart," Clinton told a top aide. "But Al's always seeing something where there's nothing."

Clinton could not fault Gore for his loyalty. After the depths of the Lewinsky scandal, Gore praised Clinton as "the greatest president in history." With his competitive drive--and sharp memory of his father's 1970 defeat--Gore vied to be the most determined fund-raiser for the 1996 campaign, at one point volunteering to make more calls to prospective donors. Most politicians would have looked for any excuse to get out of the veep's most onerous chore--streamlining the federal government. But Gore made a crusade of "Reinventing Government," or REGO. Likewise, most politicians regard themselves as "people persons." George W. Bush, certainly, would prefer a conversation to a briefing paper any day. But Gore seems more comfortable dealing with systems than individuals. He appears to believe that if he can just intellectualize the right system--for arms control, or reducing greenhouse gases, or designing communications networks--many of man's problems will wither away.

When it comes to a common touch, Gore will always suffer by comparison with his gifted boss. Gore is constantly pestered by advisers and fellow pols to loosen up and "be yourself." Two weeks before the 1996 election, a New Hampshire Democrat named Arnie Arnesen told Gore, as they stumped around the Granite State, "You're not perky enough." At the next stop, Gore lumbered on as Al the Stiff, before suddenly warming up. "His whole body seemed to change," said Arnesen. The crowd was roaring by the time Gore finished. As the veep stepped away from the microphone, he looked over his shoulder at Arnesen. "Perky enough?" he asked.

Gore's sense of humor can be surprisingly playful, edgy and ironic. During the preparation for his 1996 campaign debate against Jack Kemp, Gore performed badly against a stand-in. During a coffee break, his aides began listing his weak spots but decided they were being a little too harsh. One scribbled a note for Gore to see at the top of the list, "You're in great shape!" When Gore returned, he recognized instantly that he was being patronized. Mimicking the voice of a nervous underling, he started to re-create the conversation that had occurred when he left the room, "Ohhhh, this is too negative. What can we tell him? Oh, I know! You're in great shape!" With President Clinton he could be dryly sarcastic. Before a press conference in 1994, Clinton was advised that he might be asked about tabloid stories dominating the news, including the case of Lorena Bobbitt, who was charged with cutting off her husband's penis. "No matter what you do," Gore deadpanned, "be sure to use the word penis as much as possible."

Gore seems to have an easy, teasing relationship with Tipper and his four kids (Karenna, 27; Kristin, 23; Sarah, 21; Albert III, 17). His family has long since learned to put up with his pedantic streak. "Sometimes the kids don't even know they're being taught, [but] a lot of times it's real obvious," Tipper Gore told a NEWSWEEK reporter with a laugh in 1996. "I'll even get a look--'Dad is in his teaching role'--and we know it's going to be a 45-minute class." From time to time, the looser Real Al known to friends and family will emerge in public, and he will seem funny and authentic and demonstrative. But inevitably, the Old Al, stiff and monotonous, returns. It's as if he hears his father's voice telling him to stand up straight, or to drop and give him another 50 push-ups. When Gore's father died two years ago, Albert Jr. stayed up for two nights writing his eulogy, which began, "My father was the greatest man I ever knew in my life." Albert Gore Sr. seems to live on in his son's imagination as a caution and a goad, a constant reminder of the drive to succeed and the cost of failure, of the dangers, global and personal, that always lurk around the corner. It is a heavy burden to carry. Relentless and disciplined, Gore has made himself a strong man, physically and emotionally. But if he is elected president, the burden will grow that much heavier.