Al Gore's Patriotic Chore

If biography is message in national politics, then the Vietnam years speak volumes about the men who would be president. More than chapters in their lives, these years are windows into their character, and vehicles for revisiting our own unresolved conflicts about the war--especially questions of who went, who didn't and why. The leading contenders for 2000 have stories that stretch across the spectrum of wartime experience. George W. Bush, the GOP front runner, flew for the Air National Guard but never went to Vietnam. John McCain, a Navy pilot, spent five and a half years in a North Vietnamese POW camp. On the Democratic side, former senator Bill Bradley served Stateside in the Air Force Reserves, while Al Gore spent five months in Vietnam as an Army journalist. The question of whether and how to serve was Gore's first adult crisis of conscience, a tortured decision examined in a forthcoming book, "Inventing Al Gore: A Biography," by NEWSWEEK's Bill Turque. An excerpt:

Specialist Fifth Class Albert Gore Jr. was taking no chances. It was March 1971, and the young Army journalist was in a foxhole in Khe Sanh, South Vietnam, seven miles from the Laotian border. He'd volunteered for the assignment: writing an article for the Castle Courier, the newspaper of the Army engineers, on their role in re-opening an abandoned Marine base and airstrip. There was no incoming enemy fire, but Gore nevertheless found some metal sheets to reinforce the tarmac that protected his quarters for the evening. Mike O'Hara, the photographer on the story, who had a few more months of field experience under his belt, tried to reassure his partner. "I said, 'Al, relax. Nothing's going to happen.' He seemed very intent on fortifying our position."

Gore approached military service as he did every other big step in his life--with caution, meticulous attention to appearances and a plan. Unlike Bill Clinton, his future presidential running mate, Gore volunteered for the Army, both to rescue his father's flickering political career and to keep his own future options open. Although he saw no combat, Gore has used images of himself, clad in fatigues, in advertising for both his 1988 and 2000 presidential campaigns, a message to voters that he didn't use his privileged background to duck service. And while he adamantly refused to solicit special treatment as a senator's son, he may have been quietly protected, possibly in ways he was not even aware of, by benefactors concerned for his safety.

His decision to enlist was by no means automatic, but driven by a characteristic mix of conviction, political calculation and self-sacrificial loyalty. As he neared his 1969 graduation from Harvard, Gore was deeply torn. He deplored U.S. involvement in the war, but also felt a deep sense of obligation to his father. The senior senator from Tennessee had been an early, outspoken dove, one of a series of unpopular stands that had jeopardized his political future. Young Gore worried that having a son who evaded the draft could only further weaken his dad's chances for re-election in 1970. The senator and his wife, Pauline Gore, have said they insisted that their son leave politics out of his calculus. But Harvard friends recall explicit signals to Gore from home about what needed to be done as the political season approached. "I wouldn't say it was necessarily pressure," said John Tyson, one of his roommates. "But they certainly wanted him to know that his father was running for re-election. That's all they had to say." Gore says that while his father's political predicament was a factor, he ultimately made the decision to serve on ethical grounds. Pulling strings available to him as a senator's son, he said, would have been unfair to less-connected friends in Tennessee. But at least one close Harvard friend remembers Gore's acknowledging that he was a reluctant warrior, and that family politics, not ethics, drove the decision. "It's fair to say that he said if he had my parents, he would have made a different decision," said the classmate, still a friend and prominent supporter. "He was committed to his father's situation."

Overcommitted, it turns out. Albert Gore was prepared to accept his son's decision to avoid service--even admire it as one of conscience. Former Nashville Tennessean reporter Charles Fontenay remembers Pauline Gore's telling him that the senator offered to use his clout to ease their boy out of the draft. "A man will do things for his son," said Fontenay. (Although once his son joined up, the senator didn't hesitate to film a 1970 campaign ad showing young Al in uniform.) Pauline Gore may have been another story. While Albert delighted in the idea of "Little Al's" one day becoming president, it was the politically astute Pauline who strove to ensure that nothing put that dream at risk. Although it has been widely reported over the years that she offered to pack off to Canada with her son if he chose to flee the country, Gore's Harvard confidant rolled his eyes at the notion. He recalled that the message Gore got from his mother was, in essence, a rhetorical "Guess what you're going to do?"

By the spring of 1969, Gore's decision appeared locked in place. The only remaining question was how to serve. He and future bride Tipper Aitcheson were back in Washington on spring break from college, mulling the future at Max's, a Georgetown bar. They were joined by an older family friend, an Army veteran to whom Gore had grown close. Gore, still preoccupied with protecting his father's political flanks, wanted his drinking companion's advice. Should he enlist? Wait for the draft to come his way after graduation? Would Officer Candidate School carry the whiff of elitism for Tennessee voters? His friend pointed out that enlistment would decrease his chances of seeing combat. "I can survive anything," Gore declared. But his ally worried that Gore might be vulnerable to bureaucratic harassment from commanders hostile toward his antiwar father. He wanted to discuss Gore's situation with an officer he knew socially. Gore consented, but insisted that he wanted no special treatment.

According to Gore's friend, the Harvard senior didn't know until several months later that his contact was Gen. William Westmoreland, Army chief of staff. He says he met twice that spring with the former commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam to discuss Gore's options. Westmoreland guaranteed no cushy deals, according to Gore's friend, but left him with one sweeping assurance: "I believe he will be watched," the general said. "He will be cared for."

Westmoreland, now 85 and living in Charleston, S.C., said in a 1998 interview that he had sketchy memories of meeting with someone who represented Gore's interests. "I do recall some sort of meeting and gave some advice," he said. While he insisted that he was "not a party" to Gore's eventual assignment as an Army journalist, he said that it likely took "some political maneuvering" to land such a job. Pressed for details, the general backpedaled in a letter several weeks later, claiming no memory of a meeting with Gore's friend. As for Gore's parents, their son's friend said they were aware of the discussions, but never took an active part. Pauline, though, was "keenly interested in how it would go."

On June 17, 1969, several weeks after the consultations with Westmoreland and a few days after graduation, Gore's Carthage draft board stripped him of his student deferment and reclassified him 1-A. He huddled with his parents one last time, taking a long walk with his father beside the Caney Fork River one afternoon, and then another by himself after dinner. When he returned, Pauline Gore recalled, he said: "I'll go. I won't wait for the draft. I'll volunteer tomorrow." It was actually several weeks before Gore volunteered, and he spent part of the time on a sort of farewell tour, explaining to friends that his decision was moral, not political. His last stop, in early August, was John Tyson's Montclair, N.J., home. "He really wanted us to know that this was about him, not what the scenario suggested," said Tyson, headed back to Harvard with a student deferment for divinity school. Gore decided to enlist in nearby Newark, an unlikely point of entry that suited his desire to avoid becoming part of his father's story. An official Army photo shows him freshly crew-cut, with a dazed, saddened look in his eyes, holding up a small black placard with white lettering that said GORE, ALBERT A.

His chances of seeing combat were extremely small. Although technically eligible for assignment to the infantry, Vietnam-era enlistees with above-average skills were routinely assigned specialized jobs, often far from the fighting. And despite Westmoreland's suggestion that Gore had political help to secure his assignment as an Army journalist, there is no hard evidence that his father or anyone in the chain of command intervened on his behalf. Dess Stokes, the staff sergeant at the Newark recruiting station who handled Gore's enlistment, said there was no interference, and that a young man with his background (a 134 IQ and a Harvard degree) didn't need to be a senator's son to get the military job he wanted. On his enlistment form, Gore mentioned a summer copy boy's job at The New York Times in 1967 as his credential for a reporter's post. To bolster his case, he penciled into the space for listing hobbies: "writes poetry."

After basic training in Fort Dix, N.J., Gore settled into the public-affairs office at Fort Rucker, Ala., where he cranked out news releases about medal ceremonies for the base newspaper. He had fun as well, joining several office and barracks mates in renting a beach house on the Florida panhandle near Panama City. Over steaks, cigars and a cheap wine called Tickle Me Pink, they listened to Led Zeppelin on their eight-track stereo and swapped stories. Women were available, but by all accounts Gore, set to be married the following spring, remained true to the girl he met at his high-school graduation dance. Even on several trips to New Orleans, where a buddy had set him up with the roommate of a woman he was dating there, Gore didn't weaken. He did manage, in his own way, to let loose. After a long night of drinking in the French Quarter with a friend about to ship out to South Vietnam, Gore made his way to the shoulder of a freeway near the apartment where they were staying and spent two hours scrounging on hands and knees for the perfect four-leaf clover to give him for good luck.

Gore also wanted a Vietnam assignment. But why did he want to wade deeper into a war he claimed to loathe? Enlistment was political cover enough for his embattled father. Those close to young Gore at the time say his motivations were a mix of familial obligation and interest in his own possible political future. "I figure it had something to do with politics, something that would look good on a resume," said Gus Stanisic, a colleague in Rucker's public-affairs office. "My impression was he had decided that the probability of something happening to him [in South Vietnam] was low in public affairs." Again, Westmoreland hovered in the background. The two met during the general's visit to Rucker in 1970, and Gore has intimated over the years that the general encouraged him to go. According to Michael Zibart, a Nashville friend, Gore said that Westmoreland told him he "would be making a grave error if he didn't serve in Vietnam."

But after volunteering, Gore's orders took months to come through. He has alleged that the Nixon White House kept them bottled up in the military bureaucracy. If any harm came to him in the war zone, Gore reasoned, it would undermine the GOP's election-year message in Tennessee--that Albert Gore was a "radiclib" who sneered at patriotism. It wasn't until Christmas 1970, nearly two months after his father's bitter defeat by Republican Bill Brock, that he embarked. Former Nixon administration officials, including Defense secretary Melvin Laird, insist that there was no tampering with Gore's orders.

His father's loss at the polls crushed Gore. When he reported to the 20th Engineer Brigade in Bien Hoa, he was interested only in serving out his remaining seven months in the service as one of the troops. There was grumbling around brigade headquarters even before he arrived; others envied the gingerly VIP handling they thought he was certain to receive. "A lot of guys made up their minds that they weren't going to be too happy," said Alan Leo, a photographer in the brigade press office where Gore worked as a reporter.

Leo didn't give the newcomer much thought until he was summoned by the 20th's commander, Brig. Gen. K. B. Cooper. Albert Gore's son was coming into the unit, Cooper said, and he had "a great amount of respect for the senator." He asked Leo, the most experienced member of the press unit, to make sure that nothing happened to the young Harvard graduate. Reporters and photographers from public affairs were frequently paired as teams on assignments in the field. "He requested that Gore not get into situations that were dangerous," said Leo, who did what he could to carry out Cooper's directive. He described his half-dozen or so trips into the field with Gore as situations where "I could have worn a tuxedo." Leo added that he never disclosed to Gore his conversation with Cooper, nor does he believe that Gore was aware of the arrangement.

Cooper, now retired, acknowledged that he knew Sen. Albert Gore "casually" from a previous posting as an aide to Army Secretary Stanley Resor. But he said he has no memory of discussing Gore's safety with Leo. "I'm not saying it didn't happen, but I don't remember it," he said. However, Wayne Pelter, a stenographer at brigade headquarters, said Gore's protected status was widely discussed. "He didn't have to go out on real dangerous missions," said Pelter, a retired master sergeant. Pelter added that it was "not Gore's decision," but one imposed by the brass.

If there was an official effort to guarantee Gore's safety, it was an uneven one. Clippings from the Castle Courier suggest that he pulled his weight, choppering around the country to report features about the good works of the 20th Engineers, who were tasked with paving roads and clearing jungle to support combat operations. William Smith, another reporter attached to the 20th, said Gore volunteered for the trip to Khe Sanh, which Smith would have made but was scheduled for R&R in Hawaii. "Al did what we all did," said O'Hara, now a sportswriter for The Detroit News.

The closest Gore got to combat was through after-action interviews with GIs. His most ambitious piece was an account of a Vietcong attack on a fire support base near the Cambodian border on the night of Feb. 22, 1971. There were no U.S. losses, but Gore's copy evokes the terror of close-quarters fighting:

"The explosions kept up. And they all seemed to be hits. The eight-inch [gun] was already gone, one of the dusters [twin 40 mm guns mounted on a tracked vehicle] was now in flames, the sandbag bunker beside it was flattened, an entire row of hootches was destroyed. Either they were damned accurate shots or... 'VC in the compound! VC in the compound!' Suddenly everyone was yelling it. And the dogs were barking." Gore and Leo pieced together the story with several hours of interviews at the fire base the day after the attack. Former medic Sylvester Thompson remembers Gore as thorough, professional and quick. "They got right back on the helicopter before dark," he said. "When it was dark, they were out of there."

Gore has rarely spoken publicly in any detail about his brief (barely five months) Vietnam experience. But what little he saw seemed to upset him immensely. Richard Abalos, a beach-house friend, said his mail back to the States was laced with notes of despair. "He sounded freaked out about the killing. It seemed like he was despondent," said Abalos. One letter to Gus Stanisic, which Abalos remembers Stanisic's reading out loud, contained a promise: "He told Gus that when and if he got back from Vietnam he would go to divinity school to atone for his sins."

It was never clear what sins Gore was talking about. But for a young man whose Southern Baptist faith had him continually wondering whether he was in the right, becoming part of such a morally ambiguous mission--even to protect his father--may have come to seem sinful. Those who tried to discuss it with him, like Lloyd Armour, his boss on The Nashville Tennessean editorial page, were rebuffed. "Mostly he'd give a defensive answer or try to fend it off," said Armour.

But some of those who served with Gore say his experience was closer in spirit to "Good Morning, Vietnam" than "Platoon." Most evenings, after a shower and a hot meal, Gore and the other "information specialists" kicked back on lawn chairs in front of their hootches, where Budweiser and marijuana were always available. "We mostly just vegetated," said O'Hara. Years later, as a presidential candidate in 1987, Gore said he smoked "once or twice" while off duty in Bien Hoa.

The war may have had a more profound impact on Tipper Gore. Married barely six months before watching her husband ship out during their first Christmas together, she was, as John Warnecke, an old Nashville friend remembers her, a troubled young woman, frightened for her husband's safety. Uncomfortable alone with Albert and Pauline at the family farm while Gore was overseas, she frequently stayed with friends in Nashville. "Tipper was freaked out about Al being over there. It was extremely hard on her," said Warnecke, a former reporter at The Nashville Tennessean who, along with his then-wife Nancy, a photographer at the paper, got to know the Gores during the 1970 campaign. He remembers crying jags and entire days she spent in bed at their red brick-and-frame house near downtown Nashville. Warnecke said he even once stayed up with her all night, "holding her like a father," as she wept.

While Gore was still in South Vietnam, friends began laying the groundwork for his life after the Army. Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler, a longtime family friend, had seen his big piece on the fire base and reprinted it. There would be a job for him in Nashville if he was interested. Army regulations allowed for early release of personnel to teach or attend school if their services were deemed "not essential to the mission." In May 1971, with three months left on his two-year hitch, Gore was granted an "early out."

The war and his father's defeat left Gore bitter about American politics. They were experiences that sent him on an extended search for a deeper understanding of who he was and what he was meant to do with his life. As he had promised in the letters home, Gore finalized plans to attend Vanderbilt Divinity School. Tom McGee, another 20th Engineers friend, saw an element of rebellion in the choice, a message that he was not prepared to jump immediately into the dynastic script written for him by his family. "He wasn't going to be pushed or rushed into anything when he left," said McGee. In truth, it was less a rebellion than a staving off of the inevitable. Al Gore wasn't through with politics, but he was determined to enter it as his own man, not a senator's son.