Al's Family Matters

Last summer Vice President Al Gore asked his brother-in-law, Frank Hunger, to look at the finances of his troubled presidential campaign. Hunger didn't like what he saw. Spending was on a pace that would leave Gore penniless before the end of the primary season. The campaign's K Street headquarters was flabby with pricey consultants, some splitting their time between Gore and other clients. A soft-spoken former Mississippi trial lawyer with a thatch of white hair, Hunger was married for 18 years to Gore's sister, Nancy, before her death from lung cancer in 1984 at 46. Hunger remains a fiercely loyal family consigliere,quick to act if he thinks Gore is being ill served by those around him. His recommendation: move the campaign to Nashville. It would return Gore to Tennessee, where Hunger thought he belonged as a candidate, and winnow the payroll of those not committed to the cause. "I pressed it. Big time," he said, enlisting Gore's wife, Tipper, and daughter Karenna Gore Schiff to raise the idea with Gore. By late September, said one senior adviser, Hunger had "pushed it over the goal line. "

Gore is widely viewed as a holographic creation of consultants and focus-group research. But his campaigns are actually family crusades, with a close circle of kin often driving major decisions. At Sunday cookouts, through e-mail and on conference calls, Tipper, Karenna and Hunger serve as a source of counsel and a secure sounding board for Gore to decide what he wants. The three often operate as a unit, trading war stories from the road, rating journalists as friendly or hostile, mulling how to best present their candidate. In public, they are sensitive about appearing to pre-empt the professionals who run the campaign's day-to-day operations. But it is also clear that they view themselves as an important check on the hired hands. Several weeks ago, when Hunger began to feel that Gore's daily attacks on George W. Bush were hurting and not helping, he called message guru Carter Eskew. Even though some strategists thought it was important to stay on the attack, Gore soon shifted direction by ordering up a series of high-road issue speeches. "It's more important to us that he be true to himself than that he wins," said Gore Schiff.

Some family counsel he has accepted over the years might have been best left at the dinner table. In his unsuccessful 1988 presidential run, consultants trod carefully around his parents, former senator Albert Gore and his wife, Pauline, who wielded enormous influence over their son ("Senator Sir and Senator Ma'am," as they were sometimes known). Over the protests of campaign manager Fred Martin, they insisted that Gore contest an Illinois primary he had no hope of winning.

In this campaign it was Karenna who brought friend Naomi Wolf, and weeks of derisive press, to Gore's table. Against the advice of staff in 1997, Tipper and Karenna urged Gore to mount his "no controlling legal authority" defense of his West Wing fund-raising phone calls. Hunger encouraged Gore to eulogize sister Nancy, a heavy smoker from the age of 13, in the vice president's 1996 acceptance speech. Both saw it as a way to reinforce government efforts to restrict minors' access to tobacco products. But it was a political disaster for Gore, who was unable to explain why he continued to take contributions from cigarette manufacturers for seven years after his sister's death. Neither Hunger nor anyone else around Gore foresaw the scathing reaction. "I guess I was a little naive," Hunger said.

For better or for worse, with less than four months until Election Day, the Gore clan is once again mobilized. Tipper has launched a heavy round of travel and press interviews. Hunger, who left his post as head of the Justice Department's civil division in early 1999, took a leave from his law firm late last month to travel full time with Gore. Even the family matriarch, "Miss Pauline," now 87 and slowed by poor health, is pitching in. Worried one day last month when she didn't answer the phone at the family farm near Carthage, Tenn., Gore later discovered that she had journeyed to campaign headquarters in Nashville for an impromptu pep talk to the troops.

In 2000 no one wields more behind-the-scenes influence with Gore than his wife. Although Tipper remains a reluctant political warrior, wary of the cost a public life exacts on her family, she has become the principal power center in Gore's world.

Just before Gore asked Commerce Secretary Bill Daley to become his new campaign chairman (replacing Tony Coelho), his first call was not to President Clinton--to tell him he would be losing a cabinet member--but to Mrs. Gore. When the Gore camp debated whether to release a transcript of his interview with Justice Department investigators about his 1996 fund-raising, Tipper--joined by Karenna--was on the conference call, asking questions and ultimately agreeing that disclosure was the best course. Had she not, said one senior aide, it might have been "a heavier lift" convincing Gore. And whoever Gore selects as a running mate--he met with House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt last week--it will not be without a green light from Tipper. "She has the final sign-off on any decision of significance," said one top staffer.

Gore Schiff, the eldest of Gore's three daughters, was a campaign brat--3 years old when her father won his first House seat in 1976. At 14 she was offering unsolicited advice ("I don't think that's right, Dad") in strategy sessions. By 1996 she was scripting lines for his debate with Jack Kemp. This year she's emerged as the heir to the Gore political franchise, playing major roles backstage and out front. In a series of appearances, she's promoted GoreNet, an effort to reach out to young voters. She and husband Drew Schiff have hosted a series of off-the-record cocktail parties at their apartment on New York's Upper East Side, where her father can relax with groups that mix grass roots (teachers and social workers) with glitter (Sheryl Crow and Russell Simmons were at recent soirees). "We can be conduits of feelings and information," Gore Schiff said. "You can't overestimate the importance of that." Feelings don't always make for sound political decisions. But bloodlines can trump consultants' memos. Win or lose in November, the Gores will do it together.

Al's Family Matters | News