The Education Of Al Gore

An ebullient Albert Gore didn't mince any words. "We raised him for it," the old senator exulted as his son, Al Gore, joined Bill Clinton on the Democratic ticket in 1992. In the halls of Congress and in the suites of the Fairfax Hotel, Gore learned how to please adults, developing a precocious formality and self-seriousness along the way. But the Al Gore now running for president is anything but stiff--he's a political warrior willing to do just about anything to win the White House. In an excerpt from his forthcoming biography of the vice president, "Inventing Al Gore," NEWSWEEK's Bill Turque explains how the Democratic front runner learned to play hardball. In childhood he was urged to compete, then, in 1970, he watched as Richard Nixon's modern attack machine turned its fire on his father, defeating the elder Gore in a brutal contest that foreshadowed the kind of politics the son would practice in the years to come: always go on the attack. And in 1987, after Gary Hart was forced from the race, the young Gore had to figure out how to maneuver in a new Age of Scandal--a skill he would hone in the Clinton years.

Early on the evening of April 10, 1962, 14-year-old Albert Gore Jr. answered the phone in his family's Washington apartment, room 809 of the Fairfax Hotel on Embassy Row. It was the White House operator with a message for Gore's father, Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee: please call the president. His parents were out, and when they returned, the senator let his son listen in on an extension. They heard a livid John Kennedy explain that U.S. Steel chairman Roger Blough had decided to raise prices. The administration was trying to enforce a wage- and price-stabilization program, and had gotten steelworkers to back off demands for a pay increase. "And now this -------- undertakes on his own to undo it all," Kennedy fumed. "Can you get some opposition going in the Senate?" he asked. Gore said he would try. After they hung up, Albert Gore wrote years later, his son told him, "I didn't think presidents talked like that."

An insider from birth, Al Gore bounced on Richard Nixon's lap and floated his toy submarine in the Senate pool. On spring nights, he listened as his parents gathered with other capital couples on the Fairfax roof garden to catch the breezes and the gossip. Survivors of a punishing climb from rural poverty, Albert and Pauline Gore endowed their son with a granite self-confidence about what was possible, and expected, in life. He was born not merely to take his place in this world, they told him, but to lead it.

Great parental expectations left Gore with a preternatural eagerness to please superiors. While his peers tested the forbearance of the adult world, Gore looked for ways to ingratiate himself. As "Little Al," as he was known at home, marched through his cameos at social events, he was less a kid than a miniature grown-up, working the room for his parents. "He told me one time that his way of getting attention was by being very polite," said his Vietnam buddy Mike O'Hara. "He said, 'I was a real little politician'."

He made special efforts to appear worthy in the eyes of his father. Attending a 1962 United Nations debate with the senator, the high-school sophomore listened to the entire proceeding in French, despite having barely broken a C average in two years of study. "I am not sure whether he understood it or whether he was giving a demonstration for my benefit," Albert wrote to his friend Armand Hammer. "I enjoyed it."

Senator Gore was by his own admission a taskmaster--part parent and part Marine drill instructor. Summers on the family farm near Carthage were less vacations than character-building boot camps designed to toughen up his privileged son. Even Pauline Gore thought dawn to dusk in the hog parlors and tobacco fields was unduly harsh, and she tried to draw the line when her son was assigned to plow a dangerously steep hillside. When Albert insisted, she shot back sarcastically, "Yes, a boy could never be president if he couldn't plow with that damned hillside plow."

The vice president is as much a prisoner as a beneficiary of his Washington education. He absorbed his father's old senatorial formality, a style that can come off as hyperrehearsed and phony--even when it's not. His ambitious parents may also have helped prepare the ground for another adult problem: his penchant for trimming the truth. In the worlds of the Fairfax and the farm, it was never enough for Al Gore to pull his own weight. He has been caught stretching his war record (claiming he was under direct enemy fire when he was not), hyping exploits as an investigative reporter (boasting that his work led to jail sentences for two Nashville politicians, when it did not) and inflating his role in the development of the Internet (asserting that he "took the initiative in creating" it, when he did not). In each case, the real story was more than honorable. He served in Vietnam, uncovered a major bribery scandal and sponsored legislation critical to the Internet's development. So why the invention when the facts were good enough? In part, because it is how Albert and Pauline would have cast the story.

The campaign ad opens with father and son galloping through the countryside. Senator Gore is on a Tennessee walker, 22-year-old Al atop a bay mare, and over the muted sound of horse hoofs is a narrator's reverent voice: "The pace and direction a man sets for his life can tell you a lot about his inner spirit." For a moment, young Al's face fills the screen. "Those closest to him value his integrity and his judgment and his determination to take the right path as he sees it..."

Al Gore lost his first big political battle--to save his father's Senate seat in 1970. He went to war, literally, for the senator's career, which had become imperiled by Albert's opposition to American involvement in Vietnam. Young Gore enlisted in the Army, a message to Tennessee voters that despite his dove's wings, the senator was a patriot who didn't pull strings for his son.

But the Gores were dealing with forces larger than the debate over Vietnam. After nearly 18 years, the senator's maverick liberalism had fallen out of step with an increasingly Republican South. An accumulation of unpopular positions (moderation on civil rights, opposition to Richard Nixon's two Southern nominees to the Supreme Court) and the perception that he preferred Georgetown dinner parties to Tennessee town meetings had left him vulnerable. The Nixon White House targeted him as a leader of the Senate's "Radiclib" faction, "the Southern regional chairman of the Eastern liberal establishment," said Vice President Spiro Agnew. His defeat by Rep. William Brock heralded a new, brutish kind of modern politics, based on relentless attacks and "wedge" issues designed to exploit the racial and economic fears of the white middle class.

The Nixonites threw muscle and money behind Brock, including a stream of illegal contributions--more than $200,000--from a secret White House campaign fund. It helped the GOP paint Gore as an elitist and kept him off balance with a series of baseless attacks, including the charge that he had routed I-40 across land he owned. His "cocktail party liberalism offers us a chance to rebut his folksy image," Nixon chief of staff H. R. Haldeman wrote to aide Harry Dent. He urged the Brock camp to comb newspapers for the fancy dinner parties attended by Gore--including the menus. "The Frenchier the better," he wrote.

The good son did what he could. Gore campaigned for his father on weekend passes, standing straight and true at rallies, an early version of his dutiful vigils at Bill Clinton's elbow. But the old senator prided himself on taking the high road; he was ill suited for the punch-counterpunch ethic of the modern campaign. On election night, the young Gore stood in the ballroom of the Hermitage Hotel in downtown Nashville, and listened as his father conceded the race and, many believed, passed the mantle of Southern liberalism to his son. "The causes for which we fought are not dead. The truth shall rise again!"

No single episode in Gore's life did more to shape his politics than the 1970 campaign. Its bitter lessons have been an underlying force throughout his career, from Congress to the Clinton White House. He admired his father's courage, but regarded his loss as a cautionary tale about the dangers of straying too far ahead--and to the left--of those one represents. Gore became a generally reliable liberal vote in Congress on domestic policy, but rarely took the lead for Democrats on volatile issues like race, crime, abortion and economic fairness. He chose instead to make his name on worthy but highly technical subjects like arms control and global warming. Legitimate pursuits, but ones that left him with far fewer lasting enemies.

Gore also made sure that no opponent could credibly accuse him of being "out of touch" like his father. While on the Hill, he kept a grueling schedule back in Tennessee, holding hundreds of "open meetings" with constituents--a Q&A format he continues to use in his presidential campaign. And after watching the senator outspent by Republicans in 1970, Gore was determined never to be short of cash. He learned to play the Washington money game aggressively, building a deep national fund-raising network. But the zeal to avoid his father's fate also landed him in the worst ethical trouble of his career. Although he was never charged with any wrongdoing, investigations into his 1996 fund-raising practices (White House phone calls, the Buddhist temple) sullied his straight-arrow image.

Perhaps most important, bearing witness to his father's defeat was a searing early lesson in the power of modern attack politics. When Gore entered Congress in 1977, he brought a heightened sense of self-preservation, and a willingness to do whatever it took to survive--even if it meant playing the race card. His dying gasp as a presidential candidate in the 1988 New York primary was an attempt to use a series of violent incidents involving inmates in a Massachusetts prison-furlough program to discredit front runner Gov. Michael Dukakis. Gore never mentioned the program's most notorious alumnus, Willie Horton, nor the fact that he was black. He didn't have to. His audience was in New York City, where white fears about crime often had a black face. Gore's meaning was plain: Dukakis wasn't just soft on crime, he was soft on blacks who committed crimes. Now Gore is applying the lessons of 1970 in the 2000 campaign. He has pounded Bill Bradley's health-care plan with almost daily attacks, including the highly questionable charge that blacks and Latinos would be disproportionately harmed. This year's Republican nominee, whoever he may be, can expect the same kind of pummeling.

Al Gore entered presidential politics at a moment when the rules of engagement between candidates and journalists were changing. In May 1987 Gary Hart, the Democratic front runner, was driven from the race after The Miami Herald raised questions about his relationship with Donna Rice. Gore resented the emerging age of scandal. He was a child of Jack Kennedy's Washington, where off-hours conduct was safely out of bounds for the press. But he was also astute enough to understand that he would have to live with the new rules. In 1987 Gore got his first real lessons in the kind of scandal management that would become routine in the Clinton White House: shaping the story, playing defense, shaving the facts.

With Hart's exit, Gore realized that if sex was on the table, then drugs weren't far behind. There had already been questions from reporters. He decided to get out in front of the story before more started poking around. In mid-October the phone rang at John Warnecke's house in San Mateo, Calif.

Warnecke was an old and close friend--and a potential problem. They met during the 1970 campaign, which Warnecke covered for The Nashville Tennessean. When Gore went to Vietnam later that year, Tipper often stayed with Warnecke and his wife, Nancy, at their Nashville home. When Gore returned and joined the paper as a reporter, he rented the house while the Warneckes moved just a block away. The two young reporters shared the burden of famous fathers. John Carl Warnecke was an award-winning architect and friend of JFK's who designed the president's grave site.

A charming man with an infectious laugh, the younger Warnecke was also plagued by drug and alcohol problems that would soon wreck his first marriage. As Warnecke tells it, he and Gore would gather to talk politics late into the night, fueled by Grateful Dead albums and the high-grade marijuana that Warnecke imported from the West Coast. "We'd get stoned and talk about what we'd do if we were president," he says. Warnecke and two other close friends from Gore's Nashville days say Gore was an enthusiastic recreational user, smoking sometimes as often as three or four times a week: afterhours at Warnecke's house, on weekends at the Gore farm or canoeing on the Caney Fork River. Andy Schlesinger, a former Tennessean reporter who remains close to the Gores (he celebrated with them last week in New Hampshire), says that in the first few months after Gore returned from South Vietnam in 1971, he smoked with him "at least a dozen times" at the Warneckes'. The partying continued, according to Warnecke and a Gore friend who declined to be named, until Gore ran his first House race in 1976.

Al Gore stoned was a mix of expansiveness, melancholy and paranoia, friends recall. "These were low times," Schlesinger says. "Al was upset and disgusted by Vietnam and what it was doing to America." He could also be reflective about his lot as heir apparent in a political family. Listening one evening to Gore discuss the novel "The Godfather," which he touted as "the true American story," Schlesinger said he couldn't help but think that the saga of a son having to take over the family business had struck an intimate chord with Gore. But young Al also worried about a drug bust sending his future up in smoke. "He'd go around the room and close all the curtains and turn the lights out so no one could see," says Warnecke.

By the time the phone rang in 1987, Warnecke had been sober for eight years, and was remarried with two small children. He and Gore remained friends, getting together when Gore flew to the Bay Area to raise money. Peter Knight, Gore's longtime chief of staff turned fund-raiser, was on the line when Warnecke picked up, and he sounded nervous. The press wanted to make an issue of Al's smoking, Warnecke remembers Knight saying. "Tell them it's personal, it's none of their business." Warnecke didn't like the idea of stonewalling; he thought it would only encourage more digging by the press. It also cut against the grain of his recovery program, which demanded total honesty. The conversation ended cordially but inconclusively. (Knight says he doesn't recall talking to Warnecke: "I'm not saying it didn't happen, but I don't remember it.")

A few minutes later, Warnecke says, Tipper called and put Gore on the line. He was calmer than Knight but delivered the same message. The 10-minute talk ended on a friendly note but again without resolution. Within an hour, Gore was on the phone again, his tone more emphatic. "The press has no business prying into my personal life," Warnecke recalls Gore saying. (Gore says he has no memory of the conversation.) Warnecke was stunned by the pressure, but also didn't want to do anything to hurt his old friend. If reporters called, he would say nothing.

Gore was campaigning in Alabama on Nov. 6 when the reefer madness he had feared broke out in the press. Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg withdrew his name from consideration after acknowledging that he'd smoked marijuana as a Harvard Law School professor. The admission gave reporters an opening to ask the presidential candidates about their drug use. When Gore ordered his senior staff to meet him in Miami later that evening, among those waiting for him in the 16th-floor suite at the Fontainebleau Hilton were campaign manager Fred Martin, scheduler Dick Deerin and Gore's father, in the state courting the senior-citizen vote. The issue was no longer whether to acknowledge smoking dope, only the substance and mechanics of the admission. Deerin and other aides in the room say Gore told the same story in private that he would tell the next day in public: that he smoked only occasionally, and hadn't touched it since 1972--four years earlier than by Warnecke's account.

As they talked into the early morning, Albert Gore grew angrier at his son. He knew nothing of Gore's smoking and considered marijuana "pretty high up on the list of bad things to do," recalled Deerin. "He thought the statement should be more apologetic than explanatory." Gore finally lost his patience. "This is the truth, Dad! I've got to deal with this," he said, according to Deerin. "You're not being helpful." The discussion grew so heated that Deerin eased the senior Gore out of the room for a cup of tea.

The next day, Gore told reporters that he had been an "infrequent and rare" marijuana smoker, nothing more than a few times at Harvard, "once or twice" while off duty in Vietnam and occasionally as a divinity student and journalist in Nashville. He hadn't touched an illegal substance in roughly 15 years (since 1972). "When I became a man I put away childish things," he said. Gore says the same thing now on the 2000 campaign trail, denying Warnecke's charges of heavy marijuana use and calling them "old news."

Supporters hailed Gore for breaking new ground with his candor about drugs. "Al Gore is the first real political leader of his generation--these baby boomers--to come clean on the '60s," said the late media adviser Bob Squier. "It's an indication of his honesty."

After Gore went public, his old paper, The Tennessean, checked out his "infrequent and rare" claim. When a reporter called, Warnecke didn't stonewall, per Gore's wishes. Instead, he told what he now says he thought was a more authentic-sounding lie--that he'd seen Gore smoke only once, right after his return from Vietnam in 1971. He was the only person quoted in the page one story, based on more than 40 interviews, who acknowledged seeing Gore use marijuana. But those closest to him, including Nancy Warnecke, either refused to comment or were missing from the article entirely.

The issue quickly receded. But, according to Warnecke, Gore considered even this sanitized version of the past a betrayal, and the two have not spoken since 1987. The recent years have been difficult for Warnecke. Although he is in his 21st year of sobriety, his second wife, Linda, who also struggled with addiction, committed suicide in 1991. Warnecke also suffers from depression and is on disability from his sales job at Metropolitan Life in San Francisco. He says he'll vote for Gore, but is offended by the hypocrisy of boomer politicians who did drugs when they were young and now preside over a legal system where drug offenders often serve longer sentences than rapists. Still, he says it was personal, not political, reasons that brought him forward. He is angry that his old friend has cut him off, and it has bothered him for years that he misled his old newspaper. "At the time, I thought it was spin," he says.

Gore's years with Bill Clinton only deepened the basic lessons Gore had already learned about political survival. If you want to govern, first you have to win. And that means stay on the attack and try to control the story. No one who understands the education of Al Gore should doubt that he will fight to the last for what the old senator once said he was raised to do: be president.

The Education Of Al Gore | News