The Three Faces Of Al Gore

Al Gore likes to tell the joke on himself, one from his failed 1988 presidential campaign. "How can you tell Al Gore from a roomful of Secret Service agents?" he asked in an interview last week. "He's the stiff one." Gore knows the rap against him as a campaigner: wooden, smug, the unctuous student-body president trying too hard to impress the grown-ups in the audience. But that's only one of the three faces of Al. There is smashing debater who can, when he wants, throw the knockdown pitch. He used Massachusetts's prison-furlough program to spray paint Michael Dukakis as a liberal softy on crime before George Bush and his aides ever got the chance to introduce Willie Horton to America. Then there's Animal House Al, a rock-and-roller who likes Springsteen and James Brown and did his coon-dog howl on the campaign plane in 1988, the wiseacre who good-naturedly tweaked wife Tipper at a party by whipping out an album and asking her if the lyrics were suitable for play. Those closest to the 44-year-old Tennessean encourage him to show less of the first face and more of the other two. "The Al Gore you don't see is a great tease, a lot of fun," says Rep. Thomas Downey, a friend of 16 years.

Of course, Bill Clinton didn't put Gore on the Democratic ticket so that he could find himself. Gore delivers the goods Clinton desperately needs: a military-service record, a foreign-policy resume, a private life thoroughly vetted by the press in 1988, appeal in Southern and border states that will be crucial to the Democrats in the fall and a potent intellectual counterweight to Dan Quayle. "Gore has two advantages in attracting baby-boom voters. He served in Vietnam and he inhaled," says Miami polltaker Robert Joffee. For Gore, though, the campaign is an opportunity to do what he couldn't in 1988: be more himself.

Gore's starchy exterior comes partly from his pedigree. As the son of three-term Sen. Albert Gore Sr., the younger Gore's playgrounds were the family farm in Carthage, Tenn., and the corridors of Congress. He literally grew up in the lap of political power. Gore Jr. once sat in Richard Nixon's while the vice president presided over the Senate. Shortly after his own election in 1984 (after four terms in the U.S. House), he was introduced to Strom Thurmond. Gore told the octogenarian from South Carolina that they had met before-years ago at the Senate pool, when Thurmond had inadvertently stepped on little Gore's toy submarine. His early immersion in the world of adult power left him with an old political soul trapped in a young man's body. "He's been for quite a while a young man in an old man's game," says one longtime Washington friend. After his selection last week, Gore still seemed cast as the adult world's ideal of the model young man. Speaking to The New York Times about his son's presidential ambitions, Gore Sr. boasted: "We raised him for it."

There's no doubt that Gore learned the virtues of caution from watching his father's political destruction. Targeted by the Nixon White House for his opposition to the Vietnam War, the New Deal liberal lost a bitterly fought re-election campaign to Republican William Brock in 1970. The dutiful son tried to help. He enlisted in the army after his 1969 graduation from Harvard and eventually served in Vietnam. Like Clinton, he was against the war. But unlike his running mate, as he told The Atlanta Constitution in 1987, he decided that "the most effective way for me to oppose the war was for me to go to it and marginally strengthen my father's hand." He even appeared in uniform in a television ad with his dad.

Gore told NEWSWEEK'S Ginny Carroll last week that his father's experience "taught me the importance of standing up for what you believe in, even when you know that the political winds are blowing in the opposite direction." His record suggests something different. Gore launched his own political career as a self-described "raging moderate," liberal on domestic and economic issues, less so on defense and foreign policy. He voted for the MX missile, the B-1 bomber and use of force in the Persian Gulf. His 1988 presidential campaign was a confusing hash of messages: hawkish Southerner, champion of Israel, environmental protector. He won five Southern states on Super Tuesday but couldn't put Dukakis away.

The end came in the New York primary, when he allowed Mayor Ed Koch's support to all but hijack his candidacy. Koch's attacks on Jesse Jackson helped sink him. In Koch's clutches, he looked once again callow and passive. Gore now says that he wasn't speaking with his true voice in 1988. In a best-selling book published this year, " Earth in the Balance," he wrote that he "simply lacked the strength" to stick to an environmental message because neither the press nor his handlers were interested. "The American people sometimes suspect that campaign agendas come straight from the pollsters and political professionals," Gore said. "Too often they're right."

The presidential flop was a humbling experience for Gore, and it left splinters in his veneer. But a year later near tragedy would change him. He watched as his 6-year-old son, Albert HI, was hit by a car in front of Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. The Gores spent a month in the hospital with their son and nursed him through a long recovery that ruled out another primary fight in 1992. Friends say the 1988 loss, his son's accident and the concern for the environment that led him to write his book all triggered a mid-life reassessment that has made Gore more focused and truer to himself. " It all served for him to look at himself without the smoke between him and the mirror," says Downey.

But others say Gore will never be the backslapping, best-liked guy in the room. His ambition is a little much even for some of his Senate colleagues-hardly a retiring bunch-who find him aloof and a headline hog long on flashy hearings and short on legislative prowess. That may not make him the ideal choice to " break the logjam" in Washington, as Clinton suggested last week.

Yet when he wants to, Gore can also be a forceful advocate and a formidable attack dog. He'll certainly get the chance to sink his jaws into a few Republican ankles this fall. Those who know him say he's good on the offensive. At a 1987 Iowa presidential debate, his mother, Pauline, slipped him a sheet of paper that said, " Smile, Relax, Attack. " After the army, he spent four years as a reporter at the Nashville Tennessean, breaking stories about a bribery scandal at city hall. His polities retain a journalistic touch. During Senate hearings on the Challenger shuttle disaster, he helped smoke out damaging evidence against NASA. He wasted no time last week. In his first appearance with Clinton he ripped the "pro family" Bush administration for having vetoed parental-leave legislation.

The fall campaign also gives Gore and his wife a chance to recast what friends say is a media caricature of two fun-averse prigs. For Tipper Gore, the reputation comes from her campaign against violent and sexually explicit album lyrics. For her husband, it's a chance to show that he's more than the smartest kid in the class, with a penchant for holding Washington dinner parties at bay with windy lectures on the environment. " This is a guy who showed up for college riding on the back of a motorcycle," says one 1988 campaign aide. "He and his wife used to go slam-dancing in Georgetown on the weekends." Nothing wrong with trying for the Georgetown bar vote. But at the end of the day, it's not going to matter whether people think that Al Gore is a regular guy. If they vote Democratic in November, it will be because they trust Bill Clinton. If they don't, Gore may still be able to show voters a face they will remember favorably down the road.

PHOTO: The Gores: Kristin, Sarah, Al, Albert Ill, Tipper and Karenna (THEO WESTENBERGER)

NEWSWEEK POLL Does Clinton's choice of Al Gore as his running mate make you more or less likely to vote for him? 44% More likely 21% Less likely 27% No change (Newsweek Poll, July 9-10, 1992)