Not just for fun, I once tried to arrange a meeting between the vice president and his fairly distant cousin Gore Vidal. The attempt was less than a success: Vidal intoned beautifully that he would not socialize with any client of Mr. Martin Peretz, and had in any case “met enough vice presidents already.” Gore himself declined on the surreal grounds that he had to go and greet the Pope at the Baltimore airport. (I didn’t tell Vidal that this was the excuse, deeming it too shockingly insulting for his surprisingly tender ears.)
Everybody has noticed by now—even if they haven’t clocked both aspects of the problem simultaneously—that there is something deeply amiss with Al Gore. I would phrase the amiss-ness like this: Where he isn’t robotically normal he is abnormal in an abnormal way. Most of the routine gags focus on either the left or right hemisphere of this dilemma: the extreme rigidity or the occasional weirdness. But consider. Here is a man who actually wanted it thought that he and his wife were the models for Erich Segal’s saccharine Love Story. And here is a man whose real-life roommate was Tommy Lee Jones. Who on earth, for any reason, would wish to emphasize the first impression (which turns out to be false) and de-emphasize the second, which enjoys at least the merit of being true?
Bill Turque of Newsweek‘s Washington bureau is in a fairly good position to sift through such questions—incidentally, his wife, Melinda Henneberger of the Times, wrote the story about Segal’s astonishment at the imposture—and bought into Gore stocks when the market for them was depressed. Typically, in the case of repeated fantasy (inventing the Internet, coming under fire in Vietnam, paying Naomi Wolf to give counsel on testosterone) one looks to the family background. Here again, it always seemed to me, young Gore was throwing away a trick. Instead of going through the wearisome routine of claiming small-town roots, at a time when America is an urban and suburban society, he could have said, Look, I grew up in Washington. I was raised in a hotel there, never knowing a day’s want or worry, and cleaning my clothes by dropping them on the floor. When I was hungry and (voice cracking a little here) I often was, why, I would call room service. This place has no secrets from me: I can’t be corrupted by it. How about that for “distancing” himself from the Man from Hope? In- stead, he had to make like he grew up with pigs as his only friends, and went barefoot to school.
According to Turque, there may be a reason why Gore doesn’t want to dwell on his actual upbringing, which was often lonely and chilly. His political parents handed him the equivalent of a latchkey and left him in the care of neighbors and relatives. The father was a bit of a domestic colossus with, for his day, quite brave views on the South’s racial curse and the war in Vietnam. Under pressure to perform, the young Al even went to Vietnam in order that his father not be accused of protecting him. At about that period, he wrote a series of young man’s letters about the American crisis, published by Peter Boyer in The New Yorker in November 1994. Infinitely finer than Bill Clinton’s calculating missives from the same period, they were still disowned by their author when they surfaced again.
These psychic wounds from the past might have been easily superable if it were not for two things—further family calamity in later life, and the aforementioned Mr. Clinton. Let’s agree that to lose your sister to lung cancer, and to nearly lose your son to a car-smash, would be enough to sober most people. It seemingly put Gore at odds with his wife for a while, and upset his plans to please his parents. This may explain why he tried to make capital out of both disasters with emotional speeches, as if to redeem what he had lost by the original tragedies.
But when he looks back with regret and thinks, “If only . . . ,” it must be the smug visage of the president that rises before him. If only I hadn’t given too much credit to Bush for the Gulf War, and used my family as the excuse for ducking a run in 1992. If only I hadn’t had to wait for the phone call from Little Rock. Clearly, it is this sense—the sense that his best shot may be behind him—that underlies the current theatrical angst, and the unconvincing pose of ruthlessness. Turque offers two valuable vignettes. The first is the moment in the ’80s when Gore’s shrewd and powerful mother told him to avoid the company of Clinton, a self-evidently unprincipled opportunist. The second is in the early days of the 1992 campaign when Gore was privately very high on Perot, who looked at one stage as if he would reelect Bush and defeat Clinton, thus preserving the Gore “window” in 1996. Just think what the Veep has had to eat since, and how often he must have beaten up his tear-stained pillow.
Where dirt is concerned, Turque is diligent and fair, and convicts on two counts. Once I had seen Gore describe his youthful marijuana use as “infrequent and rare” in a prepared statement (what, both?), I needed no convincing that he’d been weeded-out in his time: This book has the details, should you care. And the story of his cave-in to the polluters of the Pigeon River in Tennessee has not, until now, been widely enough known outside the state. But by this date, presumably, even the dumbest Greens have noticed that the Clinton-Gore administration is not truly, madly, or deeply environmentalist.
On Gore’s role in the Clinton scandals, Turque follows the weird Beltway discipline of citing peccadillos at one end and “doubts” at the other. Of a memorandum from a White House fundraising meeting, on which Gore aide David Strauss scrawled “65% soft/35% hard,” he writes that it “raised questions about the truthfulness of [Gore’s] claim that he was unaware he had raised hard money.” Yes, I’d say it did. And he describes as “stunningly blunt” Gore’s advice to Clinton in September 1998: “Mr. President, I think most of America has forgiven you, but you’ve got to get your act together.” One pictures Clinton wincing at this pitiless admonition, and perhaps calling for further spiritual counselors to attend upon him.
I have interviewed Gore formally on one occasion, and met him socially twice. I found him much wittier and warmer, and more politically astute, than his publicists claim. The explanation for his current self-torture, and for his reliance on unscrupulous associates, lies in the fact that he lost his self-respect and exposed himself to humiliation at the hands of a much lesser man, that he failed to heed his beloved mother’s advice, and that this loss and lapse cannot be recompensed by another load of semi-tough but sentimental speeches. Win or lose, we have another hollow man on our hands.