Classic book review: The Prince of Tennessee

He knew everything – but it wasn't enough to make Al Gore president.

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    The Prince of Tennessee:
    The Rise of Al Gore
    By David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima
    Simon & Schuster
    323 pp., $22
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[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Aug. 17, 2000.] Al Gore has long been one of Washington's odder riddles. The politician with the resume but not all the skills.

The son of a senator and a graduate of St. Albans and Harvard, he was bred from a young age to be at home with the elite in Washington. But he's also a man familiar with summers spent down on his family's farm in Tennessee, doing chores and mixing with country boys. Is there a better recipe for a man with the political touch?

Yet, after 24 years in public office, the chief criticism of Gore is his weakness in connecting with voters - a weakness magnified when he's compared with his boss.

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In "The Prince of Tennessee: The Rise of Al Gore," Washington Post reporter David Maraniss and fellow Post-ite Ellen Nakashima do a masterly job of explaining this paradox, and, even better, they do it the old-fashioned way: with reporting.

In the past few years, biographies have moved away from researching the facts of their subjects' lives. Too often, biographers have become armchair psychologists, relying on little reporting and a lot of interpretation. The focus in these cases is more on why events are important, than what actually happened.

This 300-page book, the result of more than 300 interviews and six long conversations with the vice president, thankfully avoids this trap - and it's a great read to boot.

Maraniss focuses intently on events in Gore's life, and the accompanying explanatory passages that delve into Gore's character are less gratuitous analyses of Gore's brain than syntheses of good reporting that illuminate the man's motives.

It is, for instance, easy to talk about the pressure Gore might have felt about reaching the Oval Office. It was, after all, the dream of Gore's father, Sen. Albert Gore Sr., to become vice president. But Maraniss explains it in the simplest terms and lets the facts speak for themselves without dwelling on Gore's obvious "issues" around pleasing dad.

At Christmas break in 1986, Maraniss writes, Gore Sr. took his son downstairs alone, and simply told him, "I want to see you elected president before I die." Can there be any question about the pressure this puts on a guy who has grown up idolizing his father? After the meeting, Gore began planning his 1988 run for the White House.

Maraniss and Naka-shima have also dug up documents that get to the heart of the man without setting themselves up as his judges. One example: A 1988 memo from Gore's press secretary criticized Gore for taking too much credit for being a home builder and a farmer. "[Y]our main pitfall is exaggeration," he wrote. "Be careful not to overstate your accomplishments in these two fields." The vice president's exaggerations have become a major topic in the press's coverage.

But this book has a lot of good to say about Gore. It's hard to read it and not get an appreciation for how seriously he takes his work and how committed he is to in-depth learning.

When Gore wants to become an expert in defense issues, he enlists the help of an expert who gives the young congressman an intensive one-man seminar. Before he sits down to write "Earth in the Balance," Gore takes numerous trips to South America to get a better understanding of how the environmental problems are affecting the Amazon.

This is Gore's greatest strength - and weakness. Some people become crusaders armed with the energy of an internal moral certitude; Gore becomes a crusader only after learning to the nth degree everything he can about a topic. And this often makes him seem, well, dull.

Speaking from the heart is not Gore's strength. Speaking from the facts is. And that, combined with the pressure he feels to succeed, may be the reason Gore closes in on himself on the public stage instead of opening up.

Dante Chinni is a Monitor commentator.

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