Unveiling the other sides of Al Gore
Yes, he's been vice president for six years, but Gore is still
WASHINGTON — His roommate at Harvard was actor Tommy Lee Jones. After a brief tour in Vietnam, he attended divinity school, switched to law school, but never finished.
And as a young member of Congress, he mastered the topic of arms control so thoroughly that he became one of the Democratic Party's central players on the issue.
Meet Al Gore, vice president of the United States for the past six years, and, pollsters say, a figure not well understood by the public. People may know that, as a US senator in 1992, Mr. Gore published a bestselling volume called "Earth in the Balance." Or that his family used to farm tobacco in Tennessee. Or that his father was a respected senator from that state.
Despite this, "the public still does not have a great sense of who he is," says Andrei Cherny, Gore's former chief speechwriter, now an editor at the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist Democratic think tank Gore helped found.
As the 2000 election campaigns begin to gear up, with Gore favored to win the Democratic nomination, party strategists are beginning to plan Gore's "coming out" - his emergence from the shadow of President Clinton into a figure the public will see as presidential in caliber.
The question is how to spark voter interest in learning more about Gore. His supporters say this will plump his polling numbers against leading Republican rivals, whom he currently trails.
"That's not going to change until he starts winning some primaries on his own, and until he becomes the nominee," says a Democratic consultant who isn't working for Gore. Unless Gore is thwarted by his only opponent for the Democratic nomination, former Sen. Bill Bradley, that will begin to happen early in 2000.
But even if the public isn't engaged in the campaign yet, the press and party activists are. When Gore misspoke recently and claimed that he had "created the Internet," Republican leaders pounced on the statement and turned it into a joke. (Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi countered that he had invented the paper clip.)
Gore's subsequent comments about working the land during his summers on the family farm in Carthage, Tenn., led to more ridicule. The preppy senator's son, who attended elite schools and lived in a hotel here during the school year, may have a hard time convincing Americans that he really does know how to farm.
But by all accounts, including a new biography of Gore by former ABC-TV correspondent Bob Zelnick, Gore's father saw to it that young Al knew how to plow a hillside and clean out the hog parlors. Such work, Mr. Zelnick writes, was "part of his preparation for higher calling."
Still, if Gore had a more three-dimensional public image - one beyond the serious, somewhat wooden figure he appears to be - it wouldn't be so easy to parody him. Yet he has almost turned his charismatically challenged image into a shtick. Not long after his Internet comment, Gore himself deadpanned to a gathering of Democratic Party leaders: "The truth is, I was very tired when I made that comment because I had been up very late the night before inventing the camcorder."
Some Democratic activists feel frustrated that Gore's true record regarding the development of the Internet got short shrift. Even if he didn't create it, say Internet experts, he was instrumental both in Congress and as vice president in pushing for policies that allowed the system to flourish. As a member of Congress, he is credited with popularizing the term "information superhighway."
MANY colleagues, both past and present, speak glowingly of the man. One, referring to Gore's role in helping shape development of the Internet, calls him a "visionary."
Elaine Kamarck, a former member of Gore's vice presidential staff, admires Gore's leadership. "He doesn't shy from a fight, when he knows it's the right thing to do," says Ms. Kamarck, now a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "He's actually quite courageous, and people love to work for him."
Zelnick notes Gore's willingness to fight for an unpopular position. In the congressional debate leading up to the 1991 Gulf War, Gore was one of only 10 Democratic senators who voted in favor of using force.
"There were substantial political risks involved, and he was willing to pay the price," says Zelnick. "As it turned out, it worked to his political advantage."
Zelnick criticizes Gore as well, calling him an "extremist" on environmental matters (for example, saying the internal-combustion engine needs to be phased out) and accusing him of pushing for a global-warming treaty that would be so expensive to implement as to be unratifiable.
Gore staffers say they're not worried that the vice president's book, or his record on the environment, will come back to hurt him in the campaign.
If nothing else, Gore will need to be increasingly careful about any public statements as long as he's the Democrats' top prospect for the November 2000 election.
"The fate of front-runners is to be dissected and held up to ridicule," says Democratic consultant Mark Mellman. "That's the cost of being a front-runner."