A second look at the No. 2 guy

GORE: A POLITICAL LIFE By Bob Zelnick Regnery Publishing 384 pp., $29.95

Vice President Al Gore has been one of the most visible vice presidents ever. Still, the public knows little about the man who could well be the next president. Bob Zelnick's "Gore: a Political Life," is a good primer.

A warning up front: This is no fawning campaign biography. Zelnick, a former ABC News reporter who once wrote for this newspaper, is not the vice president's biggest fan (although he did admit in a breakfast with reporters that he might vote for Mr. Gore if the wrong Republican were nominated). But the volume isn't a hatchet job, either.

Gore has been ridiculed for saying he "invented the Internet" and plowed fields behind mules. But Zelnick affirms that as a congressman and senator, Gore was a leader in supporting development of what became the Internet. And despite his fancy-hotel, private-school Washington upbringing as a senator's kid, Gore did spend summers in Carthage, Tenn., working the family farm.

Gore does have an annoying tendency to puff things up a bit, as when he says he was shot at on guard patrol in Vietnam. He was an army journalist at Bien Hoa air base, the only place he stood guard. The only time he was shot at was a tear-gas "fragging" incident. Still, Gore at least went to Vietnam and served honorably, Zelnick notes.

Right after Vietnam, Gore went to the Vanderbilt Divinity School "to atone for [his] sins," in having served. There occurred what Zelnick sees as the seminal event in his intellectual development: He discovered environmental issues. The convictions Gore developed there would later see light in his book "Earth in the Balance" (1992)

Zelnick draws Gore as loyal, basically honest, a good husband and father with solid values; a man who throws himself into the study of issues he wants to understand.

But he also sees another side to the vice president: a man who adheres puritanically to positions once he has adopted them, who will try to discredit, not debate, those who disagree. This is seen most vividly in Gore's extreme environmental stands and his attempt to tear down his own mentor on global warming, Roger Revelle, when that distinguished scientist cast doubt on the kind of fixes Gore and environmental activists advocate. (Mr. Revelle was the first to observe the "greenhouse effect.")

The book suffers a bit from the kind of sloppy editing that is all too common these days. This reader was left pondering the question of why ABC let Zelnick go for refusing to give up writing it after the network had previously approved the project.

Zelnick concludes that in the end, unlike the current occupant of the White House, Gore is just what he seems to be. Depending on your political point of view, that's the problem.

*Lawrence J. Goodrich is on the Monitor staff.

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