Susan Schindehette
August 21, 2000 12:00 PM

For the trail-worn press corps that had been covering his presidential bid for months, it was shaping up to be another 17-hour day in a seemingly interminable campaign. On June 22 in the courtyard of a Minnesota junior high school, Al Gore droned on in all-too-familiar fashion about gas prices, trade unions, the possibility of water on Mars. Then, for the fourth time, CBS producer Jeff Goldman’s cell phone began to ring. At that, the candidate stopped midsentence and said dryly, “Let’s wait and see if this is Dan Rather.” Moments later CNN producer Dana Bash’s cell phone rang. Clearly playing to the crowd, the Vice President signaled for Bash to hand over the phone. “Hello, Gore news conference,” he said like a practiced office temp. “May I help you?”

Granted, Gore may not be ready for prime-time stand-up, but for such a tough crowd, he got a big laugh. “Hard to believe,” he quipped later. “I guess my humor thrives best in small groups.” Few would argue with him on that count. Though friends and family say that privately Gore, 52, is unfailingly warm, charming and witty, it is a side most Americans rarely see. What they have witnessed instead is an intelligent, if at times pedantic, public speaker whose aggravating verbosity has been fodder for the likes of Letterman and been known to push even his wife Tipper’s buttons. “When he’s boring and goes on and on and on,” says a former aide, “you can see her roll her eyes and go, ‘Enough already!’ ”

Were he not locked in a heated battle for the Presidency, of course, his apparent lack of animation would scarcely matter. But Gore enters the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles facing a Republican opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who has enjoyed an advantage in the polls in part because he is seen as a regular guy who is confident and comfortable in his own skin. By contrast, though many are impressed by the Vice President’s intellect, his rigid public facade and shifts in personal style and campaign staff have left some wondering who he’s trying to be and whether he’s ready to lead. “I find it paradoxical that someone that physically attractive and articulate and experienced has a real image problem,” says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. “Al Gore is still a work in progress. It’s confusing.”

One might think that, given his pedigree, Gore would have learned the art of chumming up to the public early on. As the son of a venerable Tennessee senator who bootstrapped his way from hardscrabble poverty to national prominence, young Al witnessed his father’s magnetic oratory on campaign whistle-stops. He also showed an early grasp of the importance of media and image in politics with a prescient senior thesis at Harvard analyzing the impact of television on the Presidency. And, perceptions aside, Gore offers a distinguished career in public service and is undeniably a man of great emotion. The passion he shares with his wife of 30 years has never dimmed, nor has the adoration he feels for his four children—Karenna, 27, Kristin, 23, Sarah, 21, and Albert III, 17. “My dad is not an outgoing, backslapping type guy,” says Karenna, a recent Columbia Law grad and mother of Gore’s first grandchild, Wyatt, 1. “He’s a really good man, but also a sort of quirky, funny, interesting man. And he cares deeply about his close friends and family.”

At no time was that more evident than in the aftermath of a 1989 accident in which, after a Baltimore Orioles game, his then 6-year-old son, Albert III, darted out into the street and was hit by a car. “Tipper and I watched as he was thrown 30 feet through the air and then scraped another 20 feet on the pavement,” Gore later said. After two years of difficult treatment and rehab, the boy recovered completely. But the horrifying import of the moment was not lost on the already doting father. Thereafter, Gore’s staff was instructed to draw up schedules around family dinners and his daughters’ field hockey games, and aides recall how he flew paper airplanes with his son on Saturdays in the Senate hallways between votes.

Today Gore, a movie buff (Being John Malkovich is a recent favorite), country music devotee and die-hard Tennessee Titans football fan (he popped into a military fire station to catch a game just before the Iowa caucuses), spends off-hours with the family, camping or playing Cranium and Trivial Pursuit. And with Wyatt’s arrival, “it’s obvious that becoming a grandfather is a real joy for him,” says Karenna. “We have ostrich and gorilla puppets for Wyatt, and Dad puts on puppet shows and tickles him: ‘Hi, I’m Mr. Ostrich.’ ”

Not that he has ever ignored his duties. Gore, an advocate of mandatory child-safety locks on guns and federal funding for abortion, has also taken leading roles in attempts to clean up the environment, foster emerging technologies and reduce the threat of nuclear war. “Al has always had the vision to see over the horizon, and he has the commitment to lead us there,” says close friend and telecommunications consultant Reed Hundt. “He seems to stand taller than others, push harder and attract people to his causes.”

Yet Gore has taken his shots for recent political missteps. Despite Attorney General Janet Reno’s decision not to appoint a special prosecutor on the matter, opponents claim that after he knowingly attended a fund-raiser at a Southern California Buddhist temple in 1996, illegal foreign donations ended up in Democratic coffers. He has also been criticized for siding with those who fought to keep Elián González in the U.S. (“I know [it] was not politically popular, but I felt it was the right thing”) and waffling on gun control (“Yeah, I’ve changed…. That was 15 years ago; what’s changed is the flood of cheap handguns and assault weapons”).

In addition, Gore, if victorious, will become just the sixth Vice President in U.S. history to be elected President, a task even more daunting because Bill Clinton is only the second President ever to have been impeached. “Mr. Gore will try to separate himself from his leader’s shadow,” Republican vice-presidential nominee Dick Cheney said in his acceptance speech. “But some-how we will never see one without thinking of the other.” Perhaps as an effort to help counter that sentiment, Gore last week named Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an outspoken critic of Clinton’s sexual misconduct, as his running mate. [See story on p. 58.] “Many of Gore’s qualities have been somewhat tainted by the scandals of the past eight years,” says Al Felzenberg, a presidential scholar with the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Lieberman inoculates the ticket from a charge of being too close to Clinton’s character.”

As a matter of autobiography, Gore’s background is actually more reminiscent of Bush’s than Clinton’s. “I grew up in a determinedly political family,” he wrote in 1992’s Earth in the Balance, “in which I learned at an early age to be very sensitive—too sensitive, perhaps—to what others were thinking.” The only surviving child of the late three-term Sen. Albert Gore Sr. and his wife, Pauline, now 87, Gore’s youth was split between the family’s 250-acre farm in Carthage, Tenn., and an apartment in Washington, D.C.’s genteel Fairfax Hotel. Steve Armistead, a childhood friend, recalls his first visit to Gore’s D.C. home: “It was a very mature, grown-up environment. Every time he had the opportunity, he was in Tennessee, grinning from ear to ear. It was like, ‘I escaped!’ ”

If Gore ever had an alter ego, it was his sister Nancy, 10 years older, who acted as surrogate mom when their parents were away on campaign trips. “Al always wanted to find out what you wanted him to do—and then do it,” Pauline later said. “…Nancy wanted to find out what you wanted to do—and then do the opposite.” In 1984, when she died of lung cancer at the age of 46, a devastated Gore was at her bedside. “It grieved him profoundly, and it was a number of years before he really felt comfortable talking about it,” says Hundt.

Also like Bush, Gore today says he was not pushed into politics: “Neither [my father] nor my mother tried to steer me toward any specific career, much less a political career.” But former aide Peter Knight remembers that Albert Sr. had hopes. “He would say,” recalls Knight, ” ‘Sometimes I looked in the mirror and thought I saw the President, but it wasn’t the case. I think in Al’s case, it will be.’ ”

Indeed, Gore wasted no time in dipping his toe into the political waters. After prep school at D.C.’s tony St. Al-ban’s School for Boys, he enrolled at Harvard in 1965. The night after Gore’s arrival, future roommate John Tyson, still a close friend, recalls opening the door to a bright-eyed student. “He said, ‘I’m Al Gore and I’m running for freshman council. Can I have your vote?’ ” says Tyson. “Wow, I was still looking for sheets.” At Harvard, where he and Tommy Lee Jones were dormmates, Gore was opposed to the Vietnam War. Still, he avoided most antiwar demonstrations—except to lead one protesting the all-too-frequent appearance of chicken on the dorm menu. “He felt a certain sense of solidarity with the student movement,” says Marty Peretz, a former Harvard professor, now editor-in-chief of The New Republic. “But he felt their views were extreme and their behavior not reasonable or productive.”

He was not so cautious about Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson, whom he had met at a party after his 1965 high school prom. “Everything else just melted away,” recalls Tipper. After she enrolled at nearby Boston University, Gore often squired her around town on his Honda motorcycle. In 1970 the two married at Washington’s National Cathedral and moved into a trailer park near Fort Rucker, Ala., where Gore was stationed in the Army. The year before, in a crisis of conscience, he had enlisted despite his antiwar views. “It was a problem for him—’If I don’t go, someone else will have to go in my place,’ ” says Armistead.

Seven months later he was shipped to Vietnam, where, as a private, he served for five months as a journalist. Mike O’Hara, a fellow information specialist and now a sports writer for the Detroit News, recalls how the two once visited a site below the DMZ to report on the building of an airstrip. “A foxhole had been dug already, and there were pieces of metal around,” says O’Hara. “I remember Al hauling all these pieces of metal, fortifying our area. I said, ‘Al, for chrissake, we don’t need to build a hotel. We’re only going to be here for two days.’ ”

Though Gore saw no real combat, the experience, combined with his father’s stinging 1970 defeat after a courageous pro-civil rights and antiwar stand, disillusioned the son. “He was more subdued,” says Armistead. “And his political ambition was totally turned off.” Regrouping, Gore studied both law and divinity at Vanderbilt University and worked as a reporter with the Nashville Tennessean. There, covering local politics, he was reminded that “elections matter and good guys could win,” a lesson that became decisively relevant one night in 1976, when a phone call from the publisher, John Seigenthaler, informed him that the local congressional seat had just opened up. “I remember him turning to me and saying, ‘I think I might run for Congress,’ ” says Tipper, who was stunned by his news. “And that was it.”

In 1984 Gore advanced to the Senate, where he quickly established a high profile. “We derisively referred to him as Prime-Time Al,” says former Sen. Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, “because he usually appeared on the floor during the news cycle.” Gore weathered the barbs and, more painfully, his failed first bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. “I was in the limo with Al and Tipper,” recalls Tyson. “He knew right then that this particular dream had ended. He looked out the window. Then she reached over and grabbed his hand like, ‘Stay here. We can face whatever comes.’ ”

What has come is the toughest fight of his career, and few doubt that Gore fully comprehends the challenge—even the part that goes to the very heart of who he is and how he is perceived. It was some years back, during a conversation in Gore’s Senate office, that Tyson noticed a framed cartoon on the wall showing a dog onstage peddling a tricycle before a wildly cheering crowd. When asked about its meaning, Gore studied it for a moment and replied, “If the people like you and believe in you, that’s what it’s all about. It’s not so much what I do. I’ve got to connect with the people.”

Susan Schindehette

Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.

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