Al Gore's Passion

With the Justice Department investigating Al Gore's telemarketing practices, it's reassuring to hear that the vice president, unlike every other politician in America, simply "does not cut corners, ethically or intellectually." Or so says Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of the New Republic and longtime pal-of-Al. But even if the attorney general decides not to seek the appointment of a special prosecutor, nagging doubts about Gore's integrity will remain, and not just because of a few--OK, 46--fundraising calls from the White House.

Consider the press conference last month at which President Clinton offered his recommendations for anti-tobacco legislation. Gore introduced the president, saying "there is nothing that has been done in this White House over the past four-and-a-half years that has made me prouder" than the campaign against smoking. Clinton charged Gore, who "cares so passionately about this issue," with building support for the administration's plan.

Yet this was the same Al Gore whose family grew the raw material for Marlboros and Camels; who bragged about his tobacco roots when he tried to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 ("I've hoed it, I've dug it, I've sprayed it," etc.); and who accepted campaign contributions from cigarette companies through 1990. This was the same former Tennessee senator who, at the 1996 Democratic National Convention, shamelessly exploited the story of his sister's death in an attempt to explain his embrace of the anti-smoking crusade. After his sister, who started smoking as a teenager, died of lung cancer in 1984, this tobacco hoer, digger, and sprayer had an epiphany: Smoking can kill you. "And that is why," he somberly proclaimed, "until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking."

I once appeared on a radio show with a man who claimed he didn't know about the link between smoking and lung cancer until 1984, the year the surgeon general's warnings on cigarette packages started mentioning specific diseases. This fellow was a plaintiff in a tobacco case, and I think he really had convinced himself that the cigarette companies had hidden the truth about smoking from him. It's hard to give Gore the same credit, especially since he played a key role in passing the legislation that mandated the new warning labels--his only significant anti-smoking credential as a senator.

Even if we manage to believe that his sister's lung cancer opened Gore's eyes to the evils of tobacco, that doesn't explain why, for years after her death, he continued to profit, through campaign contributions and income from land his family leased for tobacco cultivation, from the habit he now assails as "the number one leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States." Asked about this apparent inconsistency after his convention speech, Gore cited a six-year period of "numbness" that prevented him from severing his ties to the Merchants of Death. "Sometimes you never fully face up to things that you ought to face up to," he said, lapsing into what sounded like a quote from The Wonder Years. "You never fully learn the lessons that life has to teach you."

Perhaps sensing that this bit of wisdom did not quite do the trick, the president has offered Gore and his family an additional excuse: The noble, time-honored practice of growing tobacco should not be compared to the sleazy, murderous business of selling cigarettes. "Any legislation must protect these farmers, their families, and their communities from loss of income," Clinton insisted at the press conference. "We have a responsibility to these people. They haven't done anything wrong....They are good, hard-working, taxpaying citizens, and they have not caused this problem."

These simple country folk, it seems, were growin' tobacco jest 'cause it was pretty to look at when some fellas from the big city came along and offered them good money for it. They did sorta wonder where all the tobacco was goin', but they never figured anybody would be dumb enough to smoke it.

Politically, the distinction between innocent mom-and-pop farmers and big, sinister corporations makes perfect sense: It appeals to popular sentiment and helps wash the nicotine stains off Gore's fingers. Ethically and intellectually, though, it's a little hard to buy. You might even say it cuts a few corners.

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