Albert Agonistes

What Gore's winning storyline tells us about politicians.

As I write this, Al Gore, after being down by as many as 15 percentage points, is running neck and neck with George W. Bush in most national polls. More important, perhaps, he is being treated with newfound deference by the press. Over the past few months, he has metamorphosed from an overbearing, barely animated beta-male into a dedicated, savvy pol who even exudes a glamorous whiff of tragedy. However long- or short-lived Gore's successful makeover turns out to be, it is worth puzzling over, as it suggests just how expert politicians are at adapting their personal storylines to changing circumstances--and just how critically the public must read such narratives.

In 1998, I went to a workshop attended by a number of editors, writers, and publishers of high-profile national publications. Though the workshop had nothing to do with politics--it was a nuts-and-bolts look at how to launch new and to improve existing publications--I had a number of conversations there that led me to conclude that the Washington press corps would attack Gore relentlessly as he tried to make his move into the White House. The reason for the hostility? The vice president has a terrible reputation for being extremely ham-handed when it comes to managing his press coverage.

In a session on "ethical dilemmas" in publishing, the editor of a major women's magazine related an incident in which the magazine was interviewing the wife of a "big-shot politician" prior to a much-ballyhooed conference on raising children. In the question-and-answer period that followed, the editor allowed that the figures under discussion were Tipper and Al Gore. During the interview, Tipper Gore voluntarily brought up some difficult, highly publicized problems she'd had with her own children, most memorably the time one of her underage daughters was accused of drinking in public and mouthing off to the cops. Shortly after conducting the interview, but before it ran, the magazine got a furious call from one of the vice president's people, screaming that if any of the sensitive material saw print, the magazine would not only be disinvited to the kids conference, but would never again have access to any White House or administration figures.

Curiously, the ethical quandary the editor offered up for discussion was essentially, How quickly do you fold under such pressure while maintaining the smallest shred of professional integrity? (Such are the concerns of access journalism.) In the discussion that followed, I brought up widely circulated--and in England, published--stories about the vice president's son being caught using drugs in 1996 and suspended from school as a result. (Tipper had somehow failed to mention that difficulty during her interview.) As James Adams put it in an October 13, 1996, London Times story, "Reporters all knew...that Albert Gore III, the 13-year-old son of the vice-president, had been suspended from school earlier this year for smoking marijuana. A tearful phone call by Gore to senior editors [at The Washington Post] ensured the story was never published."

Forget about the on-the-record responses of the Second Lady, I suggested. Didn't journalists have a duty to report on such actions, especially when the politicians involved are hypocritically prosecuting a drug war that arrests less-well-connected kids for similar behavior? Most of the people in the room scoffed at the idea on the grounds that Albert III was not a public figure (though his father regularly uses him as a campaign prop) and that such stories would surely "ruin" the boy's future (a laughable suggestion, and one that ignores kids whose lives actually have been ruined by policies supported by Gore). Once the session was over, however, two writers for a large newspaper with a national readership (not The Washington Post) told me separately that their publication's gossip columnist was set to run a piece on the story until their publisher got a call from the vice president as well.

Given such tactics, I assumed there'd be a backlash once Gore actually hit the campaign trail in earnest (displaced contempt for Clinton wouldn't help him either). Even though many (perhaps most) journalists covering Gore share his politics, they don't like being bullied, and their resentment would out itself in one form or another. Sure enough, much of the early campaign coverage toward Gore was sharply critical, if not blatantly hostile, especially when discussing the vice president's attempts to manage his image. Last fall's revelation that author-cum-political-operative Naomi Wolf was being paid $15,000 a month to coach Gore in the ways of the alpha male (wear earth tones, show your teeth more) might have been the low point to date of the vice president's campaign, but it was simply one of many such embarrassments. (Remember the phony photo-op on the Connecticut river?) While everyone expects politicians to employ image consultants, the idea that the vice president would need (much less heed) that particular sort of advice was bathetic at best.

To be sure, Gore had experienced problems with self-fashioning before, perhaps most spectacularly at the 1996 Democratic National Convention, when he teared up while recounting how his sister Nancy had started smoking as a teenager and died from lung cancer in 1984. In a speech memorable only for its shamelessness, Gore swore to "pour [his] heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking." The speech was a hit, earning raves in Time's "Winners and Losers" column ("tears, not smoke, in their eyes as he tells delegates of his sister's battle with lung cancer") and Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom Watch" ("VP kicks butts in speech"). Soon after, however, Gore admitted to receiving campaign donations from tobacco companies through 1990 and that his family continued to lease land for tobacco crops for years after his sister's death. His infamous boast during his failed 1988 presidential run--"Throughout most of my life, I raised tobacco...sprayed it...chopped it...shredded it...spiked it...and sold it"--came back to haunt him as well.

These days, however, it's mostly smooth sailing for Gore as far as the press goes, even as various Buddhist Temple confederates of his get indicted and convicted. What's different? Emerging from the primary season, Gore has managed to humanize himself in ways that play especially well with reporters. Where George W. Bush has done little to counter the perception that he's simply a middle-aged Richie Rich, Gore, though possibly even more privileged, has hinted at the psychic depth and brooding intensity of a dramatic protagonist.

Consider, for instance, his Vietnam narrative, a wonderful bit of self-serving storytelling masquerading as a profile in courage. Although the election of Bill Clinton seemingly made a candidate's military past completely irrelevant, John McCain's presence in this year's primaries changed that. In the face of a genuine war "hero," the other three major candidates' wartime status took on new life. Bill Bradley and George W. Bush had both slipped free of active service in Southeast Asia. Gore, however, like McCain, actually went to Vietnam, albeit as a journalist who only served five months (less than half the normal hitch) and who never saw direct action with the enemy (at various times during his political career, Gore's tendency to embellish his experience has caused him embarrassment). While the matter has not been settled definitively, there is good reason to believe that Gore was protected from anything approaching actual danger while in Vietnam.

Nowadays, Gore is casting his decision to enlist as a great moral sacrifice that sets him apart from other politicians. In 1970, Albert Gore Sr., the senator from Tennessee, was facing a difficult reelection campaign. Al Jr., by his own account, was strongly opposed to the war but also wanted to help his father. (He was also, as The Washington Post's David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima have suggested in cloyingly sympathetic tones, desperate to "maintain his political viability" � la Bill Clinton.) Gore has called his situation a "real conundrum" but in the end, he enlisted, even turning down a National Guard post a relative had secured for him. Alas, Gore Sr. lost his race and Gore Jr. went off to "fight" in Vietnam, having offered himself up for naught. The tragic structure, if not its actual content, of such a story packs an emotional wallop.

Indeed, it allows Gore--a privileged "senator's son" of the sort decried in Creedence Clearwater Revival's bitter protest song "Fortunate Son"--to be both a soldier and an anti-war protester, a man of principle who risked absolutely nothing. Indeed, no one has even asked him how a high-profile war protest from someone in his position might have affected U.S. policy.

Of course, if elections hinged simply on such narratives, then John McCain would be the Republican nominee and Bob Dole would be the incumbent. But the candidates who know how to tell good personal tales--Ronald Reagan, the Midwesterner who became a movie star; Bill Clinton, the man from Hope; even Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Plains--have a habit of getting elected. Al Gore's newfound storytelling skills are impressive, allowing him even to turn his mediocre academic record and collegiate pot smoking into a plus (as the Post put it, such revelations "subvert" the notion that he was always an ass-kissing grind).

It is, of course, far too early in the electoral process to predict anything about November. But especially given George W. Bush's manifest inability or unwillingness to craft his own autobiography in attractive terms, Gore, at least early in the campaign season, has emerged as the candidate with character. In an age where the politics of personality have been getting a lot of attention, that's no small advantage.

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