Ever since I announced a $1000 wager with Russ Smith that Gore would beat Bush in November it's been one bad piece of news after another for the Veep. Near the end of June Ron Faucheux gave a useful roundup in the Congressional Quarterly of the poor tidings for Gore. Voter.com, a site run by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican Ed Goeas, gave Republican George W. Bush a 12-point lead. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey taken by Democratic pollster Peter Hart and GOP pollster Bob Teeter put the Bush lead at 8 points. In Michigan a statewide presidential poll of 600 likely voters showed Bush with 46 percent, Gore 34 percent, Nader with 8 percent and Pat Buchanan with 3 percent. In May Gore was fractionally ahead in Michigan. A May survey by the same pollster had Gore up 46-45, but in that version voters were not asked about third-party candidates. AP reports that a poll of some 22 percent of Michigan union members said they agreed with their labor organization's consideration of Nader. Half as many said they would vote for Nader if given a chance. The leaders of both the UAW and the Teamsters have made a point of making cordial noises about Nader.
Now, these polls are pretty useless as longterm indicators, but the news in these polls, as reviewed by Faucheux, is that people have a distinct problem with Gore as a person. They just don't like him, whether he's dressed in earth tones or a blue suit. He has a credibility problem. Over the past few weeks Jeffrey St. Clair and I have been finishing a short book, Gore: A User's Manual, which will be in the bookstores on Labor Day. We've found that almost nothing said by Gore or his dad can be taken on trust.
A small example. I've always taken at face value the claim made for Albert Sr. that when he was in the Senate in the early 1950s he was Eisenhower's prime indispensable ally in passing the Interstate Highways Act in 1956. It seemed credible. Albert Sr. was, after all, chairman of the Roads subcommittee of the Senate's Public Works Committee.
Then I ran across Interstate, a 1979 history by Mark Rose, a book I acquired back then as part of a project, still on hold, to write about Chrysler Imperials in the 1950s. Rose makes it clear that the real hero on the Hill?if you regard the interstates as a consequence of heroism?was Rep. Hale Boggs, who managed to reconcile bitterly warring factions of pork-barrellers in the House. Boggs evidently didn't care for Albert Sr. His chance for revenge came as a consequence of a bit of bribery of Al Sr. by his patron, the late Armand Hammer, founder of the Occidental oil company. In l969 Hammer acquired the Hooker Chemical Co., later infamous as the poisoner of Love Canal. As the takeover was in progress he sold Al Sr. 1000 shares of Hooker stock for $150 a share, a fraction of the value of stock when news of the prospective merger became public. In this manner Al Sr. made a major killing. The stink from Hammer's various insider deals and this transaction was bad enough to attract the attention of Congressman Boggs, who accused Hammer of insider trading and referred the matter to the Securities and Exchange Commission. But Hammer and Gore had their bases covered and the SEC investigation "proved inconclusive."
The Gores have a habit of couching their own problems as though they were national crises. Every time Tipper stretches out for the Prozac bottle she announces that America is in a depression crisis. As he brooded on his humiliation in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, Al Gore cast his abortive bid as a lost opportunity, "a perishable window" for America: "I had just lost a presidential election, having given it everything that I had, and encountered the limits of my capacity to persuade people of policies I felt so deeply needed to be followed." It was a lost opportunity to save the world from nuclear annihilation and environmental meltdown.
This high-flown retrospect came in the course of a period of disappointed reassessment of his life and career stretching across the end of the 1980s. Not well liked on the Hill, and now rejected by the electorate, Gore tried a new form of polling, this time attempting a survey of his internal psychic landscape.
Amidst these efforts at self-discovery came an accident in April of 1989 involving Gore's son, Albert III. Al, Tipper and the six-year-old were leaving Memorial Stadium in Baltimore where they'd watched the Orioles play on opening day. As they prepared to cross a busy four-lane road, Albert III broke free from his father's hand, dashed across two lanes, then was struck in the third by a '77 Chevy. He was pretty badly hurt, with broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, bruised lung and a cracked shoulder blade. The Gores were fortunate that two nurses were on the scene; they looked after the boy until the ambulance arrived. Tense days for Al and Tipper at Albert III's hospital bedside followed. In the end Albert III made a full recovery.
Seldom has a nasty accident been more sedulously worked over in politico-literary rhetoric. In his book Earth in the Balance, Gore claimed that those dark days were the "catalyst" for a "life change [that] has caused me to be increasingly impatient with the status quo, with conventional wisdom, with the lazy assumption that we can always muddle through." In 1992 Gore used his son's travails in his vice-presidential speech at the Democratic Convention in New York. Delegates and a national tv audience listened to descriptions of Gore seeing Albert III "thrown 30 feet through the air on impact and scrape along the pavement another 20 feet after he hit the ground. I ran to his side and held him and called his name, but he was motionless, limp and still, without breath or pulse. His eyes were open with the empty stare of death, and we prayed, the two of us, there in the gutter, with only my voice."
At least one pair of eyes in the convention hall stayed dry. "The worst thing about Gore was how he read that heavy stuff right off the teleprompter," said Al's one-time hero, Eugene McCarthy. Responding to McCarthy's suggestion that Gore had gone over the top, Tipper promptly gave her husband's gross lack of taste cosmic content: "That happened to us, in public, and we dealt with it in public. We kept as much private as we could, but it's become a part of our lives and it's a part of who we are and very much a part of who Al is and I think it was courageous of him to reveal that. He's very much a different person in many ways because of that trauma, and if you want to know him, you have to know what happened."
Now, Americans lived through the 90s hearing both Al and Tipper preaching on the need for people to take responsibility for their actions, whether they be teenage mothers, rockers and rappers, or other targets for their preachments. But though Gore has claimed that his son's accident prompted a profound metamorphosis in his worldview, the writing of Earth in the Balance and a recommitment to his role as globo-savior, in all of these interminable discourses he never even hinted that he might have held his son's hand a little more tightly. Most parents would have blamed themselves. It's a natural human tendency, and in this case evidently a justifiable one. The first duty of a father standing on the sidewalk is to make sure his child doesn't run into traffic, though why exactly Albert III should have elected to tear himself free from his dad (if indeed his dad was actually holding his hand) and run across a busy highway is another question one can at least ponder.
But Al Gore's rendition of the trauma in his account at the convention becomes a homily, anchored in melodrama, about the need to stop "muddling through." He can't even manage to mention his wife's name, and pronouns other than the ones referring to himself are so vague that one cannot tell whether Tipper or Albert III is praying silently as backup to Al's voice. The nurses, incidentally, say Albert III never lost consciousness.
At Johns Hopkins hospital prayer alternated with therapy. Loraine Voles, a member of Gore's staff, has said that Gore believed "the power of prayer helped to heal his son." For her part, Tipper used this moment of family trauma to persuade her husband to participate in family therapy. Gore later wrote that the accident prompted him to spend more time with Tipper and the children. He pledged both publicly and to Tipper that he would redirect his life toward the home front. When he decided in August of 1991 not to throw his hat into the presidential ring in 1992 he invoked the accident and family commitments as the prime reason. But then again, some test polls and the reception accorded trial-run speeches given by Gore to Democratic audiences were not encouraging to a man who had never abandoned the thought of another try for the nomination.
Perhaps Gore did pledge to spend more time with his family in his mother-in-law's house in Arlington, but Tipper and the children probably had some difficulty in recognizing the new stay-at-home dad. His Senate schedule was exacting enough. David Pryor, a senator from Arkansas, remembers seeing Gore at a committee hearing summon an aide who presented him with an enormous map of Tennessee. Marked on it with flags were all the town meetings to be attended by Gore that coming weekend. Pryor remarked that the mere itinerary made him feel dizzy. Gore has boasted of having attended more than 2200 such town meetings in his congressional career, prompting incredulous Republicans to dash to their calculators and discover that Gore was claiming to have done 2.5 town meetings a week for 17 years.
But on top of the long absences consequent upon being a senator Gore found that his rebirth required him to write a book, which in turn required him to spend whatever evenings he had free apart from his family in an apartment belonging to his parents in the Methodist Bldg., close to Capitol Hill. Here he immured himself for two years to write the 700 manuscript pages of Earth in the Balance. Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama lived in the same building and would regularly encounter Gore late at night. "Son," the bluff judge finally cried, "you go home and see your family."
Forlorn after her son's accident, and her husband but a fleeting presence, Tipper fell into a deep depression?a condition she chose to reveal in 1999. The strain also showed up in her public comportment, as recently described in the National Enquirer.
In April of 1991 her mother Margaret ran into a car stopped at a traffic light in Arlington, and the cop inspecting the accident noticed she smelled of booze. Margaret was combative, reported Don Gentile and Bennet Bolton, shouting at the officer, "Get away from me, you rookie son of a bitch." At this point Tipper came up and started yelling at the policeman, "Get your goddamn hands of her. You don't have to arrest her. That's my mother. She's on medication." Finally the cop threatened to arrest Tipper for obstruction of justice. Margaret came out of it relatively unscathed, with only a $44 fine and?no doubt?raised insurance premiums.
It was while Gore was down in Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit in June of 1992, brandishing Earth in the Balance (though also doing his political duty by attacking George Bush), that he received the first probing call from Warren Christopher as to whether he was interested in the vice-presidential slot alongside Bill Clinton. He assured Christopher that he was. Out the window went the pledge to be a family man. Out the window went his commitment to be an Earth warrior. Within a few months Gore was on the campaign trail and meekly obeying the orders of the Clinton camp to tone down his environmental rhetoric. Tipper raged at him for dumping his family once more and went back to her Prozac bottle.
This column was written with Jeffrey St. Clair.