Getting To Know The Real Al Gore
By Judy Woodruff/CNN
WASHINGTON (Oct. 2) -- As the Justice Department prepares to widen its probe of Vice President Al Gore's fund-raising activities, Gore's character has been drawn into question, with friends and foes sharply differing on the forces that brought him to this moment.
"Al Gore's entire political career -- and I contend this part of it also -- he's been involved in nothing except with the greatest integrity and commitment," former Gore staffer Chip Forrester told CNN.
A different view comes from Gore critic Tucker Carlson of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.
"I think he's one of the most calculated politicians, if not the most calculated politician, in national politics," Tucker said.
At his center, friends say, Gore is an honest man, a public servant of selfless dedication.
Says Democratic consultant Bob Squier, "The thing that is central to Al Gore is his good name, his honesty, the directness of his thinking."
But with that reputation has come questions of sincerity. How much of Gore is real, and how much too carefully contrived?
"There does seem to be the outer shell, the concern about appearances, the extreme care, the extreme propriety, the extreme attention to how he is going to be perceived. It's there, it's overwhelming," said Bruce Dobie, editor of Gore's homestate Nashville Scene paper.
Said another veteran journalist, John Siegenthaler, "So many, many journalists have asked me about their sense that he over-prepares, that he over-educates himself, that he over-backgrounds himself, and that it comes off as counterfeit or fake. That's totally alien to the person I know."
Friends and foes agree he works hard. In Congress, he carved out a singular niche on arms control, the environment and high tech, issues he still cares about today.
Colleagues say he was a loner.
"He was somewhat of an enigma to many people," noted former New Hampshire Republican Sen. Warren Rudman. "I'm not so sure he didn't get along, he just didn't mix a lot with people. He didn't seem to have a lot of friends."
The product of a political family, he saw his father lose his own Senate re-election over opposition to the Vietnam War. It was a bitter lesson for the younger Gore.
Political, personal hardships
Later came his own hardships, including a losing presidential bid in 1988 and his son's near-fatal accident one year later. Those two events, coming so close together, had a life-changing effect.
Notes ex-Gore staffer Forrester, "I think it was really one of the tougher times in his life because it was his first major political loss. It was a very grueling campaign for him, and I think shortly after that the accident with Albert."
His son's brush with death became part of campaign lore in 1992, when he accepted Bill Clinton's offer for the number two spot.
Recounted Gore during the 1992 Democratic convention, "Three years ago my son Albert was struck by a car, crossing the street after watching a baseball game in Baltimore. Tipper and I watched as he was thrown 30 feet through the air and scraped another 20 feet on the pavement after he hit the ground."
That speech moved supporters to cry and skeptics to squirm. To them it was classic Gore: too contrived, too opportunistic.
Said Carlson, "It's gut wrenching to see somebody read a description of an accident like that off a teleprompter in front of millions of people for political gain."
The 1996 convention brought another testimonial, this time about the death of his sister from lung cancer.
"That is why 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," Gore told his Chicago audience.
His words that time did carry a political calculation since the Clinton-Gore ticket was at war with Big Tobacco. But it was tough talk from a man who had long championed his own tobacco roots, even after his sister's death.
His allies defend both convention speeches as glimpses into the soul of the man.
Said Squier, "Both of those decisions were very, very difficult decisions, and I think they were done because he felt that in some way it would help other people who were going through crisis in their life if he shared that crisis in his life."
It was painful, perhaps, for someone with a reputation for being careful, even wooden, all seemingly part of his exquisite control and discipline.
"For those of you not from Washington, it's been so cold here this year that people who don't know me better have thought I was frozen stiff," Gore said earlier this year in a stock, self-deprecating gag.
Ultimately, that persona -- so cautious and above reproach -- made him even more vulnerable when controversy arose.
"Critics will say he's a sanctimonious kind of guy, and a little bit holier than thou," said Dobie. "You hear that with some of the voters here [in Tennessee] too, who are more your rural populist kind of guys who will say he is too big for his britches."
And while his allies predict Gore will emerge untainted from the money mess, they still puzzle over his actions: the fund-raising zeal and the apparent bending of rules that have brought him to this point.
Noted Siegenthaler, "As careful as he is, as cautious as he is, and as well backgrounded as he insists on being, there is a contradiction here that his longtime friends and admirers are at a loss to explain."
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Thursday Oct. 2, 1997
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