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Can Al Bare His Soul?

With the scandals receding, Gore takes aim at 2000. The man seems capable of the job. But first he has to connect with people

By Eric Pooley and Karen Tumulty

TIME

(TIME, December 15) -- At the moment the trouble lifted for Al Gore last week, the Vice President was stepping onto a basketball court inside a Connecticut middle school. Gore was marking time, waiting for Janet Reno to finish her press conference so he could step up to his own battery of TV cameras and proclaim that he was out from under the shadow of a special prosecutor. While he waited, Gore shed his suit coat and strolled to the foul line, chatting with a few dozen seventh- and eighth-graders who were trying out for the school's team. He bounced the ball a time or two, looking about as casual as Gore ever looks in public, then turned to the basket and, with exaggerated ease, lofted the ball into the air. It swished through the hoop perfectly, catching nothing but net, and the kids shrieked in delight; Gore got the ball back and spun it smartly on his index finger. As he left the court, he turned to the children and said, "Those who don't make the team, keep trying. Repetition--practice--is the key to success."

That formula -- dogged preparation for a rote maneuver that is designed to look bold and spontaneous -- has worked well for Gore over the years. As a Congressman in the early 1980s, he would lie flat on his back late at night in an empty House gymnasium and hurl the ball at the hoop again and again; when at last he could make the trick shot, he unveiled it in a pickup game with other lawmakers. Representative Gore studied the arms race with the same intensity, working 10 hours a week for a year before championing a simple solution to the Soviet first-strike threat -- the single-warhead Midgetman missile. He crammed his mind with facts about computers and technology, coining the term information superhighway way back in 1979. And so meticulous were Gore's preparations for his 1996 debate with Jack Kemp, the putative heir to Ronald Reagan's Great Communicator throne, that the Vice President demanded his practice room be cooled to the precise temperature of the debate hall--and made sure his aides factored in the audience's effect on the ambient temperature. After four climate-controlled mock debates, he went out and demolished Kemp in the real one, repeating his favorite memorized phrase -- the Republicans' "risky $550 billion tax scheme" again and again.

Now, with the threat of an independent prosecutor receding, Gore can get on with the business of applying this practice-makes-perfect credo to running for President. It's a task that, even in this era of permanent campaigns, might seem premature for a Vice President, except that it has become the organizing principle of Clinton's status quo second term. Clinton's legacy is now predicated on electing Gore ("It's going to take another presidential election to set these ideas in cement," Clinton has told friends), which is why Gore's electability has become an issue so early in the game.

Though Gore's aura of invincibility has been dented by his strange fund-raising adventures among Buddhist nuns, he remains the Democratic front runner; since Truman, no Vice President who has tried for it has been denied his party's nomination. If he is elected, Gore could bring to the job an extraordinary combination of qualities: he is smart, decisive and prepared (his father, Senator Albert Gore Sr., chose the job for him when he was a boy growing up on the eighth floor of a Washington hotel). He even has a core of convictions.

But Gore is coming to the biggest political contest of all in an era that loves talk-show confessionals -- a time when even the British royals are expected to loosen up or lose their jobs. Gore, in fact, has a lot of Prince Charles in him, a vestige of the style of upper Cumberland, Tenn., "that emphasizes formalism in public presentation," he told TIME last week. "I think I absorbed that, but I'm slowly learning how to transcend it." Until that happens, Gore's famous stiffness and failure to grasp the trick of compelling self-presentation are no small problem. His own boss is the best possible example of the advantages that go to politicians who can mass market the human touch. And Gore's success in positioning himself as a centrist may actually have made his shortcomings as a personality more important. For if the next presidential race does not turn on ideology, it may come down to the question of which candidate makes voters feel more comfortable.

And Gore is a curious specimen. To understand why, it helps to know about the scissors. Whenever a memo, article or academic paper sparks the Vice President's formidable mind, he pulls out his scissors and begins snipping. He whittles a page down to a paragraph, the paragraph down to a sentence and that sentence down to the one key phrase that contains, for Gore, the essence of the whole idea. Then he arranges the fragment on his desk among the other scraps of paper -- seeds of thought, if you will -- already lying there. "You just pray nobody sneezes," says Carol Browner, who rose from Gore's staff to become head of the Environmental Protection Agency. After the idea has ripened on his desk, he will hand a bewildered aide a piece of confetti holding some mysterious term -- "digital earth" or "distributed intelligence" -- and say, "Schedule some time. I want to talk to you about this."

Gore's way of approaching the world -- devouring all available information and breaking it down into pieces he can hold in his hand and turn over in his mind -- has won him a reputation as a forward thinker on difficult issues. But it doesn't always help in politics. (Take, for example, the least effective bite-size phrase of Gore's career: "No controlling legal authority," a snippet of legalese he picked up from his counsel, Charles Burson, and repeated seven times during his disastrous March money-scandal press conference.) Gore has spent the past six years studying the master, trying to break Clinton's seamless performance into component parts he can make his own. But Clinton's gifts are as irreducible as a sunset; Gore has not picked them up yet, and he won't. "He does the steps," says former presidential adviser Dick Morris, "but he doesn't hear the music." Even Tipper Gore concedes his reticence as a public figure, while arguing that it has its own virtue. "Bill Clinton is fantastic; there's no question about it. And he's a very different personality type than my husband," she says. "But I don't think we're always looking for the same thing in our leaders. I know it's important to be able to connect with people, but I also think it's important to be able to believe someone is going to solve some of the problems that need to be solved."

Gore's awkwardness onstage was plain to see last week as he busied himself with Important Work to prove he was moving beyond the campaign-finance scandal. The week's events and ceremonies were related to some of his favorite subjects -- education, the environment, Internet smut -- but Gore's performance was frequently off-key. The swoosh of his basketball in the Woodrow Wilson Middle School gym may have been exhilarating, but it could not make up for what had come before: a listless, interminable session in an overheated school library during which Gore droned on and on, consulting index cards and discoursing on the role of public education during the industrial revolution. When the school gave Gore its sweatshirt, he didn't have the presence of mind to unfold the thing, much less put it on. And when it was time to go, he left an auditorium of squirming adolescents with this rousing farewell: "The hospitality you have given me thus far equals or exceeds that of any school I have ever visited."

When Gore wants to, his formality gives way to real charm, but even that is carefully calibrated. It is commonplace to say Gore wears a wooden mask in public and removes it in private to reveal a funny, knowing, ironic man of the world. But the quick wit Gore deploys in White House meetings or off-the-record encounters with reporters is just another layer of the onion, another protective device. He trusts almost no one, worries about leaks and guards himself to such an extent that some aides are not sure they have ever met the real Gore. "When he watches TV," a former adviser says, "you can almost see the voice in his head saying, 'Al Gore is watching TV. He is doing this so he can rest his brain, so in a minute he can do something that will change history.'"

Around midnight, after a three-city tour of Texas last month, the Vice President came wandering back to the press compartment of Air Force Two. Sliding in behind a table with the two reporters covering him that day, he picked slices of fruit from their plates and spent two hours swapping opinions about movies and telling stories about old chums like Erich Segal, who, Gore said, used Al and Tipper as models for the uptight preppy and his free-spirited girlfriend in Love Story; and Gore's Harvard roommate Tommy Lee Jones, who played the roommate of the Gore-like character in the movie version of Segal's book. When Jones won an Oscar in 1994 for The Fugitive, Gore tried to phone congratulations to him backstage, "but somebody kept hanging up on me," Gore said. "It was, 'Sure you're Al Gore' -- click." Then he moved on, grabbing a cocktail napkin to diagram a new system for making Internet connections via satellite. Through it all, he never let anything slip or allowed the conversation to turn back to the job. When he praised a PBS documentary on Harry Truman, a reporter observed that as Vice President, Truman rarely saw F.D.R. Gore changed the subject. And when the other correspondent asked him about the state of Clinton's second term, he rolled his eyes and moaned, "Don't make me work." Then he retreated to the front of the plane and sent back an answer in writing.

Gore's shortcomings as a retail politician -- emphasizing the wrong phrases in speeches, going stone-faced when he should be empathic, forgetting to work the rope line -- have led him to compensate with big, attention-getting moves. He calls them "long bombs," the kind quarterbacks throw when nothing else is working. Gore planned to throw one last Sunday by flying to the 155-nation global-warming conference in Kyoto, Japan, where the U.S. finds itself scorned. Why was Gore planning to insert himself into a no-win situation?

Gore has a few long-held obsessions, that's why -- and this is one of them. He started worrying about global climate change as a Harvard undergraduate in the 1960s, before almost anyone on earth had heard of the subject, and as a Senator, he wrote a rousing manifesto on the subject, Earth in the Balance. But now he must sell an Administration approach he once would have called too cautious -- one that is sure to get hammered by the greener-than-thou Europeans. If he comes home without an agreement, his environmentalist allies will jeer; if the U.S. agrees to a more stringent timetable to reduce emissions, the big-money industry and labor interests he needs in 2000 will scream. Which is why Gore's political advisers tried to talk him out of going to Kyoto, cornering him in a White House hallway a week before the conference began. Gore shut the argument down. "If I weren't going to run for President, there would be no discussion of whether I should go," he said. "I'm going."

He saw what his advisers did not -- that staying home would hurt him more than going, because it would further undermine a reputation for deep seriousness that's taken a beating in the windblown Clinton White House. "I have become very impatient with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously," Gore wrote in Earth in the Balance. "When caution breeds timidity, a good politician listens to other voices."

With these words, Gore introduced the world to Bold Al -- the side of Gore that Gore himself likes best, the one that sheds the chains of craven political calculation (sheds them so noisily, in fact, that every voter can hear them clanking) and becomes a gutsy leader. He wrote the passage shortly before he was tapped to be Clinton's running mate, and although the job of Vice President is not normally associated with heroic behavior (think George Bush and Walter Mondale), Gore really has been bold. Clinton "was looking for a buddy movie, a political version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," says former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, but just to be sure, Gore took the job only after getting a guarantee of regular access to Clinton--their weekly private lunches in Clinton's study.

The lunches remain the only inviolable part of either Clinton's or Gore's schedule because Bold Al turned out to be a saving influence on Clinton's first term. During the North American Free Trade Agreement battles of 1993, he insisted on debating Ross Perot against the wishes of White House staff -- and outsimplified the Texan at his own game. Together with Morris, Bold Al helped turn around the rudderless Clinton presidency after the midterm-election debacle of 1994, urging Clinton to embrace the balanced budget in June 1995 when most other White House advisers were against it; arguing in August 1995 that it was high time to bomb the Bosnian Serbs into submission; and counseling Clinton during the winter's titanic showdown with the G.O.P. not to compromise but to let the Republicans shutter the government and take the blame. Sometimes Bold Al gets carried away. In December 1995 he infuriated Republicans by phoning the NBC Nightly News to announce a massive telecommunications reform bill in order to guarantee that the White House got credit for it, in the process nearly blowing up the fragile compromise just reached. The same tactic almost wrecked the delicate negotiations over television ratings last June.

But more recently Bold Al has phoned in sick. Last fall, as union-backed House Democrats were working to kill a bill that would have given the President "fast track" authority to negotiate trade agreements without congressional approval, Gore tried to talk Clinton into making his case before a joint session of Congress and spoke out in favor of the bill when preaching to the converted, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. But he had nothing to say on the subject when addressing the national convention of the A.F.L.-C.I.O, which opposed the bill. "Clinton went in there and gave it to the union right between the eyes," says D.L.C. president Al From, "but Gore didn't bring it up. For some people that raised questions about what he believes."

White House sources have been whispering that the President and First Lady are concerned that Gore, forced to protect his left flank from a populist attack by House minority leader Dick Gephardt in the 2000 primaries, will not stand up for New Democratic achievements -- the balanced budget, welfare reform, economic growth -- that the Clintons see as their legacy. This seems unfair, since Gore consistently argued in favor of those positions inside the White House -- sometimes before the Clintons were aboard. Clinton has fretted about Gore's ability to hold firm -- not because he questions Gore's beliefs but because he is not confident of Gore's political adroitness. "The President and First Lady are understandably concerned that there's going to be a lot of pressure on the Vice President to move left to cut off Gephardt," says From, who accompanied Hillary Clinton on her recent visit to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "But when push comes to shove, Al Gore will run as a New Democrat. The lesson of Clinton 1992 is that you're better off keeping to the middle in a primary." Doing that, though, requires the kind of fancy footwork Clinton has too much of and Gore not enough.

At the moment, Gore's fanciest move consists of trying to cobble together a new centrist coalition. He is worried that he and Clinton have been so busy welcoming the booming information-age economy that they have left the impression "that we think good is good enough," Gore told Time. "But we certainly do not. We are restless and anxious to do better still." So in addition to the technology and information workers who would seem his natural constituents, Gore is courting urbanites who voted for such dynamic mayors as Detroit's Dennis Archer and Cleveland's Mike White. But coalitions are built by moving one voter at a time, which is where Gore can fall flat. "Clinton goes into a room wanting everyone to like him," a Gore aide observes, "and Gore goes into a room wanting to convince everyone he's right." Gore once showed up at a dinner party at David Brinkley's Chevy Chase, Md., home toting an easel and flip charts on global warming -- which might have gone over better had it not been the height of the Gulf War. Last summer, while Clinton was making the circuit on Martha's Vineyard, Gore was in seclusion at a North Carolina beach house, pleading with his kids to keep him company as he watched a documentary on Lewis and Clark.

Those who have worked closely with both men say Gore is more resolute, more disciplined and by far the better negotiator. "Clinton is anxious to please the person at the other end of the table. Gore understands it's an adversary," says Morris. Clinton, though given to titanic rages, gets past them quickly and listens when staff members tell him he is wrong. Gore never forgets an affront, bristling when his views are challenged, rebuffing the questioner with a put-down. "It's got a lot of edge to it," says a former Administration official who has seen the darker side of Gore. "It's sarcastic, but you can't really tell if it's humor or not." Some former aides say the trait has prevented Gore from assembling a top-notch staff. Last week he beefed it up with two new hires.

Gore's sense of entitlement was ingrained at an early age. For nine months of the year during his childhood, Gore lived a male, Washington-based version of Eloise at New York City's Plaza -- with the Fairfax Hotel as his playground and leading pols of the day, from Nixon to J.F.K., as his adult foils. (Strom Thurmond once stepped on little Al's toy submarine in the Senate pool.) But while the fictional Eloise bounced giddily through her hotel, Gore grew a hard shell in his. "I felt like I was on temporary assignment," he once told the Washington Post. The Senator's son had to develop a public self before his private one was fully formed, friends say. Underneath he is cool and watchful.

A few years ago, when his son nearly died after having been hit by a car, Gore launched a journey of self-discovery, immersing himself in the literature of family dysfunction and pondering his own emotional remoteness with the same intellectual rigor he brought to bear on Soviet first-strike capability. Gore knew he would get lampooned for this -- Washington is terrified of soul searching -- but he did it anyway because it mattered to him.

In an extraordinary 1994 commencement address at Harvard, he spoke of the "barriers in my soul" that had prevented him from making connections with others. "I suppose it was a form of cynicism on my part," he said. "The brokenness that separates the cynic from others is the outward sign of an inner division between the head and the heart. There is something icily and unnaturally intellectual about the cynic. This isolation of intellect from feelings and emotions is the essence of his condition."

The outpouring of support he received after his son's accident, Gore said, helped him begin to seal that division. But even as he talks about his emotional voyage today, it is in the language of an observer, watching himself being watched in the role of the Soul-Searching Man. "That's part of the art of life. You bring the essence of who you are to whatever task you are performing," he told Time last week in his cabin aboard Air Force Two. Paper snowflakes dangled above his head, and a string of Christmas lights blinked on and off. "Everybody has aspects of their personality that are stronger than others. And part of becoming a well-integrated person involves the task of strengthening those aspects not necessarily emphasized in your previous growth."

In the past five years, Gore says, he has grown by helping Clinton confront one crisis after another. "It's a revelation the way excruciating world-class problems tend to come in clusters," he says. This was something of which he had no conception when the 39-year-old freshman Senator impulsively offered himself as a presidential candidate in 1988. There were few takers then. Now that he knows firsthand what the job costs and what it demands, is he still so eager to win it? Gore says he wants the job more than ever, but even that confession is hard to make. "It's probably an impolitic remark," he says. "But it's true."


In TIME This Week:

Cover Date Dec. 15, 1997

Can Al Bare His Soul?
Why The Reno-Freeh Spat Runs Deep
The Canal Cronies
The Postpartum Prosecutor
Why Johnny Can't Surf
Viewpoint: Everybody's Children
The Notebook: Gephardt - Open Mouth, Insert Foot





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