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Who Is Al Gore?

Aired March 31, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: In a body blow to the White House and in direct contradiction to administration policy, Al Gore has asked Congress to grant permanent-resident status to little Elian Gonzalez, his father, stepmother and grandparents, the whole gang, so they can all stay in the United States if they want to. Is his action a declaration of independence or just plain politics? That's the thing with Al Gore -- you never know.

He's 52 today. He's been vice president for eight years, and he's going to be the Democratic nominee for president, but most people don't know who Al Gore really is. Is he the guy who fought the tobacco companies, or the guy who continued to take money from them after his sister died of lung cancer? Is he the prince of campaign reform or the king of campaign irregularity?

Tonight, we try to unravel the Al Gore puzzle with one who has just written a book about him. The book, "Inventing Al Gore"; the author, Bill Turque -- Bob.

BOB NOVAK, CO-HOST: Bill Turque, you have spent three years unraveling Al Gore...


NOVAK: Knowing all there is to know about him, now, if you have been told when you were writing the book that there was going to be an episode such as this Elian Gonzalez case, which way would you have predicted the vice president would go, what would you have predicted that he did?

TURQUE: That's really hard to know. Look, I think there's no question that he's looking for opportunities to differentiate himself from Bill Clinton, looking for opportunities to pull the sword from the stone, as one of his aides likes to say, and there's no question that he also sees an opportunity in Florida. They see an opportunity with second and third-generation Cuban-Americans who are not quite as rigidly Republican as their grandparents and parents.

But I also think that he's also a father and I don't think that this is totally craven, totally calculated political move. I think he -- there's a place that he truly does care what happens to this kid and, you know, there's always a mixture of conviction and calculation with Gore. NOVAK: You know, I find that interesting when we have this kind of sham Democratic primary where they both -- Bill Bradley and the vice president went as far to the left as they could, and all the journalists like Bill Press were prodding him.


NOVAK: Now I hear all these very rough comments about Al Gore because he took a centrist position on Elian. Isn't that what's going to happen in this campaign, that the people who were just joining him on the left are going to be a little bit disappointed if he runs to the center, as I think he'll try to do?

TURQUE: Well, you always hurt the ones you love sometimes in politics, you know.


TURQUE: And I just -- I think that -- look, he's actually been pretty consistent on this from the beginning. From the beginning he has said that this is not an immigration matter. This should go into a process, kind of due process where a family....

NOVAK: This was a break with it.

TURQUE: There's no question this was a break. And, look, if this was happening in Oklahoma, you would not see the vice president so eager to intervene, obviously.

NOVAK: All right, I got the feeling reading your excellent book...

TURQUE: Thank you.

NOVAK: ... that he believes in some things, but not all that much. Is that fair to say?

TURQUE: I don't think that's true. I think he does believe in some things a lot. I think that he's serious about the environment. I think he's serious about information technology and closing the so- called digital divide. I think those things are real for him and I don't think there's any -- I didn't come away with any doubts about his sincerity on those issues. I think he struggles with how to put them into play politically, but I don't have any doubts about his sincerity on these issues.

PRESS: Bill, let me give you my congratulations on your book as well, enjoyed reading it.

TURQUE: Thank you.

PRESS: Most of the reviews I read about it pointed out that the book is very well written, but has little new in it except when it comes to the question of drug use. We know that when Al Gore started running for -- when he was running for Congress first came up with -- particularly running for president -- on the question of marijuana use, he said, question, in fact he had and yes, he had inhaled, but that his use was infrequent and rare. What's the truth?

TURQUE: Well, the truth is he was enthusiastic and recreational for a longer period of time than he described when he ran for president. Look, I never viewed it as my mission as his biographer to go counting the number of marijuana joints he had stashed under his coffee table in the mid '70s.

What I saw in the story, it was part of a larger issue that I saw in him about candor and the lack of candor when he's under pressure. And there's also an interesting piece of backstage business the way he pressured Peter Knight, his chief of staff at the time -- pressured his friend to stonewall the press. So to me it was not -- drugs was not the story. The story was candor and how he treated his friends.

PRESS: But the fact is he -- I think you indicate clearly in the book that he stopped -- you don't allege anyhow there was any use of marijuana after he ran for Congress in 1976. Given that, is the fact that he used it once a week, or four times a week, or that as a candidate he tried to fudge it a little bit, I mean, is that really of any importance today in this election?

TURQUE: Today, I don't think it's quite -- has the same sort of importance today. You know, but -- you know, presidential campaigns are different now. This was a long time ago. It was 1988. I do think, though, that by itself it's not necessarily damning, but part of a larger pattern of embellishment and embroidering that I think voters, you know, will probably take a look at him.

PRESS: OK, so, Al Gore says yes, I used grass, but he pledges on how many times. George Bush says, I'm not going to answer the question whether or not I ever used cocaine -- which is more disingenuous?

TURQUE: I don't know. I -- I'm not in a position to judge the governor's answer. I'm not -- I haven't covered his campaign. I don't think...

PRESS: Well, one is an answer and one is not.

TURQUE: Well, that's true. That's true.

NOVAK: Bill Turque, at the gridiron dinner last Saturday night, there was a song about Al Gore in which he was celebrated as the inventor of the bong. He doesn't claim he invented the bong?

TURQUE: He hasn't so far, no.



PRESS: I am pleased, Bob, that you know what a bong is. This is good.

(LAUGHTER) NOVAK: Bill, the -- just one more drug question -- in the first place, maybe I didn't know everything there was to know about Al Gore -- I found a lot of stuff I didn't know beyond drug use, but on the question of drug use, the thing that bothered me the most was not that he used drugs, but the way he treated John Warnecke, who was a close friend of his, fellow pot smoker when they were reporters on the "National Tennessean." And while everybody else lied, Warnecke told the truth, but didn't go into any great detail, and I was stunned he has not talked to him -- what year was that?

TURQUE: This was 1987.

NOVAK: Has not said a word to his buddy. That is a cold character, isn't it?

TURQUE: Well, it was one of the reasons that I thought it was worth going into in the book, not at great length, but at some length that this was a little window into the backstage business of politics and of friendship. That's correct.

NOVAK: You also give an excellent book review of "Earth in the Balance," his screed on environmental extremist. And you write this, Mr. Turque: "'Earth in Balance' is the essential Gore: thoughtful, earnest, ambitious, crammed with facts, moralizing, hyperbolic, and breathtakingly grandiose. The pages are charged with the evangelistic fervor of a man who believes he can save the world."

TURQUE: Did I write that?

NOVAK: Yes, that was yours. I would think the last thing this country needs in the first decade of the 21st century is a guy who thinks he can save the world.

TURQUE: Well, and I don't think that wanting to save the world in the way I described there is completely pejorative. I think that he feels strongly about it, and I think that, you know, there are a lot of people who respect politicians who feel strongly about an issue even if they necessarily don't agree with A, B, and C, everything down the line with what that politician says. So I don't necessarily think that's -- all of that is sort of an indictment.

NOVAK: You also say that he's kind of -- the book shows an insecurity that he wants to show that, boy, I really know a lot about this hard stuff.

TURQUE: There is a lot of that. There is a lot of wanting to show he's the smartest kid in the class, that's true.

PRESS: You talk, of course, as a lot of people do about the attempts once in a while to embellish his resume is the quote that you use -- the phrase you use. And you quote at the very end of your book him talking about Love Canal, the vice president saying, "I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal." Did Al Gore discover Love Canal?

TURQUE: No, he did not discover Love Canal. PRESS: Did he claim to?

TURQUE: He was definitely trying to leave the impression to the casual listener in that episode, I thought, that he was -- he had more of a role in it than he actually did.

PRESS: Well, there is an excellent article in this week's "Washington Monthly" by Robert Parry (ph) about some of these Gore statements. Let me just read you -- you know -- I am sure you know that the circumstances -- Gore was speaking last November to the students at Concord High School and he made the point that one person can make a difference and he gave the example of what he was -- in the late '70s in Tennessee, a high school girl told him about some toxic pollution in a town called Toone, Tennessee. And then he went on to say -- here's his exact quote -- quote -- "I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing. I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. Had the first hearing on that issue in Toone, Tennessee. That was the one he didn't hear of, but that was the one that started it all."

So, I mean, to be fair, he wasn't saying he discovered or leaving the impression he coated. He was saying, was would told about Toone, Tennessee, I looked around for others, and I held a hearing, right?

NOVAK: Spin, spin, spin.

TURQUE: Well, I think that you parse it out, you might come to that conclusion, for the casual listener and the casual viewer, he was trying to leave the impression that he had more of a role.

PRESS: That's what the media said, but you know as well as I -- the students at Concord High School actually went on a campaign -- just one second.

NOVAK: He doesn't agree with you. He doesn't agree with you.

PRESS: I know he doesn't agree, but that's why this is CROSSFIRE. Guess what? Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I just want to point out, the students at Concord High School felt that the media was really, you know, reinventing basically what Al Gore said.

They actually put out a press release saying -- quote -- "top 10 reasons why many Concord high school students feel betrayed by some members of the media's coverage of Al Gore's visit to their school. Guilty? Not guilty?

TURQUE: That the media is guilty? No. I mean, look, obviously, there's no future reporters in that class, but I don't feel -- I don't agree with that at all, no.

NOVAK: I would certainly hope not. We're going to take a break, and when we come back, we're going to talk about the tobacco growing Gore family.


Happy birthday, Mr. Vice President! Number 52 for Al Gore, and here's a terrific birthday present, not for him, but for all of America -- "Inventing Al Gore" a biography by "Newsweek" correspondent Bill Turque. We're talking to Mr. welcome back to "crossfire." happy birthday, Mr. Vice president! number a 2 -- 52 for Al Gore and here's a terrific birthday present, not for him, but for all of America -- "inventing Al Gore" a biography by "Newsweek" correspondent Bill Turque. We're talking to Mr. Turque about the most thorough treatment yet of the Democratic presidential candidate -- Bill.

PRESS: Bill Turque, probably the issue here about Al Gore, one, certainly is tobacco. It's a complicated history. Let's start at the beginning. He certainly -- I mean, there's tobacco grown on his farm, he supported tobacco farmers in the Congress, and he took money from tobacco companies, not unusual to start with, for a Congressman from Tennessee, right?

TURQUE: No. And to his credit, he also led the way in strengthening the language on health warning labels on cigarette packs. And so, you know, in spite of what happened later in his career, that really was unusually brave I think on his part to do that in the early 1980s.

PRESS: I want to point that out just for those of our viewers who haven't read the book yet, you quote Matthew Meyers, who was then head of the Coalition on Smoking or Health, about his role. Once he discovered this issue of tobacco smoking, health and the relation, he got really involved in it. At the end of it, Matthew Meyers says in your book -- quote -- "Al Gore was the first member of Congress from a tobacco state to take on the tobacco industry on health officials in any meaningful way. Whatever else you think of the guy in 1983, that was not something that was good politics, and it was something that took real personal courage. No doubt about where he is on the issue today.

TURQUE: No doubt, no. He definitely is a foe of the tobacco industry and wants to do something to roll back tobacco's influence on minors.

PRESS: So this is one of those issues where he grew, or where you don't know where he stands?

TURQUE: I think that, you know, it's complicated, and in many ways, there -- I think you're referring to the '96 convention speech.


TURQUE: It's hard to defend and it's hard to rationalize. For seven years after his sister's death from lung cancer in 1984...

PRESS: He's continued to take money.

TURQUE: ... he took money, and his family farm had the federally regulated growing allotment. And you know, you can obviously allow someone time to work through a tough issue emotionally, but seven years, I think sort of...

PRESS: And yet today, he's number one public enemy probably.

TURQUE: That's right.

NOVAK: But you know, there are many my colleagues who are well to the left of me -- nobody is to the left of Press...

PRESS: Proud of it.

NOVAK: But well to the left of me, who will never think the same of Al Gore after that speech. They were just appalled by it.

TURQUE: I think it was a real watershed for him. I don't think things were the same for him after that speech.

NOVAK: You know, Bill, I met the vice president when he was 12 years old, and I had dinner with his family, and he was a superquiet little kid. I remember distinctly dinner, because most 12-year-olds are not quite that buttoned down, and when I read you're book, I got a feeling -- now maybe I'm reading something into it -- that this wasn't the happiest of childhoods, that he wasn't abandoned by his parents as the young Winston Churchill was, but his mother leaving him for weeks on end -- this was not a happy childhood, was it?

TURQUE: I think it was difficult. I don't think he really had a childhood in the conventional sense of the word. I think he was thrust into this very adult role at a very early age. To one of his Vietnam buddies, he described his childhood by saying I was a real little politician. And I think somewhere he paid a big emotional price for that.

NOVAK: And his daddy, who I know very well, always thought that he should have been -- he, Albert Sr., should have been president, and he certainly was transferring that emotion to his son, wasn't he?

TURQUE: Yes, one of his -- one of Al Gore's aides in 1988 described Albert Gore's desire to see his sons as president as naked and desperate, that's right.

NOVAK: You finish the last chapter, before you go into the epilogue, talking about his vice presidential years. Al Gore knew what was expected of him, you say, and again, as always, he tried not to disappoint. Going through life trying not to disappoint -- that's also a burden, too, isn't it?

TURQUE: It's a huge burden, and I think you still see him trying to work that out even as a presidential candidate now, where he knows he's going to have to disappoint some people. But he is somebody that likes to please many ways, I think.

PRESS: I have got to say that the little politician -- if you look at the photo on the cover of the book, I mean, if there's anything that demonstrates or illustrates Al Gore is a little politician -- I don't know whether he was quite 12 there, Bob, but...


PRESS: Ten. Two other issues that are quite controversial about Al Gore. Bill Bradley made a big thing in the primaries of his position on choice, pointing out when he was in the Congress he had about an 84 percent or something voting record with the anti-abortion people...

TURQUE: That's correct.

PRESS: ... and yet now he's been endorsed by NARAL -- was before even the primaries were over.

The other issue is gun control. He reflected his district when he was in the Congress, and now he's out there battling the NRA.

What is your conclusion out of looking -- writing this book and looking into that? I mean, is this a guy who doesn't know where he stands or a guy who has grown on both issues?

TURQUE: My conclusion was that the closer he got to competing for his party's nomination, the closer he went to the mainstream Democratic position on each of those issues. You know, I -- I -- it's hard. As you talk to people in the choice community, and they will say, look, he did struggle with this, this was a heartfelt sort of change of position. But you look at the record, and it's hard to -- it's hard to square that.

PRESS: I want to ask you, if I can, just two quick things. You know, Al Gore better than anybody. How would you rate him on, No. 1, intelligence, and No. 2, character?

TURQUE: You know, I think that -- significant intelligence, high intelligence, and a commitment, an unusual commitment to sort of master complicated issues: unusual for an elected official.

Character -- you know, I'm going to let the voters -- I'm going to let the voters make that assessment in November.

NOVAK: This is a guy, Bill, who gives very few interviews, I mean, in-depth interviews. He hasn't been on "Meet the Press" for a real interview since 1996. Can you believe that? I don't think he's ever been on CNN's LATE -- Sunday "LATE EDITION." I don't think he's ever been on CROSSFIRE.

PRESS: I was just going to say he hasn't been on CROSSFIRE.

TURQUE: I can't imagine why.

PRESS: He's invited.

NOVAK: He didn't give you an interview. Now, you know, to me, if he had given you an interview, you would have been obliged, obliged to put in a lot of his spin. He's a great spinner. Wouldn't you have been? If he gave you a.... TURQUE: I would have welcomed a chance to interview him, and certainly would have reflected the interview.

NOVAK: What does that show, that he wouldn't give you an interview?

TURQUE: Well, I think -- well, for openers, I think he was just very cautious about approaching a book project that he knew he couldn't really control editorially, particularly as he was headed into a presidential campaign. And beyond that, I mean, you'd have to ask him, because honestly we've never really discussed it.

NOVAK: I asked one of his close advisers the other day if he had read the book and was going to read it, and the answer was no and no. I -- I mean, to me, if I was working for Al Gore, the first thing I'd do is I'd -- I'd consume the book. I'd read the whole -- what does that tell you?

TURQUE: Well, I don't know who you were talking to. I've talked to other aides who say that -- that...

NOVAK: They have read it?

TURQUE: They have read it. And that he has asked a lot of questions, is curious about it, and probably will read it.

NOVAK: He can't read it himself?


TURQUE: Well, you know, he's a little distracted right now. He may have other reading on his nighttable. But I don't know, I would hope some day he reads it.

NOVAK: Do you -- do you think he's kind of a strange guy?

TURQUE: Strange? I don't know. I mean, who is strange and who isn't?

NOVAK: I mean, I'm not strange!


PRESS: Let's talk about definition here!

Bill, I hope he not only reads the book but inhales it.


Bill Turque, thank you for coming into CROSSFIRE. Good to have you here as a guest.

Bob Novak and I, we'll be back with closing comments on the mystery man, Al Gore.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) NOVAK: Bill, only you could turn an interview of a Gore biographer into a spin job in favor of the vice president. We're not going to talk about you. What I am going to talk about is this is a wonderful book, and believe me, believe me, I have read it all. And there are so many nuggets for the Republicans to use in this campaign, they ought to call this "Inventing a Gore Gold Mine."

PRESS: Well, I've read it all too, Bob, but I also want to point out, I've also read this book. You see how thin this one is, Bob? This is "Shrub" by Molly Ivins. This is about George Bush. The contrast -- this is so thin, Bob, because this is about Bush's record. Nuggets in here too, baby.

NOVAK: You know what the difference is: That's a hatchet job. This is an objective biography, and you can still use it against him.

PRESS: And you can still read it and be proud of Al Gore. He's grown, Bob.

From the left, I'm Bill Press. Have a good weekend. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Happy birthday, Mr. Vice President! Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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