Nearly a decade ago, just before Al Gore joined Bill Clinton on the 1992 ticket, I happened to spend a day with the young senator back home in Tennessee. I was a reporter for The Chattanooga Times and had been assigned to do a “day in the life” piece on Gore; we spent most of a Friday, as I recall, driving through the Sequatchie Valley, from town meetings and elementary school visits in places like Jasper and Dunlap. Lots of hands to shake, questions to answer, little towns to see, calls to return (we had to stop at a gas station to do that; this was still essentially a pre-cellular era). The senator had been promoting Earth in the Balance, which he actually wrote himself; was commuting between Washington and the state; and had his mind on the Earth Summit in Rio. It seemed a grueling pace, and I remember asking him how he juggled everything—the Senate, family, fund-raising, book writing. “You just keep after it,” the senator replied. “You don’t waste time.”

Al Gore has rarely frittered away a moment. The basics of his biography are familiar: the capital childhood in the Fairfax Hotel; the tough summers of farm work in Carthage; the diligent study at St. Albans and Harvard; the anguished choice to go to Vietnam; the years in the newsroom of The Tennessean; the decision to run for his father’s old House seat at the age of 28. Though his dad was only a senator and George W. Bush’s made it all the way to the White House, Gore has led the vastly more interesting political life, from listening to President Kennedy talk about the Cuban Missile Crisis to navigating conservative waters in the South at the apex of Ronald Reagan’s popularity. Yet the vice president is not merely a driven electoral automaton; he’s an intriguing human being. Together with Bill Turque’s excellent Inventing Al Gore, David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima’s The Prince of Tennessee sheds light on an important slice of modern American political history, for the rise of Al Gore is about more than a seemingly stiff Sunbelt boomer who might be president. It’s also a compelling (yes, compelling, not a word you often see associated with Gore) personal story of ambition, anxiety, and ambivalence unfolding amid the great events of our time: the Cold War, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the Reagan Revolution, and the Age of Clinton.

In the tradition of First in His Class, Maraniss’ magisterial biography of Clinton, The Prince of Tennessee began in the pages of The Washington Post, and it deftly carries the reader through the stages of Gore’s life. Expectations were high from the start. He was born on March 31, 1948, almost a decade after his sister Nancy. Pauline Gore said they “had almost despaired of having another child, much less a son” and thought of the baby as “kind of a miracle.” From then on, it seems, Al was essentially the center of the Gores’ world, both in the Fairfax and in Carthage during the summers. In his acceptance speech in Los Angeles a half century later, he tellingly noted that “when I was a child, it never once occurred to me that the foundation upon which my security depended would ever shake.”

The implications of that certitude are complicated, and in that apparent confidence lie the origins not just of Gore’s ambition (“We raised him for it,” his father said when Gore was nominated for vice president) but of his uneven public style (the tendency to lecture, the occasional stiffness). The sense of destiny is clear. It would have been hard not to think of politics as a career when you grew up in Suite 809 of the Fairfax, dropping water balloons on limousines waiting on Embassy Row and annoying Sen. John McClellan, who lived downstairs, every time you dribbled a basketball. “Official Washington,” the authors note, “was as much of a small town in its way as any backwater spot in Tennessee, with its own rituals and mores and circle of families.” And so young Al played in the Senate pool, sat on Vice President Nixon’s knee, and lived in a hotel where Robert Kennedy would dine downstairs at a back table in the Jockey Club with Cuban refugees.

A wonderful life, unimaginable to most Americans of his (or any) generation. But you can also see the beginnings of the cautious, sometimes overly formal Gore in those early days. He wasn’t particularly free to be a kid, or to screw up. This is a boy whose shopping trips to buy a bow and arrow with his dad ended up in the paper, and supper wasn’t just supper. “If we had important people,” Mrs. Gore later said of dinner parties in the suite, ” …I liked for Al to be able to be there. I selected guests for us; if it so happened there was a great guest who was a good conversationalist and the issue was proper for me and my son, then I would see if I could wedge Al in.”

Al was almost always surrounded by grown-ups, and learned early how to charm and impress. In this he shares a childhood legacy with Franklin Roosevelt, another beloved son of older parents who could get along with adults but had a harder time with his contemporaries. The boys at Groton thought the young FDR was affected and too eager to please. (His boisterous Oyster Bay cousins tartly referred to Franklin as “Miss Nancy.”) Maraniss and Nakashima paint a similar portrait of the young Gore. On a field trip to Andrews Air Force Base when Al was 10, the St. Albans bus broke down, and his classmates scampered around an open field while they waited for another. Young Gore approached a science teacher, Alexander Haslam, and solemnly asked: “Sir, is this the time to be rowdy?” Another teacher recalled Gore as “a dutiful son …It was almost unnatural for a boy to be that well behaved.” The other boys noticed, too. In his high-school yearbook the editors archly captioned a cartoon of Gore as a heroic statue with a quotation from Anatole France: “People with no weaknesses are terrible.”

There is another wrinkle here, too. As Turque and Evan Thomas wrote in the pre-Democratic National Convention issue of Newsweek, the Gores’ place in the Washington village was more precarious than legend would suggest. Voters are fickle, and the permanent capital culture in which former lawmakers continue to make their homes—and very comfortable livelihoods—in Washington even after being turned out at the polls did not take hold until the ’70s and ’80s. For the Gores, defeat might have meant a retreat from Massachusetts Avenue to Smith County. This is not to say that Sen. Gore was not a man of courage: he was, ultimately losing his seat in 1970 for championing civil rights and opposing the war in Vietnam. But he was a politician, and there were twists and turns on the road to his noble last stand. One example: While he bravely refused to sign the pro-segregationist Southern Manifesto in 1957, the senior Gore won re-election after voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act (a vote he later said he regretted, and he did support the Voting Rights Act a year later.) The lesson for young Al, who watched it all up close: Politics is an eternal struggle between the principled and the possible, and even good men sometimes make the wrong choice. The important thing is to stay in the arena, never getting too far ahead of the voters.

So Gore was raised in a world that was at once serene and slippery, which may help explain his formality and his weakness for boasting. Southerners—strangely, I think, given that five of the 10 postwar presidents have come from either the old Confederacy or a border state—remain insecure about their place in the larger world. That’s one reason why the Southern chapters of Ivy League alumni associations are so active, and that a Southerner is sometimes more likely to drop where he went to school (if it were, say, St. Paul’s and Yale) a bit more quickly than someone else might. Politicians from the old Confederacy share the same anxiety, and usually react one of two ways. On one end of the scale is Huey P. Long, the rumpled “Kingfish” of Louisiana who came from humble roots and never let you forget it. On the other is Cordell Hull, FDR’s secretary of state, who climbed out of obscurity in Tennessee and didn’t want you to know it. “Judge Hull,” Maraniss and Nakashima write, “was invariably formal and correct, as if to insist that he never be taken for a hillbilly from the hollows of middle Tennessee.” Gore Senior idolized Hull, and adopted “the same formal bearing for the same reason, but then slightly exaggerating it: always in a dark suit, white shirt, and tie; courtly, but rarely relaxed in public, little small talk or informality, always on, speaking in complete sentences full of Latin-rooted words, as if his thoughts were being recorded for history.” All these years distant, the son emulates Hull, too, and not just in terms of style: “Many of Hull’s basic political convictions—his belief in progressive taxation, internationalism, and free trade—were bequeathed to Albert Gore,” the authors note, “and then to son Al.”

The father gave the son all of that, and more. Young Gore’s interest in weapons of mass destruction had its beginnings in Sen. Gore’s fascination with the subject. One contemporary remembers spending a few days with Al at Harvard and hearing him talk about a trip of his father’s to a weapons storage facility where “as far as the eye could see there were canisters and tanks holding nerve gas and substances so deadly that an amount equal to an egg in the water supply could kill the whole world.” As the 1970 election neared, Al joined the Army and spent time in Vietnam. It was a difficult choice, and Maraniss and Nakashima record a conversation between Gore and Richard Neustadt, the Harvard presidential historian who had privately tutored the senator’s son. Al sought the professor out on the question of what to do about the war; Neustadt remembers telling him: “If you want to be part of the country 25 years from now, if you want any future in politics, you’ve got to serve.” Later, on the night Bill Brock defeated Gore Senior, the old man left the stage at Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel with the words: “The truth shall rise again.”

Nobody really doubted what the old senator meant. The son went to Vietnam, returned to Nashville, worked for John Seigenthaler’s newspaper, dabbled at divinity and law at Vanderbilt. Much has been made—chiefly by Gore himself—about his disillusionment with politics in the early ’70s, and there’s no question that in November 1970 he was not quite ready to step into his role as family avenger. On the other hand, he was just 22, and only six years would pass before Seigenthaler would call him with the news that would change his, and Tipper’s, life forever. Dad’s old House seat was open. Gore hung up, turned to his wife and said, “I’m going to run for Congress,” then dropped to the floor to do push-ups. Tipper, who had no inkling this was coming, was stunned. “I wanted to faint,” she said later. “They would have to bring me back with smelling salts.” Her ambivalence about politics would not diminish with the years. On the eve of the 2000 convention in Los Angeles, after a quarter century in public life, including eight years as the wife of the vice president of the United States, Mrs. Gore told Newsweek that “the campaign is a very important part of my life, but it’s something that’s happening in my life. It’s not my life.”

The young Al Gore was different, not only from his father but from the young man he’d become in his early and mid-20s. Gone was the searching Harvard intellectual, gone was the crusading reporter, gone was the son of a liberal senator. Gore and another young politician making a race that year, Arkansas’ Bill Clinton, sensed that this was not the moment for progressive rhetoric. Ronald Reagan was running well in the Republican primaries, and Jimmy Carter, a conservative Democrat, would only barely defeat President Ford in November. As Clinton put it, “Our people generally are in a conservative mood.” When Gore asked a childhood friend from Carthage, Steve Armistead, for advice, his old pal went straight to the point: “I’ve got two things to tell ya,” he said. “Get a haircut and buy some clothes.” According to Maraniss and Nakashima, “In an instant, it seemed to the others, Gore had three new blue suits, new shirts, new shoes, no stringy sideburns, shorn hair, a new residence (moving from a Nashville apartment replete with beaded curtains and a waterbed to a suburban ranch house on 88 acres across the Caney Fork from his parents).”His positions underwent a parallel makeover. The Gore of 1976 was anti-abortion rights, pro-gun, and called homosexuality “abnormal.” He would move, slowly but steadily, back to the middle and to the left as the ’80s and ’90s wore on, but the lesson of that early race stuck: do what it takes to win.

Clinton’s and Gore’s paths would not really cross again in a meaningful way until 1992, when the longtime Arkansas governor chose the Tennessee senator to run with him. Gore drove a hard bargain, asking for, and getting, “spheres of interest” within the administration. He’s been an eager veep, driven by the same ambition that fueled him from his earliest days. His aides, write Maraniss and Nakashima, “sensed in him an overpowering need to prove to Clinton that he had made the right choice, that he could offer invaluable help, compelling him to attend every meeting, master every issue, keep abreast of every personnel decision, and prove that he was at least the second smartest person in the room.” The book reports that “Gore was near the doorway of the Oval Office when Clinton told him that he did not have sex with Monica Lewinsky. As soon as Clinton turned around, a look of disbelief crossed the vice president’s face.” Yet he stuck to the script and stood by his man. For Gore, a more important story was unfolding in 1998—his father lay dying in Tennessee. When the end finally came, in December of that dark political year, Gore was by his father’s side. “Always do right,” the old senator whispered as he slipped away.

It was a hectic time, and Maraniss and Nakashima close their account with the voice of Steve Armistead, the old Carthage pal who sensed that his father’s death, the scandal in Washington, and the coming presidential campaign were aging his friend. “On the phone, I could just tell by the tone the condition he was in,” Armistead says. “He was at the house and Miz Pauline was hollerin’ at him to come and eat. You could tell by the sound of his voice that he hadn’t had time.” Yet Al Gore kept after it, and isn’t wasting a moment. His father would be proud.

Jon Meacham, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, is Newsweek’s managing editor.

Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham is a biographer who holds the Rogers Chair in the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University. He was an editor at the
Washington Monthly from 1993 to 1994.