In the foothills of middle Tennessee there is a little village called Difficult. Whatever hardship that place name was meant to convey, it could not match the resigned lament of the nearby hamlet of Defeated, nor the ache of lonesomeness evoked by a settlement known as Possum Hollow. It was that kind of land, isolated and unforgiving, if hauntingly beautiful, for the farmers and small merchants who settled the region, families of Scots-Irish and Anglo-Irish descent named Hackett and Woodard, Key and Pope, Gibbs and Scurlock, Beasley and Huffines, Silcox and Gore.
For generations one old road, Highway 70, was the main road west and the best way out, weaving through the hills of the Upper Cumberland past the county seats of Carthage and Lebanon and across the barrens of rock and cedar and flat cactus to the capital city of Nashville. Albert Arnold Gore, then a young superintendent of schools in rural Smith County, regularly drove that route in the early 1930s to study at the YMCA night law school, and to loiter at the coffee shop of the nearby Andrew Jackson Hotel, pining for a brilliant young waitress named Pauline LaFon who would forgo her own law career to become his wife and adviser and, some say, his brains.
Now on the morning of December 8, 1998, the whole Gore family was retracing that original journey, traveling west to Nashville through a dreary gray mist. Al Gore Jr. made the trip in a limousine, braced by his mother, his wife, Tipper, and their four children. His father, the former United States senator who gave Al his name and his life's profession, rode ahead as usual this one last time, at the front of the funeral cortege, his body resting within a solid cherry casket inside a black Sayers and Scoville hearse.
Keep up, son! Keep up! The elder Gore used to bark out as he strode briskly down the sidewalks of Carthage or the corridors of the Capitol with young Al, never slowing to a child's pace, determined to teach his boy that the race went to the swift. His race was at long last done. He had died three days earlier at age ninety in a way that any father might wish to go: in his own bed in the big house on the hill above the cold Caney Fork River, his wife of sixty-one years at his side, his only son, vice president of the United States, holding his hand for the final six hours. Senator Gore, as he was commonly known, seemed to linger long enough for the arranging of all that needed to be arranged and the saying of everything that needed to be said. Carthage folks had become accustomed to his occasional bouts of befuddlement in his final years, yet he seemed sentient at the end, and his last words of fatherly advice -- "Always do right," he reportedly whispered -- might have been uttered with posterity in mind. But what was the meaning of the old man's life? That was the question the son grappled with as he rode west through the mist down the ancestral highway, occasionally reading something aloud as he revised the text of a eulogy he had composed on his laptop computer.
He had been at it for twenty-eight and a half hours straight, since four on the morning before when he bolted out of bed and began rummaging through a drawer in the predawn darkness, gathering up loose scraps of paper that he had been tossing in there for weeks, usually after returning from his father's bedside. On each crumpled page he had scribbled a few words that represented something more, a family folk tale or serious political theme -- scraps of paper that, if pieced together, might bring ninety years back to life. He had taken them out once before, but it was too soon after his father's death, and he could think of nothing, not even an outline. The second time, as he sat at the dining room table of his farmhouse retreat across the river from his parents' place, the words began pouring out. My father was the greatest man I ever knew in my life, he began, and he kept writing past dawn and through breakfast and lunch until seven that night, when, as he later recalled, he "showered and shaved and grabbed a bite to eat and went down to the funeral home for the wake and stood in line and shook hands with the people."
Two hours later he was back at the table, writing through the night without feeling tired, until 8:30 the next morning when he packed up his computer, showered and dressed again, and got his family ready for the trip to Nashville for the first memorial service. That Al Gore had pulled an all-nighter was characteristic in one sense. Going back to his prep school days at St. Albans in Washington, when he would persuade classmates to cram for midterm exams while devouring hamburgers past midnight at the twenty-four-hour Little Tavern on Connecticut Avenue, he had shown a propensity for avoiding some subjects until finally focusing on them with seemingly inexhaustible energy. But this eulogy represented more than another essay test. Funerals honor the dead but tend to reveal more about the living. In trying to tell the world who his father was and what he meant to him, Al Gore was explaining his sense of self as well; doubling back on his father's life, he unavoidably encountered many of the markings of his own unfinished biography.
Only two words on a scrap of paper were needed to remind Gore of a story he had to include in the eulogy: Old Peg. This was the tale his father told more than any other, embroidering it through the years with ever more vivid and piteous details, and though by the end Old Peg seemed more comic fable than historical account, the moral revealed something about the early motivations of Senator Gore and the ambition that he passed down to his son.
The year is 1920 and Albert Gore has just finished eighth grade, an age when many farm children quit their formal schooling. He lives with his parents, Allen and Margie, along with his siblings and an orphaned cousin on a farm in Possum Hollow about fifteen miles from Carthage at the edge of Smith County. The Gores moved there when Albert was five, coming down from the Upper Cumberland hills near Granville. Albert has been obsessed with fiddle music for years, so much so that his classmates call him Music Gore. He has his own $5 fiddle and one night there is a hoedown at his parents' house and musicians venture down from the neighboring hills, among them a one-legged traveling mandolin player named Old Peg, who stays the night.
Albert is mesmerized by Old Peg, and the next morning helps hitch up the harness for his horse and buggy. "Each time he told this story, the buggy grew more dilapidated," Al Gore, in his eulogy, said of his father's version of the tale. "Before long it had no top; the harness was mostly baling wire and binding twine. He counted that scrawny horse's ribs a thousand times for me and my sister, and then counted them many more times for his grandchildren." All leading up to the punch line: As they watch sorry Old Peg and his sad-sack horse and crumbling buggy ramble down the road and out of hearing range, Allen Gore, known for being a dead-serious man, puts his arm around his son and deadpans, "There goes your future, Albert."
The difficult life, if not defeated. In retelling the story at his father's funeral, Al Gore used it not just as a reminder of a road not taken, but of the distance this branch of the Gore family had traveled in one generation to reach the heights of national power. People looking at Al Gore today see a product of the American upper crust: a presidential contender born in Washington, reared in a top-floor suite of a hotel along Embassy Row, his father a senator, his mother trained in law, the high-achieving parents grooming their prince for political success at the finest private schools in the East. It was as though his entire future had been laid out in front of him on the direct route he took to school as an adolescent, 1.9 miles up the hill of Massachusetts Avenue from the Fairfax Hotel to St. Albans, passing on the left along the way the grounds of the Naval Observatory, where he would live as vice president.
All true enough, yet misleading if considered without the prologue in Tennessee. Gore's father could find poetry in the hardship stories of his early days in Possum Hollow, recalling droughts so bad that they had to cut down trees to let cattle suck moisture from the leaves, but most of the romance was in the telling, not the living. He was determined to escape. "There was but one way to go from Possum Hollow -- that was up and out," he once said. "You couldn't get out except by going up, and once you got out, you still were pretty far down that pole." What is it that lifts people from provincial obscurity? Luck seemed barely a factor in the case of Albert Gore. His father, a strict disciplinarian, first placed his hopes in the oldest son, Reginald, but he had gone off to fight in World War I and came home incapacitated, one lung destroyed by mustard gas, leaving the family's future to Albert, who was twelve years younger but precociously eager. The "ethyl in my gasoline," as he once described it, was an intense pride in achievement, something that first overtook him at the end of the first week of first grade when his teacher in the one-room schoolhouse in Possum Hollow praised him for mastering the alphabet in five days. He hungered for that sensation again and again, and that is what led him toward education and law and politics -- and out of Possum Hollow.
During his late teens he was the only member of his generation from Possum Hollow to go to college, attending the state teachers school in Murfreesboro, while also hauling livestock to market, raising a tobacco crop, and selling radios door-to-door for the furniture man in Carthage. He began teaching, long before he had a degree, over in a one-room schoolhouse amid the hollows of Overton County in a place known informally as Booze, and soon became principal in a community closer to Carthage called Pleasant Shade, living where he could, sometimes in the homes of his students, who took to calling him Professor. He thought of himself first as a teacher from then on, always looking for lessons to pass along, a pedagogical style that his son inherited, for better and worse. Albert loved the sound of his own mellifluous Tennessee mountain voice and seemed enthralled by the art of speechmaking, which he had been practicing since his Possum Hollow childhood. They would be working the fields and his father would turn around and Albert had disappeared and they would find him "on a stump somewhere speaking to an imaginary crowd," recalled Donald Lee Hackett, an old family friend.
The first politician Al Gore mentioned in the eulogy to his father was a former congressman from middle Tennessee who "made all the families in this part of the country proud" by becoming secretary of state under Franklin D. Roosevelt and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. For anyone seeking to understand the origins of Gore's political personality, routinely characterized as stiff and oddly formal, there are clues to be found in the direct line that traces back through the family to their political hero, Cordell Hull. During Hull's teenage years in the Upper Cumberland hills, he often "ran the river" with Allen Gore, floating logs down the Caney Fork and Cumberland toward Nashville and taking a steamboat back. Albert Gore grew up hearing his father's stories about those days and watching Hull's political rise, and wanted nothing more than to be like him. When he was teaching in Pleasant Shade he often drove twelve miles down to Carthage at the end of the day if he heard that the congressman -- Judge Hull to his constituents -- was back in town. After sifting through his mail while eating a late lunch, Hull would sit under a shade tree on the front lawn of the Smith County Courthouse and talk with the checkers players. Albert Gore, hovering close by, listened intently and came away "greatly impressed."
Many of Hull's basic political convictions -- his belief in progressive taxation, internationalism, and free trade -- were bequeathed to Albert Gore, and then to son Al, but also notable was the style that was passed along as well. Hull's public manner 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 consciously modeled himself after Hull, adopting the same formal bearing for the same reason, but then slightly exaggerating it: always in 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. In the eulogy, Al Gore took wistful note of this last trait, saying that he "always marveled" at his father's vocabulary and archaic pronunciations -- "for example, instead of 'woond,' he always said 'wownd.' " Others viewed it as a symptom of grandiosity, someone trying too hard to impress. "He did try to compensate for perceived inferiority to a degree," said historian Kyle Longley. "He went out of his way oftentimes to use very SAT language -- the only time you see those words is on the SAT [exam]." During Albert Gore's later days in the Senate, colleague Robert Kerr of Oklahoma stopped a committee hearing and said, "Wait a minute, Albert, what did you say?" Gore repeated a seldom-uttered word, prompting Kerr to direct an aide to bring him a dictionary so he could look it up on the spot.
The senator from Tennessee was not to be treated like a country bumpkin. His colleague Birch Bayh said that with his shock of premature white hair and stately bearing, Gore "looked like a Roman senator -- all he needed was a toga." Bernard Rappoport, a Texas financier who befriended progressive southern Democrats in Congress, called them all by their first names when he visited their offices on Capitol Hill, with one exception. "It was always Senator Gore. He demanded to be treated like a statesman." This formality at times was taken for aloofness. Francis Valeo, who served as secretary of the Senate during Gore Senior's three terms there, described him in an oral history as "a very egotistical man" who "sort of lived in his own world." Jesse Nichols, a librarian on the Senate Finance Committee and the first black appointed to a clerical position in the Senate, recalled that "Senator Gore used to come in and out of the clear blue sky he would say, 'Jesse, bring me a Coca-Cola.' " Other members of the committee, Nichols remembered, would put money in the kitty for him to buy coffee and sparkling water. But "Senator Gore would ask time after time for a Coca-Cola. So one time, Senator Kerr and I were in the room together, and I told him, 'Senator, he asks for a Coca-Cola as if I'm a daggumbed servant -- and he hasn't put nothing in the kitty!' "
If there was a bit of the Senator Claghorn archetype in old man Gore, who considered his every utterance profound, he was his own man, not the creation of staff. "The staff could help him get the mail together, but when it came time to voting, he took care of himself," said one longtime aide, Jack Robinson Sr. "If you saw a vote up there 94 to 2, you knew he might be one of the two." Gore never had a press secretary, and for decades made the rounds of the galleries, dropping off press releases himself. He also had the touch of country common sense. When much of America was shaken by the Russian success with the first Sputnik satellite in 1957, Gore was part of a small delegation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that toured the Soviet Union. Upon his return, Robinson asked him whether he was impressed by the rival superpower's scientific prowess. "Jack Robinson," said Gore, shaking his head. "They don't build things plumb over there!"
And despite his tendency toward public pomposity, there was an occasional exuberance to Albert Gore that came out mostly when he was telling stories in Tennessee, or showing off at the center of a crowd, or playing his fiddle. The tale of Old Peg may have been a cautionary tale to his son, but it also captured the depth of his love for fiddling. When he arrived in Washington and began living the congressional life, he put the instrument down, but only after his wife, the more sophisticated Pauline, beseeched him to, saying that fiddling was beneath a statesman's dignity. But back when he first ran for Congress in 1938, he was seen strolling up and down the streets of his home district like a pied piper, trying to persuade local musicians to come along and join his campaign. Donald Lee Hackett, a singer and guitar player with the Roving Trio, heard the pitch and went on the trail with Gore, sometimes bringing his band. "I pulled a right mean bow at that time," Gore once recalled. Perhaps too mean, by Hackett's account. Gore, he said, was such an energetic fiddler that he could not find the beat. "He couldn't keep time at all when he started out. I told him to listen to the rhythm and not get thrown off too much. He really liked to put on a show, and he'd get all out of time, rolling up the bow and jumping around."
For the most part, even, or especially, when he was dealing with his son, Senator Gore maintained a serious reserve. Al's childhood friends in both Carthage and Washington were struck by what Bart Day, who attended St. Albans and Harvard with him, called "the formality of their relationship." The father, Day remembered, "spoke in a very sonorous tone, and it seemed to be the same way with Al." Donna Armistead, Al's Carthage girlfriend in his teenage years, noticed that his demeanor would harden abruptly and a stoical look would wash over his face when he was around the old man. "His father would want him to listen and he would want to impress Al and it was kind of a battle back and forth," Armistead said. "Like, 'Hey, Dad, have you heard this?' And the father was, 'Why, yes, son, let's discuss that.' The stoicness would come through then." James Fleming, a Nashville doctor who was a college friend of Al's older sister, Nancy, described it as "the worst thing in the world" to get trapped in a conversation with Gore father and son. "One day I had to sit on the back porch up in Carthage with Albert and Al, and you know they don't talk baseball and they don't talk about sex or girls, they talk about issues and politics and things that ordinary people have no interest in whatsoever, so it was very difficult to be included in that," Fleming said, using a touch of hyperbole to make his point. "Every now and then they'd ask, 'So what do you think of the Federal Reserve?' I wasn't up for the Federal Reserve. It was awful!"
That is not to say that the son became a duplicate of his father's personality. Few have accused the younger Gore of loving the sound of his own voice. Nor, on the other hand, did he develop his father's maverick flair. Gore Senior's aura of independence, which allowed him to break away from his more conservative southern Democratic colleagues on issues of race and oil tax breaks and the Vietnam War, was stimulated, he once said, by his isolated childhood in Possum Hollow, "where every boy was pretty well on his own out in the woods and on the lonesome hills." There was no comparable experience in young Al's formative days, especially not at St. Albans, where the emphasis was not on independence but on a sense of team. But the son did carry his father's formality into public life, a character trait accentuated by something detected by Charles Bartlett, the veteran political reporter from Chattanooga who observed Tennessee politicians for more than six decades. From Gore Senior to Gore Junior, there was one telltale physical sign of the culture of the Upper Cumberland, coming down through the genes, Bartlett believed: "It's the eyes. The one way he is most like his father is that he does have that distant look in his eye. It's a mountain thing. It's the look of people who don't quite trust anybody. I see that distant look in Al and it reminds me of his father."
Bartlett found a touch of pathos in Albert Gore's hard eyes: They seemed to predetermine his fate. "It was kind of sad in a way with Senior," Bartlett said. "His ambition exceeded his personality. And he paid a price for that ambition." The price-paying Bartlett alluded to came first in 1956, when Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee, opened the vice presidential nomination to the floor of national delegates and Senator Gore eagerly volunteered himself, challenging his home-state colleague, Estes Kefauver, who had been a presidential candidate and was favored for the vice presidential nomination. In his eulogy, Al Gore used his father's vice presidential aspirations as a joke line. After reading a quote in which Gore Senior reflected that he never truly lusted for the presidency, but "there were times when the vice presidency seemed extremely attractive," the son added dryly, "Now that's humility."
Al was eight years old during the 1956 convention. He watched it at the farmhouse of Gordon (Goat) Thompson, a childhood friend whose parents oversaw the Gore farm just off old Highway 70 on the southern rim of Carthage. Young Al sat transfixed in the Thompsons' living room near the coal fireplace, staring at the black and white set while his father, behind the scenes in Chicago, worked himself into a frenzy the likes of which no one had seen before from the stately senator. "He went wild," remembered Bartlett. In trying to plead his case to Texans Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn, he was almost unrecognizable, according to an LBJ Library oral interview with George Reedy, a former Johnson aide. "A man came running up to us, his face absolutely distorted....His eyes were glimmering. He was mumbling something that sounded like 'Where is Lyndon? Where is Lyndon? Adlai's thrown this open, and I think I've got a chance for it if I can only get Texas. Where is Lyndon?' And we suddenly realized we were talking to Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee," Reedy recalled. "I have never seen before or since such a complete, total example of a man so completely and absolutely wild with ambition, it had literally changed his features."
Senator Gore was overwhelmed by the prospect of national renown, but his inflated notion did not last long. It was punctured by a man who was normally his ally, Silliman Evans Jr., publisher of the Nashville Tennessean. Newspapers in Tennessee were lined up across an ideological divide in that era. On the conservative side stood the Nashville Banner, Knoxville Journal, and Memphis Commercial-Appeal. On the liberal side were the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Memphis Press-Scimitar, and above all the Tennessean, a potent force in state politics, having helped defeat the political machine headed by Edward H. Crump, the conservative Memphis insurance man who controlled Tennessee politics for two decades. The Tennessean staunchly supported progressive Democrats, and had a personal link to Gore, whose sister-in-law was the publisher's secretary. But the political ties were even closer to Kefauver, who reached the Senate in 1948, four years ahead of Gore. Not only had Kefauver arrived first, but many liberals believed that the coonskin-capped, shambling intellectual had shown more courage in confronting the state's reactionaries. For Gore to challenge him now was seen by some as an act of family treachery, made worse by the fact that his firmest support seemed to come from his erstwhile enemies, the Dixiecrats. Between the second and third ballots, Evans found Gore near the convention floor, grabbed him by the lapels, and thundered: "You son of a bitch, my father helped make you and I can help break you! If you don't get out of this race, you'll never get the Tennessean's support for anything again, not even dog catcher." Gore backed down.
The man who prevailed instead, Estes Kefauver, is in his own way as central to the Gore political story as Cordell Hull. Hull was the prototype, Kefauver the antitype, not in ideology, where they were similar, both southern liberals, but in political personality, where they were near opposites. In examining the image problems of Al Gore Jr., there is a generational parallel to consider: Kefauver was to the father what Bill Clinton is to the son.
Kefauver's eyes were as soft as Gore's were hard. That those eyes might have been softened by excessive alcohol (Albert, in contrast, did not drink) was less important on a superficial level than the fact that they seemed inviting and friendly, not distancing. If Kefauver became perhaps too close to some of his female constituents, as historians later documented, his ability to connect on a personal basis with the average voter was striking, and in direct contrast with Albert Gore. "Everybody always tried to befriend Estes and to look after him, particularly women, because he was always bumbling around," recalled Jim Sasser, the former senator who as a young man worked in the campaigns of both Kefauver and Albert Gore. Sasser would long remember the day when he drove Kefauver through the little Tennessee town of Gallatin. "There were three garbage workers on the side of the road, all black, collecting garbage. Nobody in the car except myself and Estes. 'Stop the car!' he says. So he got out of the car and walked back to all three of those garbage workers and chatted with them and he came back and I said, 'Senator, just out of curiosity, why did you want to talk to those fellows?' He said, 'Well, those fellows don't have much to look forward to and talking to a senator, that probably would make their month.' "
Kefauver understood, as Bill Clinton later did, the powerful effect that a soft personal touch could have on voters. Whenever he traveled in Tennessee, Kefauver made sure that an aide was walking directly behind him, whispering into his ear the names and histories of people coming toward him, whom the senator then greeted as long-lost friends. Another member of his Senate staff did nothing but read local papers from back home and clip notices of funerals, births, weddings, beauty pageants, 4-H contests -- all of which would elicit a personal note from the senator, addressed informally on a first-name basis and invariably signed with the warm scrawl of "Estes." Ted Brown, an Atlanta lawyer who once worked for Albert Gore and spent a year at the University of Tennessee cataloguing Kefauver's political papers, was struck by the different approaches of the two men. "Gore was a lot more formal. He rarely sent those types of letters out, and if he did they would always be addressed to Miss So-and-So and signed 'Albert Gore,' " Brown noted. "I asked him one time if he had ever thought about doing something similar to what Senator Kefauver had done, and he said, 'No, I don't know those people.' Kefauver's perspective was, 'I don't know them but I need to know them.' " Another story captured the contrast between the two men, according to Wayne Whitt, a veteran political reporter at the Tennessean. "It was said that if you asked Gore Senior how he felt about an issue like admitting Red China to the U.N., he would still be answering thirty minutes later, whereas Kefauver would simply say, 'What do you think?' "
Perhaps it was more style than substance, more image than reality, but with the father and Kefauver as with his son and Clinton, the contrast in personalities tended to work against the Gores, accentuating the aura of distance conveyed by their eyes.
They say opposites attract, Al Gore wrote in the eulogy to his father, explaining the marriage of his parents. Pauline LaFon, a descendant of Huguenots, or French Protestants, shared some characteristics with Albert Gore. Like him, she came out of relative poverty in the provincial south and believed from an early age that circumstances could not deter her. But she was more sophisticated and politically savvy than her husband. "Pauline was the brains and Albert was the pretty blond," is how one former Tennessee journalist put it, stretching the reality to make the point. No one familiar with the family disputes the idea that Albert would not have gone nearly as far in life without her. Once, according to family lore, Pauline became so exasperated with her husband that she said, "I think I'll leave."
"Why, that's a good idea," Albert responded. "I believe I'll go with you."
Tennessee is so diverse and wide (Mountain City in the northeast is closer to points in Canada than to Memphis) that until recent years it was regarded internally as three separate jurisdictions, known as Grand Divisions: east Tennessee, middle Tennessee, and west Tennessee. Each division had its own geography, history, economics, politics, and culture. Pauline LaFon came out of the west. She was born in the small town of Palmersville and moved in early adolescence to Jackson when her father Walter L. LaFon, disabled by an arm infection, gave up his country store and took a job with the highway department dispensing gasoline tickets to road crews and highway patrolmen. Her mother, Maude, tended a vegetable garden and rented rooms to boarders. Maude was an orphan from Paragould, Arkansas, who had been only sixteen when she married Walter, then working in Arkansas on a railroad crew. Word of their teenage union spread through town like this: What kind of man did Maude get? She didn't get a man at all, she got a slick-faced kid!
They produced six children, and the three girls, who came first, Verlie Mae, Thelma, and Pauline, were encouraged by their father to compete in the male-oriented society. The early feminist streak in Pauline's father was said to arise from an inheritance battle that traced back another generation, to when his mother was denied land she felt was rightly hers but was given instead to her brothers "because they were supposedly strong and could grow things on the land and women couldn't." Though not a lawyer, Pauline's father tried to help his mother in a long court battle, and he spoke of the injustice frequently at the LaFon dinner table -- "fuming," as Pauline later recalled, "about women not being allowed to do some things men could do." All three of his daughters eventually went to college, including Thelma, who was legally blind and wrote on a special Braille typewriter.
Pauline attended Union College in Jackson, but felt uncomfortably restricted by cultural expectations. "There were so few things that were interesting to me that were open to women," she said later. "I didn't want to be a nurse. I didn't want to be a teacher. I didn't want to be a secretary." While working in a restaurant in Jackson to pay for her tuition, she had an epiphany. Most of the customers she served were lawyers, and all of them were men. She listened to their conversations, found them interesting, and concluded that she certainly could do anything they could do. So she borrowed $100 from the Rotary Club of Jackson and rode the bus to Nashville to attend Vanderbilt law school, where she became the tenth female graduate. She paid back the loan by again waiting on tables, at night at the Andrew Jackson coffee shop. One of her regular customers was Albert Gore, the evening law student who was stoking up on caffeine before making the drive back to Carthage on old Highway 70. Albert could not get enough of Pauline, with her handsome cheekbones and piercing blue eyes and strong but comforting bearing. "He'd stay over sometimes and see that I got home all right, which was just a couple of blocks away," she recalled. "That went on almost the whole three years we were in law school."
They took the bar exam together and then Pauline endured one unsatisfying year practicing law in Texarkana, a half-state away from Albert, who was launching his political career as state commissioner of labor, an influential post for progressive action in those New Deal days. On May 15, 1937, they slipped away to Tompkinsville, Kentucky, and got married. There was a certain mystery to the ceremony. Their families were not there, and a handwritten notation on the certificate directed that news of the marriage not be published. Perhaps the secrecy was prompted by another fact revealed on the certificate -- that Pauline had been married once before and divorced, a part of her early life that she never again wanted to discuss. Once they were married, Albert and Pauline Gore seemed to meld perfectly. "They weren't two people, they were one," said Louise Gore, a second cousin whose father, Grady Gore, had grown up with Albert in Possum Hollow. "They were as close as two people could be." In his eulogy, Al Gore said that "of all the lessons" he learned from his father, "perhaps the most powerful was the way he loved my mother. He respected her as an equal, if not more."
Here was another contrast with Bill Clinton, who sat among the mourners at Albert Gore's memorial service in Nashville. Clinton grew up with an alcoholic stepfather who abused his mother; he reacted by trying to become a peacemaker, constantly seeking to soothe or conceal the rough edges, and to go out into the world to achieve and redeem the family. Gore, on the other hand, said that his parents' strong marriage allowed him to grow up "secure and confident" that his needs would be met. While his parents expected much of him and instilled in him fierce competitive instincts, he never seemed driven, as Clinton so clearly was, to win the approval of strangers. He had a high enough opinion of himself.
Soon after joining forces with Albert, who announced for Congress within a year of their marriage, Pauline decided to put aside her own law career and channel her considerable talents into the rise of the Gore family. "I was interested in everything he was doing and we were very ambitious -- for both of us," she explained. She traveled with her husband, polished his speeches, spoke as his stand-in without hesitation, and talked policy with him at the dinner table, usually pushing him to be more liberal (her politics were modeled after Eleanor Roosevelt's, for whom she worked answering letters during the 1930s). While Albert had the instinctive ambition, that wild-eyed look that LBJ's boys noticed, Pauline always knew what to do with it. "Albert had a real good woman that was driving him," said Whit LaFon, Pauline's brother, who became a judge in west Tennessee. "She stayed on his duster." After her husband had spent sixteen years in the House, Pauline encouraged him to reach higher and run for the Senate against the Democratic incumbent, Kenneth D. McKellar, the ancient and powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
As they traveled around the state that summer of 1952, the Gores noticed placards tacked to trees, utility poles, and vacant storefronts declaring Thinking Feller Vote for McKellar. "I found it repeated every time I turned a curve, and by word of mouth," Gore later recalled. "I saw we had to get an answer to that. So Mrs. Gore and I came home one Saturday night after a hard day of campaigning and she cleaned off the kitchen table and made a pot of coffee and said, 'Albert, sit down here. Here's the pencil. Here's the paper. I'll get a pencil and paper. We've got to answer that placard.' So we wrote doggerels and rhymes and riddles and finally came to one we thought would work. So we got our country printer up early the next morning and ran a bunch of placards answering that of the opposition. And on Monday morning my friends started fanning out over the state. Wherever they found one of those Thinking Feller Vote for McKellar signs they tacked one just beneath it which read Think Some More and Vote for Gore."
Where Albert tended to go his own way, Pauline mixed more easily with people, reflecting the cultural differences between the lonesome hills of middle Tennessee and the southern flatlands of the west, where social graces were more valued. "She was always trying to calm Albert down," remembered Charles Bartlett. As she once put it, "I tried to persuade Albert not to butt at a stone wall just for the sheer joy of butting." Although her politics were liberal, she did not have a maverick personality, "and she transferred that [caution] to Al," said historian Longley. Along with her softer edges, she possessed a keener sense of the political world. She was constantly "looking out from behind for the guys with the knives," according to David Halberstam, who covered the Gores for the Tennessean early in his journalism career. "She was smarter, tougher, more calculating." If Al Gore took his formality, his distant eyes, and his pedagogical style from his father, his political instincts came more from his mother. "You have to understand Pauline to know Al Junior," said Bartlett. "She was the leavening influence."
The old man was always teaching, his son said in the eulogy. "And I thank God he taught me to love justice. Not everyone was eager to learn. One unreconstructed constituent once said, in reference to African-Americans -- though that was not the term he used -- 'I don't want to eat with them, I don't want to live with them, and I don't want my kids to go to school with them.' To which my father replied gently, 'Do you want to go to heaven with them?' After a brief pause came the flustered response: 'No, I want to go to hell with you and Estes Kefauver.' "
In the political narrative of the family Gore, stories of race appear regularly, often in the form of little morality plays. Gore Senior entered politics at a time when Jim Crow segregation was still a bitter fact of life in the south, and though he was considered a moderate, his positions on race were complicated by the political realities of that time and place. He voted against the imposition of a poll tax in 1942, but there were relatively few blacks in his congressional district in middle Tennessee then, especially in contrast to the Memphis region to the west, which was controlled by Boss Crump's Democratic machine. As venal as Crump's operation was, it included blacks in the power base, spreading money to handpicked black leaders to control the vote. So when Albert Gore and other reformers took on the Crump machine, they also ran the danger of alienating powerful black leaders in Memphis.
The Gores personally felt the evils of segregation during the long car trips they began making in 1939 between Carthage and Washington after Albert was elected to Congress. They took along a black nanny, Ocie Bell Hunt, to look after their young daughter, Nancy. On the first drive, according to historian Tony Badger, they could find no rest rooms for Hunt to use and had an exhausting time searching for a motel that would lodge an interracial traveling party. Finally they came upon a little motel in east Tennessee that would allow the Gores and Hunt to stay overnight, provided they arrived after dark and left before the other guests in the morning. The trips continued in this humiliating fashion year after year, until well after Al Gore Jr. came along. He later said that he thought he had some early memory of those incidents, but realized that perhaps he merely remembered being told the same stories so many times. "That was a key lesson in injustice that was being driven home," he said. "And it was reinforced by frequent commentary from my parents."
Racial injustice was a common theme in the conversations of Pauline Gore. Friends say she was the one who fed the family's convictions, her west Tennessee roots giving her more of a deep personal witness to racism. When Nancy was old enough, Pauline urged her and a friend to read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and then had them read it again until the theme was etched in their memories. The ideal of a southern lawyer committed to principles of truth and justice that transcended race and prejudice was one that Mrs. Gore thought "really hit at the heart of the whole matter," recalled Nancy Fleming, the daughter's friend. Pauline's sensibility was unusual among her peers: She often recounted the time during the 1940s when she addressed a black acquaintance by the title "Mrs." instead of a condescending first name, and was struck by the look of horror that simple act brought to the face of another Tennessee congressman's wife.
Of all the decisions made by Senator Gore during his long career in Washington, one dramatic act of rejection established his reputation as a supporter of civil rights. It came on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1956, when colleague Strom Thurmond of South Carolina approached his desk with a copy of a segregationist document opposing the federal effort to desegregate southern schools and said, "Albert, we'd like you to sign the Southern Manifesto with the rest of us." The entire southern press corps had been alerted ahead of time and looked down on the scene from the balcony. Senator Gore, his voice rising so loud that he was certain he could be heard in the press gallery, grandly declared "Hell no!" and brushed Thurmond and the document away. He later called the Southern Manifesto "spurious, inane, insulting" and "the most unvarnished piece of demagoguery" he had ever encountered. It does not lessen the importance of his denunciation of the manifesto to point out that Gore was joined in opposition by his colleague from Tennessee, Kefauver, and that the senator's most powerful friends back home, including the editors at the Nashville Tennessean, also opposed the racist proposition and would have criticized him had he done anything else.
With every gesture Gore made in support of civil rights came a mailbag of angry letters from segregationists. One year after denouncing the manifesto, he voted for the 1957 Civil Rights Act and further enraged some constituents by nominating two young black students from Memphis for appointment to the Air Force Academy. "I was literally astounded to read that you had appointed two Negroes" to the academy, wrote one voter who called himself the senator's friend. "It appears that some of your staff must have slipped up very badly to make such a mistake as this." While politely thanking the letter writer for "calling this matter to my attention," Gore noted that Selective Service boards did not take race into consideration when calling young men for the draft and so "it had not occurred to me that I should do so" in the case of the Air Force Academy.
After the memorial service in Nashville, the funeral cortege turned back toward Carthage, traveling east through the mist not on old Highway 70 but along Interstate 40, the other main road in the life of the Gore family. Al Gore had planned the return route -- what he called his father's "last trip home" -- as another metaphor for his life's path. As a senator in 1955 and 1956, Albert Gore had helped write and pass legislation creating I-40 and the rest of the Interstate highway system, the largest public works project in American history. That is where the son's interest in politics and government began, when Senator Gore brought him along to hearings of the Senate Public Works Committee in Room 412 of the marbled Russell Senate Office Building and the eight-year-old boy became captivated by the debate over where the superhighways would go and how wide the lanes would be and what color was best for the road signs, blue or green. The issues seemed understandable, and the results amazingly clear; there could be no better lesson in turning an idea into reality. The Gores traveled by car between Washington and Tennessee as many as six times a year, and as I-40 was being completed the trip got shorter year by year, until what had been an arduous two-day journey, with an overnight stop in Roanoke or Bristol, could now be finished in one day.
"Making the connection between those people sitting in that room, discussing and debating, voting and enacting a law on one hand, and the bulldozers pushing the earth, and the pavement laid down, and my family being able to get home faster -- that connection was very powerful," Gore said decades later. The Interstate project made a lasting impression on him; it served, in a sense, as the generational precursor of his own later work in Congress promoting the Internet's information superhighway. The father passed down to his son something else, it seems: an overeagerness to take credit. Although Albert Gore was an important figure in the Interstate highway bill, there were many other key participants in Congress and the Eisenhower administration, but he never shied away from calling the system his own. It was not unlike Al Gore's later boast that he had paved the way for the widespread use of the Internet -- stretching an indisputably important role into a seminal one.
The funeral procession rolled toward Gordonsville, slowing briefly as it approached Possum Hollow, in silent honor of where it all began with the childhood oratory on the tree stumps in the back field. Then the line of black limousines snaked north toward Carthage, approaching the big house on the hill where the old man had died, with its big magnolia tree shading the circle driveway; its spacious living room dense with oriental antiques and political artifacts and portraits of Al and Tipper and the children; and its kitchen walls lined with black and white photographs chronicling a family's rise: Senior with his fiddle, Senior with John F. Kennedy (who entered the Senate with him in 1952), father and son picking strawberries and standing by the water pump, the family bouncing along in a jeep. And beyond the house, the Gore farm, 250 acres bending down to the Caney Fork.
Here were the fields that the son had eulogized hours earlier. It was sometimes reported that his father went back to this farm at the end of his political career, but that was misleading, because in fact "throughout his entire life in public service he never left his farm," the son had said. "He loved to raise Angus cattle. In the audience today are quite a few Angus breeders from around the country who were among his closest friends. It was his recreation. He always said, 'I'd rather find a new black calf in the weeds than a golf ball in the grass.' Our farm was also an important school where he taught me every day. He must have told me a hundred times the importance of learning how to work. He taught me how to plow a steep hillside with a team of mules. He taught me how to clear three acres of heavily wooded forest with a double-bladed axe. He taught me how to take up hay all day in the sun and take up the neighbor's hay after dinner by moonlight before the rains came."
The stiff preppy Geeing and Hawing mules behind a hillside plow? The very notion has prompted doubts and some ridicule. And though it certainly was not an everyday occurrence, it did happen, in the summer of his fifteenth year. Gore's Carthage friends are puzzled by the skepticism. Steve Armistead, Edd Blair, Goat Thompson, and Terry Pope all worked alongside Al for several summers. They fooled around when they could -- filling the cattle trough with cold water and diving in, driving jalopies wildly down the farm hill, hypnotizing chickens -- but not when the old man was watching. He paid his son and the other boys 30 cents an hour for a half-day's work when they were teenagers, sometimes rousting them out of bed before dawn to bale the hay and move the electronic cattle fences. "Senior always wanted Al to do this and do that," said Steve Armistead. "His dad really wanted him to work." Perhaps there was a long-range political purpose to Albert's insistence that his son learn the ways of rural life, but the intent did not seem to be that Al could later use the farm as a convenient counterpoint to his Ivy League schooling. Gore Senior believed that farmwork was invaluable in and of itself. Pauline later recalled one afternoon when she and Albert were inside the big house, looking out the picture window toward the Caney Fork, and there was Al down below, behind the mules, and the father said contentedly, "I think a boy, to achieve anything he wants to achieve, which would include being president of the United States, oughta be able to run a hillside plow."
The Gore farm was more than a quaint getaway for the father or training ground for the son; it was also a business enterprise. Albert Gore was never a financial wizard, but he had an entrepreneurial streak that hovered between compulsive and comical. Carthage folks would shake their heads when discussing his multifarious business schemes over the decades -- chicken coops, feed stores, flea markets, virtually anything he could get his hands on. He was known to buy seemingly useless plots of hardscrabble land -- "holes in the ground," as one friend politely described them -- and then persuade gravel and construction companies to come by with detritus to fill the holes so that he could try to sell his property as prime acreage. The elder Gore's predilection for landowning was passed along to his son, who bought his first piece of property, a twenty-acre field on the edge of Carthage, when he was home from Harvard during the spring break of his senior year in 1969, borrowing the money from a rural credit union.
There were two principal enterprises on the Gore farm, cattle and tobacco. In raising Black Angus, Albert Gore pursued an avocation enjoyed by many of his social acquaintances, including cousin Grady Gore and Senator Kerr and Occidental Petroleum chairman Armand Hammer, the international whirlwind: cutthroat businessman, world-class philanthropist, art collector, and, in his early days, secret agent for the Soviet Union. Hammer first met Gore at a cattle auction in 1952 around the time of the Tennessean's election to the Senate. They became political allies as free trade internationalists, and also developed a mutually beneficial business relationship, with Gore occasionally easing the way for Hammer's dealings with the federal bureaucracy and Hammer in return offering the senator entrée into his moneyed world, first introducing him to the social scene of wealthy cattle owners, then, decades later, hiring him to run an Occidental subsidiary in Kentucky, Island Creek Coal. Gore and Hammer shared a cattle manager, Leo Cropsey, and eventually became partners in the raising of several bulls, including Ankonian Dyno Gore, a Black Angus stud of some renown. To Hammer, who kept a cattle ranch near Red Bank, New Jersey, the senator was but one of countless associates with whom he might deal, but Hammer loomed larger from the other side. He was a part of the Gore family saga, a special guest at weddings and inaugurals, the middleman in land acquisitions, a mysterious figure who might help provide the fuel for the father's dynastic ambitions.
At its peak, Senator Gore's Black Angus herd totaled two hundred head and was regarded as one of the top herds in the land. Twice a year, cattle breeders from across the country, some of them encouraged by Hammer, found their way to Carthage for a big sale in which a third of the herd might be auctioned off, grossing $100,000 or more. There was often a celebrity or two in the crowd: one year the sale was graced by a visit from Joe DiMaggio. Tom Burke, a noted sales manager from Smithvale, Missouri, came down to run the auction with Cropsey, who stayed as a guest at the Gore house. The senator relished these occasions. He would not miss the auctions for anything, once even turning down a competing birthday invitation to dine on Hammer's yacht. As much as he took to his work in the Senate, he seemed obsessed by his herd of Black Angus. "He'd be sitting up there in a hearing while somebody else was busy with the committee work and he'd be reading this catalogue on these cattle," recalled Senate Finance Committee aide Jesse Nichols. He regarded the cattlemen with at least as much respect as his fellow politicians at the Capitol, referring to them as "my fellow breeders." According to Cropsey, the senator showed off his farm wearing his finest suits -- "Oh, yeah, you betcha, he never dressed down for those catalogue sales." Pauline Gore dressed up, too, as the hostess of a festive barbecue for out-of-town guests on the sale's eve. At some point during the barbecue, on cue, a neighbor would turn to Albert and call out a tune, and Music Gore would haul out his fiddle in honor of Old Peg.
Al and his summer friends washed and scrubbed the cattle and put in the bean hay, but none of them could keep pace with the old man. "He could outwork three or four field hands...and he had real strong hands," remembered Edd Blair, a neighbor boy a few years older than Al. "The cattle feed used to come in paper bags that were five or six layers thick. Most of us were strong but we couldn't take a fifty-pound bag and pick it up and tear it, but he could just tear it in two and put it in a feed trough. Mr. Albert could do it all day."
As proud as he was of his cattle, Senator Gore seemed equally enamored of his favorite crop of tobacco. Cropsey, the cattleman who became a Gore family friend, noticed that whenever a new person visited the farm, "the first thing Albert did was take them to see the tobacco acreage. Beautiful tobacco plants -- he was always so proud of that." Tobacco had been part of the culture of the Upper Cumberland region for generations: virtually every farm family, including the Gores, had their federally regulated allotment and followed the seasonal rhythms of planting and spiking and stripping and hauling to the warehouse on Main Street for auction. Tobacco was not mentioned in the son's eulogy to his father. Only a decade earlier, while campaigning in a presidential primary in North Carolina, he had delivered an ode to tobacco ("I put it in the plant beds and transferred it. I've hoed it. I've chopped it. I've shredded it. Spiked it. Put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it."). But now he wanted nothing to do with it. And that, in a sense, is where he started. Along with all of his friends, Al detested working the tobacco field as a teenager. It was "hot and dirty" work, according to his pal Goat Thompson, whose hand still bears a V-shaped scar caused by the slip of a tobacco knife. "You get wringing wet with sweat. Your pants and all just sop. Looks like you've been floating in a river....If you've ever been in a tobacco patch, you'd be hunting a way out."
Down past the farm, at the edge of Snow Creek, the funeral procession stopped at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church for a second memorial service, this one smaller, for old Carthage friends and neighbors. This was the Gores' country church, though old-timers said the only regular Gore worshiper was Margie Gore, Al's grandmother, who often brought along her grandson when he was home for the summer. There was some concern among the locals when they first got word that an Episcopal bishop would lead the funeral service, and a woman no less. But Al Gore asked that honor go to Jane Holmes Dixon, the suffragan bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Washington, who had been one of Nancy Gore's best friends at Vanderbilt. The vice president's wishes on this day were not challenged. As Bishop Dixon opened her soft sermon on the theme of resurrection, she was startled by a sound that she had never heard in her own high church. Her every sentence elicited a hearty round of amens from over on the left side, where old men in dark suits sat in what they called Amen Corner. The response left Dixon "beside herself" with appreciation for this blending of faiths and traditions. When she finished, two verses of "Amazing Grace" were sung in powerful solo voice by Jerry Futrell, who had run the Reed Bros. Pharmacy in town where General Patton, wearing two ivory-handled pistols, once came in on break from military maneuvers and ordered two milk shakes. The congregation joined Futrell for the final verse.
Then the black hearse led the way back through town, past Fisher Avenue, where the Gores had lived in the summers of Al's early childhood, Albert and Pauline and Al and sister Nancy in one house, grandparents Allen and Margie next door, where Allen had taught his grandson how to spell his first word -- G-R-E-E-N. Up at the end of the street stood the Greek Revivalist Cullem Mansion, where Albert had once taken his son, then seven, for another lesson: What could Senator Gore's refusal to sign the Southern Manifesto mean to a youngster? Here was what it meant. Through the elegant front parlor and down the back staircase to the dank basement, way in the back, Look up, son! Look up! -- slave rings hanging from the ceiling, remnants of shackles that once locked on the wrists and ankles of slaves who built the mansion. The sight was an utter shock to young Al, the first startling lesson on life's contradictions -- the "stark contrast," as he said later, "between the undeniable and palpable presence of evil having existed in my hometown, my neighborhood, on the one hand, and the gentleness of Carthage as I knew it."
It was dark by the time the funeral cortege reached the cemetery, and a winter drizzle dampened the grass along the fifty-yard walk from the driveway to the burial site. Local men had dug the hole by shovel, and would fill it again after everyone left. The funeral home brought in a generator and set up construction lights to illuminate the scene. Al Gore had been awake for thirty-eight hours straight dealing with the meaning of his father. He sat with his arm around his mother as they watched Albert Arnold Gore Sr., dressed formally, as always, in a blue business suit, resting inside his solid cherry coffin, descend into Grave 3 in Lot 18, Section C of the Smith County graveyard. He was buried next to his daughter, the ebullient Nancy, who had died of lung cancer fourteen years earlier at the premature age of forty-six. The ceremony done, son and mother moved slowly through the evening darkness to the waiting car, past rows of grave markers memorializing the people of the Upper Cumberland hills of middle Tennessee, ancestors named Cowan and Burton, Hood and Butler, Ligon and Dixon, Bowman and Lankford, Massey and Gore.
Copyright © 2000 by David Maraniss and
Al Gore Meets His Fate
The Prince of Tennessee
Al Gore Meets His Fate
- Simon & Schuster |
- 320 pages |
- ISBN 9780743210508 |
- June 2001
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