Ballot Box

Slander Patrol: Saving Private Gore?

Fox News and in particular its Crossfire-style program Hannity and Colmes have been hyping the allegation that Al Gore had a “bodyguard” in Vietnam. If true, this would cast a different light on the campaign ads that tout Gore’s voluntary wartime service (in unstated contrast with Bill Bradley and George W. Bush, both of whom avoided the Vietnam-era draft). Should it turn out that Gore, as the son of a senator, had a kind of safe-conduct pass through the war zone, it would call into doubt just how courageous and self-sacrificing his decision to volunteer was.

The “bodyguard” charge first surfaced in a long story about Gore’s Vietnam experience that ran in the Los Angeles Times last month. The story, by Richard Serrano, quotes Alan Leo, a photographer assigned to the engineering unit to which Gore was also attached. Leo says that he was ordered to keep the senator’s son out of harm’s way. “It blew me away,” Leo told the Times. “I was to make sure he didn’t get into a situation he could not get out of. They didn’t want him to get into trouble. So we went into the field after the fact after combat actions, and that limited his exposure to any hazards.”

This quote leaves the impression that Gore was treated specially by not being sent into combat situations, and possibly that he or his politically connected family sought such favoritism. But other comments by Leo dispel these implications. Leo is both more specific and less incendiary in quotations that appear in Newsweek this week, as part of an excerpt from Bill Turque’s forthcoming biography of Gore. Leo told Turque that the request to watch over Gore came from Brig. Gen. K.B. Cooper, the commander of the 20th Engineer Brigade. But Leo also told Turque that he never disclosed Cooper’s request to Gore himself, and that he does not believe Gore was ever aware of the arrangement.

When I reached Leo by phone at his home in Maryland, he said some other interesting things. He told me that the flap was “much ado about nothing” and that he thinks the use of the term “bodyguard” is inaccurate. For Army journalists in the unit, not visiting a battlefield until the battle was over was standard operating procedure. Leo himself was more daring–or “stupid” in his words–because he was single and addicted to adrenaline. He says he had mixed feelings about being asked to serve as Gore’s “security escort.” On the one hand, he resented Gore’s special treatment. On the other hand, he felt honored to be chosen. And while he at first thought Gore was privileged and out of touch with the real world, “after I’d been around him for a while, I kind of changed my attitude–I found him to be a straight guy.”

Gen. Cooper told Turque that he had no memory of asking Leo to watch over Gore. But whether or not the conversation occurred, Gore clearly was not specially protected for much of the time he was in Vietnam. Journalists in the 20th Engineer Brigade would often go into the field in pairs on reporting assignments that were in practice largely voluntary.

Gore went on many such trips, where he and other Army journalists caught a whiff of combat without participating in it. And often he went not with Leo but with other writers and photographers assigned to the brigade. Leo says he has no reason to believe these other journalists got the request he did to keep Gore out of danger.

One who says he was never asked to protect Gore was Mike O’Hara, a fellow reporter attached to the 20th who became Gore’s closest friend in the unit. O’Hara, who is now a sportswriter for the Detroit News, calls the idea that Gore was specially protected in Vietnam “a pile of shit.” He recalls that he spoke to Gore soon after Gore arrived in Vietnam. O’Hara explained to him that he would have to choose between hanging around the base in Bien Hoa in relative safety or venturing out into the field to report on stories. “That’s a decision I’m going to have to make,” he remembers Gore telling him. Gore’s decision was to go and see the war for himself, often in O’Hara’s company. “Never once did I notice he was treated differently or asked to be treated differently from anybody else,” O’Hara says. “We all would have known it. If you’re not pulling your weight, you’re an outcast. [Gore] was one of the best-liked guys in the unit.”

The field trips Gore made with O’Hara were not highly dangerous forays–Leo says he can’t remember a casualty in the public-information office of the 20th during the several years he was stationed there. But they clearly did expose Gore to hazards he wouldn’t have faced had he stayed back at the base writing up press releases. Riding on helicopters, sleeping in foxholes within range of North Vietnamese artillery, and even playing basketball in villages near the base were all things Gore did that involved a degree of avoidable risk.

Gore has alleged in the past that he was protected in a different way at an earlier stage, but not out of a benign motive. Gore enlisted in the Army in the summer of 1969. With his anti-war father, Al Gore Sr., fighting a bitter re-election battle in Tennessee, Gore Jr’s orders for Vietnam were mysteriously delayed for more than a year, until after his father had lost the election in November 1970. The Gore family has speculated that the Nixon administration wanted to make sure that Little Al didn’t create good publicity for Big Al from Vietnam–possibly by getting injured. But there’s no actual evidence to support the suspicion that politics was what kept Gore stateside for so long.

The worst Gore can be accused of on the basis of existing evidence is being protected to a minor degree without his own knowledge or consent. Even that much may not be true. But even if someone in the military did give an order to protect Gore, this should hardly count as a mark against him. It doesn’t diminish the credit Gore deserves for volunteering to participate in a war that he personally opposed, and that nearly all of his Harvard classmates did their utmost to avoid.