Ballot Box

Campaign Book Report: Inventing Al Gore

Inventing Al Gore: A Biography
By Bill Turque
Houghton Mifflin, 448 pages, $25

If you’re looking for insight into the personal qualities of a baby-boom-generation politician, Vietnam is usually a pretty good place to start. Bill Clinton’s draft saga was instructive not because he, like nearly all his educational peers, evaded military duty. It was revealing because of the way Clinton tried to delude others and perhaps even himself. He wanted credit for being willing to serve without taking any risk of actually having to serve. For George W. Bush, there was no personal struggle–merely an assertion of class privilege leading to a stint in the Texas Air National Guard. But for Al Gore the decision was a deep and serious conflict, with moral, intellectual, and familial dimensions. As a student at Harvard, Gore loathed the war. At the same time, he was troubled by the notion that some less privileged kid would take his place in the jungle. He also wanted to assist his father the senator, who as an anti-war Southerner faced a tough re-election contest in 1970. 

It was entirely in character for Gore to make the choice he did, the one his role as son demanded of him. As Bill Turque depicts him in this superb life-to-date, Gore at age 21 was almost completely a creature of parental expectations. Little Al’s father and mother quite literally bred him to be president. While their son apparently felt the instinct to rebel against the straitjacket of externally imposed dreams and find his own way in the world, his self-assertiveness wasn’t nearly a match for the iron wills of Albert and Pauline Gore. As Turque tells it, the story of the political family’s submerged emotional struggle is a surprisingly poignant one. To this day it’s not entirely clear which Albert, if either, was the winner.

After Albert Sr. lost his seat in 1970, the proud, distant, and demanding father transferred his frustrated ambitions to Albert Jr. (as Vice President Gore then called himself). After acceding to the draft, little Al resisted this summons to join the family business. When he returned to civilian life in 1971, he told friends and colleagues that he was thoroughly disillusioned with politics and had no interest in making his career in it. He spent a year at divinity school and went to work as a reporter–over the objections of his parents, who wanted him to go to law school. He smoked copious quantities of weed and felt a rare sense of personal freedom. But in the end, the family trade pulled him back in. Gore started going to night law school in 1974, just as his father had. In 1976, he jumped at the chance to run for an open congressional seat. Though many saw it coming, this surrender to destiny was a pivotal moment in his life. In one fabulous anecdote, Turque relates that Gore was so stressed out by the decision that after he told a stunned Tipper he was going to run, he dropped to the floor and began doing push-ups. Little Al’s nod to personal autonomy was asking his wounded father not to campaign for him. Even so, the younger Gore couldn’t stem the flow of parental coaching and second-guessing that would attend his many campaigns to come.

Turque doesn’t venture an opinion, but the clear sense I got from this book is that Gore would have been a happier person had he somehow been able make a genuine break and find himself a different career. Gore is an able man who has neither much talent for politics nor any special love for it. He lacks the gift of self-expression and the knack for making other people feel comfortable. Gore also evinces contempt for the trimming and pandering that are part of political life–a contempt he exposes by doing these things overtly and clumsily. Yet in other fields, Gore spills with both endowment and enthusiasm. He loves complicated, technical problems, and perhaps most of all, explaining such problems to others. Gore seems to have made politics tolerable to himself by grafting what he loves doing onto it. Throughout his career in the House, Senate, and White House, he has sought out issues like nuclear strategy, global warming, and the information revolution that allow him to channel his technical capacities through his not entirely self-chosen path.

Someone at odds with himself in this way is bound for a crash. Gore’s moment of truth came after an ill-advised run for president in 1988, a campaign that his father helped push him into and then complicated with bad advice. After it was over, Gore, then 40, plunged headlong into a midlife crisis. A psychologist recommended Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child, and Gore responded to the book in a visceral way, taking up its notions of how parental expectations and conditional love can lead to the creation of a “false self.” (Gore’s interest in Miller’s book was first revealed by Katherine Boo in a 1993 story in the Washington Post Magazine that remains the single most insightful thing written about him.) A car accident that nearly killed Gore’s own only son, Albert III, intensified his journey of self-exploration and self-expression.

Gore offered some glimpses into his struggle in Earth in the Balance, the 1989 book that was both an indictment of environmental abuse and a cry from a buried personality. Writing about children who grow up in dysfunctional families–and by clear implication, himself–he noted that “because he doubts his worth and authenticity, he begins controlling his inner experience–smothering spontaneity, masking emotion, diverting creativity into robotic routine, distracting an awareness of all he is missing with an unconvincing replica of what he might have been.” In another passage cited by Turque, Gore connects his psychological displacement to the ecological damage that thoughtless people do to the earth itself: “Now, in mid-life, as I search through the layers of received knowledge and intuited truth woven into my life, I can’t help but notice similar layers of artifice and authenticity running through the civilization of which I am a part.” What explains the somewhat quivering prose style is that in writing the book, Gore felt he was emerging from a “false self” for the first time.

This process of self-examination seems to have been short-circuited by Gore’s selection as vice president in 1992. Once he was within a heartbeat of the presidency, he again instinctively shunned the risk-laden process of becoming. Turque doesn’t say so in as many words, but his book persuaded me that an incomplete internal quest lies at the heart of Gore’s difficulties as a politician. Gore’s defects as a public figure–his way of being by turns robotic and too fervent, his inability to connect, his tendency toward exaggeration, his seeming false when he is entirely sincere–are the flaws of someone who is not just insecure but uncomfortable with who he is at some profound level. Gore’s incomplete journey toward personal emancipation may also explain why he is such an easy mark for consultants, counselors, and image-makers. When you feel that there’s a hole in your soul, you’re prey to every guru who tells you he can fill it.

“It is a peculiar thing to say about someone who has been elected to public office eight times, but Gore is invariably at his worst as a campaigner, a role that tends to highlight his liabilities and obscure his strengths,” Turque writes. “Old friends who cringe at the game-show-host wardrobe and the labored congeniality believe that Gore would be a significantly better president than he is a candidate, and wish that he could somehow be appointed to the job.” I think this analysis is right on the money. Gore the candidate makes you cringe–probably because being a candidate makes him cringe. Yet there’s every reason to think that Gore would be a capable and effective president. If you’re planning to vote for him, it might be wise just to ignore him for the next six months.