Was Albert Gore Sr. a Crook?

No, but he was sleazy enough to embarrass Junior. 

Presidential campaigns have a way of loosening political skeletons from the closet. Lately, the press has made a run at the presumptive Democratic nominee’s father, Albert Gore Sr., a former Tennessee senator who died in 1998. (Click here to read a relevant excerpt from The Buying of the President 2000, by the Center for Public Integrity; click here to read a recent investigative piece in the New York Times.) Albert Sr. had a long association, while he was in Congress and afterward, with the late Occidental Petroleum Chairman Armand Hammer. There isn’t any evidence that Albert Sr. did anything illegal, or even (within the context of the times) profoundly unethical, to benefit his wealthy patron. It has been suggested, preposterously, that the Occidental ties influenced Al Jr.’s recommendation as vice president that the federal government sell off the naval petroleum reserve in Elk Hills, Calif., which was eventually purchased by Occidental. (In truth, government reformers had been arguing for years that the reserve wasn’t needed.) A few tendentious questions have also been raised about some Tennessee farmland that passed from Occidental to Albert Sr. to Al Jr.

Still, the exercise of rummaging through Albert Sr.’s dirty laundry has value—not as a way of assessing Al Jr.’s moral compass, but as a way of assessing his psychology. The son is, after all, someone who always made clear that he would never follow in his father’s footsteps. For a time, he renounced politics altogether; when he changed his mind and ran for Congress, he projected a public persona that was cautious, wooden, and intellectually pretentious—the polar opposite of his father’s hot-tempered, fiddle-playing populism. Though Albert Sr. seemed to love the gaudy side of politics, Al Jr. has always seemed merely to endure it. What is Al Jr. recoiling from?

A possible answer lies in Albert Sr.’s pungent past. He may not have been a crook, but Albert Sr. was a politician of his time—and that time had distinctly less refined notions about mixing money and politics than our own. For those political reporters who flatter themselves that they are chronicling the most corrupt political epoch in American history, this may come as a surprise. Bob Zelnick’s hostile biography of Al Jr., Gore: A Political Life, (click here to buy the book) confidently asserts that “when it came to political fundraising, the time would come when the younger man would have been able to teach his father a thing or two.” In fact, Albert Sr. and the political world he inhabited were much more colorful and ethically dubious than Al Jr. and his. You want to see “no controlling legal authority”? Let’s travel back one generation.

Born in 1907, Albert Gore Sr. rose from humble beginnings on a farm in rural Possum Hollow, Tenn., where he attended a one-room schoolhouse and absorbed his father’s deep admiration for William Jennings Bryan. He worked his way through the University of Tennessee and Murfreesboro Teachers College and attended night law school while serving as superintendent of schools in the small town of Carthage. He met his future wife, Pauline, when she waited on him at a Nashville tearoom; she was putting herself through law school, too. After graduating, Albert Sr. set about climbing the greasy pole of Tennessee politics, from state labor commissioner to U.S. congressman to senator.

The contemporary image of Albert Sr. derives mainly from a Harper’s profile by David Halberstam published in 1970, the year Albert Sr.’s spirited opposition to the Vietnam War cost him his Senate seat. “Albert is an old-style Senator, a Roman Senator really,” Halberstam wrote. “One can almost imagine him seated with Webster, Calhoun, and Clay.” To Halberstam, Albert Sr. was a man of unshakable principle. After zinc deposits were discovered on his Carthage farm, Halberstam wrote, zinc lobbyists seeking tax breaks came to see him at the Capitol; Albert Sr. “ran them out of his office.” Albert Sr. is also often depicted as a brave Southern maverick for refusing to sign the segregationist Southern Manifesto in 1956. That’s basically correct, though Bill Turque points out in Inventing Al Gore (click here to buy the book) that Albert Sr. voted with the states’ rights crowd against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But Albert Sr. wasn’t too principled to ally himself with Occidental Petroleum chairman Armand Hammer, who turns out to have been one of the truly sleazy business figures of the 20th century. In Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer (click here to buy the book), journalist Edward Jay Epstein presents overwhelming evidence from Soviet archives that Hammer used his manufacturing and mining concessions in the Soviet Union during the 1920s to launder funds to pay Communist spies in the United States. (More conventionally for a capitalist, Hammer also seems to have defrauded practically everyone he came in contact with, in both his business and his personal affairs.) Yet even during the red-baiting 1950s, Hammer maintained an aura of respectability. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover knew of Hammer’s activities, and sometimes restricted his foreign travel, but never took it any further, in part because Hammer had powerful friends in Washington—one of them Rep. (and later Sen.) Albert Gore Sr.

Albert Sr. was no intellectual, but he was keenly intelligent and had a pretty good nose for phonies. It’s hard to believe he didn’t have some notion that underneath the respectable veneer, Hammer was an unsavory character. But the Gores were always a bit strapped for cash. (It was a stretch to send Al Jr. to St. Albans; and though the residential hotel the Gore family lived in, which later became a Ritz-Carlton, is often described as posh, in fact it was a fairly dowdy place when they lived there.) Apparently, Hammer was able to help.

Albert Sr. met Hammer at a Tennessee cattle auction sometime around 1950. Soon afterward, Hammer made Albert Sr. his partner in an Angus-cattle-breeding partnership, which, according to Epstein’s book, netted Gore “a substantial profit.” Important people would fly in from all over the country to pay top dollar at Albert Sr.’s cattle auctions. Zelnick’s book quotes former Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter, a Gore family friend, as saying, “I’ve sold some Angus in my time too, but I never got the kind of prices for my cattle that the Gores got for theirs.” McWherter (who has been campaigning lately for Al Jr.) confirms that he said it but denies implying that Albert Sr. was selling access or influence. His point, he says, was that Albert Sr.’s cattle were “registered,” i.e., an especially fine breed, whereas his, McWherter’s, were not. Albert Sr.’s cattle, he says, were “probably the best in the state of Tennessee.” Well, maybe. If true, though, that raises a further question: How did a part-time rancher of modest means end up with the best Angus herd in Tennessee?

The names of two people who acquired Albert Sr.’s cattle arouse particular suspicion. One was V.H. Monette, who hired former New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio to attend a Tennessee auction in September 1958. Monette was a food broker who did millions of dollars’ worth of business with the Pentagon. Turque’s book quotes one Cecil Wolfson, who was also at the auction that day, as saying that Monette was trying “to open doors to the military establishment.”

The other eyebrow-raising name is Louis Wolfson, Cecil’s brother and business partner. Cecil bought 10 head of Albert Sr.’s cattle as a gift for Louis, who owned a horse farm; Cecil told Turque he’d had “no interest in currying favor with Gore.” But Louis Wolfson was no mere gentleman horse farmer; he was also a financier and world-class tummler who would become famous a decade later after Life magazine reported that Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas was on the payroll of Wolfson’s family foundation—and that Wolfson had sought Justice Fortas’ advice while he was being investigated for securities fraud. (The scandal forced Fortas to resign, and Wolfson eventually did prison time for violating securities laws.) Wolfson also was involved in a scheme to funnel money to New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s screwball investigation of the Kennedy assassination that nearly landed TV talk show host Larry King in jail. (Click to read more details.)

There is no evidence that Monette or Wolfson received anything of value from Albert Sr. in exchange for bidding enthusiastically for his cattle. Albert Sr. wasn’t on the right committees to affect Pentagon spending, so he probably couldn’t have helped Monette much even if he’d wanted to. (Ironically, he did sit a few years later on a select committee created “to investigate the subject of attempts to influence improperly or illegally the Senate or any Member thereof.”) Moreover, the $10,975 that Cecil Wolfson paid for his 10 head of purebred Angus cattle—we don’t know what Monette paid for his—would not have been an inordinately high price, according to Jack Robinson, a Nashville attorney who was an aide to Albert Sr. at the time. Still, at the very least, Albert Sr.’s cattle-buyers were buying good will and propinquity; you never know when you might need a U.S. senator to return your phone call. This was, Epstein points out, an era “when people had lots of ways of funneling money to politicians” without attracting moral opprobrium. It wasn’t until after the Watergate scandals that this flow was scrutinized and regulated at all—however inadequately.

Armand Hammer, of course, did get significant help in Washington from Albert Sr. When Hammer came under attack, Albert Sr. defended him in floor speeches. When a wary President Kennedy kept Hammer at arm’s length, Albert Sr. got the Commerce Department to sponsor a Hammer trip to Moscow. Albert Sr. also tried, but failed, to get Hammer appointed an emissary to Berlin. And he helped Hammer negotiate a few less significant matters with the State Department, the Defense Department, and the FBI, according to letters unearthed by the New York Times. Hammer apparently liked to boast that he had Albert Sr. “in my back pocket.” Did Hammer use the cattle partnership to funnel his own money to Albert Sr.? Epstein says that Hammer’s ex-mistress Bettye Jane Murphy told him that Hammer gave Albert Sr. “large sums of money by letting him participate in cattle deals at prices that were well under the price that Hammer had paid.” According to Murphy, Epstein said, Hammer bragged to many people “that he lost money on them so that Gore could make money.”

Still, whatever money flowed from Hammer to Albert Sr. probably wasn’t a torrent. Kyle Longley of Arizona State University, who is researching a biography of Albert Sr., says he’s found no evidence that the Gore family’s lifestyle during this period grew any more opulent. “If there was some bribery and stuff like that,” Longley says, “they sure weren’t flaunting it.”

After Albert Sr. was defeated in 1970, he went to work for Hammer as chairman of Occidental’s coal subsidiary. It was an odd move for a populist, but Albert Sr. was disinclined to apologize to the Tennesseeans who’d voted him out. “Since I had been turned out to pasture,” he later explained to the Washington Post, “I decided to go graze the tall grass.” Hammer reportedly paid Albert Sr. an annual salary of $500,000. Hammer also bought, and then sold to Albert Sr., some land near Gore’s farm in Carthage, Tenn., that Occidental supposedly wanted to mine zinc from, though it never did. Instead, it paid Albert Sr. $20,000 annually for the unused mineral rights. (Albert Sr. later sold the land to Al Jr. It was subsequently mined by another company and has brought the vice president a total of about $450,000 in lease payments and some grief from environmentalists on the campaign trail.)

Albert Sr.’s romance with Armand Hammer does tarnish, just a bit, Halberstam’s Roman bust of the principled Southern maverick. Still, it’s unlikely that George W. Bush will make an issue of Al Jr.’s ambiguous patrimony. Hammer, after all, was at least as chummy with Republicans as he was with Democrats; in 1975, he pleaded guilty to a three-count misdemeanor for making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon. The stain this put on Hammer’s treasured reputation maddened him, but eventually he got it erased with a presidential pardon. Who gave him the pardon? President George Bush.