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The Daughter Also Rises

Karenna Gore Schiff fell in love with her dad's campaigns. Now she's a key adviser, and heir to his political legacy

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This year dynasties are not just about Republicans and men named George Bush. Waiting for Al Gore in Los Angeles will be someone whose face is carved with the angular clarity of his own. It belongs to a slight blond, his 27-year-old daughter Karenna Gore Schiff. It would be wrong to look for her only in the family box, gamely playing host to family and friends while wearing a perma-smile. Karenna's fingerprints will be across the program, from the choice of speakers to the entertainment to the look of the stage. On Wednesday she will give the speech kicking off the roll-call vote that will formally nominate her father. The gauzy biographical film touting Gore as the man from Carthage will be vetted by her; her pen will edit the remarks of both the Vice President and Tipper Gore. And when Senator Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, shows up to take his place, you can be certain that she weighed in on the decision to put him there.

The Gore dynasty story is different from Bush's because the talent in the next generation rests not with a brother, nephew or son but with a daughter. It is true that Tipper has helped make Gore a better candidate by jump-starting his soul. But Tipper doesn't like politics. Her daughter, on the other hand, is taken with it, fixated on strategy and tactics, fanatical about Gore and his political future. "For Tipper, it's win-win. If he wins, he's President. If he loses, she hates to see him in pain but she gets to have her husband back," says a family friend. "For Karenna, the only thing is winning."

It is Karenna who makes herself most available to the press. She has taken on a public role, heading Gorenet, an effort to reach young voters, and speaking on behalf of her father, offering up anecdotes of Al the Dad to humanize him. She is an expert at casting new spin on his political vulnerabilities. Asked on television what was the best advice her father ever gave her, she says her father taught her to stick by a friend in trouble--a tale that adds a family-values patina to Gore's stand by a President in big trouble.

Karenna makes the best argument for Gore's intellectualism. "My dad is very forcefully logical about things. In some ways, that's why we get along quite well, because I like that," she says, sitting in the back of a Manhattan Italian restaurant in a cardigan and clogs. "Whenever you set up a heart-vs.-head thing, people always tend to say the heart is better. I think it's not as simple as that. Assumptions or prejudices are often emotional; if you look at things logically, you can often realize what things are and work through them."

But as much as she makes the case for him in public, Karenna is usually more effective offstage. Asked about her, the first thing the Vice President praises, before her "passion for social justice," is her political skills. "She has nearly perfect pitch," Gore says, beaming. Indeed, at 22, in a room full of White House advisers, Karenna came up with the best line for Gore in his debate against Jack Kemp: "If you won't use any football stories," Gore said, "I won't tell any warm and humorous stories about chlorofluorocarbon abatement." This time around, she has helped develop lines like "The presidency is not an academic exercise," which Gore used to nail Bill Bradley in the primaries. She tweaks Gore's speeches and debate answers, always pushing him to speak plainly and with heart. One of her key contributions, says her mother, is that Karenna doesn't "soft-soap it." Her father recalls an occasion when all the hired hands told him he'd given a great speech. Karenna waited until they were gone. "Dad," she started, "it wasn't a great speech."

And she sometimes offers her father a sense of how things are playing in the real world. In March Gore created a fire storm when he broke with the White House to support permanent residency for Elian Gonzalez, a move seen as pandering to Florida's Cuban vote. At first the campaign stonewalled the press, hoping the problem would "just go away," as a top adviser put it. "[Karenna] said, 'You need to explain this.'" About a week later, Gore went on the Today show. Though it failed to undo the damage, it did take some of the bite out of the daily coverage.

Usually spouses and children are dreaded by campaigns, not so much as bulls but as jackasses loose in the china shop. Karenna has been savvy enough to cultivate warm relationships throughout Goreville, from top advisers to state operatives. She has offered herself up as another avenue for staff members who don't believe their voices are being heard. "She always tries to communicate that it's safe to talk to her, that she's not going to rat on you," says a senior Gore aide. Says another: "I hear people say, 'Let's fax a copy to Karenna.' 'Has anybody talked to Karenna about this?'"

Where her father can be wooden and diffident, she is warm and immediate, with a face that looks better without makeup. When her father reached out to shake her hand at her May law-school graduation, she pulled him into a hug. Gore may be known to some as "Prince Albert," but his eldest child is known for never putting on airs. She's the kind of person who, Michael Kinsley, editor of the online magazine Slate, recalls, did not mind doing scut work as an editorial assistant.

Karenna has always had a healthy sense of fun. In high school she raised money for her student government by wrestling a pig into the backseat of a friend's car and raffling off votes for which teacher would have to kiss it. She is the first to show up at a party. And she doesn't care much for Washington, even though that's where her father and grandfather taught her to ride her bike, on the Capitol grounds, and where she went to school. She shares her father's attachment to Tennessee, where she was born. "Everyone says I had a really strong Southern accent," she sighs. "I'm so bummed I lost it." She is self-deprecating about her experiences in the world of the powerful. Writing about Gore's second Inaugural in Slate, she described Chuck Berry stepping on her foot and how all the party tenting made her house look like the death scene in E.T. When she went off to Spain after college in 1995 to work on a newspaper there, she declined to use a car that had been found for her at a good price; she chose to live on her salary and take the subway instead.

Karenna was only three when Gore announced he was running for Congress. After his election, the family would go back to Carthage in the summers. As she grew older, Karenna often took messages from constituents who had missed a pension check or wanted Gore to call back and pray with them. Once someone stopped the 36-year-old Congressman in a grocery-store parking lot with 11-year-old Karenna at his side. The constituent wanted to thank him for making it easier to get an organ transplant. "I was at that moment struck by how he really impacted people," she says.

And it was shortly thereafter that the Gores learned just how much their willful eldest child could impact them. Karenna was a handful, even as a toddler. "Rules and limits are more important than a lot of parents realize," wrote Tipper in her 1987 book, Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society. "I learned that simple but important lesson myself with my first child, who was overly demanding and had me wrapped around her finger at two years of age." Tipper encouraged her daughter's independence, letting her draw on the walls and giving Karenna her 1960s polyester and suede hand-me-downs, which the teen preferred to her friends' preppy duds.

By the time she hit the teen years, her spirited nature veered into open rebellion. Karenna lectured her parents on how their rules infringed on her First Amendment rights. She was big on "adventuring," climbing out of her window to shimmy down a manhole into the D.C. subway system for afterhours partying. When her friends spray-painted the names of punk bands on the tunnel walls, Karenna, ever the iconoclast, threw up names of country singers like Emmylou Harris and Kenny Rogers. One night Karenna was dancing along the tracks and headed off to stomp on the third rail. A friend pulled her back, explaining that she would be electrocuted. "I always think of that," she says. "I could have died, because I really was about to go jump on that."

Yet it was in these rowdy years that the political bond between father and daughter began to form. One night Karenna came home refusing to admit she was drunk. Gore had her draw a floor plan of the house; the next morning, as she looked at its wild misproportions, Karenna had to face up to the fact that she had not been sober. Still, this was the same 14-year-old who tagged along with him one Saturday afternoon in 1987 when he met with advisers to talk about a presidential run. As she has done repeatedly, Karenna came to define her father in her own way, a way at odds with his establishmentarian image. The teen decided that Gore and his insurgent bid were of a piece with the defiant punk bands she sneaked out to see. "I felt like we were trying to overthrow the Old Guard," she says.

Richard Holbrooke, then Gore's foreign-policy adviser, remembers Karenna being in the hotel room during preparation for a 1988 primary debate and looking up periodically from her homework to say, "Dad, I just don't think that's right." The young girl walked away from that campaign with two formative experiences. One was seeing how politics, which often pushed candidates away from their children, became caulking between her and her father. "He was so kind. Even in really stressful moments, when he was losing, surrounded by hostile questions, whenever I had concerns, it was important to him what I was feeling," she says. "I was never told to shut up and leave."

The other was falling in love wholesale with the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that went on around strategy and issues, following Holbrooke and media guru Bob Squier around, according to Tipper, "like a puppy dog." Karenna's interest, particularly in controlling the message, was also a reaction against how her parents' battles were portrayed in the press. The day after Gore's withdrawal from the 1988 race, Karenna's crying face was the cover of a D.C. political paper. But that, she says, was nothing compared with the tears she had shed three years before, when Tipper drew scorn from libertarians and artists for her campaign to clean up music lyrics. Within the walls of their Arlington, Va., home, Tipper's efforts led to fights. "It was like the embarrassment everyone has if their parents pick them up from the eighth-grade dance," Karenna says. "It was like that on acid."

Outside the home, however, her reaction was different. "Her father was fair game, but her mother was out of bounds. That was the beginning of the protective attitude," says Perry Cohagen, Karenna's college boyfriend. One reporter recalls a day during the 1988 campaign when reporters on the bus began making fun of Tipper among themselves. It was all funny--until they realized the 14-year-old blond was standing behind them. But Karenna didn't cry, and she had the last word. "You all have no idea what you're talking about," she said evenly, turning to walk away.

If you ask friends to describe Karenna, one word always comes up: tough. She was the Tennessee state champion in water skiing. Her coach, Glen Birdwell, says Karenna repeatedly skied after hitting the water so hard that she broke her ribs. And during one dry summer, when rattlesnakes began coming into the lake and the male skiers began to scream and scatter, Karenna grabbed a snake and held it aloft, its venomous mouth clamped in her grip.

Karenna settled down in her last years in high school and headed off to Harvard. Friends from those years remember her as the girl with long hair and sandals who kept water skis under her bed and the occasional honky-tonk song on the stereo. The Karenna usually on display was a bit of a mess--forgetful and prone to showing up at the last minute with wet hair. One morning, as students turned in papers, Karenna came running through the yard with bedhead and wearing one sock, finally holding her computer disc out to an amused professor. "I can't get this off," she lamented, "You've got to help me!"

But that Ms. McGoo persona belies a focused and rigorous mind. Karenna wrote a thesis on slave narratives from the 1930s that earned a departmental prize. She fiercely held her own in debates with friends, often refusing to back down even to better arguments. As her father entered the vice presidency in her sophomore year, she carried on a constant high-level exchange with him on the computer and over the phone, with Gore sending his speeches. Friends recall Karenna sitting intently in front of the TV during the State of the Union addresses and the disastrous 1994 election returns. She didn't offer expansive opinions to those in the room. She saved those for her father, who would usually call within minutes of the end of political events.

Though Karenna traveled with Tipper during 1992, she spent the last four months of the 1996 re-election campaign with her father on Air Force Two. She considered taking a formal role, until it was explained to her that she would have to talk to those damn journalists. So she kept to the background. While staff members often headed off during speeches to make phone calls or take a break, Karenna always parked herself in the audience, intently watching her father and the faces in the crowd. "Schedule, advance, balloon drop, strategy, speeches, issues, everything," a Veep staff member ticks off, listing the things the 22-year-old put on her radar. "She is her father's daughter, and she has his eye for detail."

In October 1996, on one of the rare times Karenna was not on Gore's plane, she agreed to head over to the Washington home of family friends for a drink. Chris Downey, wife of former Congressman and Gore friend Tom Downey, had been insisting she had someone she wanted Karenna to meet. Downey now says that when Andrew Schiff, a New York doctor and heir of the turn-of-the-century industrialist Jacob Schiff, walked into the room, in a crisp shirt with his hair still wet from the shower, Downey knew from their faces that a wedding was in the offing. By the following July, Karenna, then 23, married Drew in the Washington cathedral where her parents had wed years before. Gore and his daughter danced at the reception to the strains of Tennessee Waltz.

When she met Drew, whatever pieces were left of Karenna's wild-child soul seemed to come to peace. "They were so intense, so focused and secure," says Megan Colligan, a college pal. Last year Gore got his first grandchild, Wyatt, born conveniently on the Fourth of July. As she does with her father, Karenna seems to delight in her husband for the things others might see as strange. Drew, 34, who works for a biotech venture-capital fund, is bright, attractive and good-natured. But like Gore, his mind is sometimes transfixed by the academic and arcane, as witnessed by a friend who watched Drew and the Veep happily spend a summer afternoon by the pool discussing daylight saving time. And he is routinely described as, well, goofy, the kind of guy who, when he realized he had no music, clipped the Wall Street Journal's list of top-100 CDs and bought them all, an abdication of judgment that sometimes leaves the couple's dinner parties sound-tracked by Milli Vanilli.

Adulthood has no doubt sharpened Karenna's political instincts, but they have failed her father on occasion. Some say Gore and his daughter are both stubborn and arrogant, each falling in love with the other's thinking simply because it's an echo of their own. Karenna, for instance, pushed to bring in Naomi Wolf, the feminist writer who advocates, among other things, teaching children the value of masturbation. Wolf's $15,000-a-month salary and memos pushing Gore to be an "alpha male" left the candidate withered by weeks of derisive press just as Bill Bradley started to make his big break in New Hampshire.

Karenna still considers Wolf a valuable voice on women's issues and a close friend. "I'm willing to take a few hits. I'm not going to argue with being pinned with stuff because I'm privileged to be at the table," Karenna says with a disarming ease. "I'm sure I'm not right about everything I've said or thought. But I feel very free to say what I think."

She does that often these days. But in her public speeches, Karenna can often be as stiff as her father, and girlish too. This has not stopped her fans from imagining a big political future for her. A friend recalls Karenna calling home from Harvard and talking to her younger brother Albert III. He was being badgered about whether he would follow his father and grandfather into the Senate. "I don't know. Why don't you ask my sisters?" he answered. "Yeah, why don't they ask his sisters?" an indignant Karenna said. Not to worry. Pauline, Gore's mother, and Nancy, his sister, had to stand to the side, but not this Gore girl. Says a powerful Democrat: "Tipper is the wife of one politician and the mother of at least one more."


Cover Date: August 21, 2000



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