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The Man Behind The Myths

Al Gore is trapped inside ugly caricatures. To win, he must try to explode them. Can what everybody knows about Gore be wrong?

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Al Gore lowers his voice, signaling that he's about to take me into his confidence. "I don't consider myself," he says quietly, "a natural politician." Never let it be said the Vice President isn't capable of understatement. Gore lets a half-smile play across his face, a sign that he knows he's revealing the obvious. "The back-slapping political style is not my natural forte," he goes on. "I really, really love the process of democracy. I'm inspired by it. I'm thrilled by it. I'm not exaggerating here." He pauses. "Now the election process is...a little different."

And that's as close as Gore will come to admitting the truth: he can't stand politics. To be precise, he does enjoy a few things about campaigning (counterpunching opponents, gaming out tactics, serving up red-meat rhetoric, tutoring voters during marathon town meetings), but he loathes the rest and isn't good at hiding how he feels. And it's intriguing that Gore, who is so often accused of being artificial and insincere, has his greatest difficulty with the most artificial and insincere parts of the process: bonding with the local party pooh-bahs, pretending that donors are friends, feigning affection for the media horde. "He loves the work of government but not the work of getting elected," says a former adviser. "The guy's an introvert. Putting himself out there is an act of enormous will. He tries and tries and tries, and then you see him withdraw into himself, switch on the autopilot and plod along. And when that happens, his capacity for work is never diminished, but his capacity for joy--the light touch a politician needs--gets lost."

Gore's aides are fond of saying that if he can just win, he will make a much better President than he makes a candidate. And he is a more multidimensional man than his public caricature suggests. His challenge isn't merely a charisma deficit or a tin ear or a knack for seeming phony even when he's being himself. It's that he must try to dispel at least five familiar myths about himself. Each is based on nuggets of truth, but Gore believes each fails to convey the essence of who he is. Is it possible that the shorthand on a man can be so wrong?

MYTH NO. 1
AL THE CAUTIOUS

The Vice President is often described as a play-it-safe politician who sticks to poll-tested scripts and panders every chance he gets. Though there's truth to this image (think Elian), Gore is capable of making gutsy campaign choices (think Lieberman). Lurking behind the often slippery candidate is a man whose approach to governance is undeniably bold.

Gore is arguably the most influential Vice President ever, and the reason is that he has often been the backbone of the Clinton Administration. Without Gore by his side, Clinton might not have made it to a second term. During the early years, when Clinton was green and the crises came in clusters, Gore was far more decisive--some say more presidential--than the President. He teamed up with Robert Rubin in 1993 to persuade Clinton to embrace deficit reduction (which is another way of saying that Gore really does deserve some credit for the economic boom). He sided with Dick Morris in early 1995, urging Clinton to come out in favor of a balanced budget (thus taking away Newt Gingrich's best issue). Then in the fall he split with Morris when the consultant wanted Clinton to cut a budget deal with Newt to avert a government shutdown. Clinton was hungry for a deal too, but Gore held him back, arguing that voters would blame the G.O.P. for the shutdown and credit Clinton with protecting the environment, Medicare and Social Security. Gore was right. That same year, when Clinton waffled as the Bosnian Serbs laid waste to Srebrenica, Gore made a plea for the allied bombing campaign that finally brought the Serbs to the bargaining table.

So many crisp, real-world decisions, and yet most voters surveyed in a recent TIME/CNN poll said they thought Bush would be more decisive than Gore in an international crisis. "I'm not at all surprised or unhappy that I'm not gonna get credit for everything I did as Vice President," Gore says. "Those who know what happened will speak for me, and that will help marginally. But that's one of the things that go with the job."

MYTH NO. 2
AL THE LIAR

Gore's penchant for exaggerating his past and distorting the positions of his opponents has dominated his press clippings. A study of campaign coverage by the independent Project for Excellence in Journalism found that more than three-quarters of Gore stories focused on negative themes--that Gore is scandal tainted and that he lies and exaggerates--while only 14% looked at his competence and experience. It's just so easy to be cutting at Gore's expense. (I've done it myself; it's irresistible.) His stolid demeanor brings out the creative-writing student trapped inside so many reporters. During a single week in July, for instance, two well-known magazine writers--one liberal, one conservative--compared him to different Hollywood cyborgs. (One chose the Terminator, the other, RoboCop.) Each time he unveils a new campaign theme, he's "reinventing" himself. And his every statement is scrutinized for evidence of exaggeration and insincerity by a permanent truth patrol that is, as he says, "on a hair trigger."

But many of the well-known examples of Gore's stretching the truth are themselves stretches. He never claimed to have "invented" the Internet; he said that in Congress he "took the initiative in creating the Internet," an unfortunate way of saying he sponsored the bill that bankrolled the transformation of a Defense Department computer network into the Internet we know today. Nor did he claim to have discovered the Love Canal toxic-waste crisis; he was misquoted on the subject, but the newspaper corrections didn't get the same play as the original charge. That's not to say Gore doesn't exaggerate; he does. But plenty of other people in his line of work do too. "It is not an unknown phenomenon," he notes dryly, "for politicians to tell the voters what they've done and, in the process, try to put the best face on it."

MYTH NO. 3
AL THE HYPOCRITE

The night of Aug. 28, 1996, changed Gore's image forever. It was the night his relationship with the Washington elite began to unravel--the night he addressed the Democratic Convention in Chicago. In his speech, Gore told the story of his sister Nancy Hunger, who started smoking at 13 and died of lung cancer at 46. After describing her ghastly death, he vowed that "until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking." The people in the hall that night were moved, and polls showed that the speech hit home with viewers across the country as well. But when word got out that Gore had continued to grow tobacco on his family's farm and take campaign cash from the tobacco industry for six years after his sister died, he looked like a hypocrite. How could he not have seen that one coming?

Gore was blind to the problem because of his abiding faith in his rectitude. He considered himself an antitobacco crusader; he was the guy who persuaded Clinton to wage war on cigarette ads aimed at children. He was so passionate about giving the speech that none of his aides felt comfortable pushing the hypocrisy issue with him. Like many other overachievers, he is arrogant and a little insecure, but people had always called him Dudley Do-Right, and it never occurred to him that could change. Six months later, during the furor over his campaign fund-raising adventures, the same belief in his goodness led Gore to call a press conference and repeat "no controlling legal authority" seven times--and with that, his ugly new image was set in stone.

MYTH NO. 4
AL THE TECHNO-INTELLECTUAL

Ask Gore a question today, and he sometimes responds as if he's dictating a treatise. He loves academic arcana and obscure scientific theories, some of them deep and others New Age-y. He is drawn to complexity--abstract systems, chaos theory, the computer-processing technique of distributed intelligence--and when he encounters someone who strikes him as an intellectual, Gore likes to put his brain on display and unleash his knowledge, drawing little diagrams to illustrate his points, even when the subject is God.

Some people assume this is the real Gore and that he simply chose the wrong profession 25 years ago. But that ignores two important facts about him. First, the political Gore who counseled Clinton to stand up to Newt is every bit as authentic as the techno-geek who's fascinated by fractals. Second, Gore went into politics for a reason. More than most other big-time politicians, he has an unshakable belief in his manifest destiny. His special purpose is to save the world (from global warming, mean-spirited Republicans, what have you). And this faintly messianic mission is joined at the hip with his scientific bent. His old friend and chief strategist Carter Eskew calls him a "futurist populist: he has a rare ability to see issues in the future and gauge how they'll impact people."

That sounds like campaign jive, but Gore has always had an eye for how social and technological change affects people. He has been worried about global warming since the 1960s. He held congressional hearings on sheep cloning 15 years before Dolly made headlines. He coined the term information superhighway in 1979, and today he's excited about the mapping of the human genome but concerned it might let insurance companies redline people with genetic predisposition for diseases.

That's not the kind of populism that rouses an audience on the hustings. And perhaps the reason Gore so often seems to be impersonating a tub-thumping pol is that he feels the need to disguise his cerebral nature, since American politics has often punished eggheads. When I propose to Gore that his complex habit of mind may be an asset for a President but a liability for a candidate, he seems stumped for a response, as if he agrees but can't admit it. "Well," he says finally, "I hope you're right on the first part and wrong on the second."

But it's more likely that the tub thumper is part of the real Gore too. He inherited the Southern populist tradition from his father and updated it over time. In Gore's first congressional campaign, in 1976, he ran on a traditional populist program--creating jobs, eliminating tax breaks for the rich, strengthening Social Security--and every campaign since has used those themes.

MYTH NO. 5
AL CORLEONE

Recently it has become fashionable to compare Gore to Michael Corleone in The Godfather, a soft idealist who becomes hard and cold and reconciled to the violence of the family business. But Gore's taste for political combat isn't acquired; it's innate. His prosecutorial streak was there when he was a reporter busting crooked councilmen in Nashville. It was there when he was a House subcommittee member grilling corporate executives about toxic waste. It was there during his first presidential campaign, in 1988, when he twisted the facts when attacking Michael Dukakis and baited Dick Gephardt for flip-flopping on abortion, an issue on which Gore had flip-flopped. And it was there when he demolished Ross Perot, Jack Kemp and Bill Bradley in debates.

That kind of warfare is one sort of electoral politics that Gore enjoys and excels at. When the campaign heats up and it's time for fiery words, he says, "then I get over the hump and into gear. And really relish it." He has an ability to exploit opponents' weaknesses and craft policy nuggets that double as political grenades. He doesn't mind going right to the line, or even across it. In 1991, in a presidential campaign, he said during a rare unguarded moment that you have to be willing to "rip the heart and lungs out of anybody else in the race."

If he succeeds in defeating Bush, it won't be because people suddenly decided that Gore is the more likable fellow. It will be because he seems the more presidential fellow and because he has separated Bush from his lungs by slicing and dicing his record in Texas and his "risky" policies. (Joe Lieberman will help with that too.) The strategy carries dangers for Gore, since many voters say they don't like him when he attacks. But Gore proved in his primary contest with Bradley that Americans expect their politicians to battle about ideas. Exit polls consistently showed that voters liked Gore because he "fights for people like me."

His instinct to attack has been on display this summer against Bush. First came Gore's response to Bush's plan to allow people to invest some Social Security money in the stock market. Bush's idea was appealing to many Americans, and some Democrats, including Lieberman, have been willing to consider the idea. But Gore trashed its trillion-dollar costs and came up with his own idea for tax-free investment accounts in addition to Social Security (that lets him call his plan "Social Security Plus" and Bush's "Social Security Minus"). Next came Gore's mild distortion of Texas' budget shortfall--saying Bush had squandered the surplus on a "tax cut for the wealthy," when more money went to give teachers a pay raise. Then came his attacks on Dick Cheney's voting record in the House (never mind that Gore voted the same way on a few issues).

Gore's toughest attack is aimed at Bush's economic plan. When Gore unleashes the argument, his words uncoil like a viper. "I think that his politics are 20 years old at the core. We've been there, done that, didn't work, still payin' the bill," he says. "It is ridiculous, if we've got a $1.4 trillion surplus over the next 10 years, that his tax cut alone is $1.6 trillion, and then his Social Security privatization is another trillion, and then his defense and other spending increases are another $450 billion, and that doesn't even count the Star Wars plan--I mean, he's underwater by more than $1 trillion before you even start. How does he explain that? The attention paid to this has been minimal until now. But he will not be able to hide it."

It's a nice riff, but Gore knows he can't win by merely bashing Bush. He must also make the case for his own vision and leadership. Gore ascribes a great many problems--his image as a prevaricator, his low standing as a leader--to his painful transition from Veep to standard bearer. Now he must dispel some of those old myths and create flattering new ones in their place. So Gore's convention film will linger on the five years after he returned home from Vietnam, a time when he was disillusioned with politics and looking for another path. And if he's not too cautious for his own good, he will find a way to let people know that, like many of them, he's still not so wild about politics. He will level with the voters and admit he's not especially comfortable running for office--but that he'd be very comfortable running the country. Against a natural-born politician like Bush, that would be a risk. But it could help Gore distinguish himself from the natural-born pol named Clinton, and turn his weakness into a strength.

For Eric Pooley's interview with the Vice President, go to time.com/Campaign2000


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Cover Date: August 21, 2000

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