Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Reinventing Gore

After years of denying his liberalism, he's come out of the closet

By Beverly Keel

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  The 1984 Senate campaign was in its final weekend when Rep. Albert Gore Jr. wrapped up his Saturday of barnstorming with a rally in Cookeville.

Gore ended his remarks to the crowd by calling on citizens to vote for a list of Democratic candidates. Conspicuously missing from the list was the party's presidential nominee, Walter Mondale.

Gore had spent the campaign keeping a safe distance from Mondale, who had the look of a loser throughout most of the South. But sitting on a huge lead with only days to go in the race, Gore could have spared a little generosity for the doomed ticket leader. Indeed, the Cumberland Plateau is still the state's most solidly Democratic region, and Mondale actually carried most of the counties around Cookeville.

"Why didn't you mention Mondale?" I asked Gore as the rally moved into its music phase.

"I just forgot," he insisted. "No, honest, I did."

About 15 minutes later, one of Gore's aides hunted me down in a men's room.

"Al said not to leave. He's got something else to say," the aide said.

As I walked back into the main auditorium, Gore interrupted the bluegrass band that was playing. Taking the microphone in hand, he announced that he had to mention one other thing that he'd forgotten to say: Everyone should also vote for Walter Mondale.

If Gore has occasionally been a voice for principle in the Clinton White House, a review of his early political history doesn't show much capacity for moral courage. Asking supporters to vote for Mondale was a minuscule act of bravery for Gore. But he wasn't inclined to let even this moment pass unnoticed, like the proverbial tree falling in the woods.

I walked up to Gore, who beamed at me. He had the relieved look of a man without the continuing burden of repressed honesty.

"Yeah," I said. "But what about Geraldine Ferraro?"

"You son of a bitch," Gore said, realizing again that with the press no good deed goes unpunished.

Politicians generally call it "personal growth" when they put aside inconvenient earlier opinions. The people, with their much less sophisticated understanding of the complexities of such matters, tend to view these politicians as "no-good, two-faced slimeballs." There is validity to both perspectives.

Now that Gore's moment is upon us, it's painfully clear that the Albert whom Tennesseans launched as a national figure with his first Senate race in 1984 is not the same man as the one within grasping distance of the presidency.

Any clear look at the contemporary and the historic Gore will show continuities and contradictions. The strongest continuity is his palpable ambition--the driving force for what might politely be called his flexibility.

Throughout his political career in Tennessee, Gore was trying to stamp out the suspicion that he was a closet liberal. Now, as he tries to appeal to the liberal constituencies that dominate voting in most Democratic presidential primaries, he's come out of the closet. And that raises the more vexing question of whether he's simply evolved into a liberal or whether he was tricking Tennessee voters as a younger man.

Gore, the Senate candidate, was cautious to a fault, jealously sitting on his 30-point lead and stirring misgivings that what we were seeing wouldn't be what we got. Indeed, in frustration with Gore's elusiveness, his opponent's first attack ad featured an artist working on some complicated sketch that was slowly revealed to be a depiction of Gore with two faces--liberal in Washington and conservative in Tennessee.

Gore, naturally, tried to frame the campaign's main question differently.

"The central issue in this campaign," he would tell modest crowds several times a day in his standard stump speech, "is effectiveness. Who can do the best job of taking the concerns of everyday men and women in Tennessee and putting them on the national agenda?"

His major opponent--Republican Victor "Bulldog" Ashe, who has since grown up to be mayor of Knoxville--grumbled about it. "Effectiveness to do what? He won't tell you that. That's what's really important."

In those days, Gore liked to call himself a "raging moderate," a bit of political positioning almost as good as "compassionate conservative." He had built a reputation as a bright young man for some good work in the House of Representatives on esoteric consumer issues like quality standards for baby formula and cigarette warning labels.

When he announced his candidacy for the Senate seat that Howard Baker was vacating, Gore's reputation as a rising star in politics was so strong that he got the Democratic nomination without opposition--indeed, not even from any of the annual crop of crazies, inmates, and chronic attention-seekers who get a thrill from rounding up 25 signatures and appearing haplessly on the ballot. One tended to suspect it reflected accumulated voter guilt over the dispatching of his father, Albert Gore Sr., as Tennessee's senior senator 14 years before.

With his 100-percent primary victory, Gore moved on to face Ashe's underdog candidacy, which already was undermined when Christian conservative E.E. "Ed" McAteer bolted the GOP to run as an independent because the Republican National Committee backed Ashe even before the party's primary.

It was a mixed time to run as a Democrat. On the one hand, Democrats were in the midst of a steady reconquista of state politics after the remarkable Republican gains of the immediate post-civil rights era a decade earlier. But it was also the year that Ronald Reagan was running for reelection with ads declaring the return of "morning in America" and featuring images of the renovated Statue of Liberty.

Mondale, the man at the head of the Democratic ticket as presidential nominee, held little natural appeal in the state and would ultimately draw only 41 percent of the vote (ironically, his best showing in the South). Gore knew an albatross when he saw one and steered well clear of Mondale, even famously dodging Ashe's demands during debates that he mention the Democratic nominee's name.

Asked at one campaign stop whether he was closer in outlook to Mondale or Reagan, he told the questioner, "On some issues I'm closer to President Reagan, and on other issues, I'm closer to Vice President Mondale."

Indeed, much of his campaign was an exercise in carefully crafted positions allowing Gore to slither between raindrops. In the end, he won easily, besting the pesky Ashe by nearly 30 percentage points in a triumph of self-disciplined repression.

It's also perhaps from the excruciating caution of that race that his reputation for stiffness was born. Being in the Senate was much more important to Gore than being colorful, and he struggled then as now with finding the right balance between the face he was willing to show in public and the degree of authenticity he was willing to risk. Rather than chance a sartorial error, he wore a solid navy blue suit (of which he had many) every day.

He could relax. On one late-night flight back from Memphis, with just a staff member and a couple of reporters along, he loosened his tie, knocked back a couple of beers, belched once, and used a popular technical political term, "fuck," to describe what he contended the big cigarette companies were trying to do to tobacco farmers.

But 1984's low-temperature run was a long time ago. Gore's carefully crafted centrism is a long-ago casualty of the politics of the '90s and the acrimony of talk-radio and cable-TV shouting heads.

Gore made his first presidential bid in 1988 as the most conservative candidate. And when he joined Bill Clinton on the national ticket in 1992, he was chosen to underscore Clinton's own positioning as a "new Democrat."

But since then, we've had the failed national health plan, the Contract on America, Newt and Rush, impeachment, and the impotence of the old moderate, civil Republican Party as symbolized by Bob Dole's last hurrah as pitchman for the fight against erectile dysfunction.

Now to Gore, it's clear that you can't be a leader of the national Democratic Party--with all its base constituencies and orthodoxies--without being a national Democrat. In this race, he's started behaving as one.

Of course, close observers of his 1984 race suspected that's what he always was. It certainly reflected his political patrimony, his Washington upbringing, and his Harvard education. But politicians have a great capacity for perceiving backbone as a handicap, especially in the early stages of a promising career. As time and one's career move on, sometimes the definition of the easy thing changes.

Recently, Gore got caught showing entirely too much enthusiasm in his pandering to gay voters. It wasn't always that way.

Back in 1984, Gore met his two general election opponents, Ashe and McAteer, in a debate in Chattanooga in late September. During the course of the debate, in a discussion of campaign-finance issues, McAteer declared that as a Christian, he would never take money from "lesbian or queer groups." The comment stirred a brief ripple in the audience, but otherwise went unremarked upon by the other two candidates.

A couple of days after the debate, as the political reporter for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, I decided to probe a little on the issue, phoning all the candidates and asking them about the use of the anti-gay epithet. McAteer insisted that "queer" was the correct term, and Ashe brushed aside the question. I didn't really push it with Ashe, because I didn't expect a better response from a conservative Republican.

Gore was different. Asked whether McAteer's use of the slur was appropriate, Gore initially responded by saying, "That is something Mr. McAteer's supporters will have to decide for themselves." At this point, I asked whether he would say the same thing if McAteer had used, for example, a slurring reference to black people.

"That's a good question," he responded quickly. Then the phone line went silent for a long time--I guess at least 30 seconds (it felt like much longer)--while he pondered his answer. No doubt he was envisioning the prospective headline--"Gore blasts foe over slur on gays"--and its impact on his campaign.

Finally, he said, "I'm just going to have to leave it as something that his supporters will have to decide for themselves."

The obvious question at that point, which I didn't ask, would have been why he wouldn't speak out against something that he fairly obviously felt was wrong.

Now, as he fights with Bill Bradley for the typically liberal Democratic primary voters, Gore is falling all over himself to appeal to gays, promising to permit homosexuals to serve openly in the military.

On another issue, Gore has taken a beating from Bradley over the "evolution" of his position on abortion. In his early political years, he fielded questions on the issue by stressing his opposition to federal funding and noting that he was "personally opposed" to abortion, a locution that presumably meant that he didn't intend to get one himself.

But he would add, "I've never seen a constitutional amendment that didn't get the government involved in there somewhere where you don't want it to be." The implication was always that the search for an acceptable version of a constitutional amendment banning abortion, like O.J.'s quest for his wife's killer, was going on.

These days, Gore is firmly "pro-choice," but he ended up looking silly for his refusal to admit that his positions have changed.

To be sure, there's really nothing knavish about politicians changing their views on specific issues over time. After all, who among us would want to be stuck with all the things we believed 15 or 20 years ago. Politicians are as entitled as the rest of us to learn and to mellow.

There's a charitable explanation for the shifts in Gore's positions. It's that at last, as he campaigns for the presidency, he feels sufficiently confident and liberated to be the political man he always wanted to be. Less kindly, others might suggest that the early, moderate Gore could have been the genuine article, and his current persona is just one of the accouterments of ambition.

But while we may accord our politicians the right to learn and change, we have a right to expect them to be steadfast in their basic outlooks and principles--the things that define precisely who they are. And we are right to be wary of politicians who are too adaptable.

About a year after Gore's victory in the 1984 Senate race, I spent a day traveling with him as he ran through a series of open meetings with constituents in various small rural counties east of Nashville. Many of the participants in the meetings grew tobacco, and the more difficult economics of the business was a hot issue. Gore had always supported tobacco farmers.

As he fielded questions from the rural farmer crowd, I noticed that Harvard-educated Gore was referring to the crop as "tobacca" in the fashion of his audience. Surely this wasn't the way he normally talked, I thought, and I wondered if he would pronounce it the same way in a conversation with someone like me with an excessive Northeastern education.

So as we traveled between stops, I probed on the tobacco issue with the sole purpose of drawing the word from his lips. The process was slow and painful, but finally it came.


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