From The Sunday Magazine
A gavel stroke away from being the world's most powerful human, he becomes someone's suburban neighbor instead. What is that like? Al Gore wasn't telling...until now.
By Liza Mundy
Sunday, November 17, 2002; Page W13
For a quick moment, deplaning off the morning flight from Hartford, he is nobody, or rather he is everyman, just another commercial traveler blinking in the fluorescent light of the Nashville airport, trying to get his bearings. Then a woman spots him and he is ineluctably Al Gore, unavoidably Al Gore, unmistakably Al Gore, 45th vice president of the United States of America. "Hello!" the woman says, rushing over, clasping his hand, intently gazing. It's hard to know what she sees. Gore, just now, is wearing a dark suit and a fatigued expression. His face is pale, except around the cheeks, where it gets ruddy. Of him the cliche is true; he's smaller than he looks on television. Or rather, he is smaller than he looked on television. "Hello!" the woman says again.
"Hello!" says Gore, stopping a minute to chat and then politely extricating himself. Before he can take another step, though, a teenager approaches. "I would have voted for you in the last election, but I'm not 18 yet," the boy says loudly, looking pleased with himself. A clever joke, which he himself made to Al Gore!
"That's okay; you'll get over that condition," jokes Gore, who knows, now, that he is playing for an audience. Because naturally other travelers have stopped to watch. You can see them discreetly pausing; you can read their thoughts on their faces as they congregate in the middle of C Concourse. Look, it's Al Gore. Al Gore, walking through the Nashville airport on a Saturday morning in mid-October. Al Gore, flying Southwest, the people's airline! Al Gore--why, they'd almost forgot about Al Gore. What is Al Gore doing now? What was it--teaching? Doing stuff in Europe? Running for president again? What must his life be like now? Look, Erma! Al Gore!
"Can I have your autograph?" says the boy.
"Sure," says Gore.
"I don't have a pen," the boy says. "Or a piece of paper."
"Well," says Gore, half-irritated, half-amused. "That's a problem. Isn't it?"
The boy stands there, expectant, so Gore puts down his bags, which consist of a black suitcase, a black suit bag and a laptop computer case, neatly lashed together so he can roll them along, the universal equipage of the well-organized business traveler. From somewhere he procures a piece of paper, signs it and hands it to the boy. Then he makes his way toward daylight, passing a man who calls, "Good morning!" and a woman who approaches him to confide: "I like you much better without the beard." He thanks her for her opinion and manages to keep moving to the curb, where he attracts the attention of a big, yellow-haired man in a gold-colored T-shirt who looks at Gore and then looks away, and then looks at him again, with wonder, as if he cannot believe what he is seeing.
"Mr.--Mr. Quayle?" he breathes.
Gore looks at him, quizzical.
"Dan--Dan Quayle?" says the man.
It's a curious celebrity Al Gore has now. He can scarcely take a step in public without being saluted, hailed, recognized, reminded, confronted. Sometimes what he is confronted with is the kaleidoscopic cluelessness of the American electorate. The rest of the time, what he is confronted with is more complex and, possibly, more painful: the fact that he occupies a unique position in the history of America, that he'll go down as the man who won more votes than any Democratic presidential candidate; more votes than any Republican presidential candidate except Ronald Reagan in 1984; more votes than George W. Bush; and despite all this, did not win the presidency itself. It's a negative celebrity he carries with him, a celebrity in which he's famous not for what he achieved but for what he failed to achieve. Famous not for what he is, but for what he almost was. Thinking about Al Gore, you find yourself groping for comparisons. Okay, you think: Losing the presidency the way he did would not be as bad as losing a child. It would not be as bad as living poor and destitute in some war-torn Godforsaken place.
Still, losing the presidency, in one of history's closest races, is bad in a particular way that no other living person has experienced. It's a Joblike, Lord-what-have-I-done-to-deserve-this sort of badness. To come so close to being the most powerful human being on the only inhabited planet that we know of in the universe, and not to get it. It's not the worst fate in the world, by any means, but it's certainly one of the most singular.
Moreover, it's a fate that the man himself--the subject, the victim, Gore--has said little about. What adds to Gore's celebrity, as he walks through airports and elsewhere, is that for the past two years Al Gore has not said a word about how it feels to be Al Gore. He's done no emoting, no pain-sharing; he hasn't gotten mad, he hasn't waggled his finger at anyone. When, in 1824, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but lost the presidency to John Quincy Adams, Jackson lost no time in complaining that he believed the election was stolen. He complained early, he complained often; even after he won the presidency the next time around he was still complaining. Not so Al Gore, who to date has publicly said nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. It's true, Gore does have a shtick he's developed to deal with the issue when he speaks before audiences.
"Just imagine what my life has been like for the past two years," Gore, 54, will say morosely, and the audience will perk up with the hope of some pitiable revelation. "They let other cars on the road with me now!" he'll continue, and when the audience laughs, he'll complain, "It slows you down!" Gore, who occasionally performed as a stand-up comic in college, will go on and on in a similar vein, complaining about the loss of a Secret Service retinue, the fact that he sometimes has to take his shoes off at airport security. "I'm a visiting professor now, or VP, for short," says Gore. "It's a way of hanging on."
So he jokes about it, yes, but joking isn't the same as talking. He's the Greta Garbo of contemporary American politics, so much so that people who used to see him all day, every day, haven't a clue where he's been or how he's been for, oh, the past 22 months. "I have no idea what he went through," says Gore's 2000 campaign manager, Donna Brazile, who says that she talked to her old boss only two or three times in the year after the election. "He completely went inside. There was probably a handful of people he kept in touch with. He completely cut off people, as if we had a disease." To an extent, Brazile says, all politicians do this when they lose. "Dukakis did.
They all go through that period when they sulk." But Gore, she says, withdrew more intensely than most, seeking out the company of old, trusted friends.
And even these got only rare glimpses into what Gore was feeling. "I think we'll never know the true inner process, the healing process, that he went through," says Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, who with her partner, Hilary Rosen, is close to both Al Gore and his wife, Tipper. Like a number of intimate friends, they had a quiet dinner with the Gores not long after the contest was over. "I went there prepared to treat him as though he was on tenterhooks, I felt so protective of him. I tend to be overdramatic about these things, and I have to tell you, he was smart and jovial. We stayed up and watched oceanography movies. He wasn't a wreck; I was."
It's a difficult position, though. If you seem too healthy, too recovered, people may think you never wanted it in the first place. Which is probably not something Gore would want people to think. Because Al Gore is starting to emerge now. Bit by bit. In a careful and gradual way. He and Tipper have a new book out, Joined at the Heart, about the American family. And Gore has started making political speeches, criticizing the Bush administration for its positions on Iraq, on the economy, on health care. Publicly, he stumped for candidates in this fall's elections. Privately, he and Tipper have bought a $2.3 million house in Nashville. "We're relocating," he says, shifting their base of operations from their longtime residence in south Arlington. Why? Well, it could be a retreat from Washington. Equally plausibly, it could be an attempt to reestablish his Tennessee bona fides after losing the state in 2000, an effort to shore up his native son status in anticipation of a rematch. In December, Gore has said, he will announce whether or not he will try it again. Whether or not he will try to take on George Bush in 2004.
If he does, the past two years are something he's going to have to account for. And so, in his first prolonged interview on the subject, he's agreed to talk about the 2000 election and its psychological aftermath: what it felt like to win the popular vote and lose the presidency in such a fitful, disputed process; what it felt like--and feels like--to be Al Gore.
"I'm fine," he says now, sitting in a formal chair in the living room of the new Nashville house, a grand, columned--make of this what you will--white house in the city's tony Belle Meade neighborhood. Strictly speaking, he does look fine; tired but cordial, his tie removed and white shirt open at the collar, he shifts in his chair, drinking diet soda, gazing into the unlit fireplace, laughing frequently. He says it two more times for good measure: "I'm fine. I'm fine."
At the same time, there are subtle signs that getting fine, for Gore, has taken work. There's an aromatherapy candle on a coffee table near him, its flicker lonely and small in the still-chilly, mostly uncarpeted house. As Gore talks, he periodically lets out the controlled exhale that yoga practitioners and women in labor know as the "cleansing breath," a means of slowing down and staying calm. To get from the election to now is a story that for him will take more than one cleansing breath.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company