Somebody gave them a book called The Meditation Year: A Seasonal Guide to Contemplation, Relaxation and Visualization. Somebody else gave them Job Hunting for Dummies. But the book that could help in this job search hasn't been written: Job offers were pouring in, both sublime and ridiculous. One Internet job-search company wanted the nation's most high-profile unemployed man to hawk its services in a big-money Super Bowl ad. A national seafood restaurant chain wanted to do a commercial that would start with a shot of diners eating, and off-camera, a voice saying, "Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six . . ." The camera would pan to the Gore family, and Tipper saying, "Al, stop recounting the shrimp!" on his 30-shrimp platter. "It didn't feel right," says Gore, who says he was nevertheless "amazed" at the amount of money he could have made if he had chosen to become, in effect, the next Bob Dole.
Other alternatives were precluded by the one thing he knew right away: "I wanted to keep my options open to run again." This meant that he couldn't become a full-time employee of, say, a financial group; he couldn't be working for somebody else and have the freedom to campaign for president once more. So Gore set himself up as a freelancer. He put together an ambitious schedule in which he would write the book with Tipper on the modern American family, and teach a related course on "family-centered community building" at both Fisk University in Nashville and Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. Eventually he would accept a part-time job with Metropolitan West, a financial services firm, as a roving rainmaker. Plus, like many out-of-office politicians, he would take public-speaking jobs. In addition, Gore, a politician who, together with many of his staff and supporters, believes himself routinely ill-served by the press, decided to teach at the Columbia School of Journalism.
The Columbia engagement, entered into quickly--Gore started teaching in February, weeks after the inauguration--suggests that he was not quite thinking things through. By most accounts, the classes themselves went well. Gore was well-prepared, he had real ideas he wanted to impart and he brought in an array of marquee names. He got Alan Greenspan to talk about coverage of the economy, David Letterman to talk about political humor, Rupert Murdoch to talk about ownership of the media. There was a legendary moment during the Greenspan class when Gore was getting very wonky, very Gorian, going on about what an economic recovery might look like, sketching graphs, saying that in one version it might look like an L, and, in another, like a U. Then he said something to the effect of: If it gets really chaotic, it would look like this. He sketched a W. Then, hard as this is to imagine, Al Gore and Alan Greenspan celebrated the joke with a high-five.
Aside from sly outbursts, however, Gore declined to talk about the election. This was a problem outside the classroom, where every week he had to walk a gantlet of aggressive New York reporters. It was a problem in the classroom, where journalism
students--equally if not more aggressive--would inevitably ask probing questions. The course, after all, was called Covering National Affairs in the Information Age. Gore was involved in national affairs, and he had been covered. They wanted to know: What was it like? What did he consider ethical conduct? Under what conditions might he agree to become a source?
"I think it was pretty clear that the wounds were quite fresh, and he didn't know how to react publicly," says David Klatell, acting dean of the journalism school. Fair enough, but if Gore wasn't ready to talk about the election, why knowingly put himself into a situation where he would be asked about it over and over? "We wondered about that ourselves," says Klatell.
"I don't know--to be honest, you know, I was thinking that it was a way to have somebody pay for my plane tickets back and forth to see my grandson," says Gore, whose daughter Karenna lives with her family in New York City. Gore has a deadpan look, sometimes, that makes it impossible to know whether he is serious or kidding. Sometimes, as now, it seems a way of telling the truth but leaving room to claim he was joking. "I really didn't think through the fact that there was going to be as much media coverage of the course itself as there turned out to be. I guess I should have expected that, but I didn't. Maybe it was a mistake on my part." Still, Gore says, he isn't sorry he did the class. "It was okay," he says. "No big deal. You might as well go into the vortex."
Meanwhile, he was putting infinitely more energy into the infinitely more obscure classes he was teaching, in Tennessee, on family policy. One mystifying thing about Gore is that he comes across to many people as unfeeling and emotionless, when the evidence suggests he is a man of deep, real family feeling. When Albert was hit by a car years ago, Gore spent days and nights by his bed in the hospital. Out of this came an interest in things like the Family and Medical Leave Act, which enables working people to take family time without losing their jobs. Gore began holding an annual conference on family policy, and with a group of professors developed the curriculum he still uses for the survey courses he teaches at MTSU and Fisk.
Gore threw himself into the class; the outline for the Fisk course is 38 pages long. It served a couple of purposes: It gave him a nonpolitical reason to get back to Tennessee, where he had vowed to "mend some fences." It satisfied the distinctive need, on Gore's part, to assimilate information. Sharks need to swim; Gore needs to collect and download data. "This issue kind of filled his learning agenda," says his longtime friend, Harvard lecturer and New Republic editor-in-chief Martin Peretz. "He always feels that he has to learn something new. It's what makes him seem to a lot of people a little bit nerdy. But it is true. I mean, I remember when he was in Congress, when he was learning the content and lingo of missiles, you know, that was a real intellectual vocation."
In other words, Gore was still Gore,
still information-seeking and information-
imparting, showing the characteristics that his friends affectionately tolerate and that much of the American public found off-putting.
During this period, many of Gore's former associates didn't see a lot of him, but Gore wasn't AWOL or in hiding; he was now seeing a whole set of new people, people who weren't part of the political culture, relatively little-known academics who suddenly found themselves in long conference calls with Gore, being invited by Gore to co-teach in Tennessee. At that point, Gore "seemed like he was having all the reactions a person would have if they had gone through a life-transforming event and come out on the short end of the stick," says Larry Aber, director of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia.
"He was saddened and he was reeling a little bit. He was adjusting to a whole new set of assumptions: how he thought about himself, what he could rightly assume about the structure of day-to-day life. I'd ask him things--sitting over lunch--I'd say, 'What are you thinking about the future?' He'd say, 'I haven't decided.' "
As he spent time with Gore, however, Aber found himself thinking about two other vice presidents who, in his own lifetime, had run for president and lost. One was Walter Mondale, who graciously accepted defeat. The other was Richard Nixon, who didn't. "In my own personal opinion, Al Gore's a lot more like Richard Nixon than Walter Mondale," Aber posits. "Not in their personal idiosyncrasies, not in their obfuscation of the truth, but in their belief that they should be president, in their belief that they would do a better job than anyone else, and in their determination to make the personal sacrifice required to attain success after failure. I don't feel like he's going to go gently into that good night."
Gore acknowledges that in the spring of 2001, much of what he was doing was simply trying to keep busy, to stay scheduled, almost as if nothing had changed. "I've always thrown myself into my work. I think it was a continuation of that pattern a little bit." Then in the summer, Albert having graduated from Sidwell Friends, Al and Tipper were able to take an extended vacation, visiting Spain, Italy and Greece for six weeks. This, Gore says, was important. It allowed him to relax, slow down, depressurize, admit that things had changed, "get away from the daily news cycle."
He was still reading newspapers, but not as intently. He was reading books, notably biographies friends had given him of Andrew Jackson. From time to time he would call friends back in sweltering Washington, and torture them by describing the breezy Mediterranean weather. And, of course, he was growing a beard. "I've always grown a beard on vacation, I just never had such a long vacation," is what Gore likes to say about this over-analyzed episode. According to Tipper, he was going to shave it, as usual, the last day of the trip, but she stopped him. "I said, 'You don't have to shave this time--you don't have a job!' And he gave me this completely startled look, and he said, 'You're right!' "
It was true, he didn't have a job, but when he came back, Gore was ready to reengage. For over six months he had kept a public silence; after the election, he had made the quick and explicit decision to refrain from political comment. He did so for the high-minded reason that the country needed unity after the election. He also did it for the pragmatic reason that to attack Bush too early would make Gore look like he hadn't gotten over what happened. It was reasonable on both counts, but it meant that Al Gore, longtime environmentalist, friend of the Earth, visitor of both poles, worrier about ozone and glacial ice, had to sit there and say nothing while his victorious rival weakened restrictions on the level of arsenic in drinking water, argued for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and declined to participate in the Kyoto treaty on global warming. In private, Roy Neel says, Gore was candid about his disapproval on these and other topics, such as the tax cut. In public he was silent, drawing criticism from Democrats who felt he'd abandoned his leadership role.
Was it hard?
"Yes," Gore says immediately. There is a long pause. "Yes," he says again, with feeling. There is another pause. "It was very hard."
"I didn't have to" stay quiet, he continues, almost as if working it through one more time. "I could have handled the whole thing differently, and instead of making a concession speech, launched a four-year rear guard guerrilla campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the Bush presidency, and to mobilize for a rematch. And there was no shortage of advice to do that. I don't know--I felt like maybe 150 years ago, in Andrew Jackson's time, or however many years ago that is, that might have been feasible. But in the 21st century, with America the acknowledged leader of the world community, there's so much riding on the success of any American president and taking the reins of power and holding them firmly, I just didn't feel like it was in the best interest of the United States, or that it was a responsible course of action."
"I don't think I made the wrong decision," he continues, "but I could certainly--if somebody hired me as a lawyer to write a brief on the other side, I wouldn't have any trouble doing it."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company