What made the silence easier, he says, was that he knew it wouldn't last forever. By summer's end, Gore had gotten into gear and held several events thanking donors, who'd complained earlier about being ignored. He had spoken before small crowds in private settings. He was getting invitations to speak at larger events, and decided to accept one to speak at the Iowa Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in late September 2001. It was an important political event in a politically important state. The timing seemed propitious: Favorability polls showed Gore
essentially tied with Bush. The country looked like it was heading into recession. Gore would talk about that. He would resume his public political role.
"One of the ways I got through was by realizing that the time would come when I could say what I wanted to, and feel comfortable doing so," Gore reflects. "I felt the economic plan that the administration had enacted was a catastrophe, and would create serious problems. And so, I was looking forward to speaking out on that."
Iowa, he says, "was where I was going to start."
On September 11, 2001, Gore was sitting in a hotel room in Vienna, Austria, where he was going to give a speech on the future of the Internet. There were a group of European Internet aficionados in the room. He had CNN on, and suddenly on the news came a bulletin saying that an airplane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. As they were sitting there, the second plane flew into the second tower. "Osama bin Laden," Gore said to the people in the room.
Gore's daughter Karenna was in Manhattan. The Internet experts patched him in to a remote phone connection with Tipper, who told him Karenna was okay, and then the two of them sat, thousands of miles apart, and watched the horror. "Al, those towers are going to collapse," Tipper said. "No, they're not," Gore told her. The towers collapsed. And then, like so many people, Gore felt the need to call people. He called New York Gov. George Pataki, he called Mayor Rudy Giuliani, he called Sen. Hillary Clinton, he called Sen. Charles Schumer. He tried to call Bill Clinton, who was in Australia, but couldn't reach him. And then he set about trying to get back home.
"It became like 'Groundhog Day,' the movie," says Gore. "Every morning I would get up and start the routine of trying to get out." All flights to the United States were grounded, so Gore asked his hosts, which included the Austrian government, to get him to North America. Eventually he got on a flight to Canada, where the Mounties drove him over the closed border into the United States. In Buffalo, he and an aide rented a car, intending to drive to Washington for the service at National Cathedral. Along the way he tried to give blood, but was turned away. There was a surplus. There was nothing--not even plasma--his country needed from him.
While he and the aide were driving, Bill Clinton called. He'd been flown to the United States on military transport, and was now at home in New York. Bush was sending a plane to take him to National Cathedral. Why didn't Gore drive to Chappaqua and fly down with him? Clinton gave him directions to get to the house, so that's where Gore went, arriving in the middle of the night. Clinton had waited up. He was doing some renovating, with the result that there was a refrigerator on the front porch. "Al arrives at about 3:30 in the morning, sees the refrigerator on the porch, and the first thing he says is, 'I see you've managed to bring a little bit of Arkansas to New York,' " Clinton recalled in a statement for this article. "And I knew that after all he'd been through, he hadn't lost his sense of humor." After that, both men say, they talked all night: about terrorism, about bin Laden, about their families. They kept talking on the plane to the service, and afterward, when Clinton invited the Gores to see his new house in Washington, and even after that, when the Gores invited Clinton (Hillary Clinton returned to New York) to Arlington for the afternoon. At some point Bill and Al ended up in the second-floor viewing room, admiring the big-screen TV.
"I saw that as a kind of cathartic bookend," says Roy Neel, meaning that he saw it as a complement to their initial late-night hotel-room meeting, back in 1992, when Clinton interviewed Gore for the vice presidency and the two men massively hit it off. "These relationships that are so public are so complicated," says Neel. "But that one is about the most complex one that I've run into. I mean, they dove into that thing, and they built the personal relationship that became an integral part of the way they were going to govern, and the way Clinton was going to involve Al in governing, and the way Al was going to support Clinton in governing." It was far more than an expedient, superficial relationship, Neel says, and now it was somewhat restored.
Somewhat, but probably not entirely: "I have the impression that there has
been a degree of coming back together," says Gore's national security adviser, Leon Fuerth. "But I don't see any indication that it's anywhere near what it had been." Gore will simply say, about this, that he and Clinton are "friends and comrades in arms, and we've been through so much together, that the friendship and the partnership overwhelmed any other elements that come into the relationship." In the statement Clinton made in response to
e-mailed questions for this article, he did not comment on their overall relationship.
Meanwhile, September 11 had changed the entire political atmosphere. Nobody was thinking about the election of 2000. Nobody was looking back. Nobody doubted that George W. Bush was president. Gore saw this instantly. "I thought President Bush did a magnificent job in the immediate aftermath of the attack," he says. "In rallying the country and mobilizing a speedy response. I thought he did a really good job, and I said so . . . It was a watershed. I think he really came into his own as a president."
Later, Gore would come to believe that Bush had cut back too soon on the force committed to Afghanistan. He would believe that Bush's staff became "intoxicated" with the president's popularity, and had begun to use it for political purposes. He would believe that Bush had had the opportunity to "take his presidency to a new level," and had only partly succeeded. Later--actually, pretty quickly--the finger-pointing would begin: The Bush administration would leak details implying that the Clinton-Gore administration had dropped the ball on al Qaeda and bin Laden. Eventually there would be leaks from the Clinton-Gore people arguing that the Bush people had been given an al Qaeda plan and had failed to take it seriously. Gore would not weigh in on any of this. The silence would be prolonged.
He went ahead and went to Iowa. But once he got there, Gore--who had studied airline security as vice president, before anybody cared about it; who always took his CIA briefing; who could pronounce names like Osama bin Laden and Hamid Karzai at a time when most Americans could not locate Afghanistan on a map--Gore stood before that rabidly partisan crowd, and pronounced George W. Bush "my commander in chief."
"This is really Al Gore! Yes! Al Gore! Well, thank you very much!"
Gore, his voice high-pitched, is standing on the sidewalk outside a convenience store in rural Iowa. He is shouting into a cell phone. The sun is shining. The air is cool. Gore is wearing black pants and a blue shirt and, somewhat incongruously, farmer-ish brown leather ankle boots. What happened is, he stopped for a diet soda and a roofing contractor named Loyd Roling recognized him. They started chatting, and Roling asked Gore if he would call Roling's wife on his cell phone. Gore agreed. "Al Gore!" he tells the incredulous woman. "Yes! I really am Al Gore!"
Gore loves doing this. He has a weird sense of humor. Now that he has learned how to inhabit his role comfortably, he seems to get a genuine kick out of calling people out of the blue, telling them who he is, and seeing how they react. In fact, that's what he did in the weeks after September 11, 2001; though he did prolong his political silence, and though he did call Bush his commander in chief, he also went ahead with the other part of the plan he had hatched for Iowa, arriving there alone, in relative secret, several days before the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner. He rented a car and drove through the state, wending his way from one side to the other, calling up supporters to say hello. Over and over, he pulled the same trick.
"When I'd get near to a community," he says, "I'd start calling friends on the telephone, and I'd say, 'How ya doing, it's been a long time since we talked.' And we'd catch up, and I'd wait for them to say, 'Oh, the next time you're here, let's get together.' And I'd say, 'Well, okay, what about 15 or 20 minutes from now?' And they'd say, 'What?' Hahahahahaha!" Nor did he stop there: He and the person would get together, for coffee or lunch, and eventually, he says, "They'd say, 'Well, I know you're busy, you've got to get going.' And I'd say, 'No, what did you have in mind?' Hahahahaha! I was not joking! I had no schedule."
Gore did the same thing in New Hampshire, and in Tennessee, two, for him, politically crucial states. Just drove, you know, and reconnected. Then, in February 2002, he finally did make his political reemergence, in a speech in Nashville when he said he believed it was time to rejoin the national debate. "For everything, there is a season," he said. Since then, he has tried to influence that debate on issues from the economy to Iraq. He has stumped for candidates who wanted him, something that got him back in the spotlight, let him pay back old political debts, and enabled him, if the candidate won, to assert that having Al Gore campaign for you is an asset, not a liability.
Now, this October afternoon he's back in Iowa again, calling strangers on his cell phone again, attending fundraisers, speaking out, getting lost at least once, campaigning for several Democratic candidates. He is again driving himself, in a rental car, though this time there is a small entourage of aides and reporters. Interest is picking up in Gore, who may or may not try to take on Bush in 2004, but who, just now, is in his car blasting Johnny Cash, singing occasionally, and talking about the history of human communication. Even now, during what certainly seems like the run-up to another presidential campaign, Gore's life by no means consists exclusively of politics. Even now, there exists this
OtherGore, an Al Gore who is very much apart from PoliticalGore, a Gore who seems to have thrived during the relative anonymity of the last two years. When he conceded in 2000, Gore spoke of defeat as something that can serve, as well as victory, to "let the glory out." For part of Gore, for OtherGore, it seems that glory is the freedom to write and think and ruminate and cogitate and generally do that data-downloading, information-gathering thing. It is the freedom to use phrases like "strategic frame analysis" and "meta-narrative" in the company of people who appreciate that language as much as he does.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company