Page Two |
Al Gore: The Power of Pauline
Continued from preceding page
They say opposites attract, Al Gore wrote in the eulogy to his father, explaining the marriage of his parents.
Pauline LaFon did share some characteristics with Albert Gore. Like him, she came out of relative poverty in a small southern town and believed from an early age that circumstances could not deter her. But she was at once warmer and more politically savvy than her husband. "Pauline was the brains and Albert was the pretty blond," is how one former Tennessee journalist put it, stretching the reality to make the point. No one familiar with the family disputes the idea that Albert would not have gone nearly as far in life without her.
Once, according to family lore, Pauline became so exasperated with her husband that she said, "I think I'll leave."
"Why, that's a good idea," he responded. "I believe I'll go with you."
Tennessee is so diverse and wide (Mountain City in the northeast, notes historian Charles W. Crawford, is closer to points in Canada than to Memphis) that until recent years it was regarded internally as three separate jurisdictions, known as Grand Divisions: East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee. Each division had its own geography, history, economics, politics and culture. Pauline LaFon came out of the west. She was born in the small town of Palmersville and moved in early adolescence to Jackson when her father, disabled by an arm infection, gave up his country store and took a job with the highway department dispensing gasoline tickets to road crews and patrolmen. There were six children in the LaFon family, and the three girls, who came first, were encouraged by their father to compete in the male-oriented society.
Pauline attended Union College in Jackson, then borrowed $100 from the Rotary Club of Jackson and rode the bus to Nashville to attend Vanderbilt law school, where she became the 10th female graduate. She paid back the loan by waitressing nights at the Andrew Jackson coffee shop, where one of her regular customers was Albert Gore, who was stoking up on caffeine before making the drive back to Carthage on old Highway 70. Albert could not get enough of Pauline, with her handsome cheekbones and piercing blue eyes and strong but comforting bearing. Within two years, after they took the bar exam together and Pauline endured one unsatisfying year practicing law in Texarkana, they slipped away to Tompkinsville, Ky., and got married.
There was a certain mystery to the ceremony on May 15, 1937. Their families were not there, and a handwritten notation on the certificate directed that news of the marriage not be published. Perhaps the secrecy was prompted by another fact revealed on the certificate -- that Pauline had been married once before and divorced, a part of her early life that she never again wanted to discuss.
In all events, once they were united, Albert and Pauline Gore seemed to meld perfectly. "They weren't two people, they were one," said Louise Gore, a second cousin whose father, Grady Gore, had grown up with Albert in Possum Hollow. "They were as close as two people could be."
Here was another contrast with Bill Clinton, who sat among the mourners at Albert Gore's memorial service in Nashville. Clinton grew up with an alcoholic stepfather who abused his mother; he reacted by trying to become a peacemaker, constantly seeking to soothe or conceal the rough edges, and to go out into the world to achieve and redeem the family. Gore, meanwhile, said that his parents' strong marriage allowed him to grow up "secure and confident" that his needs would be met. While his parents expected much of him and instilled in him fierce competitive instincts, he never seemed driven, as Clinton so clearly was, to win the approval of strangers.
Soon after joining forces with Albert, who announced for Congress within a year of their marriage, Pauline decided to put aside her own law career and channel her considerable talents into the rise of the Gore family. She traveled with her husband, polished his speeches, coined his slogans, spoke as his stand-in without hesitation, and talked policy with him at the dinner table, usually pushing him to be more liberal (her politics were modeled after Eleanor Roosevelt's, for whom she worked answering letters during the 1930s). Albert "had a real good woman that was driving him," said Whit LaFon, Pauline's brother, a judge in west Tennessee. "She stayed on his duster."
Where Albert tended to be a loner, Pauline mixed more easily with people, reflecting the cultural difference between the lonesome hills of middle Tennessee and the southern flatlands of the west, where social graces were more valued. "She was always trying to calm Albert down," remembered Charles Bartlett. Although her politics were liberal, "Pauline does not have the maverick personality, and she transferred that to Al," noted historian Longley. Along with her softer edges, she possessed a keener sense of the political world. She was constantly "looking out from behind for the guys with the knives," said David Halberstam, who covered the Gores for the Tennessean early in his journalism career. "She was smarter, tougher, more calculating." If Al Gore took his formality, his distant eyes and his pedagogical style from his father, his political instincts came more from his mother. "You have to understand Pauline to know Al Junior," said Bartlett. "She was the leavening influence."
The Last Trip Home
After the memorial service in Nashville, the funeral cortege turned back toward Carthage, traveling east through the mist not on old Highway 70 but along Interstate 40, the other main road in the life of the Gore family. Al Gore had planned the return route, what he called his father's "last trip home," as another metaphor for his life's path.
As a senator in 1955 and 1956, Albert Gore had helped write and pass legislation creating I-40 and the rest of the interstate highway system, the largest public works project in American history. That is where the son's interest in politics and government began, when Senator Gore brought him along to hearings of the Senate Public Works committee in Room 412 of the marble-foyered Russell Senate Office Building and the 8-year-old boy became captivated by the debate over where the superhighways would go and how wide the lanes would be and what color was best for the road signs, blue or green.
The interstate project made a lasting impression on Al; it served, in a sense, as the generational precursor of his own later work in Congress promoting the Internet's information superhighway. The father passed down to his son something else, it seems: an overeagerness to take credit. Although Albert Gore was an important figure in the interstate highway bill, there were many other key participants in Congress and the Eisenhower administration, but he never shied away from calling the system his own. It was not unlike Al Gore's later boast that he invented the Internet -- stretching an indisputably important role into a seminal one.
The funeral procession rolled toward Gordonsville, slowing briefly as it approached Possum Hollow, in silent honor of where it all began, then turned north toward Carthage. Albert Gore was a teacher, first and always, and there were old lessons evoked everywhere along the route, lessons Big Al passed along to Little Al.
Here was the farm where his father taught Al to use an ax, square-bale hay, clear the tobacco patch and once, in the summer of his fifteenth year, how to plow a slanted hillside with a team of mules. The stiff preppy Geeing and Hawing his mules? The very notion has prompted doubts and some ridicule. But his Carthage friends are puzzled by the skepticism. Steve Armistead, Edd Blair, Goat Thompson, and Terry Pope all worked alongside Al for several summers. They fooled around when they could -- filling the cattle trough with cold water and diving in, driving jalopies wildly down the farm hill, hypnotizing chickens -- but not when the old man was watching. "Senior always wanted Al to do this and do that," recalled Steve Armistead. "His dad really wanted him to work."
Perhaps there was a long-range political purpose to Albert's insistence that his son learn the ways of rural life, but the intent did not seem to be that Al could later use the farm as a convenient counterpoint to his Ivy League schooling. Gore Senior believed that farm work was invaluable in and of itself. Pauline later recalled one afternoon when she and Albert were inside the big house, looking out the picture window toward the Caney Fork, and there was Al down below, behind the mules, and the father said contentedly, "I think a boy, to achieve anything he wants to achieve, which would include being president of the United States, oughta be able to run a hillside plow."
Down past the farm, at the edge of Snow Creek, the funeral procession stopped at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church for a second memorial service, this one smaller, for friends and neighbors. Old men in dark suits sat together in the left-side pews, shouting amens from their amen corner.
Then the black hearse led the way back through town, past Fisher Avenue, where the Gores had lived in the summers of Al's early childhood, Albert and Pauline and Al and Nancy in one house, grandparents Allen and Margie next door, where Allen had taught his grandson how to spell his first word -- G-R-E-E-N. Up at the end of the street stood the Cullum Mansion, where Albert had once taken his son, then 7, for another lesson: What could Senator Gore's refusal to sign the Southern Manifesto mean to a youngster? Here was what it meant. Through the elegant front parlor and down the back staircase to the dank basement, way in the back, Look up, son! Look up! -- slave rings hanging from the ceiling. It was, for young Al, the first startling lesson on life's contradictions -- the "stark contrast," as he said later, "between the undeniable and palpable presence of evil having existed in my home town, my neighborhood, on the one hand, and the gentleness of Carthage as I knew it."
It was dark by the time the funeral cortege reached the cemetery, and a winter drizzle dampened the grass along the 50-yard walk from the driveway to the burial site. Local men had dug the hole by shovel, and would fill it again after everyone left. The funeral home brought in a generator and set up construction lights to illuminate the scene. Al Gore had been awake for 38 hours straight dealing with the meaning of his father. He sat with his arm around his mother as they watched Albert Arnold Gore Sr., dressed formally, as always, in a blue business suit, resting inside his solid cherry coffin, descend into Grave 3 in Lot 18, Section C of the Smith County graveyard. He was buried next to his daughter, the ebullient Nancy, who had died of lung cancer 14 years earlier at the premature age of 46.
The ceremony done, son and mother moved slowly through the evening darkness to the waiting car, past rows of grave markers memorializing the people of the Upper Cumberland hills of middle Tennessee, ancestors named Cowan and Burton, Hood and Butler, Ligon and Dixon, Bowman and Lankford, Massey and Gore.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company