Al Gore, Growing Up in Two Worlds
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 10, 1999; Page A1
This is the second in an occasional series of biographical stories about Vice President Gore.
During his early years as a senator's son in Washington, Al Gore was often the smallest one in the crowd, a pint-size boy with dark hair and freckles who lived with his prominent parents in Suite 809 atop the Fairfax Hotel along Embassy Row. If this experience made him different from you and me, to borrow F. Scott Fitzgerald's phrase, it was not from being rich, but rather from being apart. He grew up in a singularly odd world of old people and bellhops, separated from the child-filled neighborhoods of his classmates at St. Albans and further still from his summertime pals at the family farm in Tennessee.
The Fairfax still advertised itself as "Washington's Family Hotel," but most of the families were gone by the mid-1950s. Directly below the Gores in 709 resided grumpy old Senator McClellan, who complained every time Al bounced his basketball. Down one dark hall lived the exotic widow, Madame Brambilla, who spent half the year at the Excelsior in Rome and maintained a second suite for her considerable wardrobe. The hotel was owned by Grady Gore, the senator's cousin, who had grown up with Albert in Possum Hollow, but now had transformed himself into a society figure, answering to the title colonel, voting Republican, living in his capacious Marwood estate overlooking the Potomac, and arriving at the Fairfax each morning in the back of a black Cadillac.
There was not much for a young boy to do at the hotel once the thrill of riding an elevator was gone. The best playground, it seems, was the hotel's flat roof, which Al reached by ascending a metal staircase. He and his friends now and then played Frisbee up there, an entertainment often cut short by a gust of wind. They also dropped water balloons on limousines parked in back or on the hoods of cars waiting for the light to change at the corner of 21st and Massachusetts. Sam Williams, a school friend who lived in the suburb of Bethesda, was struck during visits to the Fairfax by his classmate's unusual life: He came to think of Al as "almost political aristocracy" existing "all alone in this big old apartment building."
For the most part, his water balloon caprice aside, Al adapted to this staid environment by behaving as a perfect little gentleman. He was invariably courteous to his elders and seemed uncommonly earnest, sometimes overly so and prone to tattling. His only sibling, Nancy, was a decade older and in some ways his opposite, radiant, easygoing and full of mischief. Nancy attended Holton Arms, a private girls school then located on S Street near Dupont Circle. On weekends, she often stayed home to look after her little brother while their parents were on the political circuit. Barbara Howar, a friend from school, sometimes joined her and they had the run of Suite 809.
Although Nancy by all accounts adored her brother, at times like this she wanted nothing to do with him. He was the sort of pest who would seek attention by popping out of nowhere, reciting in singsong voice the latest television commercial he had memorized ("Got a little ant . . . Got a little fly . . . Real-Kill! Real-Kill! . . . Watch them die!") Their efforts to evade the watchful eye of Little Al met with no apparent success. "Every time we tried to do something, Al would catch us and say, 'I'm telling! I'm telling! I'm telling Dad!' " Howar recalled recently. "He was an egregious little tattletale."
His compulsion to adhere to the expected order extended beyond the common practice of snitching on an older sibling. One day in May 1958, Al's lower-school class at St. Albans went on a field trip to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Their bus broke down outside the base entrance, and the boys and teachers walked the rest of the way in. When the tour was over, they waited in the sweltering afternoon heat for the arrival of a replacement bus, and many of the boys took advantage of this idle time by scampering around an open field. A young science teacher named Alexander Haslam was surveying his boisterous brood when young Al approached and politely inquired: "Sir, is this the time to be rowdy?"
Perhaps no human beings, not even candidates for the American presidency, should be judged decades later by the way they were before they reached adulthood, but it is true nonetheless that in seeking to understand why people think and act as they do, the early days often provide the richest veins in the biographical mine. Al Gore has undergone a series of life-changing experiences since his school years – serving in Vietnam, marrying and rearing a family, losing his sister, nearly losing his son, following his father into politics, losing a premature bid for the presidency, serving two terms as vice president – yet in many ways the child remains the father of the man. Many of the behavioral patterns of the figure running for president today are best explained by the boy he once was.
Young Gore learned to adapt within the confines of a disciplined life, a structure imposed on him by his parents and teachers, and against which he rarely rebelled. He presented himself to the world as serious and earnest, always striving to do right, but at times he revealed flashes of a more complicated struggle within, his stoic front masking a boy's hidden artistry, sarcasm and loneliness. He made himself the son that his parents wanted and the very model of a St. Albans boy, but if he was uncommonly good, he was never the best. He had to work at his achievements, for neither academic nor athletic success came to him without great effort.
'Isn't It Fine?'
Here is a morning tableau at Suite 809 drawn from remembrances of the family and hotel workers: Al's mother, hoping to make the hotel seem more like home, bakes her own bread and prepares Al's morning meal. He eats hurriedly, gathers his books and leaves for school at precisely the same time each morning, scooting past the green chinoiserie desk with the silver goblet, past the big red sofa with the tufted back, and out the green door and down the hallway to the elevator, descending to the lobby and sprinting to the Fairfax's front door "like a rocket," as the elevator man later recalled, crossing Massachusetts Avenue to wait for the N-2 or N-4 bus that will take him up the hill to St. Albans.
As their son stands there waiting for his ride, Albert and Pauline gaze down on him from the eighth-floor window, fairly busting with pride, and one turns to the other and declares, "Isn't it fine?"
It had been that way since his birth, which came at Columbia Hospital in Washington on March 31, 1948, nearly 10 years after Nancy's and just when the Gores, according to Pauline, "had almost despaired of having another child, much less a son." They regarded their boy as "kind of a miracle" and wanted the world to know that he was special. Albert had gone so far as to instruct the Nashville Tennessean's Washington bureau while Pauline was pregnant that "if I have a baby boy, I don't want the news buried on an inside page [as the birth of a daughter of his competitive ally, Estes Kefauver, had been]. I want it on Page 1 where it belongs." And so it was. Well Mr. Gore, Here He Is, On Page 1, read the headline.
Looking back on his childhood during a series of interviews recently, Vice President Gore answered "not really" when asked whether he felt that his parents were demanding in their expectations. "But," he added, "I suppose I got the message" that their expectations were high.
Their ambitions for him were not always subtle. Albert imparted lessons to his young son much as a strict mentor would to a pupil, using daily encounters as the course work for an ongoing political philosophy class. Pauline later used the dinner table in Suite 809 for the same purpose. "I selected guests for us," she recalled. "If it so happened there was a great guest who was a good conversationalist and the issue was proper for me and my son, then I would see if I could wedge Al in." Once, when serving a meal to young Al and his cousins Mark and Jamie, she asked, "Which one of you is going to be president?" Albert, perhaps putting his own thoughts into the boy's mouth, told acquaintances about the time he and Al were crossing the street and his son looked up and announced, "One day, I'm going to be somebody."
When Al was only 6, his parents called a reporter at the Knoxville News-Sentinel to relate a story about how he had talked his father into buying him a 98-cent bow and arrow rather than the 49-cent set they had originally agreed upon – a tale that in its recounting seemed like nothing more than a promotion of the boy's political future. "There may be another Gore on the way toward the political pinnacle," the story began. "He's just 6 years old now. But with his experiences to date, who knows what may happen." The climax of the piece came when Al was alone with his mother and boasted of his dealings with his father: "Why Mama, I out-talked a senator." And that, the article concluded, under a photo of the boy drawing a suction-tipped arrow across a bow with the help of his father, "is why Al Gore is a young man to be watched from here on in."
The Gores were by no means smothering stage parents; they were too busy with Albert's political rise to oversee every step that their son would take, but they did have a definite path they wanted him to follow. Pauline canvassed the prep schools of Washington before deciding on St. Albans, with its liberal yet disciplined atmosphere, as the proper place for him.
The Hard Right
Official Washington was as much of a small town as Carthage in those days, with its own rituals and mores and circle of families, and St. Albans was one of its coalescing institutions. It was not as elitist as the top New England boarding schools, but when Gore arrived in Form C, or fourth grade, he was thrown in with boys whose fathers were much like his – prominent men in politics, diplomacy, the law and journalism. There were Alsops and Restons, Grahams and Stewarts.
St. Albans had opened in 1909 intended as a school for choirboys at the National Cathedral, whose Gothic towers now loom above the school, and over the decades it had remained a terminally Anglophile place. Grades were called forms and student leaders were known as prefects. A St. Albans boy was instructed to keep a stiff upper lip, British public school style. There was a structure to everything. Coat and tie were mandatory; Al knew how to tie a Windsor knot by age 9. Every boy had to engage in some form of athletics, from varsity football, the favored sport, to an after-school program for the less athletic students dubbed Troop 19. The regimen could end as late as 6. It was "all about structure," said George "Buddy" Hillow, one of Al's classmates. "Not about personal freedom. Not about personal discovery and exploration."
St. Albans was defined as much by the figures who ran it as by the old stone chapel and school building – men who helped develop Al Gore's mind and shape his values during his nine years there. Foremost among them was Canon Charles Martin, "a Mr. Chips character, a great leader," as Gore later remembered him, who drove around in a clunky Ford Woody, accompanied by his bulldog, symbol of the old man's determined spirit. Martin, wearing a clerical collar under his dark jacket, preached a muscular Christianity intended to prepare his charges to choose "the hard right" over the easy wrong and to make a contribution to society, serving the community in God's name.
He believed in developing the whole boy: mind, spirit and body. The barrel-chested headmaster thought nothing of dropping to the floor of the faculty lounge to pump out a few one-handed push-ups. In this respect he was much like the senior Gore, who at home often challenged his son to do 50 or more push-ups a day.
Al Gore was not one to disappoint Canon Martin or any of his teachers. There he was, always standing straight, chest out, speaking clearly, giving his all. He was balanced and steady and "didn't go swinging off one way or another," according to Stanley D. Willis, an English teacher and director of admissions. In that sense, Willis believed, Gore "sort of did in a way exemplify the St. Albans boy." While some boys were "restless under discipline," recalled the Rev. Craig Eder, the school's chaplain, Gore used discipline "for its main purpose, which is to get things done." The comment Eder remembers writing most often on Al's report card was "Good Boy, Doing Well."
Gore was a bit reserved, he was neither an introvert nor an intellectual, and indeed had what some of his classmates viewed as a decidedly southern rah-rah enthusiasm for sports and competitions of all sorts.
If there was uneasiness among the St. Albans faculty about the senator's son, it was that perhaps he was too constrained by circumstances. They were all too familiar with the demands children of the political world faced, and though they believed Al generally handled the pressure well, they were also struck by his inordinate caution. John C. Davis, a sacred studies teacher, regarded Al as "a dutiful son" who seemed well-trained to watch what he said. "It was almost unnatural for a boy to be that well-behaved," he said. Willis remembered him as "well contained and definitely aware of his role." To Eder he seemed – above all else – "sort of grown up early."
Walking Like a City Boy
He thought of himself first as a southerner, a son of Carthage, not of the Fairfax and St. Albans, and could not wait for school to let out so that he could get back to Tennessee. In his early years, his parents owned a house on Fisher Avenue just off Main Street in Carthage, within walking distance of Reed's Pharmacy and the Ben Franklin five-and-dime and Clyde White's Western Auto store. He loved to sleep next door at his grandmother's, swallowed up in the big feather bed in the sitting room underneath a painting of Daniel in the den looking up at the sky, encircled by a pride of becalmed lions.
In the summer of 1959, Pauline brought in Shorty Hunt and one of the Silcox brothers to oversee the construction of a big house made of Tennessee stone, marble and cypress on their farm to the south of town near the community of Elmwood, where Al would hang out with Goat Thompson, Edd Blair, Steve Armistead and some other local boys who joshingly called themselves the Snow Creek Gang.
The next summer Al underwent a sudden physical transformation from a smallish boy to a husky young man. Everyone in town seemed to notice the change. One day Donna Armistead, Steve's red-haired older sister, was sitting in her car with a girlfriend, waiting for her mother to get off work. The two 15-year-old girls were talking about how they were not going to date that summer when Donna caught sight of a strapping young man approaching. It was Al Gore, then only 13, yet almost "as big as he is now," Armistead recalled recently. He asked her to go out that night. They went to the movies, driven by Donna's older brother Roy, and the next day Al introduced her to his mother, stole his first kiss, and asked her to go steady.
Donna would remain his Tennessee girlfriend until he went off to college. Whenever he "came home" from Washington, she said later, he would be "walking like a city boy" and it took "about two weeks" to straighten him out. They played basketball one-on-one (her hook shot was deadly), swam off the big rock in the Caney Fork River, and walked in the woods along Snow Creek.
The Tennessee life took much of the stiffness out of Gore. As soon as he arrived in town, he and Steve Armistead would have a contest to see who could sneak up on the other first and shout "Punk!" He would impress Donna by unscrewing the receiver on a telephone in his basement room so they could listen secretly to his father's conversations with important people in Washington. After taking in several lectures on sex from his mother and her grandmother, they once teased their concerned elders by jumping on a bed until the springs squeaked loudly. Donna's mother came hurtling into the room only to find the young couple "dying laughing, holding hands, jumping."
Al obtained his learner's permit when he was 14, and quickly developed a reputation for reckless driving. "He was constantly running us into hog feeders and running us off the road," Steve Armistead recalled. One morning, as Gore was returning from a summer school class in Lebanon (there was always another lesson to be learned, his father insisted), he tried to speed past a truck on a narrow road near the big house, but the truck weaved to the left and sent him upside down into a ditch. Al escaped unhurt, but his father's 1962 Chevy Impala was totaled. His daredevil streak was evident in other ways: Water-skiing at Cove Hollow on Center Hill Lake, where his father kept a speedboat, he loved to stand on his head on the outboard motor.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company