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Al Gore: Growing Up in Two Worlds
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There were, in the end, still limits to Gore's antic behavior, his Carthage friends noticed. If they were playing sports, he did not want to joke around, he wanted to win. His intense competitive streak was always there, whether in table tennis, basketball, or cards even discus, an event Al picked up at St. Albans. Steve Armistead, who described himself as "happy-go-lucky, running my mouth, carrying a bunch of b.s.," said Gore eventually would become irritated by such behavior. "I could provoke him to the point where he'd almost want to fight, to that point of 'I'm better than you!' " Armistead said. "He always had that aggressive part of him. No play. That nature carries over in the way he does his day-to-day business. I could see that going back to when he was a child being aggressive and wanting to be perfect. He always wants to be perfect."
In His Own World
By the time Gore reached the upper grades at St. Albans, he was an unavoidable presence. Everyone knew him. He was not only a senator's son, but now bigger than most of his peers, as well as multitalented, involved in virtually every manner of school activity. He started as a center on the varsity football team in his sophomore year and also threw the discus on the track and field team and played basketball. At the same time he was active in art and in government club, where he eventually assumed leadership of the Liberal Party for its weekly debates. Yet as a sometime boarder (when his parents were traveling) and more frequent day student, he was not part of any clique, and did not appear to have a best friend. "He wasn't somebody you got to know real well," said classmate Gordon Beall. "He had his own world."
Many of the 51 boys in the class of 1965 came to adopt a cool and cynical affect, modeling themselves after J.D. Salinger's iconic Holden Caulfield, refusing to buy into Canon Martin's muscular Christianity. Gore was more aligned with the gung-ho jocks, but smarter than most of them.
Charles Saltzman, who taught English, Gore's favorite class, described him in words that he would hear often enough throughout his life "a very competent young man" but "not scintillating."
What set Gore apart was his work ethic and an air of supreme confidence, something that was not considered universally endearing. "Al didn't wonder if he could cut it in life. I don't think that was ever a worry for him," said classmate Geoffrey Kuhn. "A lot of his investment was in competitiveness. He wasn't anybody to mess around with. . . . Nobody would mistake him for a victim."
Buddy Hillow was one of those who felt estranged from Gore. His father ran a restaurant, not the government, and he had come to St. Albans in his freshman year from the public schools. Gore, to him, seemed like the very model of a self-possessed preppy. The friction between the two boys eventually led to a fight in Doc Arnds's math class. Hillow sat directly in front of Gore and had the habit of rocking back in his chair until it reached the precarious balancing point. Once, as he was rocking, Gore extended a finger and lightly touched the chair, upsetting the balance. Hillow turned and hissed, "If you do that again, I'm coming!" Gore did it again, Hillow leapt at him, and the two boys engaged in a fierce wrestling match, tumbling around the room, bowling over desks.
Gore possessed a sarcastic side that some classmates found off-putting. Though not a cruel or vindictive person, he let it be known to classmate Bruce Rathbun once that he thought Bruce was a veritable loser. The class had a paper due and Rathbun had skipped school for a number of days to finish it. He returned without completing the assignment, and Gore scoffed. "The paraphrase," Rathbun said, "was something like: 'You're a jerk if you took all this time off and still didn't do this paper. Taking time off is ridiculous to begin with.' " In his disdain Gore seemed to be conveying the mores of his school. To Ferdinand Ruge, the tough-talking, Camel-smoking disciplinary chief at St. Albans, the ultimate sin was not doing something wrong, but something stupid. Skipping school and still not finishing a paper fell into the latter category.
The hint of bullydom that Rathbun felt was nowhere evident in Gore's dealings with Andrew Stevovich, an artistic soul in the class behind theirs who felt that he was "the odd boy out," being neither wealthy nor Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Two students were taunting him one day, mocking his Slavic name, and when Gore suddenly appeared on the scene Stevovich's first thought was that he was "sort of the same" as the taunters. "But he told them to get off my back," Stevovich recalled. "They let off."
Gore did not always choose the hard right over the easy wrong, but he seemed as steeped in Canon Martin's doctrine as any of the St. Albans boys. Once, in math class, he and Jorge Tristani realized that Doc Arnds was passing out an old exam that they had used to prepare for the test, so they inadvertently knew the answers. "We just looked at each other and it was sort of an automatic reaction on both of our parts," Tristani recalled. "We just turned ourselves in."
The Weight of Being On
In the fall of 1964, with his father seeking reelection to the Senate, Gore began his final year at St. Albans. Because his parents were in Tennessee campaigning much of the time, he moved over to the school, sharing a third-story room with Geoffrey Kuhn one floor above the chaotic barracks where underclassmen stayed.
As he had for several years, Al dutifully wrote two letters to Donna Armistead every night, using a pen and U.S. Senate stationery, his "sloppy" cursive hand detailing his athletics and grades and daily routine, counting the days until his next trip to Tennessee. "I think he was lonely at times, but he never dwelled on it," Armistead said. "A passing thing, like, 'I was expecting Dad at the ballgame Saturday.' Or 'Dad didn't get to make it.' Or 'I was hoping to go see Mom, but Mom had a meeting.' Stuff like that." (Gore's father, in fact, never attended one of Al's football games.)
By senior year, though, Donna could see the relationship was tailing off. The distance between them was not just physical. Al, who generally kept Tennessee separate from Washington, was looking beyond St. Albans to Harvard.
The year was a mix of accomplishments and frustrations for the senator's son. He was chosen to be a prefect, but lost an election for the top job of senior prefect to Dan Woodruff, a star athlete. Gore was relegated to being the prefect in charge of announcements at lunch.
He was elected captain of the football team only to find himself leading a squad that was undersized and hobbled by injuries and indifference.
Gore felt responsible for the team's performance, on the field and off. This was not a football factory, but football mattered at St. Albans. There was a metaphorical quality to it. Through football you proved yourself, you proved the spirit of team play. And you proved yourself to Canon Martin, who came to every game and paced the sidelines while his bulldog one was named Marc Antony, a later one Cleopatra slobbered near the bench.
With their opening game loss to Mount St. Joseph's, the Blues were on their way to a miserable season. Their second defeat, against Georgetown Prep, was particularly frustrating, a game that they should have won. What could he do? On Saturday morning he walked over to Coach Glenn Wild's brick duplex on 38th Street and knocked on the door. Wild was taken aback. In all of his coaching days, never before had a player paid him a surprise visit at home.
"Al," Wild said. "What are you doing here?"
Gore said he was troubled by the team's slide and thought he knew the problem. Too many of his teammates were breaking training rules, he confided. Though Al did not get more specific, Wild understood that he meant drinking and smoking. No names were mentioned, but he wanted the coach to know about the problem and take remedial action. Wild thanked him, and during the team meeting on Monday, he lit into the lackadaisical boys.
But there was to be no dramatic turnaround. Gore joined the list of wounded, banging up his knee, and the team finished the year with a 1-7 record.
Thirty-five years later, Wild vividly remembers Gore's visit. It is a rare boy who has such a strong sense of responsibility to do the hard right, he thought. It showed the stunned coach how determined and competitive young Gore was. Gore now has a different reaction to the choice he made. He said in a recent interview that he felt guilty afterward when Wild "kind of cracked down" on the team and that he is not sure that he would do it again. At the time, he said, plummeting morale and the prospect of a losing season overwhelmed him. "I didn't know what to do," he said. "I had the responsibility."
There was a bit more spirit to be found in government club, which met every Thursday evening at 7:30 in the somber wood-paneled library around a horseshoe-shaped table under the tutelage of history teacher Francis "Froggy" McGrath. Gore was the leader of the Liberal Party. He was not a fiery orator "He read his script. . . . He sounded much like he does today," recalled classmate John Siscoe but he tried to make up for it by being prepared, tutoring his fellow liberals on the issues of the day. Gore was moderate even then, and "not a risk-taker," recalled Bill Yates.
Where could he escape the weight of responsibility? Perhaps only in Dean Stambaugh's art class down in the basement, a room of stunning color and originality amid the muted private school atmosphere: ferns and bamboo, birds chirping in a cage (including a bullfinch named Bud and a back-flipping Chinese nightingale), Brahms and Beethoven, Mingus and Byrd playing in the background, boys of sorts sitting at rows of large drawing tables, dropping their poses, picking up the tempera or watercolors, and becoming painters.
Gore took art for nine years, including four times as an elective, and through his art showed a different side of himself, bolder and more vivid and modernist. But there was one thing about his art that seemed eerily familiar, even in his most subtle portraits. It was in the eyes. When Bart Day, who went to St. Albans and later became Gore's college roommate, saw those painted eyes, it reminded him of Al's father. In those eyes, Day said, "no matter what was going on, there was always a steady kind of sharp appraisal going on all the time." Day thought of it as a "uniform gaze" that symbolized "the self-consciousness of sort of this weight of having to be always 'on.' "
As graduation approached, his classmates had some satirical fun with Al Gore. Under his photo in the yearbook they ran a quote from Anatole France People who have no weaknesses are terrible and went on to say: "Al is frighteningly good at many things. . . . He would seem the epitome of the All-American Young Man. It probably won't be long before Al reaches the top." Just as telling was a drawing in the yearbook that showed Gore replacing George Washington in one of the National Cathedral's statues. He is dressed in a business suit, standing on a pedestal, carrying a football under one arm, a basketball under the other, a piece of paper in one hand, a discus in the other, with a tourist looking up and snapping a picture of him.
To John C. Davis, who taught Gore in 11th-grade sacred studies, the yearbook editors got it just right. "He was a wooden Apollo."
But wooden Al got the last laugh. At prom night it seemed at first that James S. Wright Jr., son of a noted federal judge in Washington, would be the envy of his graduating classmates. He came with a knockout date Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson, a fun-loving junior from St. Agnes who had gone out with many of the St. Albans boys. At a party after the prom, Tipper was introduced to Al Gore for the first time, and Wright receded from her field of vision.
"I thought, 'Oh, boy! He's good looking," Tipper recently recalled of her first impression of the senator's son. "We had a good conversation. We connected." The next day Gore got her phone number and asked her out for the following weekend, and their relationship began. That summer he worked in Arlington as a radio dispatcher for the Heritage Cavaliers tour guide company, and every day for his lunch break he rode his motorcycle over to the Aitcheson house in Arlington, where Tipper invariably gave him a bologna and cheese sandwich and a Coke.
"Can't you make anything else?" he eventually asked.
"No," said his future wife.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company