For a quick moment, deplaning off the morning flight from Hartford, he is nobody, or rather he is everyman, just another commercial traveler blinking in the fluorescent light of the Nashville airport, trying to get his bearings. Then a woman spots him and he is ineluctably Al Gore, unavoidably Al Gore, unmistakably Al Gore, 45th vice president of the United States of America. "Hello!" the woman says, rushing over, clasping his hand, intently gazing. It's hard to know what she sees. Gore, just now, is wearing a dark suit and a fatigued expression. His face is pale, except around the cheeks, where it gets ruddy. Of him the cliche is true; he's smaller than he looks on television. Or rather, he is smaller than he looked on television. "Hello!" the woman says again.
"Hello!" says Gore, stopping a minute to chat and then politely extricating himself. Before he can take another step, though, a teenager approaches. "I would have voted for you in the last election, but I'm not 18 yet," the boy says loudly, looking pleased with himself. A clever joke, which he himself made to Al Gore!
"That's okay; you'll get over that condition," jokes Gore, who knows, now, that he is playing for an audience. Because naturally other travelers have stopped to watch. You can see them discreetly pausing; you can read their thoughts on their faces as they congregate in the middle of C Concourse. Look, it's Al Gore. Al Gore, walking through the Nashville airport on a Saturday morning in mid-October. Al Gore, flying Southwest, the people's airline! Al Gore--why, they'd almost forgot about Al Gore. What is Al Gore doing now? What was it--teaching? Doing stuff in Europe? Running for president again? What must his life be like now? Look, Erma! Al Gore!
"Can I have your autograph?" says the boy.
"Sure," says Gore.
"I don't have a pen," the boy says. "Or a piece of paper."
"Well," says Gore, half-irritated, half-amused. "That's a problem. Isn't it?"
The boy stands there, expectant, so Gore puts down his bags, which consist of a black suitcase, a black suit bag and a laptop computer case, neatly lashed together so he can roll them along, the universal equipage of the well-organized business traveler. From somewhere he procures a piece of paper, signs it and hands it to the boy. Then he makes his way toward daylight, passing a man who calls, "Good morning!" and a woman who approaches him to confide: "I like you much better without the beard." He thanks her for her opinion and manages to keep moving to the curb, where he attracts the attention of a big, yellow-haired man in a gold-colored T-shirt who looks at Gore and then looks away, and then looks at him again, with wonder, as if he cannot believe what he is seeing.
"Mr.--Mr. Quayle?" he breathes.
Gore looks at him, quizzical.
"Dan--Dan Quayle?" says the man.
It's a curious celebrity Al Gore has now. He can scarcely take a step in public without being saluted, hailed, recognized, reminded, confronted. Sometimes what he is confronted with is the kaleidoscopic cluelessness of the American electorate. The rest of the time, what he is confronted with is more complex and, possibly, more painful: the fact that he occupies a unique position in the history of America, that he'll go down as the man who won more votes than any Democratic presidential candidate; more votes than any Republican presidential candidate except Ronald Reagan in 1984; more votes than George W. Bush; and despite all this, did not win the presidency itself. It's a negative celebrity he carries with him, a celebrity in which he's famous not for what he achieved but for what he failed to achieve. Famous not for what he is, but for what he almost was. Thinking about Al Gore, you find yourself groping for comparisons. Okay, you think: Losing the presidency the way he did would not be as bad as losing a child. It would not be as bad as living poor and destitute in some war-torn Godforsaken place.
Still, losing the presidency, in one of history's closest races, is bad in a particular way that no other living person has experienced. It's a Joblike, Lord-what-have-I-done-to-deserve-this sort of badness. To come so close to being the most powerful human being on the only inhabited planet that we know of in the universe, and not to get it. It's not the worst fate in the world, by any means, but it's certainly one of the most singular.
Moreover, it's a fate that the man himself--the subject, the victim, Gore--has said little about. What adds to Gore's celebrity, as he walks through airports and elsewhere, is that for the past two years Al Gore has not said a word about how it feels to be Al Gore. He's done no emoting, no pain-sharing; he hasn't gotten mad, he hasn't waggled his finger at anyone. When, in 1824, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but lost the presidency to John Quincy Adams, Jackson lost no time in complaining that he believed the election was stolen. He complained early, he complained often; even after he won the presidency the next time around he was still complaining. Not so Al Gore, who to date has publicly said nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. It's true, Gore does have a shtick he's developed to deal with the issue when he speaks before audiences.
"Just imagine what my life has been like for the past two years," Gore, 54, will say morosely, and the audience will perk up with the hope of some pitiable revelation. "They let other cars on the road with me now!" he'll continue, and when the audience laughs, he'll complain, "It slows you down!" Gore, who occasionally performed as a stand-up comic in college, will go on and on in a similar vein, complaining about the loss of a Secret Service retinue, the fact that he sometimes has to take his shoes off at airport security. "I'm a visiting professor now, or VP, for short," says Gore. "It's a way of hanging on."
So he jokes about it, yes, but joking isn't the same as talking. He's the Greta Garbo of contemporary American politics, so much so that people who used to see him all day, every day, haven't a clue where he's been or how he's been for, oh, the past 22 months. "I have no idea what he went through," says Gore's 2000 campaign manager, Donna Brazile, who says that she talked to her old boss only two or three times in the year after the election. "He completely went inside. There was probably a handful of people he kept in touch with. He completely cut off people, as if we had a disease." To an extent, Brazile says, all politicians do this when they lose. "Dukakis did.
They all go through that period when they sulk." But Gore, she says, withdrew more intensely than most, seeking out the company of old, trusted friends.
And even these got only rare glimpses into what Gore was feeling. "I think we'll never know the true inner process, the healing process, that he went through," says Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, who with her partner, Hilary Rosen, is close to both Al Gore and his wife, Tipper. Like a number of intimate friends, they had a quiet dinner with the Gores not long after the contest was over. "I went there prepared to treat him as though he was on tenterhooks, I felt so protective of him. I tend to be overdramatic about these things, and I have to tell you, he was smart and jovial. We stayed up and watched oceanography movies. He wasn't a wreck; I was."
It's a difficult position, though. If you seem too healthy, too recovered, people may think you never wanted it in the first place. Which is probably not something Gore would want people to think. Because Al Gore is starting to emerge now. Bit by bit. In a careful and gradual way. He and Tipper have a new book out, Joined at the Heart, about the American family. And Gore has started making political speeches, criticizing the Bush administration for its positions on Iraq, on the economy, on health care. Publicly, he stumped for candidates in this fall's elections. Privately, he and Tipper have bought a $2.3 million house in Nashville. "We're relocating," he says, shifting their base of operations from their longtime residence in south Arlington. Why? Well, it could be a retreat from Washington. Equally plausibly, it could be an attempt to reestablish his Tennessee bona fides after losing the state in 2000, an effort to shore up his native son status in anticipation of a rematch. In December, Gore has said, he will announce whether or not he will try it again. Whether or not he will try to take on George Bush in 2004.
If he does, the past two years are something he's going to have to account for. And so, in his first prolonged interview on the subject, he's agreed to talk about the 2000 election and its psychological aftermath: what it felt like to win the popular vote and lose the presidency in such a fitful, disputed process; what it felt like--and feels like--to be Al Gore.
"I'm fine," he says now, sitting in a formal chair in the living room of the new Nashville house, a grand, columned--make of this what you will--white house in the city's tony Belle Meade neighborhood. Strictly speaking, he does look fine; tired but cordial, his tie removed and white shirt open at the collar, he shifts in his chair, drinking diet soda, gazing into the unlit fireplace, laughing frequently. He says it two more times for good measure: "I'm fine. I'm fine."
At the same time, there are subtle signs that getting fine, for Gore, has taken work. There's an aromatherapy candle on a coffee table near him, its flicker lonely and small in the still-chilly, mostly uncarpeted house. As Gore talks, he periodically lets out the controlled exhale that yoga practitioners and women in labor know as the "cleansing breath," a means of slowing down and staying calm. To get from the election to now is a story that for him will take more than one cleansing breath.
"It was a crushing disappointment," Gore says, in case there's any doubt how he felt about losing. Actually, Gore does not call it losing. He does not call it winning. One of his favorite stand-up lines is to say, "You win some, you lose some, and then there's that little-known third category." Like most of his jokes, it's a way of managing the conversation, deflecting the issue, avoiding a serious answer about what he really thinks happened. How does he perceive the election? Does he think he won? Does he think he lost? "I believe that if everyone in Florida who tried to vote had had his or her vote counted properly, that I would have won," he says. "I strongly disagreed with the Supreme Court decision, and the way in which they interpreted and applied the law. But I respect the rule of law, so it is what it is."
"Look, the other guy was sworn in," he says. "End of story."
Tipper shares his viewpoint. "I believe we won. I still believe we won," she says. Actually, she does say, once, "When we lost," but immediately corrects herself to say, "I mean, we didn't lose. When we had to concede," and then, refining her thought: "When we had to abide by the rule of law." Asked what phrases she uses in casual conversation, she has to think. "I usually say, 'When we won but the Supreme Court decided we couldn't serve.' But that's too long." She tries "the outcome" and finally settles on "the election," if it's understood that "that doesn't just mean the election; that means that whole process."
Al Gore does not pretend that any of this was easy. "I'm not sure I'm able to find the words to describe what I was feeling," he says of the whole debacle, beginning, of course, on election night when he first thought he'd won, and then thought he'd lost, and then thought--well, who knew what to think? The 36-day post-election period felt, Gore says, like "hand-to-hand combat." You have to understand--his staffers explain this most clearly--it was a period of not only intense confusion but intense fatigue; the final weeks of the campaign itself had been so exhausting, and then you woke up the morning after Election Day and it wasn't over, it was like thinking you'd finished a marathon only to be told that you still had 15 more miles to go. And then there was the incredible fog of battle, the Florida explosion during which nobody really knew what was going on. Much of this time, Gore directed the engagement while secluded in the vice president's house at the Naval Observatory, talking on the phone and e-mailing on his hand-held wireless. He was surrounded by Tipper and their four children--the adult children, Karenna, Kristin and Sarah, had converged on the house, and Albert, the teenager, was still in high school--who alternately played cards, worried, hoped and tried to distract one another. Outside, protesters were shouting things like "Get out of Cheney's house!" Tipper pushed boomboxes to the windows, pointed them at the hecklers, and played whale sounds and nature noises. "What are we going to do?" she says now. "Leave?"
Some Gore staffers say, looking back, they see now they never had much of a chance; when the networks called it for Bush, the Gore camp was put into a hole too deep to dig out of. "Had the recount gone forward and had we been announced as having taken a lead; had the tally screen shown Gore is now up by 100, 200, 300, then there would have been a change . . . Then it would have been, the Republicans are stealing this from Gore," says Gore's longtime friend and former chief of staff, Roy Neel. But it didn't happen. The Florida Supreme Court did grant Gore a statewide recount of disputed ballots, but then the U.S. Supreme Court took the case of Bush v. Gore and halted the recount, something that Gore still clearly, strongly, disagrees with.
"I was surprised that they took the case," he says. "I was shocked because the philosophy that had been followed by the conservative majority on the court was completely inconsistent with a decision to take the case away from the state court. After the shock and surprise, I just shifted into trying to respond in the most effective way I could, with the right legal talent, adequate resources. I don't know. I'm kind of task-oriented. I sort of focused on how to overcome."
"I held out every hope that the court would do what I personally felt was the right thing," he continues, meaning he hoped the count would proceed. Even so, "I had tried to prepare both myself and my family for the eventuality that it would not come out our way . . . We had prayed together frequently as a family that we would not be vulnerable to bitterness. We tried to reach out for a higher plane." On the evening of December 12, the Supreme Court ruling came down. The decision--as near as anybody could make out immediately after it was announced--had gone against Gore. "Initially I was consumed with conference calls, consultations, to see if there was any daylight toward which I could move. And reluctantly came to the decision around 3 o'clock in the morning that it was simply not reasonable to imagine that they had left any escape route." So, he says, he went to sleep, got up, and funneled all of his emotions into writing his speech. On the evening of December 13, the family went to the Old Executive Office Building and said one more prayer. Tipper's main concern, she says, was that the children make it through their father's concession speech without crying on camera.
What followed was one of the most surreal defeat parties ever. The ruling came in the midst of a round of obligatory holiday gatherings the Gores were hosting for vice presidential staff and supporters, one of which was scheduled for the evening of Gore's speech. Attendees glumly watched the concession from a tent on the Naval Observatory grounds; within the tent, remembers Roy Neel, it felt like a death had taken place. When Gore returned, though, the atmosphere picked up: A hired band was there, but so, somewhat bizarrely, was the singer Jon Bon Jovi, one of several rock stars who had campaigned for Gore. At some point Bon Jovi was chatting with Michael Feldman, Gore's traveling chief of staff. "Jon and I and a couple of people were at the bar," Feldman remembers. "There was talking about what had happened, and at some point Jon said, 'This is a great party, but couldn't you get a better band?' I said, 'Why don't you play?' He said, 'Can I borrow your cell phone?' "
Bon Jovi called some "friends" who were in town to play for a charity fundraiser. Presently the gates opened and Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty, and John Popper of Blues Traveler entered the grounds. They borrowed the band's instruments and jammed; Tipper played percussion; Tom Petty played "I Won't Back Down." "You were dancing, you'd bump into someone and you would turn around at it would be Al Gore, getting down," says Philippe Reines, a member of Gore's communications staff.
Gore describes the party as "cathartic," the final release of months of pent-up stress. "I didn't realize how cathartic until I saw the pictures," he says with a laugh, referring to photos that showed up in the press. Asked how he felt when the guests left, around 2 o'clock in the morning, Gore says, "I remember thinking about the old cliche: Today is the first day of the rest of your life."
That day dawned acrimoniously; once the catharsis ended, the air was by no means clear. The Gores were dealing not only with their own disappointment but with that of staffers whose own futures had just dissolved. Tipper describes little bitterness and a lot of consoling, but others remember anger that was exacerbated by exhaustion. "You have to understand, everyone was unprepared for what happened," explains Mike Feldman. "They were prepared for defeat or victory, but not for this. The campaign had a very nonnatural end. It wasn't a neat end. People who came out of that came out angry, but not necessarily at the right people."
Gore, some say, was one of them. Staff and friends report that Gore cautioned them not to go around complaining, and did little of it himself, with them. But one donor saw him not long after the speech, and said that Gore was quite voluble in putting his own spin on the election. "Which basically involved a fair amount of blame for a number of other people and institutions, starting with the Supreme Court, and then a little bit Clinton, and so on and so forth."
"Fond as I am of him," says the donor, "there was not a lot of self-criticism."
Press reports revealed that the anger spilled over into a meeting between Gore and President Clinton, in which Gore finally unloaded his frustration with having to deal with the baggage of the Lewinsky affair, which had put him in a bind for more than a year, unsure of whether to distance himself or display loyalty, finally trying a little bit of both. Clinton, in turn, complained about having been excluded from the campaign. Gore will not comment, but Roy Neel implicitly acknowledges that the meeting took place when he says, "Oh, everybody had angry sessions, that was just one of a thousand of them, at every level. Everybody was screaming at everyone . . . I mean, there were a lot of heated conversations. Like the morning after a Dallas-Redskins game, you know, when you lose by one point in a double overtime on a questionable call in the end zone. The best analogy I can think of is something like that: a disputed call by the referee on the home team's field."
Al and Tipper took a short vacation to St. Thomas. One of the people he called from the Caribbean was former vice president Walter "Fritz" Mondale, who ran for president, and lost, in 1984. When Gore took office in 1993, he had called Mondale for advice about the vice presidency. Now he was calling for advice about the not-presidency, to find out whether it would be possible to get beyond his current mood. "He answered the phone, and I said, 'Fritz, how are you DOING?' " says Gore, laughing so hard that his face gets red, hahahahahaha HAHAHAHA. Mondale laughed, too, Gore says, and replied that he was doing well. Tipper overheard Al ask how long it took Mondale to get over the loss.
"Twenty years . . . so far," Gore recalls him saying.
Mondale did give him two pieces of serious advice. "He said, 'Be sure to get out of Washington. Get back home. Don't take the first [job] offer that comes along. Just be patient.' "
It was impossible, though, to follow Mondale's first piece of advice. Home was Washington, for all intents and purposes, and had been for years. As vice president, Gore still worked in Washington--where, the Gores knew, they were being intently watched. They made a point of going to parties, Tipper says: "We were saying, 'We are here; we are fine.' " Occasionally, though, the toll would show. "The first time I saw him afterward was at a party" a few days after the concession, says one Gore fundraising activist. "He really looked like walking death. It sounds like a cliche, but I was standing at a certain position, just by coincidence, and I saw him as he came around the corner, before he got to the party. You could see the look on his face when he thought he was alone, and when he turned the corner, you could see the effort it took to look like he was alive."
Agonizingly, Gore couldn't get out of the public light. He didn't go into the White House much, but he had to perform a number of ceremonial duties, including going to Congress to swear in the new members and to read the official tally of each state's presidential electors. This meant reading aloud, for inclusion in the Congressional Record, the fact that the state of Florida had gone to George W. Bush. It meant reading that the state of Tennessee had gone to Bush. "That," says Tipper, "was a tough day."
Gore says he consoled himself with the fact that he was performing a duty assigned him by the Constitution. "It certainly did not escape me that there was considerable irony in my presiding over my own defeat in the counting of the electoral votes," says Gore, who has such an ironic, detached, self-aware temperament that he seems able to perform a role and, at the same time, watch himself performing it. "But that irony couldn't hold a candle to the honor of discharging the constitutional duty. And besides, there wasn't any doubt about the outcome." Which is not to say he had no feelings. While he was reading the count, a hard-core band of Democrats made a noisy, last-ditch protest of the election. "I was secretly very grateful to them," Gore acknowledges. "At one point, when I had to gavel them into order, I just looked at them and said, 'Hey.' I've always felt there was more in that particular hey than any hey I've ever heyed."
Even after the inauguration, Gore couldn't get out of Dodge. Instead, after the ceremony the family was driven to Tipper's childhood home in south Arlington, where they would settle. Albert was in his last semester of high school, and Tipper's mother was terminally ill and could not be moved out of the area. On January 20, Gore was everyboomer, the personification of the sandwich generation. He had a dying mother-in-law to help take care of; his lastborn would soon be leaving for college; his career had hit a midlife plateau. He hadn't gotten the promotion he wanted, and he had lost his job.
Fortunately for him, he had Tipper, a vibrant woman whose background in psychology--and, one senses, her own personal experience with depression, which she has acknowledged--enabled her to know that strategic measures should be put into place. "You use tools," she says--tools like distractions, and staying busy, and going incognito to movies, and having friends over for dinner. The Gores renovated, extending their backyard deck to create a leafy retreat, installing a fountain so as to have the sound of moving water. Gore eventually bought a big-screen TV and turned an upstairs bedroom into a surround-sound viewing room, a sort of entertainment lair stocked with everything from "The Godfather" to "The Story of Grand Canyon National Park" to "Caddyshack."
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."
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.
In addition to the classes at Fisk and MTSU, Gore also hosts a weekly seminar at Harvard where a group of professors talk about one of his favorite subjects, globalization. Sometimes they talk about global warming; sometimes they talk about gender; this coming week, Gore says, as he drives, they will be talking about "the role of information technology in defining a span of, uh, felt collective identity."
"I don't have the language to describe what I'm trying to describe," Gore says, "but I will at the session." What he means is: He and his academic friends will be considering how the development of language, speech, written and now electronic communication has affected how people view themselves and their community. OtherGore is at the wheel now, explaining how, through a genetic mutation, human beings became able to speak, which affected their view of community; then they learned to write, then print, then there were popular editions of the Bible, and what followed, Gore says, as though this would be apparent to anyone, was "the Protestant Reformation, and then the Counter-Reformation and the wars associated with it, [which] really led to the creation of nation-states, and the Treaty of Westphalia . . ."
OtherGore goes on and on. It is transfixing; this aggressively intelligent man, a man who seeks to hold all of human history in his head, is also a man who, during the 2000 campaign, lurched back and forth on such relatively simple issues as what colors to wear and where to headquarter his campaign.
Then OtherGore disappears. Pulling into his next stop, the small college town of Mount Vernon, Gore notices a motorcycle that has apparently shown up to lead him onto the campus of Cornell College. "Behold the tattered remnants of the imperial retinue," Gore says, half-joking, half, it seems, genuinely bitter.
Now PoliticalGore is getting out, walking across campus, shaking hands, taking the podium in the student union, saying to a group of Democratic college students, "Hi, I'm Al Gore, I used to be the next president of the United States." He does the whole shtick, making fun of himself, getting in little digs at Bush, and, as he does often, in campaign stops, asking the audience to remember how they felt when the Supreme Court stopped the vote in 2000. "Not what you thought--how you felt," Gore says. As the audience shouts out things like "angry!" and "cheated!" Gore urges them to hang on to that emotion, and let it fuel the campaign.
"Anytime somebody tells you that their vote doesn't count," he says to the crowd, "tell them to come talk to me."
And what does Gore remember, when he tries to summon how he felt in December 2000? Well, there was the disappointment, he says, sitting now in the Nashville house. At the same time, "winning the popular vote gave it a different character and feel." Made it feel somewhat better. How much better? "Well, it's better than not winning the popular vote," he says. Then: "But it is small consolation, because there is no brass ring that goes along with it."
According to Gore, the experience has had an upside, though; it has given permanent resident status to the Gore his friends like, the Gore who is relaxed and funny and anecdotal. To him, that's the glory that has been let out. "I think that over the years I've become an awful lot more comfortable with letting my hair down and being myself," he asserts. "I think that I've grown in some unexpected ways as a result of the searing nature of the experience. I think that any experience like that is an opportunity to learn. It's unfortunately true that the painful experiences in life give you more of a chance for growth than the others." He pauses. "The old Kris Kristofferson lyric kind of sums it up for me: Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
There is another pause, and then OtherGore cannot resist adding: "Better known in association with Janis Joplin."
A comment like that just raises the question of how much Gore really has changed. If Gore is going to connect with the American people in another race, advisers know, he needs to curb his tendency to come across as pedantic. He needs to communicate not what he thinks, but how he feels. He needs to make people love him. He also needs to slay whatever it is, inside himself, that makes him cautious in public, closed; whatever it is that makes him fold up in front of a television camera, or get stiff and inauthentic in front of a crowd. That
simple tag--"stiff"--has done Gore incalculable damage. He insists that those days are over: "Any impulse that I might have had in the past to tighten up for fear that I would make a mistake or, you know, give the wrong impression, that's long since been beaten out of me. Now, of course, that impulse may return for a surprise return engagement at any time."
"I'm kidding!" he says. "I'm kidding!"
But is he? It's true, earlier this year Gore made a point of saying, at a fundraising event in Memphis, that he is a changed man. If he had it to do over again, he said, he wouldn't listen to polls or political consultants. He'd just pour out "my heart." But Gore has said this sort of thing before. It seems to be a regular urge of his, pouring out his heart. Years ago, in his environmental treatise Earth in the Balance, he wrote about how, reconsidering his life in his forties. "I have become very impatient with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously."
The caution has not disappeared. It took Gore months to decide whether to sit for this interview. Granted, he did do so, and during it he was patient and good-
humored. Though it may have sounded, in the Memphis speech, as though he blames political consultants for his loss, he asserts that this is not the case.
"I take full responsibility for not being able to get more votes than I did," he says, with conviction. "I give full credit to the
people who helped me in the campaign . . . I think the people helping me out did a great job, and I'll take the responsibility for not getting enough to put it beyond controversy."
Is that a serenity that has come with time?
"Yes," he acknowledges, laughing.
And early on, did he seek to blame
others? Clinton? His own staff? The Supreme Court? He laughs again. "Winston Churchill said, 'Americans generally do the right thing, after first exhausting all the available alternatives.' I think there was probably a little of that in me, too."
So there has been introspection. But how much? During all the intellectual exploration he has done in the past year and a half, has Gore gotten in touch with who he is, as a politician and leader? Has Other-Gore turned the full focus of his intellect on PoliticalGore? Not so far. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, earlier this year, Gore defended his populist campaign against Democratic critics, arguing that his 2000 message was the right one. To date, he has never sat down and done a rigorous analysis of the way he conducted his campaign; indeed, it's striking how many of his friends and advisers have never discussed the election with him. He has talked about Tennessee, the loss of it ("He was deeply, deeply hurt by that; that's no secret," says Roy Neel), but he has never gathered his advisers and systematically reconsidered his campaign strategy or himself as a leader. He will do so, he says, if he decides to once more throw himself into a campaign. "If I run again, I will certainly do it in a very different way," he says, asserting that he'll spend more time giving "thoughtful speeches" to small groups, trying to speak to people directly. But a formal introspection will clearly not be part of the process of deciding whether to run. The decision, after all, is only weeks away.
But surely, surely, Al Gore thinks about the election of 2000 every day. Surely he lives with it as much as he lives with his own family members. Surely this man, who ran for president for the first time before the age of 40, who waited in the wings so long as vice president, who was raised by his parents to aim for the highest office, surely every day, in some way, he thinks about what happened. And what might have happened. Has there ever been one day, since December 13, 2000, when Al Gore has not at some point reflected on that election?
"Sure," says Gore, instantly. "Oh yeah. Absolutely. Are you kidding? There have been plenty of days that I haven't thought about it. Life is good. And filled with opportunity and excitement and fun, and people I love. I'm genuinely excited about all the new opportunities that I have to explore whether I run again for election, or not."
It is impossible, once again, to know whether he is serious. He seems to believe he is.
Liza Mundy is a Magazine staff writer. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.