This is the first in an occasional series of biographical stories about Vice President Gore. The second story in the series, describing Gore's childhood and high school years, will appear next Sunday.
In the foothills of middle Tennessee there is a little village called Difficult. Whatever hardship that place name was meant to convey, it could not match the resigned lament of the nearby hamlet of Defeated, nor the ache of loneliness evoked by a settlement known as Possum Hollow. It was that kind of land, unforgiving and isolated, if hauntingly beautiful, for the farmers and small merchants who settled the region, families named Hackett and Woodard, Key and Pope, Gibbs and Scurlock, Beasley and Huffines, Silcox and Gore.
For generations one old road, Highway 70, was the main road west and the best way out, weaving through the hills of the Upper Cumberland past the county seats of Carthage and Lebanon and across the barrens of rock and cedar and flat cactus to the capital city of Nashville. Albert Arnold Gore, father of the vice president, regularly drove that route 65 years ago to study at the YMCA night law school, and to loiter at the coffee shop of the nearby Andrew Jackson Hotel, pining for a brilliant young waitress named Pauline LaFon who would forgo her own law career to become his wife and adviser and, some say, his brains.
Now on the morning of Dec. 8, 1998, the whole Gore family was retracing that original journey, traveling west to Nashville through a dreary gray mist. Al Gore made the trip in a limousine, braced by his mother, his wife, Tipper, and their four children. His father, the former United States senator who gave Al his name and his life's profession, rode ahead as usual this one last time, at the front of the funeral cortege, his body resting within a solid cherry casket inside a black Sayers and Scoville hearse.
He had died three days earlier at age 90 in a way that any father might wish to go: in his own bed in the big house on the hill above the Caney Fork River, his wife of 61 years at his side, his only son, vice president of the United States, holding his hand for the final six hours. Senator Gore, as he was commonly known, seemed to linger long enough for the arranging of all that needed to be arranged and the saying of everything that needed to be said. His last words of advice -- "Always do right," he reportedly whispered -- might have been uttered with posterity in mind.
But what was the meaning of the old man's life? That was the question the son grappled with as he rode west through the mist down the ancestral highway, occasionally reading something aloud as he revised the text of a eulogy he had composed on his laptop computer.
He had been at it for 28 1/2 hours straight, since 4 on the morning before when he bolted out of bed and began rummaging through a drawer in the predawn darkness, gathering up loose scraps of paper that he had been tossing in there for weeks, usually after returning from his father's bedside. On each crumpled page he had scribbled a few words that represented something more, a family folk tale or serious political theme -- scraps of paper that, if pieced together, might bring 90 years back to life.
My father was the greatest man I ever knew in my life, he began, and he kept writing past dawn and through breakfast and lunch until 7 that night, when, as he later recalled, he "showered and shaved and grabbed a bite to eat and went down to the funeral home for the wake and stood in line and shook hands with the people."
Two hours later he was back at the table, writing through the night until 8:30 the next morning, when he packed up his computer, showered and dressed again, and got his family ready for the trip to Nashville for the first memorial service. That Al Gore had pulled an all-nighter was characteristic in one sense. Going back to his prep school days at St. Albans in Washington, he had shown a propensity for avoiding a subject until finally focusing on it with seemingly inexhaustible energy. But this eulogy represented more than another essay test.
Why does Al Gore think and act the way he does? What role did the people and places of his life play in the development of his public personality and political beliefs? From the forces that shaped him, what can be learned about his character, temperament and motives, his ability to grow and change, and his composure under pressure? Those are the underlying questions of this series of stories, which will take Gore from his roots to the start of his political career, looking at his parents, his home towns, his schools, his peers, and his times in search of answers that could illuminate the patterns of his behavior and foreshadow what sort of president he might be.
The search begins in the hills and hollows leading out of Smith County, and the son's eulogy to his father. Funerals honor the dead but tend to reveal more about the living. In trying to tell the world who his father was and what he meant to him, Al Gore was explaining his sense of self as well; doubling back on his father's life, he unavoidably encountered many of the markings of his own unfinished biography.
People looking at Vice President Gore today see a product of the American upper crust: a presidential contender born in Washington, reared in the top-floor suite of a hotel along Embassy Row, his father a senator, his mother trained in law, the high-achieving parents grooming him for political success at the finest private schools in the East. It was as though his entire future had been laid out in front of him on the direct route he took to school as an adolescent, 1.9 miles up the hill of Massachusetts Avenue from the Fairfax Hotel to St. Albans, passing on the left along the way the grounds of the Naval Observatory, where he would live as vice president.
All true enough, yet misleading if considered without the prologue in Tennessee.
'There Goes Your Future'
Only two words on a scrap of paper would be needed to remind Gore of a story he had to include in the eulogy: Old Peg. This was the tale his father told more than any other, embroidering it through the years with ever more vivid and piteous details, and though by the end Old Peg seemed more comic fable than historical account, the moral revealed something about the early motivations of Senator Gore and the ambition that he passed down to his son.
It is about 1920 and Albert Gore has just finished eighth grade, an age when many farm children quit their formal schooling. He lives with his parents, Allen and Margie, along with his siblings and an orphaned cousin on a farm in Possum Hollow about 15 miles from Carthage in Smith County. He has been obsessed with fiddle music for years, so much so that his classmates call him Music Gore. He has his own $5 fiddle and one night there is a hoedown at his parents' house and musicians venture down from the neighboring hills, among them a one-legged traveling mandolin player named Old Peg, who stays the night.
Albert is mesmerized by Old Peg, and the next morning helps hitch up the harness for his horse and buggy. "Each time he told this story, the buggy grew more dilapidated," Al Gore, in his eulogy, said of his father's version of the tale. "Before long it had no top; the harness was mostly baling wire and binding twine. He counted that scrawny horse's ribs a thousand times for me and my sister, and then counted them many more times for his grandchildren." All leading up to the punch line: As they watch sorry Old Peg and his sadsack horse and crumbling buggy ramble down the road and out of hearing range, Allen Gore puts his arm around his son and deadpans, "There goes your future, Albert."
In retelling the story at his father's funeral, Al Gore used it not just as a reminder of a road not taken, but of the distance the Gore family traveled in one generation to reach the heights of national power. Gore's father could find poetry in the hardship stories of his early days in Possum Hollow, but most of the romance was in the telling, not the living. He was determined to escape. "There was but one way to go from Possum Hollow -- that was up and out," he said in an interview for the Southern Oral History Program.
What is it that lifts people from provincial obscurity? The "ethyl in my gasoline," as Albert Gore once described it, was an intense pride in achievement, something that first overtook him at the end of the first week of first grade when his teacher in the one-room schoolhouse in Possum Hollow praised him for mastering the alphabet in five days. He hungered for that sensation again and again, and that is what led him toward education and law and politics -- and out of Possum Hollow.
During his late teens he was the only member of his generation from Possum Hollow to go to college, attending the state teachers school in Murfreesboro, while also hauling livestock to market, raising a tobacco crop and selling radios door-to-door for the furniture man in Carthage. He began teaching, long before he had a degree, over in the hollows of Overton County in a place known informally as Booze, and soon became principal in a community closer to Carthage called Pleasant Shade, living where he could, sometimes in the homes of his students, who took to calling him Professor.
He thought of himself first as a teacher from then on, always looking for lessons to pass along, a pedagogical style that his son Al inherited and employs today on the campaign trail, for better and worse. Albert loved the sound of his own mellifluous Tennessee mountain voice and seemed enthralled by the art of speechmaking, which he had been practicing since his Possum Hollow childhood. They would be working the fields and his father would turn around and Albert had disappeared and they would find him "on a stump somewhere speaking to an imaginary crowd," recalled Donald Lee Hackett, an old family friend.
The Distant Look
The first politician Al Gore mentioned in the eulogy to his father was a former congressman from middle Tennessee who "made all the families in this part of the country proud" by becoming secretary of state under Franklin D. Roosevelt and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. For anyone seeking to understand the origins of the political personality of the vice president, routinely characterized as stiff and oddly formal, there are clues to be found in the direct line that traces back through the Gores to their political hero, Cordell Hull.
During his teenage years in the Upper Cumberland hills, Hull often "ran the river" with Allen Gore, floating logs down the Caney Fork and Cumberland toward Nashville and taking a steamboat back. Albert Gore grew up hearing his father's stories about those days and watching Hull's political rise, and wanted nothing more than to be like him.
Many of Hull's basic political convictions -- his belief in progressive taxation, internationalism and free trade -- were bequeathed to Albert Gore, and then to son Al, but also notable was the style that was passed along as well. Hull's public manner was invariably formal and correct, as if to insist that he never be taken for a hillbilly from the hollows of middle Tennessee. Gore Senior consciously modeled himself after Hull, adopting the same formal bearing for the same reason, but then slightly exaggerating it: always in dark suit, white shirt and tie; courtly, but rarely relaxed in public, little small talk or informality, always on, speaking in complete sentences full of Latin-rooted words, as if his thoughts were being recorded for history.
In the eulogy, Al Gore took wistful note of this last trait, saying that he "always marveled" at his father's vocabulary and archaic pronunciations -- "for example, instead of `woond,' he always said `wownd.' " Others viewed it as a symptom of grandiosity, someone trying too hard to impress. "He did try to compensate for perceived inferiority to a degree," said historian Kyle Longley. "He went out of his way oftentimes to use very SAT language -- the only time you see those words is on the SAT [exam]."
There was an exuberant side to Albert Gore that came out mostly when he was telling stories in Tennessee, or playing his fiddle, or showing off as the center of a crowd, but even in conversations with his son, he tended to maintain an air of serious reserve. Al Gore's childhood friends in both Carthage and Washington were struck by what Bart Day, who attended St. Albans with him, called "the formality of their relationship."
The father, Day remembered, "spoke in a very sonorous tone, and it seemed to be the same way with Al." Donna Armistead, Al's Carthage girlfriend in his teenage years, noticed that his demeanor would harden abruptly and a stoical look would wash over his face when he was around the old man. "His father would want him to listen and he would want to impress Al and it was kind of a battle back and forth," Armistead said. "Like, `Hey, Dad, have you heard this?' And the father was, `Why, yes, son, let's discuss that.' The stoicness would come through then."
James Fleming, a Nashville doctor who was a college friend of Al's older sister, Nancy, described it as "the worst thing in the world" to get trapped in a conversation with Gore father and son. "One day I had to sit on the back porch up in Carthage with Albert and Al, and you know they don't talk baseball and they don't talk about sex or girls, they talk about issues and politics and things that ordinary people have no interest in whatsoever, so it was very difficult to be included in that," Fleming said, using a touch of satirical hyperbole to make his point. "Every now and then they'd ask, `So what do you think of the Federal Reserve?' I wasn't up for the Federal Reserve. It was awful!"
That is not to say that the son became a duplicate of his father's personality. Few have accused Al Gore of loving the sound of his own voice or of acting magisterial. Nor, on the other hand, did he develop his father's maverick flair. Gore Senior's aura of independence, which allowed him to break away from his more conservative southern Democratic colleagues on issues of race and oil tax breaks and the Vietnam War, was stimulated, he once said, by his isolated childhood in Possum Hollow, "where every boy was pretty well on his own out in the woods and on the lonesome hills." There was no comparable experience in young Al's formative days, especially not at St. Albans, where the emphasis was not on independence but on a sense of team.
But the son did carry his father's formality into public life, a character trait accentuated by something detected by Charles Bartlett, the veteran political reporter from Chattanooga who observed Tennessee politicians for more than six decades. From Gore Senior to Gore Junior, there was one telltale physical sign of the culture of the Upper Cumberland, coming down through the genes, Bartlett believed: "It's the eyes. The one way he is most like his father is that he does have that distant look in his eye. It's a mountain thing. It's the look of people who don't quite trust anybody. I see that distant look in Al and it reminds me of his father."
In Estes's Shadow
Bartlett found a touch of pathos in Albert Gore's hard eyes: They seemed to predetermine his fate. "It was kind of sad in a way with Senior," Bartlett said. "His ambition exceeded his personality. And he paid a price for that ambition." The price-paying Bartlett alluded to came first in 1956, when Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee, opened the vice presidential nomination to the floor of national delegates and Senator Gore eagerly volunteered himself, challenging his homestate colleague, Estes Kefauver, who had been a presidential candidate and was favored for the vice presidential nomination.
In his eulogy, Al Gore used his father's vice presidential aspirations as a joke line. After reading a quote in which Gore Senior reflected that he never truly lusted for the presidency, but "there were times when the vice presidency seemed extremely attractive," the son added dryly, "Now that's humility."
Al was 8 years old during the 1956 convention and watched it on TV in Tennessee while his father was behind the scenes in Chicago working himself into a frenzy the likes of which no one had seen before from the stately senator. "He went wild," remembered Bartlett.
The senator was almost unrecognizable in trying to plead his case to Texans Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn, according to an LBJ Library oral interview with George Reedy, a former Johnson aide. "A man came running up to us, his face absolutely distorted. . . . His eyes were glimmering. He was mumbling something that sounded like `Where is Lyndon? Where is Lyndon? Adlai's thrown this open, and I think I've got a chance for it if I can only get Texas. Where is Lyndon?' And we suddenly realized we were talking to Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee," Reedy recalled. "I have never seen before or since such a complete, total example of a man so completely and absolutely wild with ambition, it had literally changed his features."
If Senator Gore was overwhelmed by the prospect of national renown, his grand notion did not last long, punctured by a man who was normally his ally, Silliman Evans Jr., publisher of the Nashville Tennessean. The Tennessean was a potent liberal force in state politics, having helped defeat the political machine headed by Ed Crump, the conservative Memphis insurance man who controlled Tennessee politics for two decades. It staunchly supported progressive Democrats, especially Kefauver, who reached the Senate in 1948, and Gore, who got there in 1952 after 14 years in the House.
Kefauver had come first, he was the darling of the liberals, and many believed that he had shown more courage in confronting the state's reactionaries. For Gore to challenge him now was seen as an act of family treachery, made worse by the fact that his firmest support seemed to come from his erstwhile enemies, the Dixiecrats. Between the second and third ballots, Evans found Gore near the convention floor, grabbed him by the lapels, and thundered: "You son of a bitch, my father helped make you and I can help break you! If you don't get out of this race, you'll never get the Tennessean's support for anything again, not even dogcatcher." Gore backed down.
Kefauver, the man who prevailed instead, seems in his own way as central to the Gore political story as Cordell Hull. Hull was the prototype; Kefauver the antitype, not in ideology, where they were similar, both southern liberals, but in political personality, where they were near opposites. In examining the image problems Al Gore has experienced during the early stretch of the 2000 presidential race, there is a fascinating generational parallel to consider: Kefauver was to the father what Bill Clinton is to the son.
Kefauver's eyes were as soft as Gore's were hard. That those eyes might have been softened by excessive alcohol (Albert, in contrast, did not drink) was less important on a superficial level than the fact that they seemed inviting and friendly, not distancing. If Kefauver became perhaps too close to some of his female constituents, as historians later documented, his ability to connect on a personal basis with the average voter was striking, and in direct contrast with Albert Gore. "Everybody always tried to befriend Estes and to look after him, particularly women, because he was always bumbling around," recalled Jim Sasser, the former senator who as a young man worked in the campaigns of both Kefauver and Albert Gore.
Perhaps it was more style than substance, more image than reality, but with the father and Kefauver as with his son and Clinton, the contrast in personalities tended to work against the Gores, accentuating the same sense of distance conveyed by their eyes.
The Power of Pauline
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.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
These stories are part of The Washington Post's examination of the lives and careers of the leading presidential candidates. A series on the life of Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) appeared in July and is available on the Internet at http://www.washingtonpost.com.