Fourth in a series
There sat Al Gore inside the International Amphitheater in Chicago, listening intently as Hubert Humphrey delivered his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. At age 20, Gore was somewhat of an anomaly by his very presence in the convention hall that eventful summer night of Aug. 29, 1968. Thousands of his college-age contemporaries were demonstrating in the streets outside, chanting and jeering and clashing with Mayor Richard Daley's head-bashing police in protest of the Vietnam War and the party's nomination of Lyndon Johnson's loyal vice president over peace candidate Eugene McCarthy.
Gore also opposed the war and had supported McCarthy that summer back home in Tennessee, a futile effort in a state whose hawkish military tradition was evoked by its "Volunteer" nickname. Yet while many of his peers were turning away from establishment politics and had little or no interest in Humphrey's convention address, Gore found it utterly absorbing. He parsed the message line by line in search of signs that the presidential nominee had listened to the younger generation and was changing with the times. In his own mind at least, Gore that night was not only a witness to history, but also a minor figure in the shaping of it.
As young Gore later often told the story, he had been interviewed the day before by Charles Bartlett, the veteran Chicago Sun-Times columnist from Chattanooga, a family friend who had known Albert Gore Sr., the senior senator from Tennessee, since his early days in the House. Bartlett "had passed the apogee of his career" by 1968 but was "still a very eloquent writer," Gore said, and was one of those helping Humphrey with his speech at the convention. "And he came and spent an hour with me, asking what people my age thought about the war."
As Gore sat in the convention hall and looked up at Humphrey in the spotlight, he thought that he heard his own words coming back to him. He was convinced that the vice president's speechwriters had incorporated his suggestions into the acceptance speech--evoking "the end of an era," the promise of a "prompt end to the war," the assertion that no one wanted "a police state," the call for "young Americans . . . to continue as vocal, creative and even critical participants in the politics of our time." Hearing those phrases, Gore said later, led him to the conclusion that "there was no doubt Mr. Bartlett had faithfully conveyed some of the feelings that I had tried to describe."
But was Gore only imagining his role as interpreter for his generation? According to Bartlett's description of those long-ago events, that might be the case. "I had nothing to do with Humphrey," Bartlett said in a recent interview. "I had no contact with Humphrey at all. If I talked to Al, it was perhaps for a story. I had absolutely no link at all with Hubert Humphrey in 1968."
When presented with Bartlett's response, Gore quickly retreated from his earlier recollection. "Faulty memory. Faulty memory," he said of himself and his oft-told story. But whoever wrote Humphrey's speech, he quickly added, "did a good job of figuring out what millions of us were thinking and saying, because he gave me the impression that he was speaking directly to my feelings about it."
There is in Al Gore an occasional propensity to enhance his role in events. The 1968 convention episode might fall into that odd category of solipsism, an early variation of his later boast that he had invented the Internet. But the uncontested facts in that scene--that he was in the convention hall to hear the speech and was impressed by what he heard--accurately reflect his political disposition that summer and all through what was to follow during his tumultuous senior year at Harvard.
After turning away from his father's profession during his first few years in college, Gore now seemed back on the political track. His earnest behavior during the Democratic convention was of a piece with the caution and respect for authority that he exhibited from then until his graduation one year later. His final semester at Harvard climaxed with a student takeover of University Hall, the main administration building, and a bloody encounter with police that repeated on a smaller scale the generational confrontation in Chicago--and this time, as before, Gore stayed close to his elders and observed the event from a safe distance. Some radical classmates considered his behavior apolitical, but he was in fact thinking politically on a longer arc, taking into account not just his feelings at the moment, but also how his actions might affect the political futures of himself and his father.
All during this period, even as he was making another turn back toward politics, Gore struggled not to succumb to the occasional waves of despair that had been washing over him throughout the '60s. First the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, then the vitriol directed at his father for his opposition to the war starting in 1966, then the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy earlier in the year--his inherent instinct to believe in the system, he said, was constantly being challenged by "a cumulative process of disillusionment."
Words and War
In the summer of 1968, Gore was working his way through the thicket of late '60s politics. A few months before the Chicago convention, he had come out in support of McCarthy after several discussions with his friend and Harvard tutor Martin Peretz, a leader of the McCarthy movement in New England. How active he was in that campaign is unclear. In a front-page article in the July 18, 1968, Carthage Courier, Gore was described as the new state chairman of a "Youth for McCarthy" organization. He said that his father was aware of his role, adding: "But my activities are completely separate from his. He has not endorsed either candidate yet"--meaning Humphrey or McCarthy (though Gore Sr. eventually cast his delegate vote for a third candidate, his Senate colleague George McGovern).
Steve Cobb, the Tennessee coordinator for McCarthy, said in a recent interview that "there wasn't a 'Youth for McCarthy' organization in the state, although the whole campaign was laughingly called that." Cobb was a 23-year-old graduate student. He remembered Gore paying a single visit to the campaign at its dusty old warehouse state headquarters on Eighth Avenue in Nashville and agreeing to write a letter to delegates to the state Democratic convention. "I remember Al one time coming into headquarters. We talked. We had both gone to Harvard," Cobb said. "We were delighted to have his support. The more important thing for him I think were his own personal plans--what he was going to be doing and his father's reelection coming up in a couple of years."
One of Gore's other interests that summer explained why he was not in Nashville more often--and also offered a hint of his political ambitions. He attended summer school at Memphis State, taking a course in Tennessee history taught by Charles Crawford, a leading young historian. "He just showed up one day," recalled Crawford, who remembered Gore as being "preppy casual." The class met from mid-July to mid-August at 7 each morning for two hours, going over Tennessee's geology, archaeology, Native Americans, early white settlements, black history, developing political structures, and religious, social and economic institutions.
Taking that course was classic Al Gore, incessantly industrious and focused on the future. "With Al, knowledge was power," said Bart Day, one of his Harvard suitemates who had watched him since their days together at St. Albans. "It was something you could acquire and grab hold of and assimilate. He was very good at it." Everything Gore grabbed hold of and assimilated from Crawford's class would prove of benefit years later when he would present himself to state voters as a native son who understood the local culture, not some interloper from Washington.
On the final weekend of August, Gore drove to Chicago from the family farm in Carthage with his older sister, who by then was living in Mississippi and married to lawyer Frank Hunger. Nancy Gore Hunger was a vibrant activist closely aligned with Mississippi's integrated Loyalist delegation, which was seated by the national Democrats that year in place of old-line segregationists and included liberal newspapermen Hodding Carter and Curtis Wilkie. In those years of protest, Nancy attended two peaceful antiwar demonstrations, large acts in the small conservative town of Greenville, where she lived. She was, inheriting her instincts from her mother, Pauline, perhaps the most politically savvy member of a thoroughly political family, and as such felt especially protective of her younger brother, in whom she saw a great political future.
Hodding Carter later remembered Nancy saying that she had brought Al in from Grant Park and had him sleep in her hotel bathtub to make sure that he steered clear of the trouble in Chicago. It was an apparently apocryphal tale (Gore insists that he stayed in his parents' hotel all week) that nonetheless captured the tensions and crosscurrents of the times. While none of Gore's closest friends were in the streets, he was acquainted with scores of the young demonstrators.
Many Democratic politicians worried about what their sons or daughters might get into that week. Jack Gilligan, an antiwar Senate candidate from Ohio who had just earned the Democratic nomination and was struggling to hold the support of organized labor, took the precaution of making sure that his sons, including Gore's Harvard classmate Don Gilligan, were nowhere near Chicago. "My brother and I were planning to go, and then a few days before the convention my father appeared with an untypical offer," Don Gilligan recalled. "He said, 'Here's a couple of hundred dollars and a car. Why don't you guys go up to Michigan for a week? Sure this is enough money?' He was afraid that we'd get arrested in the park and didn't want to antagonize the unions with two goofy college kids."
Although the senior Gore also seemed politically vulnerable, he showed no similar paternal alarm. He encouraged his son to attend the convention and used him as an adviser, welcoming his suggestions for an antiwar speech the senator delivered that Wednesday, the very day that Humphrey's nomination was overshadowed by a harsh confrontation between police and protesters. Al did not witness the most violent clash. But decades later he could call back one incident etched in his memory: He stepped outside the hotel, the sidewalks and curbs brimming with angry demonstrators, and watched as an Army jeep moved slowly down the street "with a couple of film cameras . . . taking pictures of the faces of everybody. . . . I remember that camera focusing on me, because it had a feeling of intimidation about it, and it was inconsistent with what I felt this country must be all about."
The passion that eerie encounter stirred in young Gore stayed with him as he helped his father craft his speech, he said. John Siegenthaler, then editor of the Nashville Tennessean, chatted with Sen. Gore in the press section before it was delivered. "He gave me a copy of the speech and said, 'Look this over and tell me what you think about it,' " Siegenthaler recalled. "So I looked it over--an antiwar speech. I said, 'There's some powerful stuff in here.' And he said, 'Young Al helped me with the speech.' And I said, 'Helped you to what extent?' And he said, 'Well, I went over it with him at great length.' "
This was by no means the elder Gore's first antiwar statement. He had been troubled by the administration's Vietnam policy since the first big American troop buildup in 1965. "It's going to be one of the worst mistakes the United States is going to get into--I tried to talk the president out of it," he confided to his Carthage doctor, Gordon Petty, shortly after calling President Johnson to question that early decision. And he had become increasingly outspoken since the spring of 1966, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which he was a member, held televised hearings on the issue. Al was a freshman at Harvard then, and from that point on he and his father had bonded in their opposition to the war, one feeding proudly off the other's opinion. In a letter to his girlfriend, Tipper Aitcheson, after the committee hearings, Al wrote of his father: "He was so pleased when I told him I missed two or three days of classes to watch him on television. He tried not to show it and said I shouldn't have missed class, but he was awful pleased."
The convention speech that Al helped draft for his father in Chicago was short (361 words) and biting in its contention that Johnson--and by extension Humphrey--had betrayed the promises they had made in the 1964 election. "Mr. Chairman, fellow delegates, four years ago our party and the nominee of our party promised the people that American boys would not be sent to fight in a land war in Asia," Gore Sr. began. "The people made an overwhelming commitment to peace. They voted for our distinguished leader, President Lyndon B. Johnson, but they got the policies of Senator Goldwater."
Antiwar delegates roared their approval, and young Al watched as his silver-haired father raised both hands and then lowered them in a signal to hush. "He felt so strongly about getting all of it into the record of the proceedings, delivering every word, that he insisted that nobody applaud because they were taking up his time," Al Gore recalled. "He kept pushing his hands down--keep on going!"
The senator continued. "Almost immediately combat troops were sent to fight in a steadily widening Asian war. Twenty-five thousand American men have died. What harvest do we reap from our gallant sacrifice? An erosion of the moral and spiritual base of American leadership, entanglement with the corrupt political clique in Saigon, disillusionment, despair here at home and a disastrous postponement of imperative programs to improve our social ills." The American people, he said, "think we made a mistake, and yet . . . read the proposed platform. We are called upon not only to approve this disastrous policy, but even to applaud it. I wonder how many of the American people are applauding it. They don't want to applaud it."
It was one of Albert Gore's finest moments, thought his son. "I felt passionately about the war policy," he said later. "I was intensely proud of what my father was saying."
But his pride in his father was mixed with bewilderment over what he saw as the increasing polarization in American politics. He was upset, he told friends, by the growing tendency among his antiwar peers to dismiss what they called "the system." To make matters worse, he said, people working for change within the system, such as his father, were in danger of losing their jobs.
From his Chicago hotel room, Gore placed a call to Mike Kapetan, his Harvard suitemate and a working-class artist and philosopher who had thought about coming to the convention but could not afford to leave his summer job, which helped pay his tuition. There was an ironic resonance to his work. At a factory in Plymouth, Mich., he was earning $3.15 an hour building boxcars for the Southern Pacific Railroad--cars fitted with special absorbers to carry munitions to be used in the war. He was against the war but shared Gore's concern that things were falling apart. "We talked about how sorry the situation had become, and how the regular Democratic Party did not seem able to contain the radical forces, and the kids who wanted to be radical weren't doing anything constructive," Kapetan said. "It was hard to see anything that was going to come from that. Al and I thought along similar lines."
On election night a few months later, Gore and Kapetan and a few friends stayed up until 3 in the morning in Gore's room at Harvard watching the returns that swept Richard Nixon into the White House instead of Humphrey. Another Democratic casualty that night was Don Gilligan's father, Jack, who lost the Senate race in Ohio. Not long afterward, Gore was cutting through Harvard Yard, past University Hall, when he caught sight of young Gilligan, just returned from the election battle. The two felt a special kinship, sons of politicians, and now as they stopped and talked it was apparent that their bond included a shared sense of loss.
After expressing his sorrow at Don's father's defeat, Gore said matter-of-factly, "I'm going to be in the same position in two years. My dad's going to get beat and there's nothing we can do about it."
'How Can You Resist?'
Gore's political education continued apace even as he worried about the fate of his father and the cynicism of his peers. Once each week during his senior year, he left his Dunster suite and walked over to a seminar room in the little yellow house at 78 Mount Auburn that was home to Harvard's Institute of Politics. There, for two hours, he sat with the institute's director, Richard Neustadt, occasionally joined by one of Neustadt's instructors, Graham Allison, and they discussed the issues of power and the presidency.
The private tutorial was entirely Gore's idea. Neustadt was preoccupied that year with establishing the young institute and writing books and papers and at first told Gore that he had no time. But Gore pleaded with him, said he would take the tutorial for no credit, that he had much to learn and only wanted to learn it from Neustadt. "I have a soft spot for good students who seem to be really turned on and really want to carry on with me and do something serious," Neustadt recalled. And there was Gore--"this big, hulking, serious guy who is so interested. How can you resist?"
For the first few months their discussions ranged across a lengthy reading list that Neustadt had compiled in preparation for Gore's senior thesis in the department of government. As the year progressed, their talks deepened and focused in greater detail on the chapter drafts of the thesis. The topic seems as relevant to Gore the presidential candidate three decades later as to the college senior in the late '60s. The 84-page paper's title was "The Impact of Television on the Conduct of the Presidency, 1947-1969."
The essence of Gore's thesis--less obvious at the time than it appears today--was that television had replaced newspapers as the central means of communication and in so doing had forever transformed the presidency. Television had an inherent bias toward individuals over institutions, he wrote, and inevitably would bring more attention to the president and less to the other branches of government. This would appear to give the president more power, and "given time the change in perception could possibly work towards a change in reality." This in turn would make the effectiveness of future leaders increasingly dependent on their television skills. "Because of this," Gore concluded, "it is possible to speculate that a 'role requirement' of the President in the future might become 'visual communication.' "
Using his father's connections as well as Neustadt's contacts with former White House officials, Gore was ushered into offices in New York and Washington that normally might be closed to a college senior doing research.
"He was well prepared, asked good questions, listened carefully, took lots of notes--the model of a good student," recalled Bill Moyers, a former Johnson press secretary who years earlier had worked with Gore's sister, Nancy, at the Peace Corps. He thought he saw in Gore "the makings of a journalist," and urged him in that direction, "but even then, unless memory is playing tricks on me, [I] could sense a pull in other directions." George M. Elsey, who had worked with Neustadt in the Truman White House, met Gore in his office overlooking Lafayette Square, and there they discussed the 1948 election. Elsey remembered less about the interview itself than about a call he had received from Neustadt beforehand. "Dick, as I recall, said, 'This guy's got a real future. I don't know what it is, but I can guarantee he's got a real future.' "
Would it be as a politician--or writer? It was not immediately apparent that Gore had the "visual communication" skills required of a future president, but to Neustadt, as to Moyers, he seemed to have the aptitude of a first-class reporter. "What was interesting about that thesis was not that the content was so specially analytical or revelatory, but that the interviewing on which it was based was so damn good," Neustadt said later.
Here it was again, in his last year at Harvard, the tension between what he was good at and what he was expected to be, the choice of a life's path, his past tugging against his future.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.
About This Series
A father's political legacy
City boy and country boy
Plunging Into the Sixties
At Harvard, discovery and experimentation
Caught Between Two Worlds
1968 and the pull of politics
The War Comes Home
Harvard goes on strike
Doing the Right Thing
Graduation and enlistment
The Dutiful Soldier
A Senate career ends despite a son's efforts
FRIDAY On the Ground in Vietnam
Disillusionment and return
CAPTION: 'Powerful Stuff': At the 1968 Democratic convention, Sen. Albert Gore gives antiwar speech his son helped write.
CAPTION: 'Motley Crew' Redux: Friends from Harvard's Dunster House get together at the vice president's residence. In front row, from left, are J.G. Landau, Bob Somerby, Mike Kapetan, Bart Day and Roger Mennell. At rear: Tommy Lee Jones, John Tyson, Ballinger Kemp and Gore.
CAPTION: Private Tutor: At Harvard, Richard Neustadt hosted Gore for weekly discussions of power and the presidency.