Sixth in a series
It was a mess, that final stretch of college days in the spring of 1969, with the building occupation and the police charge and the student strike, and now even the beloved Dunster House dining hall was closed for repairs, forcing the motley crew to cross the river and eat with the grinds at the Harvard Business School cafeteria. But amid all the confusion there was for Al Gore at least one moment of clarity.
He was walking back from dinner with his girlfriend, they paused halfway across Weeks Memorial Bridge, and with the Charles flowing below them, a warm breeze gracing the early May evening, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a ring, and made a decidedly old-fashioned proposition. Tipper Aitcheson said yes, she would marry him, the wedding date put off until she graduated from Boston University a year later.
Nothing else about Gore's future seemed so easy, especially not the question of how he should deal with the draft. He and Tipper talked about it nearly every time they were together. His approach was reasoned, methodical, as though he were mulling over a logic problem, all variables and rational constructs. It worried her sometimes that he was taking too much into account, and she saw it as her job to bring the issue back to what was best for the two of them, not what he felt he should do to please his father or his mother or his classmates at Harvard or the boys his age back in Tennessee.
"There was a huge amount of pressure on him, and I was trying to get him to turn to the focus of you," Tipper Gore recalled in a recent interview. "What do you really think and how are you going to feel if you do this? I tried to turn it to that, while he might have had these other constructs working in his logical mind. It is you and I that are planning on being together and living with the aftermath of that decision. How am I going to feel if you go and get killed? Or go and get maimed? How are you going to feel if you don't do it?"
It was not a predetermined decision, she felt. "There was a lot of agonizing and there definitely was a choice." A small number of his classmates, perhaps a dozen at most, ended up going to Vietnam. But most of his peers at Harvard were looking for a way out, and finding one. Some took refuge in the National Guard or the reserves, options that might save them from Vietnam. A few resisted or became conscientious objectors or left for Canada. One or two became dining hall gluttons in hopes of appearing too obese to qualify, or alternatively starved themselves to be too thin. Students with no desire to be doctors applied for medical school to secure that rare graduate school deferment. Physical and psychological deferments were the norm, available even to those perfectly fit in body and soul. At a cocktail party in Cambridge, Richard Neustadt heard "a bunch of doctors talking about the grounds on which they were handing out" letters for 4-Fs. "I was shocked," Gore's usually imperturbable government mentor recalled.
Many of his friends eventually found their way out with athletic injuries, a route that Gore could have pursued himself. "He talked to me about that a little bit," said Don Gilligan, another Harvard senior whose father was a Democratic politician in Ohio. "I remember Al had what at the time were a couple of legitimate physical deferments." Those included a bad knee that he had injured playing football at St. Albans--not debilitating but real enough that he could have found a doctor to say it was. But as he considered every option in its moral and practical dimensions, that one flunked on both counts.
His dilemma was framed by a contradiction. He strongly opposed the war, wanted it over, and did not want to help perpetuate it, yet for several personal and political reasons he felt an obligation to serve. To borrow a phrase made famous by his future colleague in the White House, Gore brooded about his situation much the way Bill Clinton did when seeking to maintain his "political viability" at an early age. A physical deferment satisfied neither of his conflicting ideological and political impulses. With that eliminated, what else? "It was a real conundrum for me," Gore said later. "Amplified by the feeling I had that the policy was wrong, which was amplified by all of my friends at college who felt the same way. Of course, Cambridge was a hotbed of opposition to the war policy."
Go to Canada? His mother, Pauline, brought up that notion in conversations with friends and relatives. "I heard Aunt Pauline say with my own ears that she told Al that if he wanted to get to Canada she would help him get there," said Gayle Byrne, a cousin who grew up in Lebanon, Tenn., not far from the Gore farm in Carthage. But while readily acknowledging in a recent interview that his mother talked to others about helping him if he wanted to go to Canada, Gore said that it was never an option and that his mother's words have been misinterpreted to imply that he actually considered leaving the country.
"She said it as a way of underscoring her support for whatever I did," Gore said. "What I deny is that there ever was a conversation between me and her in which I said I'm thinking about going to Canada. It was a figure of speech for her. . . . I never considered going to Canada." He had "no disrespect for those who made that decision," Gore said. "I don't know what burdens they carried. I don't know what they went through. But for me, phew! God, no. Even if I had felt driven to such extremes, there were other ways to accomplish that."
Other ways: Apply for conscientious objector status? Warren Steel, one of Gore's close friends at Dunster House, who had graduated a year ahead of him, was now a CO working with the elderly at an Episcopal church in the inner-city Roxbury section of Boston. He and Gore occasionally talked about pacifism and war and obligations, and respected each other's opinions, but it was clear to the musician from Schenectady that he and the government major from Washington were following "very different paths" and that Gore had to deal with considerations that Steel did not.
Don Gilligan, whose life more closely paralleled Gore's, was also strongly opposed to the war and considered becoming a CO during that period. He dropped the idea after being forced to confront the ramifications for his father, who was running for governor of Ohio. Jack Gilligan was a decorated Navy veteran of World War II, but having a conscientious objector son would cost him votes--or so thought one of his top campaign aides, who threatened to quit if that happened. "So my big thing was not to file a CO," Don Gilligan said. "It could have been an issue in Dad's campaign."
Gore faced the same situation. His father was running for reelection to the U.S. Senate in 1970, and Al realized that whatever choice he made would emerge as a subtheme in that contest, which promised to be the most difficult of Albert Gore's career in any case. Since winning a third term in 1964, the senator had become increasingly outspoken: firmly backing civil rights and voting rights bills, opposing the nomination of conservative southern judges G. Harrold Carswell and Clement F. Haynsworth to the Supreme Court, and above all emerging as a leading opponent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam--all unpopular positions in Tennessee, especially that last one in the pro-military Volunteer State.
Nothing seemed more complicated than sorting out the father-son issues. How could the son decide what was best for himself without thinking about what most helped his dad? Tipper remembered him constantly asking, "How is this going to affect my dad? How is this going to affect the race?" For nearly two years, he had told friends that he was pessimistic about his father's political future, believing that the senator "almost certainly was going to get beat anyway"--no matter what he did.
If he chose to avoid military service, it undoubtedly would further diminish his father's chances, he thought, but even if he decided to enlist in the Army it might not help. There were brief discussions inside the family as far back as Christmas 1968 about the senator stepping down and not seeking reelection, bowing to the realization that his positions had alienated many Tennessee voters, but quitting went against Albert's instincts as much as Al running to Canada did, and the idea was summarily dismissed.
Whenever he considered the consequences for his father, it seemed apparent to Gore that the only option with any benefit was for him to enlist. His logic was taking him to what he later called "a reasoned conclusion" that "the choice that had the most integrity for me personally was to go. And if I was going to look at my decision through the lens of politics and the morality of the war policy, then ironically, because my father was a leading opponent of the war, my decision to go had integrity even within the context of my personal opposition to the war. The most effective thing I could do--and nothing I did would be very meaningful or effective; I didn't have an overblown illusion of it--but insofar as the choice mattered, the most effective way to express my opposition to the war was to go, and help my father."
His father's fate was not the only factor to be considered in that political context. There was his own future to think of as well. Gore then vacillated dramatically on the subject, sometimes expressing deep interest in politics and arguing in defense of the American system, other times uttering declarations of disillusionment and promising never to follow in his old man's footsteps. Most of his friends ignored his disavowals, assuming that he was destined for politics. That assessment was shared by his government adviser, Richard Neustadt, another person to whom he now turned for advice.
Gore met with Neustadt several times that spring, at the little yellow Institute of Politics house on Mount Auburn Street, at the professor's home on Traill Street, and at his cottage on Cape Cod, and in each meeting the professor helped him "think through" the meaning of the choices and "sort out the peer pressure one felt in Cambridge not to go from the political overlay that was unavoidably a part of it." While Gore said that Neustadt "didn't push me," Neustadt's recollection is that he gave young Gore the same advice that he offered his own son, who was also graduating from Harvard that year.
"If you want to be part of the country 25 years from now, if you want any future in politics, you've got to serve," is how Neustadt remembered presenting the argument. "That certainly was my view. It was a World War II perspective that didn't prove to be exactly right. But I felt that you've got to be part of the hard experiences of your generation, and mustn't duck this one."
Gore heard the same advice from his uncle Whit LaFon, a lawyer back in west Tennessee and former state commander of the American Legion. LaFon told him that "there wasn't any question . . . if they called you up to do it, you did it." That was the family tradition passed along to young Al, not just from Gore Sr., who took a temporary leave from Congress to serve in World War II. "See, he had three uncles," LaFon recalled. "My oldest brother, he was in the Seabees, five years in the Pacific. My younger brother was in the Army, he was in Europe. His father's brother . . . was a victim of WWI. He was gassed at Argonne. See, this is the kind of thing that would mark you even thinking about it."
Taps in the Valley
In a small town like Carthage, the cost of war is painfully easy to comprehend. It is etched into a large granite stone memorial that stands in front of the Smith County Courthouse, listing the county's fallen: 138 from the Civil War, one from the Spanish-American War, 24 from World War I, 54 from World War II and eight from Vietnam: Joe Taylor, James H. Stilz, Glenn Pope, Joe L. Midgett, James Stallings, Jackie Underwood, R. Shannon Wills and James E. Bush.
Most of the young men of Smith County entered the military the same way. They were called up by the local draft board run by Elizabeth Beasley on the bottom floor of the post office. In the morning darkness, they boarded a Trailways bus on Main Street, were handed a tuna fish sandwich and a Coke, and were sent off to the induction center in Nashville. Not all of them wanted to go. Jack Martin said "they had to pull the splinters out from under my fingernails from where I was hanging onto the porch" at his family's grocery. His father, a World War II veteran, said to him, "If I could go in your place, I would." But everyone in Jack's family knew what his responsibility was, "just like I knew it." There were ways he might have gotten out, he said:
"I coulda gotten married.
"Gone to college.
"Had a child.
"Left the country.
"But you don't do that.
"You just don't do that. Period."
One of the names in Mrs. Beasley's registration book in 1969 was Albert Gore Jr. He might live most of the time in Washington or Cambridge, but Carthage was always listed as the family's hometown, and it is where he registered for the draft.
He still subscribed to the Carthage Courier, where the military comings and goings of the local boys were front-page news. Thomas Bush was on leave. Garry Carter was in Vietnam. Sgt. Kenneth Bennett was awarded the Silver Star. Boatswain's mate Walter G. Pope died leading a Navy SEAL team in the Mekong Delta. Jimmy Trainham got hit by shrapnel in his legs and eyes serving with the 1st Cavalry near the Perfume River. James Donald Stallings's jeep hit a mine and blew his body apart. Jackie Underwood came home to Pleasant Shade in a casket, and when they buried him and the bugler played taps, one Vietnam vet's mother wrote to him, "it echoed all over the little old town that sets in a small valley."
In Cambridge, reassured by the prevailing sense that the war was evil and had to be stopped and that any means of avoiding it was acceptable, Gore allowed himself to consider other options. But it was impossible, he said later, for him to think of Carthage and not come back to the conclusion that he had to go. "The meaning of a decision to say, 'I'm going to get out of this by hook or crook,' " Gore said, "is very different in Carthage and in the eyes of the guys that I knew there, than it was among my peer group in Cambridge." And by registering in Carthage instead of Washington, he could not think of the process as the random doings of a faceless bureaucracy.
In the list of draft-eligible young men in Mrs. Beasley's registration books at the Selective Service office in Carthage, he said, "there wasn't a huge big number of people, few of whom I knew. There was a very small number of people, all of whom I knew. And the take each month was three, four, two, three out of four, five, three, four. And what was common in Boston and Washington was unheard of out in Carthage. Finding a way out. And there were lots of ways out. But not in Carthage."
The prospect of another Jackie Underwood being buried in his place, the political demands of his father's reelection campaign--even if he was taking Tipper's advice and turning the question around to you, what do you think is best for you?, he knew now, a few weeks before his graduation, that the answer was that he had to go into the Army and that he would have to go in as a private. As he told Neustadt during one of their conversations, he felt he "had to do what his father's constituents had to do."
There were always other options for him if he wanted them. His cousin Gayle Byrne was in graduate school in Alabama. Her then-husband, who was working in the state legislature, knew a top officer in the Alabama National Guard and played trombone in the guard's band. According to Byrne, her husband inquired of the top guardsman, "This is Senator Gore's son, it's my wife's cousin, would you have a spot for him in the Alabama National Guard? He is just coming out of college." They had not discussed the plan with Al or his parents before they pursued it. Byrne said she was "thinking along the lines of, this would be wonderful, this would provide him with a way to avoid the draft and avoid going to Vietnam."
The Alabama National Guard officer called back and said yes, they did have a spot for Al Gore. Byrne was ecstatic. Her husband thought he was "going to be a hero" and hailed by the family as "a wonderful guy" for saving young Al from Vietnam. "We then went straight to the telephone and called Al and said, 'We've secured a spot for you in the Alabama National Guard!' " Byrne recalled. "I don't remember if he thought about it for 15 seconds or a minute and a half; it was no more than two minutes. He said, 'I appreciate all that you've done for me, and I know that this has been a lot of work for you, but I believe what I'm going to do is enlist.' "
The response floored them. Byrne's husband said he "almost felt little for having offered it to him. Like this guy is operating on a higher plane, and I feel bad that I even suggested it to him."
The question was settled, for the most part, but until the day Gore entered the Army there were constant tugs of doubt, he said later. "Somebody that age, with a decision like that, it's a little different from a Cabinet officer or a president getting a typed memo listing the options with little boxes to check off and as soon as you check off the box then all the different bureaucracies move into play. It's more like you know, 'I think I'm going to do that. And the next day . . . aaahhhheerrrrrnnnn. Yeah? I think I'm going to do that! Uhhhhunnnnrrrrh . . .' The process I'm trying to describe is one where you come to a tentative conclusion and you double-check your feelings and where your heart is and second-guess and then come back to it."
The Last Day
There was a sense of incompleteness to their final day at Harvard. It was June 12, 1969, and a bright summery sun shone down on the Yard, where 1,115 seniors were to receive their degrees. Some of Al Gore's motley crew were not even there. Tommy Lee Jones had gone back to New York for an acting gig. Bart Day left early for Washington, preparing for the Peace Corps, totally "disaffected" by the tumult of the final months and the university's handling of it. Sixteen seniors, including Jamie Kilbreth, were not allowed to attend, having been suspended from school for their part in the University Hall takeover, though Kilbreth came anyway, slipped in by a roommate who was first marshal for the class.
Albert and Pauline Gore were there, taking a suite at a Cambridge hotel, where they would hold a reception afterward for Al and his friends, including Richard Neustadt and Marty Peretz, the two men they believed saved young Al from Chaucer. Mike Kapetan's mother and father, a school janitor in Wayne, Mich., came as well, and Mrs. Kapetan and Mrs. Gore delved into a long conversation about the trials and tribulations of raising two young sons who had made it this far, cum laude graduates of Harvard.
The commencement ceremony was a Sixties period piece, centuries-old college pomp jarringly interrupted by the passions of the day. A brilliant law student lured any law-and-order parents in the crowd into a trap, reciting a passage lamenting the unrest and mindless anarchy of the students and the need for order--and then saying it was a quote from Adolf Hitler. Whatever good cheer the red-armband-wearing students got from that speech quickly dissolved in embarrassment when a sloppily dressed Students for a Democratic Society orator took the stage, smoking and pacing and cursing, deriding Harvard administrators by their last names. As Don Gilligan listened to "this totally incoherent rant" from one of his classmates, he looked around and watched many of his peers "try to discreetly slip their armbands off. I was one of those."
At an agreed-upon moment, just when President Nathan Pusey delivered his time-honored welcoming of the graduates to "the company of educated men," hundreds of seniors rose from their folding chairs, raised their fists in defiance, and walked out. John Tyson chose a different moment to make his exit--when the school gave an honorary degree to David Rockefeller, whose bank did business with South Africa.
"I walked out in the style of the ghetto, with a swagger, on purpose, because of the symbolism, as an athlete," Tyson recalled. "I was basically saying, 'Harvard, you haven't taken out of me my people, even though you might see this as the lowest part of my people, the swagger, I know how to swagger!' " So swagger he did, right on down to Dunster House, where he picked up his degree, along with all of his housemates who had walked out earlier. Gore stayed in his seat for the entire ceremony, with his proud parents and Tipper watching, and then escorted them down to Dunster House. His friends always thought he was somehow different from the rest. He seemed to know where he was supposed to go.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.
CAPTION: 'Agonizing': Al Gore's decision on Vietnam was tortuous.
CAPTION: Etched in Memory: A memorial outside the courthouse in Carthage lists Smith County's war dead. That sacrifice weighed heavily on Gore.
CAPTION: Tumultuous Exit: A graduate shouts his objection to Students for a Democratic Society speaker Bruce Allen at Harvard commencement in 1969. One Gore classmate described the speech as an "incoherent rant."