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To Backers, Even Friends, Gore Remains an Enigma

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To much of America, he may be Mr. Environment. But at home, Al Gore was just another scofflaw. Finally one of his kids urged: “Dad, turn off the water when you’re brushing your teeth!”

He denounces violent images in entertainment. Yet one of his favorite movies is “The Matrix,” a sci-fi film filled with blood and . . . gore.

A minor contradiction in each case, to be sure. But they are emblematic of the sort of duality that defines Albert Arnold Gore Jr.

Now, in his relentlessly combative bid to become the next president of the United States, Gore remains--after 23 years in public life--a study in contrasts, an enigma to friends and supporters.

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“He’s just like everybody else,"insists Tipper Gore, the vice president’s wife of 29 years. “We all struggle with our idealism and our practical daily realities.”

Known for his high-wattage intellect, Gore also is working on becoming a better listener, especially with well-meaning advisors.

Few people have had to grapple with more competing demands--and his own demons--in so public a manner as the vice president.

Now the conflicts of his biography mirror the challenges of his campaign to succeed Bill Clinton.

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A decade ago, Gore resolved to no longer “put a finger to the political winds” when facing tough choices. Yet when he embarked on this campaign, Gore assembled an organization top-heavy with pricey pollsters and controversial consultants.

As vice president, he has wielded more clout than any of his 44 predecessors. He is among the nation’s most cerebral politicians--an extraordinarily disciplined and competitive man on a never-ending quest for excellence. Yet he has an inexplicable tendency to embellish his resume.

‘It’s a Tightrope He’s Had to Walk’

He clings to President Clinton’s popular economic policies but distances himself from the White House on issues such as global trade and abortion funding, saying that he would do things differently--even while urging Congress to back Clinton’s agenda.

“It’s a tightrope that he’s had to walk all his life,” says a longtime Gore confidant.

But the vice president does not see his life as a high-wire balancing act.

“A tightrope has a lot of tension--you always worry about falling off one side or the other,” Gore said.

He has worried about the inconsistencies in his life before.

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In his best-selling book, “Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit,” Gore acknowledged his own hypocrisy by riding in an air-conditioned car while en route to deliver a speech calling for a ban on the very chemicals that were keeping him cool.

He mused that such are “distractions and distortions that interfere with the task.”

The challenge of balancing competing imperatives was thrust upon Gore virtually from Day One, nearly 52 years ago.

He was born in a Washington hospital a mere dozen blocks from the White House. But his arrival was heralded on the front page of the Nashville Tennessean.

In Washington, Gore was the exquisitely mannered progeny of an influential congressman and then senator from Tennessee.

When he was growing up, the Gores lived in a hotel suite on Embassy Row that also served as a salon to the power elite. Young Gore often sat in as politicians and statesmen held forth.

“Al was raised in a political family and he had always been fascinated by politics,” said Tipper Gore.

At one of the city’s premier prep schools, St. Alban’s, Gore excelled in academics and sports--and served as a student leader.

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Just Another Unruly, Fun-Loving Kid

But he lived for the glorious summers on the 225-acre family farm, about 50 miles east of Nashville.

His father invariably had a list of back-breaking farm chores for him, but when done, Gore was just another rambunctious, fun-loving kid. As a prank, he once hypnotized a flock of chickens and left them on a neighbor’s porch. At age 14, he drove so fast down a country lane that he overturned his father’s station wagon. To this day, he keeps his motorcycle license current.

Gore kept his two worlds distinctly apart from one another. For a brief time during his senior year in high school, he even had a girlfriend in each city. But Tipper won out.

Mary Elizabeth “Tipper” Aitcheson was a fun-loving, drum-playing teenager from across the Potomac River in suburban Virginia, an only child who grew up in a broken home. The attraction was immediate and mutual.

“I’ve always had two separate lives,” Gore recalled.

But when it came to which world he preferred, there was no contest.

”. . . If you’re a boy, and you have the choice between the eighth floor of a hotel and a big farm with horses, cows, canoes and a river, it was an easy choice . . . ,” he said.

For Gore, Washington felt like a “temporary assignment.” That he returned to it as a profession--and now aspires to its pinnacle--would not surprise those who knew him earlier.

At Harvard University, Gore participated in his share of anti-war demonstrations but steered clear when students took over the administration building.

Despite his opposition to the war, Gore joined the Army within two months of graduation. At Ft. Rucker in Alabama, a gung-ho Pfc. Gore was named post soldier of the month.

After five months as an Army journalist in Vietnam, Gore returned to civilian life--"probably as disillusioned as any person you have ever met,” he said.

By then his father had been defeated in a brutal reelection campaign. The assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were still fresh in Gore’s mind. The Watergate scandals were unfolding.

He viewed politics as “the last thing I would do with my life.”

Instead, Gore became a government watchdog--as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean.

In time, he started to see the good in public service--and discovered that at times he could influence the Nashville Metro Council’s debate by the degree of interest, or boredom, that he displayed. When council members saw Gore taking notes, they figured they were on to something. Conversely, some would drop an issue when the young reporter yawned or doodled in his note pad.

“I began to see things that I thought needed to be done,” Gore recalled. “And I began to think: If I got involved in that. . . .”

Gore Pounced on Father’s Old Post

That opportunity arose unexpectedly in 1976, when the local Democratic congressman announced his retirement. Gore leaped at the chance to run for the seat once held by his father.

Gore was so nervous that minutes before showing up for a news conference to declare his candidacy, he vomited. He was 28.

Twenty years later, while aboard Air Force II, the vice president self-effacingly reenacted his awkward campaign style as a political neophyte. “If you think I’m stiff now . . . !” he bellowed.

About the time he ran for Congress, Gore stopped smoking marijuana. Although he disclosed his pot use in 1988, during a short-lived bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, the issue resurfaced this year amid questions over the frequency of his pot smoking.

Gore told reporters in Iowa recently that it had been rare, adding: “When I was young, I did things young people do. When I grew up, I put away childish things.”

In the House, Gore was one of its hardest working members, returning to his district almost every weekend to hold town hall meetings--still a favored Gore setting.

On Capitol Hill, he served on an investigative subcommittee that held more public hearings than any other--from ozone depletion and genetic engineering to contaminated infant formula and toxic wastes. He quickly became among the most visible House members.

“Few there could match his ability to seize an issue, uncover a pattern of abuses, draw attention in the media and propose a solution,” said Congressional Quarterly, a journal that covers Congress.

In 1979, when the House opened its proceedings to television cameras, Gore was the first member to speak.

Five years later, he won his father’s old Senate seat, capturing more than 60% of the votes despite a Reagan landslide.

The Senate was something of a culture shock for Gore.

In the House, he had a group of basketball buddies. But even after more than seven years, Gore could claim few genuine friends in the Senate, where many had viewed him as a pedigreed upstart with aspirations for higher office.

“An automatic distance set in,” recalled Roy Neel, a top Gore aide for almost two decades in Congress and the White House.

Gore’s somewhat imperious demeanor also rubbed some the wrong way.

During a floor vote in the late 1980s, Gore was chatting with another Democrat when the colleague’s eyes strayed.

Gore snapped: “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

Shortly after a failed bid for his party’s presidential nomination in 1988, another life-changing event occurred.

Gore’s young son nearly died after being hit by an automobile. Albert III eventually recovered, but Gore emerged from the family crisis a more patient and introspective man.

“I changed all of my priorities to ensure that I was able to spend a lot more time with each child and with the family as a whole,” Gore recalled.

Gore also decided to not run for president in 1992. Yet when Bill Clinton asked, Gore did not hesitate to join what became the nation’s first baby boomer ticket.

His fortes--arms control, the environment, foreign policy--neatly complemented Clinton’s message of economic revival.

As vice president, Gore was involved in virtually every foreign policy decision, from the bombing of Iraq to the deployment of troops in Haiti and Somalia. In the domestic arena, Gore led the fight for the North American Free Trade Agreement, the V-chip and gun control. He also directed the effort to downsize the federal bureaucracy and develop “empowerment zones” that helped revitalize cities.

Gore said he has been surprised by “the intensity . . . and the bracing challenges” of working in the White House but added: “I’ve really enjoyed it. I love it. I love it.”

It was often Gore who clashed with congressional Republicans in budget disputes when Clinton sought compromises.

Gore’s willingness to mix it up suggests that his campaign mantra--"I want to fight for you!"--is no idle boast. That same brawler’s instinct got Gore ejected from a high school football game for fighting. After the 1992 election, Gore waged one bureaucratic fight after another to enhance his power and influence in the new administration--and even bested First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for a prime West Wing office just 18 paces from the Oval Office.

Another little-known Gore trait, which some aides have found more troubling, is his tendency to be aloof and intellectually arrogant.

“He’s so competitive. He has to be smarter, faster and better than you,” said one former top aide. “He has a disdain for people who aren’t as prepared or as smart. If you can’t keep up with him intellectually, he gets bored.”

This ex-staffer recalled an occasion when Gore slammed the phone down on her late one night when she did not have a piece of information that she regarded as trivial.

“Gore does have an edge,” Neel conceded. “He’s a man with a mission in life, and that can be off-putting. He’s just not a hail-fellow-well-met politician. So he’s often misunderstood . . . . I don’t think he’s always the smartest guy in the room, but often he’s the person in the room who has thought the most about an issue.”

Many aides also say that it is often difficult to give Gore advice.

A stark example occurred in March of 1997. Gore had come under criticism for his prodigious fund-raising efforts in 1995 and 1996, including having made numerous telephone solicitations from his office.

After those calls came to light, Gore held a strategy session in his office. White House lawyers told him that he had done nothing wrong, that there was “no controlling legal authority.”

“He latched on to that phrase,” recalled one aide present at the meeting.

Gore wanted to hold a news conference to defend himself. But the advice to Gore was all but unanimous: Don’t.

Gore not only ignored the advice but flatly rejected the suggestion by one top White House aide that he refrain from using the legalistic phrase.

The vice president turned on the aide (who was not an attorney) and all but snarled: “You’re not a lawyer, are you?”

Asked about the perception among insiders that he is a difficult man to advise, Gore replied after a long pause and a deep sigh:

“Well, if I was ever that way, I’m not now--because learning requires an appropriate appreciation for what you don’t know. If anybody ever felt that way, then I didn’t intend to make them feel that way.”

Aides say that one way to influence Gore--who many say is slow to trust hired hands--is by going through his wife and his eldest daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff.

Gore also responds readily to facts, aides and confidants say. “You’ve got to go through his head,” said one longtime Clinton-Gore advisor.

At his core, the vice president remains a private, even shy man, someone who seems more comfortable reading a book (or writing one) than mixing with strangers. On the road, the exercise-conscious Gore uses a treadmill in his hotel suite. He relaxes by painting--a hobby he developed in second grade. Until recently, he also has been refining ideas for two novels.

In an election cycle when voters yearn for authenticity and personalities seem to trump issues, one of Gore’s major vulnerabilities may be his tendency to distort his record by exaggerating, which baffles even friends and longtime aides.

“He makes mistakes when he’s tired,” ventured one close friend.

Among the many statements that Gore has had to retract or revise: that he created the Internet; that he and Tipper were the models for “Love Story”; that he saw more action in Vietnam than he did; that his work as an investigative reporter had sent people to jail.

Gore also has been ridiculed for shaking up his staff, moving his campaign headquarters from here to Nashville and adopting an earth-tone wardrobe--in short, for reinventing himself and his message.

As one exasperated Democratic senator put it: “One day he’s in his cowboy boots. The next day, he’s Eddie Bauer. The day after he’s Brooks Brothers. Which is the real Al Gore?”

The answer may well be: all of them.

Restless Drive to Improve Himself

For Gore’s restless drive to improve himself is his very essence--whether it’s devouring a book on how to connect with people or mastering the intricacies of ballistic missiles.

And trying to become a better candidate, in fact, may be consistent with the “intensive search for truths about myself and my life,” to use Gore’s words.

That journey--for a man who has described himself during this campaign as “someone who has a lot of imperfections and shortcomings"--seems likely to continue through Campaign 2000 and beyond--thus defying the simplistic portrayals of Gore as a stiff, wooden politician.

“I don’t know how you get around the end result of taking a complex, fragile, wonderful human being--no matter who it is--it’s very difficult to convey that this is a complex person with all kinds of experiences,” said Tipper Gore. “And what comes out is a stereotype . . . something one-dimensional.”

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Profile:

Albert Arnold Gore Jr.

* Born: March 31, 1948, to the late U.S. Sen. Albert Gore Sr. and Pauline Gore

* Residence: Washington, D.C.

* Education: Bachelor’s degree in government, Harvard University, 1969. Attended Vanderbilt University Divinity School, 1971 to 1972. Law degree, Vanderbilt University, 1976.

* Career highlights: U.S. Army (including service in Vietnam), 1969 to 1971. Reporter for the Nashville Tennessean, 1973 to 1976. U.S. representative from Tennessee, 1977 to 1985. U.S. senator, 1985 to 1993. Vice president, 1993 to present. Wrote “Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit” (1992).

* Family: Married 29 years to former Mary Elizabeth “Tipper” Aitcheson. Three daughters, one son.


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