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THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

A Life of Preparation, and Now, Gore's Moment

Profile: Although steeped in politics, he was no natural. But after choosing the path, he never looked back.

August 13, 2000|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — It has been a lifetime in preparation. No blank space remains in his resume. Al Gore has left almost nothing to chance.

Boarding Air Force Two, he rakes the air with windmill waves--even when no one but his security detail is watching. He is ready in case a camera blinks.

He has sculpted himself for the long haul. The prep school boy whose senator father once goaded him through a grueling regimen of farm chores now does his own toughening up: Two years of hard morning runs and weight training have forged a marathoner's constitution and a logger's taut frame.

As Tennessee congressman, then senator, then vice president, Albert Gore Jr. has always thrived on rigorous preparation. The spine to his lifelong tutorial is politics--its allure, its conflict, its shadow, its stigma. At 52, steeped from childhood in the backstage interplay of national affairs, Gore has achieved more than most politicians could hope to win--and mastered more lessons than most public men have the capacity to absorb.

Yet he is no natural, not an intuitive player like Bill Clinton. He trudges, earthbound, where Clinton glides. His pursuit of politics is prosaic science, not vaulting art.

Politics does not come instinctively to Gore, perhaps because--despite his raising as a senator's son--he has chafed at others' expectations, doubting at times whether he wanted a public career at all. He became a success at what he was expected to be only after straying off his eventual course.

He overcame his doubts, Gore says, because of his parents' influence. Albert Gore Sr., a fiercely independent senator from the Tennessee hill country, and his politically shrewd wife, Pauline, taught their son to always venerate public service.

"Before I became so thoroughly disillusioned," Gore said in an interview, "I had the seeds of idealism planted in my outlook early on."

Those seeds were nourished by duty and desire. Gore absorbed his parents' rarefied world through a child's casual osmosis. Campus upheaval at Harvard and reluctant service in Vietnam quelled his interest. His father's bitter loss of his Senate seat all but snuffed it out.

He detoured into newspaper reporting and raising a family. But at the first scent of opportunity, Gore ran for Congress--and won. His return to the expected path came with such swift ease that his years of exile seemed to have happened to someone else.

"This is what Gores do," said Anthony Hagan, a central Tennessee lawyer who worked for Gore in his early congressional years. "They run."

Gore fashioned his political identity out of the shards of his father's 1970 loss. He saw himself adhering to the old senator's ideals, prizing "victories of the heart [that] are more important than victories at the ballot box."

But he also took lessons in his father's political weaknesses: He learned to pay careful heed to voters, navigating 16 years in the House and Senate with caution. His prepared, aggressive campaign style preempted rivals from defining him. He became a dutiful player in the hard-boiled world of campaign fund-raising.

In his eight years as vice president, Gore has been far more than apprentice to Clinton's sorcerer. His bulging issues portfolio--stretching from school uniforms to nuclear disarmament--reflects his omnivorous appetite for total access, unlimited preparation, all the time.

"He is clearly the most powerful and effective vice president in history, not just by a little but by order of magnitude," said Dick Morris, the Machiavellian consultant who fell from White House grace.

No longer in Clinton's shadow, Gore offers impeccable credentials and his enduring ethic of preparation as evidence of his readiness. "I wanted to be of maximum use to the country," he says of his eight years as vice president.

Voters need to feel at ease with their leaders--as well as trust in their abilities. The question of whether Al Gore emerged from his lifelong tutorial as his own man or a man tailored to the expectations of others may be central to whether Americans want him as their next president.

The Senator's Son

It was easy to tick off the ill-humored old man in the downstairs apartment. All Al Gore had to do was bounce his basketball.

From inside Suite 809, the rhythmic pounding throbbed through the muffled silence of the Fairfax Hotel until the telephone call came from 709. Then his parents would order him to quit it.

They had good reason. The tenant below was John McClellan. Sen. McClellan of Arkansas, the powerful Southerner who worked in the same vast oak-paneled chamber as Sen. Gore Sr. of Tennessee.

"It was my floor. But it was his ceiling," Al Gore recalls with a smirk.

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