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The Parenting of a True-Blue Populist

September 01, 2002|KYLE LONGLEY | Kyle Longley, an associate professor of history at Arizona State University, is the author of the forthcoming "Letting the Glory Out: A Biography of Senator Albert Gore Sr."

TEMPE, Ariz. — Some Democrats and political commentators have recently chastised former Vice President Al Gore for emphasizing populist themes during his unsuccessful 2000 presidential campaign. A few even denounced him as a fake populist because he is the son of a U.S. senator, attended private schools and enjoyed easy access to power. But Gore is no fake. Indeed, populism runs in his veins.

Almost everything about his late father, Albert Gore Sr., reflected populist-progressive roots. Born into a farming family in 1907, he attended a one-room schoolhouse and worked his way through Middle Tennessee State Teachers College and the Nashville YMCA law school. When elected to Congress in 1938, he vowed never to forget his modest roots.

The populist movement shaped the elder Gore from the beginning. "As one who believes there is much merit in this Populist heritage," he once recalled, "it always seemed to me perfectly logical that government should play an active role in the nation's business affairs, and I have never lost faith in the government's ability to guarantee economic justice to all people."

Gore's populist-progressive impulses became increasingly evident during his service in the House of Representatives. In 1946, Republicans pushed a 20% across-the-board tax cut. Gore sarcastically praised them for rising "to the defense of the forgotten man--all those ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed Americans earning more than $302,896 per year."

With his tax savings, Gore noted, the wealthy man "will have enough left to buy a yacht, I mean another yacht ... pay membership in his golf club, take a cruise, a vacation, and still have $5,000 left with which to gamble in the stock market." In contrast, Gore said, the man earning $1,200 a year would receive an increase of $11.40, allowing him "to buy a cheap spring hat for his wife."

When Gore entered the U.S. Senate in 1953, he cemented his populist-progressive credentials. He fought to close tax loopholes and supported campaign finance reform. He vehemently denounced the GOP's pro-business policies, once telling a Michigan audience that "if the Republican Party was ever reincarnated into a homing pigeon, no matter from where it was released in the universe, whether from a jet plane or in outer space, it would go directly home to Wall Street without a flutter of the wing."

Even when his party controlled Congress and the White House in the 1960s, Gore aggravated his fellow Democrats with his stances. He vigorously criticized presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson for cutting taxes for the wealthy to stimulate the economy. Writing to Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield in 1962, he complained that "a Democratic administration would seek to attack the graduated income tax by drastically lowering the top brackets and making the graduations less steep is unthinkable."

Such maverick actions led one observer to characterize Gore as "a senator who has deeply offended, at one time or another, nearly every lobby and special interest on Capitol Hill.... He'll rock almost anybody's boat." Eventually, his strong support of civil rights and determined opposition to the Vietnam War and President Nixon's Supreme Court nominees, coupled with his outspokenness, fed a conservative backlash that led to his defeat in 1970.

Despite the apparent contradictions of Gore's decision to join Occidental Petroleum in 1972, he never betrayed his political ideas. In many ways, he worked hard to pass them along to his son. Each summer, the young Gore returned home to work on the family farm, where the senator assigned him especially arduous tasks--clearing brush was a favorite--in addition to his daily chores. It was part of a concerted effort to make sure that junior understood the value of manual labor and empathized with the millions who relied on it for their livelihood.

The senator also tutored his son politically. A childhood friend of the former vice president recalled that Al Sr. explained the issues of the day in excruciating detail to his son, promoting his populist viewpoint throughout.

Soon after son Al Gore entered the House of Representatives in 1977, he bore the markings of his father. He challenged businesses on consumer and environmental issues, including an Occidental Petroleum subsidiary in charge of Love Canal. When reporters asked the elder Gore about his son's criticism, he said: "There are some people at Occidental who wish I didn't have a son. But I think my son has been right in most instances. Sure, he steps on our toes every now and then, but we have a lot of toes and perhaps they should be stepped on."

The son's politics resembled the father's in other ways. In the early 1990s, he proposed the Working Family Tax Relief Act, which would have cut the taxes of more than 30 million workers by levying an 11% surtax on incomes exceeding $250,000.

He also took on powerful vested interests in his book "Earth in the Balance," among them the petroleum and automobile industries, for their role in the production of greenhouse gases. He prodded President Clinton to endorse the Kyoto Protocol--the U.S. still hasn't endorsed this effort to cut greenhouse gases--and earned considerable conservative antipathy as a result.

Al Gore's embrace of populism during his presidential campaign, then, was anything but opportunistic. Rather, it was all in the family.

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