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6 April 1999

The Howler profile (part III): How quickly they forgot

Synopsis: Every big profile in the past twelve years had discussed Gore’s life on the farm.

The Son Also Rises
Gail Sheehy, Vanity Fair, 3/88

The Boy Who Would Be President
Sarah Booth Conroy, The Washington Post, 7/10/92

Al Gore’s Double Life
Alex S. Jones, The New York Times Magazine, 10/25/92

Gore’s Dilemma
Peter J. Boyer, The New Yorker, 11/28/94

The Chosen One
Marjorie Williams, Vanity Fair, 2/98

Gore: A Political Life
Bob Zelnick, Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1999

We don’t think anyone should vote for Gore because he did all those chores on the farm. And there are serious questions the VP must answer in the course of his run for the White House. But we think that major public officials deserve to be treated with intelligence and respect. And we don’t think they should be lied about--not even when the RNC says to.

It’s hard to see how the silly “chores” issue gained traction with the press in the first place. And it’s hard to see why no brave scribe has dissected the dim-bulb dispute. Every Gore profile in the past dozen years has described Gore’s early life on the farm. It was a well-known part of the vice president’s history--then the RNC voted to change it.

Given the hubbub of the past several weeks, it’s remarkable to go back through those twelve years of profiles and review what’s been written about Gore. It wasn’t just amnesiac Michael Kelly who wrote about Gore-on-the-farm. It’s been a standard theme of the major Gore profiles: Gore was raised in two quite different places. And writers have repeatedly described how Gore’s father wanted his son to work hard on the farm.

It wasn’t just Kelly who said it. Gail Sheehy, in Vanity Fair (1988), stressed how Gore had grown up in two different worlds, not just in the Washington world with which Kelly is now so impressed:

SHEEHY (1988): [O]n the last day of every term at his Washington school, Al was already packed and raring for the all-night drive to Tennessee...The population of Carthage, roughly 2,700, has hardly changed since the late forties and fifties, when the family spent every school holiday, summer, and congressional recess here.

According to Sheehy, Gore’s father, who had come from humble roots, was determined that his son would get the best education. But she also described a second desire:

SHEEHY: But the senator was not going to have his son alienated from his southern heritage, either. “Mr. Gore always had him to get up early just like the farmhands,” says Mattie Lucy Payne, who worked for the Gores. Al senior laid down the law: “I’m not going to have a boy who lays up in the bed!” Steve Armistead, a boy from a poor holler up the road, became young Al’s best friend. “He didn’t have any privileges,” recalls Armistead, who spent many a day hoeing and weeding the Gores’ tobacco fields right beside their son. “I guess I was a little severe,” reflects Albert senior today, “but I didn’t want my son to have the easy tasks.”

But it wasn’t all chores, according to Sheehy. Maybe that’s the point Kelly was making:

SHEEHY: As a teenager Gore chose to join a one-room, plain-board country Baptist church in Carthage with pews lumpy from hundreds of coats of paint equipped with paper fans, the image of Jesus Christ on one side and a funeral-home ad on the other.

Sheehy’s profile was full of images from Gore’s rural Tennessee background.

But every profile described the Carthage experiences--the ones that began to seem so “preposterous” when the RNC faxes arrived. Sarah Booth Conroy, in the Post, upon Gore’s nomination for vice president:

CONROY: Gore Sr. said his son has always been fond of Tennessee and the farm. “I think his collie dog, Fido, and Buck, his pony, were his main interests as a boy. Every year, the day he got out of school in Washington, he’d want to head home. Back then, Congress recessed in June, so he spent a lot of time here.” On the farm, he worked “harder than any of the hands” in his father’s view.

Alex Jones, in the Times, shortly before the ’92 election, went into new detail about Gore’s Tennessee life, describing the family with whom Gore would stay when his parents were off campaigning:

JONES: Usually, young Al was left in the care of Alota and William Thompson, the tenant farmers who ran the Gores’ spread outside Carthage...[T]he Thompson home had no indoor plumbing, and was heated by a single coal-burning fireplace. Al shared a bed with the Thompson’s only son, Gordon.

As we’ve noted, Peter Boyer’s 1994 New Yorker profile described how Gore’s father, “believing that a boy needed to know the rigors of hard work,” demanded that Gore do the very same plowing that the Weekly Standard described as “preposterous.” Marjorie Williams, in Vanity Fair (2/98), told how Gore spent his entire second grade year with the Thompsons (from Christmas on); she too discussed his father’s insistence that he “work as hard as the hired laborers to earn his pocket money.” And Bob Zelnick’s new biography makes the hillside plowing the central metaphor of Gore’s entire life. The chore that the Standard described as “preposterous” is evoked right in Zelnick’s closing sentence.

In short, the Gore profiles uniformly describe the events that the Standard said were “preposterous,” the ones that Michael Kelly ridiculed (in a piece which avoided direct statement). It’s hard to believe that major Washington writers could be unaware of this body of work. But they, like Kelly, suffered memory loss when the spin campaign got into gear.

Yep. Jim Nicholson decided the time had come to reinvent Gore’s early history. And wouldn’t you know it? The press, on cue, developed big memory problems. For twelve years they had written about Gore’s early life; they had labored hard on those steep hillside stories. But in the face of exciting--and negative--spin, the press corps quite quickly forgot.

Tomorrow: Smile-a-while! Michael Kelly just can’t get over the size of those six great big rooms.