The Prince of Tennessee: The Rise of Al Gore

by David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima

Published by Simon & Schuster

323 pages, 2000

Buy it online






His Own Man

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


Pundits who voice surprise at Al Gore's populist rhetoric on the stump during this U.S. presidential election season must have short memories. Not only did the vice president's late father, Albert Gore Sr., wring every ounce of value from the populist approach during his four decades in Congress, but Al Jr. adopted a similar tack back in 1988, when he made his first, unsuccessful bid for the White House.

As Washington Post journalists David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima explain in The Prince of Tennessee, their penetrating yet still warmly perceptive biography of the man who would be America's 43rd chief executive, Gore had begun the 1988 race by taking tough military stances, looking positively hawkish as he distinguished himself from a motley assortment of Democratic rivals. However, when the hawk talk failed to catch on with voters, the then-39-year-old junior U.S. senator from Tennessee did what any smart politician might do: he recast himself. He played up his rural roots, the time he'd spent as a teenager baling hay and plowing his father's middle Tennessee farm for 30 cents an hour, and he talked with empathy and knowledge about the loss of American jobs to foreign investment. But the change of direction came too late: Gore was forced out of the campaign long before that year's Democratic National Convention, disappointing his father, who'd once entertained his own dreams of national renown, but perhaps disappointing himself most of all. Even as a boy, Al Gore had told people, "One day, I'm going to be somebody." Defeat of such magnitude, played out before the entire country at the very apex of his ambition, must have been difficult to swallow.

So while Republican George W. Bush looks to be waging his 2000 presidential campaign as a smirking, bumbling surrogate for his father, hoping to avenge Bush Sr.'s humiliating defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992, for Gore it's personal. A dozen years after his original run at the Oval Office, and following two terms of study in the shadow of our era's most adroit politician, the vice president sees this contest both as a way to explain his vision for America and the world -- and a means of recapturing the sense that he is destined for greatness.

At least, that's what I conclude from reading The Prince of Tennessee. The Al Gore portrayed in these pages (an image based on interviews or correspondence with more than 500 sources, including the subject himself) is too complex for simple psychoanalyzing. He's a product of the best schools and the worst times. Although his family owned a home in the small town of Carthage, Tennessee, he was actually born in Washington, D.C., lived most of his growing-up years (while his father pontificated on Capitol Hill) in a hotel on Embassy Row and attended a private boys' school called St. Albans, where he acted more adult-like than his peers. ("It's almost unnatural for a boy to be that well behaved," one teacher later joked.) Gore didn't miss out entirely on childhood hijinks; the authors recount how he and some buddies once discovered an overturned Tootsie Roll truck, and how they peeled and ate the candy "until they could stomach no more." Later, they talk of the mental release Gore found in painting and of his youthful recklessness, especially behind the wheel of a car. But more often than not, the future veep strove to be "the dutiful son," inheriting from his sire an old-fashioned formality, a commitment to civil rights and (much to Dubya's regret today) a love for the scrum of a vigorous debate.

In his best-selling Clinton biography, First in His Class (1995), Maraniss showed greater curiosity about his subject's personal evolution than he did interest in writing a hard-hitting analysis of Clinton's performance in office, and he brings those same priorities to this new work. Trying to place Gore in context, The Prince of Tennessee devotes just 10 pages to his vice presidency, but whole chapters to the influences on him of two women the authors say have served as his emotional balances: Gore's fun-loving elder sister, Nancy (who died of lung cancer in the early 1980s), and his teenage sweetheart -- later wife -- Tipper. The book shows Gore as far wittier and more driven by his heart than most voters realize. It recalls his rampant self-confidence (the smart, three-sport letterman didn't even bother applying to other colleges than Harvard, so sure was he of acceptance), his Watergate-era experience as an investigative journalist, his passion for environmentalism (apparently rooted in a reading of Frank Herbert's science fiction classic, Dune) and Gore's decision -- despite his opposition to the Vietnam War -- to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1970 as a way of supporting his staunchly liberal father who was then in a hard race for a fourth Senate term and couldn't be seen letting his son duck military duty. (Gore Sr. lost anyway, forcing Al Jr. to reassess the value of government service and convincing him that it's never wise to stray too far from the political center.) Most interesting, if also most debatable, is the authors' contention that Gore's storied hunger and capacity for knowledge -- which the candidate himself views as essential to the exercise of power -- is, instead, a manifestation of his deep-seated insecurity, a need to be in control of things.

Along the way, Maraniss and Nakashima offer a sampler of anecdotes and set pieces from Al Gore's life and evolution as a pol. We read, for instance, about his grandfather teaching the future environmentalist to spell his first word: G-R-E-E-N. We are presented with evidence that he's "fiercely competitive," how at Harvard he once challenged the school's beer-chugging champ to a drinking duel, after studying the champ's technique and duplicating it. (The contest ended in a tie.) We find passages that shine a light on unexpectedly quirky aspects of Gore's character. (He "became hooked on television as a purveyor of pop culture," the authors write, noting that in college Gore would make "astute comments about Star Trek or Lost in Space.") And we're presented with the image of a very committed yet genuinely passionate man who, making his initial bid for public office in 1976, found himself briefly unstrung by the realization of his dreams:

[E]ven before he delivered his announcement speech, the first of many he would make on the steps of the Smith County Courthouse in Carthage over the years, there was one sign that this political life would be a struggle for him. As he was leaving the house with Tipper and [his little daughter] Karenna, he was overwhelmed by a sense of nausea and he rushed back inside to throw up.

The Prince of Tennessee is an exception to the rule that political biographies must be parched and process-oriented. It's an involving voyage to the core of Gore. If, as recent polls and campaign momentum suggest, Al Gore wins the office that only months ago seemed frustratingly beyond his reach, this will be one of the books to which analysts turn to figure out how the hell he did it. And what kind of president he'll be.   | October 2000


J. Kingston Pierce is the senior editor of January Magazine.