The Mind of Al Gore 4

The prospect of the draft drove Clinton almost to despair. It seems to have been the only time in his life, as David Maraniss’s bi¬ography, First in His Class, makes clear, when he lost his sense of bearings. A man whose deepest impulse is to demonstrate sympathy for every faction was suddenly obliged to alienate the affections of one faction completely. Clinton responded, typically, by juggling his options—which included a pledge to join the University of Arkansas ROTC—until the lottery was instituted, and his number placed him outside the pool of probable inductees. His famous letter to the commander of the ROTC unit, explaining that he was dropping that option, is a classic of Clinton’s special art: it manages to praise the honor of those who were willing to fight and the honor of those who refused to fight with equal sincerity. Thomas and Hill were both telling the truth.
Gore’s experience was much worse. Albert Gore, Sr., had emerged as an opponent of the war (as did Clinton’s political mentor, Senator J. William Fulbright, of Arkansas), and when the antiwar insurgency within the Democratic Party failed, with the nomination and defeat of Hubert Humphrey in 1968, A1 Jr. found himself with Clinton’s dilemma, but with much higher stakes. His father was up for reelection in 1970, and an antiwar position was un-popular in Tennessee. If young A1 refused to serve, he would almost certainly sink his father’s candidacy; he also, according to the testi¬mony of some of his Tennessee friends, felt guilty about, in effect, sending another man in his place if he sheltered himself from the draft. So in 1969, after graduating from Harvard, he enlisted. His fa¬ther lost anyway. It was the end of his political career.
When Gore spoke to me about this period in his life, he empha¬sized a couple of things besides his father’s defeat. One was the shock he had when he returned to Cambridge in 1970, before going overseas, and walked through Harvard Square in his Army uniform. It was, as he put it, “a Ralph Ellison experience.’’ He was sneered at; people shouted epithets. “People I would have identified as those I agreed with on the way we saw the world all of a sudden, because my hair was in a buzz cut and I was in a uniform—it made all the difference in the world to them. Of course, it seems painfully obvi¬ous now. But in other ways it was really quite revelatory.”
The second was the shock he had when he got to Vietnam. He had always seen the issue in black-and-white terms, he said. “The policy was misguided and wrong, the war was a mistake, et cetera, et cetera. When I actually went there and got to know some of the South Vietnamese, who were genuinely terrified of what would hap¬pen to them if they lost their freedom in a takeover by the North, my easy assumptions about the nature of the conflict were chal¬lenged by the reality of it. It was so much more subtle. I still think that the policy was a mistake, but I think that it was much more complicated than either the proponents or the opponents of that policy thought.” The war as an issue split his generation; the war as a reality made a mockery of the domestic political debate about it.
Once Clinton had successfully steered (we will not say dodged) his way through his period of exposure to the draft, he sailed serenely off to Yale Law School and then to his first campaign for public office. He had not taken his eyes off the prize for a minute. Gore, on the other hand, needed to put himself back together be¬fore he could go on. He was in Vietnam for five months, serving as an Army journalist. When he returned to the United States, in 1971, he swore off public service forever. He vowed, as he recalled in a speech at his twenty-fifth Harvard reunion, in 1994, that “I would never, ever go into politics.” He did not exactly drop out—he worked for five years as a reporter on the Tennessean, a Nashville pa¬per—but he tuned out. He went to divinity school, at Vanderbilt, and quit; he went to law school and didn’t finish. He spent five years looking for an alternative to the career for which he had been raised. He finally changed his mind about politics, by all accounts over¬night (“My wife was very surprised by it,” he said), and in 1976 he ran successfully for his father’s old congressional seat. But his whole education had taught him the necessity of undoing the damage wrought by Lyndon Johnson.
Gore’s response to the sixties was therefore much more genera- tionally typical than Clinton’s was. Contrary to the usual under¬standing, the baby boomers didn’t create the culture of the sixties; they didn’t even inspire it. They consumed it. In 1968, the climax of the decade politically, the oldest baby boomer in America was just turning twenty-two. To the extent that baby boomers participated in protests, took drugs, and practiced “free love,” they were responding to slogans, tastes, and fads dreamed up and promulgated by people much older than they were.
When, at the end of the decade, that whole culture seemed to implode, baby boomers were left to patch together a culture of their own in a landscape littered with fragments. The establishment and the elite culture, the culture of “the best and the brightest,” were discredited; but so were the radical alternatives. Mainstream poli¬tics had produced Nixon, radical politics had produced the Weath¬ermen, and the counterculture had produced Charles Manson. For people disillusioned or burned out by the sixties, there grew up, in the seventies, a culture of therapy and renewal. Our problems are not political (this culture urged); our problem is our whole way of being in the world. Conflict and contention are symptoms of wrong thinking; a new age demands new epistemologies. It was the time of Erich Fromm and Alvin Toffler. This is in many respects the culture that shaped A1 Gore. Gore is, to a much greater degree than Clin¬ton, a man molded by the current of popular ideas. If he were not so manifestly buttoned down, you might even say that he was trendy.

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