Isn’t It Rich

Al Gore, the former vice president who but for the vote of one Supreme Court Justice would have captured the American presidency in 2000, is now “Romney rich,” so dubbed by Bloomberg News. Losing the White House does have its upside, I guess.

Bloomberg estimates that Gore may now be worth $200 million after selling his 20% share of the not very successful Current cable TV operation to Qatari-owned Al Jazeera for a cool $70 million. (Apparently a Gore strange bedfellow, Rupert Murdoch,  actually helped ensure that Al would get his big pay day by guaranteeing that Current would, despite awful ratings, stay on Murdoch’s DircTV,  a decision estimated to have been worth $200 million. Wouldn’t you like to have heard that conversation?)

Gore also made what appears to be a $30 million haul by exercising options on the Apple stock he accumulated while serving on the tech giant’s corporate board. “That’s a pretty good January for a guy who couldn’t yet call himself a multimillionaire [based on 1999 and 2000 disclosure forms] when he briefly slipped from public life after his bitterly contested presidential election loss to George W. Bush in late 2000,” writes Ken Wells and Ari Levy of Bloomberg.

Goodness knows I don’t begrudge a big pay day for a Democrat – or Republican or Libertarian, for that matter – although the stock options that Fortune 500 companies lavish on very part time and mostly very disengaged directors is one of the dirty little scandals of American capitalism. And come to think if it shouldn’t every liberal activist aspire to have Rupert Murdoch’s ear for heaven’s sake? Rather what has always bothered me about Al Gore, and this I suspect will be the flavor of the reporting on his vast new wealth, is that he has always struck me as being one of those people in public life who is not comfortable in his own skin. He is not exactly what he appears to be and what he appears to be is, well, confusing. Begging the question then – who the heck is this guy?

Is he the climate change crusader who shared a Nobel Prize for focusing attention on that issue? Or is he a big-time Silicon Valley communication and high tech wheeler-dealer who can romance the California corporate crowd and Rupert Murdoch? Or is he the guy who once and very questionably raised campaign money at a Buddist Temple, but now says “our democracy” has been hijacked by big and secret money? And what about the big houses and bigger carbon footprint? And did you, a guy passionate about global climate matters, really need to sell your TV network to a bunch of oil-rich princes in the Middle East?

In their wonderful little book The Prince of Tennessee – subtitled “The Rise of Al Gore” – writers David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima detail young Al Gore’s early days as the son of a Senator – Albert Gore, Sr. – who spent many of his formidable years growing up in Suite 809 atop the Fairfax Hotel on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C.   Today the hotel’s website touts the place’s history. “Prominent tenants included a young Al Gore, Jr., Mrs. Henry Cabot Lodge, Admiral and Mrs. Chester William Nimitz, and Senator John L. McClellan. A young George H. Bush and his parents, Senator and Mrs. Prescott Bush, also made The Fairfax their home when in town.”

“If this experience made him different from you and me, to borrow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase, it was not from being rich, but rather from being apart,” Maraniss and Nakashima wrote in their book published in 2000. “[Gore] grew up in a singularly odd world of old people and bellhops, separated from the child-filled neighborhoods of his classmates at St. Albans and further still from his summertime pals at the family farm in Tennessee.”

Gore’s only sibling, sister Nancy, was a decade older and Al grew up mainly with himself. It doesn’t take a Fitzgerald-like imagination to picture the young Al reserved and proper, typically hanging around not with his teenage friends, but with the old and stuffy Senate friends of his parents. On such occasions you’ll not be surprised to know that Gore was described as “a perfect gentleman.”

The description of Gore in The Prince of Tennessee, which I suspect will be the best insight we’ll ever have to the man who came so close to being president, is of a “serious and earnest” guy “always striving to do right, but at times [revealing] flashes of a more complicated struggle within, his stoic front masking a hidden artistry, sarcasm, and loneliness.”

In a lengthy profile in the current New York Magazine Gore is described as having been devastated by his lost in 200o to George W. Bush.  “For two and a half decades, he was on a trajectory that was supposed to end in the presidency,” according to Carter Eskew one of his closest advisers. Now Gore awkwardly attempts to hide what must be the lingering hurt and regret with a throw away line that, when delivered in his stiff and not quite believable way, sounds rehearsed as if it had been tested in a focus group. “I used to be the next president of the United States,” he says always followed by a laugh.

With that line everyone thinks Gore is referring to his less than 600 vote loss of Florida and the White House 13 years ago, a loss ratified by five votes out of nine on the Supreme Court, but one wonders if he wasn’t also thinking of his first campaign for president in 1988. Unprepared, unimpressive and uninteresting in the first go round, I’ve always thought it was interesting that the young Senator from Tennessee wasn’t an important or compelling enough character to be featured in what is now widely considered the best campaign book ever written – the late Richard Ben Cramer’s classic What It Takes. Perhaps Cramer concluded that compared to his nuanced and broadly sympathetic treatment of Bush Senior, Bob Dole, Mike Dukakis, Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt and Gary Hart, that Al Gore just didn’t have what it takes. Speaking of strange bedfellows, remember that current Texas Gov. Rick Perry endorsed Gore in his 1988 race for the White House. You can look it up.

It is a rich irony that Gore got to the White House, as close as he would come anyway, thanks to the endlessly interesting and frequently bigger than life Bill Clinton, who picked him as his running mate and was always too comfortable in his skin. Gore, to the astonishment of most political pros, almost completely shunned Bubba when it fell his turn to seek the presidency, but that is political psychoanalysis for another day.

One gets the soft focus impression that Al Gore feels he no longer needs to explain himself even if he could. But in fairness to the man without a shadow, who do you know who is worth $200 million who worries about what others think of them or feels compelled to explain? He’s reached the point where money makes explaining unnecessary and unimportant. Gore, once so close to the ultimate brass ring, has come full circle. He really is different from you and me and always has been. Now he doesn’t have to be anything but different. When running for public office he tried out a variety of roles – New South populist, then New Democrat moderate and in his campaign against Bush a fire-eating, class warfare espousing champion of the little guy. None of the roles was entirely believable because the actor wasn’t convincing. John Wayne and Bogart were comfortable in their skin. Not everyone is.

In thinking about Al Gore, the new multimillionaire packing around a bundle of contradictions inside his checkbook, it’s tempting to recall the last line from Fitzgerald’s best book because there is a quality to Gore that indeed seems “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” a past that was never quite real and now is never over.

Yet, the better Fitzgerald line is this one from Gatsby and you can almost hear the man who once was “the next president of the United States” say it: “You see I usually find myself among strangers because I drift here and there trying to forget the sad things that happened to me.”

 

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