the choice 2000

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interview: steve armistead
photo of steve armistead

Armistead is an early childhood friend of Al Gore's from Carthage, Tennessee, and worked on the Gore family farm with young Al. Armistead also spent time in Washington with the Gores at the Fairfax Hotel, and is one of the few people who got to see both of Al Gore's worlds. He reflects on Al's relationship with his father and the expectations the Senator had of his son. He also offers a glimpse of the more private, joking Al Gore.
How did you first come to know Al Gore?

We worked on the farm together. I'm one of the few people, I understand-- it's been disputed whether he's ever worked on the farm, but I can attest that he did work on the farm, and he had things that he had to achieve growing up. His father was pretty strict about lining us up stuff to do, and would check in invariably way before time for us to finish to see if we'd finished. He always wanted it done before time. He was pretty emphatic about keeping us busy, in line. We did do all the childish things and kid things that kids will do, but we had-- we were lined up to do work on the farm, and he expected it to be done.

So you're about 14 years old. And Senator Gore has work lined up for you and Al on the farm. What would that be?

One of the big things, back then they'd move pasture around a lot. He'd make us move this electric fence. This electric fence had come on, and it was easier-- it was a whole lot easier-- than going out and putting the fencepost down. He had this big deal about keeping the pasture fresh, or keeping it down, or keeping it at a certain way. It was literally a jigsaw puzzle to move all his electric fence around. He'd line us up weekly on moving electric fence.

We had to get the hay in. I remember one year in particular-- we talked about tobacco-- that he gave Al the tobacco crop to grow that year and pretty much kind of put him in charge of taking care of that while he was at home. That was probably the worst and hardest year we had as far as workload. There was about four acres then, and there was still a lot of hoeing and suckering and topping and stuff that goes on with that. I mean, it's a day-to-day process. I mean, all the local people used to call it the 13-month-crop, because you never got done with the stuff.

Describe Al Gore Sr.

He was somebody definitely that you would look up to and respect by his demeanor and his dress. I mean, I hung out at the local store 365 days a year with guys that have bib overalls on, and chewing and spitting tobacco, and talking about coon hunting and whatever. And he had a different atmosphere around him. He had some of the dry humor about him. Al picks up on some of that along as I watch him grow old with myself, he's a lot like his father in his humor. You've got to get to know Senator Gore to draw the humor out of him or to see the funny side of him... he was serious-minded all the time. And people talk about Al being very serious-minded and not a lot of humor. And he comes to that pretty honest. Senator Gore was the same way. If he got on an issue, he would stay with it. He would do his homework on it. And he was the same way around the farm. Most of the time had his necktie on. If he didn't he had a pair of boots, he had a trademark kind of wearing these boots that he put on around there.

Al Gore is a very emotional, well-kept inside personäBut he does the manly thing.  He covers up.  He was always-- he was this person I could pass in the Senate. And if there was something going on in the Senate floor when I was working with him up there, he would be so directed to what he had on his mind that he would walk right by you and never speak. And he didn't mean anything by that. He was always isolated to the point that-- I mean, he was serious-minded all the time. And people talk about Al being very serious-minded and not a lot of humor. And he comes to that pretty honest. Senator Gore was the same way. He was-- if he got on an issue, he would stay with it. He would do his homework on it. And he was the same way around the farm.

How did he relate to his father? How would he talk to, respond to, his father in a way that was different, for example, than the way that you would relate to or respond to your father?

There was a seriousness kind of like a cloud that hung over Senator Gore. If he walked in the room, there wasn't a lot of humor. My father was fairly dry. I communicated with my mother like I could communicate with Miss Pauline. But Senior Gore was-- and I think it also had to do with the time of growing up in the Depression. I go back to this a lot, now that I look back on it. But he was always serious-minded.

And Al treated him in that respect. I'm sure there was some closeness there that I didn't pick up on. And probably, he was not the type person that you would run up and hug, you know. He was not that type person. I respected him; and I know today and later on in life, that I had the feeling of growing closer to him. It was kind of like there was a fear there, for me. And I also sensed that in the way that Al would talk to him in conversation. He was always being, what I would term, a little bit still around his father, of trying to please his father and his demands, or whatever, and that sort of thing. But there was also a closeness.

And how was that different from the way that you would perceive he related to Pauline?

There's people that you can approach and there's people that you can't. Miss Pauline was very easy. The feeling of care was there without her saying "I care." I mean, in her jests, in her conversation, in the questions she asked. You didn't get that from Senior Gore, or I didn't get that from Senior Gore, when we were growing up.

Did Al's parents have expectations for their son, political expectations?

they expected out of Al Gore-- and the thing that I agree with now that I've heard Miss Pauline's interview a couple years ago, or maybe even longer than that-- they tried to give him a perspective of each lifestyle and make him a well-rounded person. And I got part of that...I know Miss Pauline wanted the same for me, because I felt that. And I look back on what they tried to do for a kid that was raised in the head of the holler that had nothing politically to offer him. My mother and daddy didn't have anything to bring to the table that they needed for a favor. It was out of friendship.

...

Politics was a part of life...We talked politics invariably every once in a while. But it was never part of our life. Yes, Al and Senior Gore and Miss Pauline, they had a lot of conversations that I didn't participate, was not privy to be around, I'm sure, of us growing up. But it was never part of our life. It never was required for us to do the political things.

Thinking of these two worlds, Washington and Carthage, what is your perception of what that would have been like for Al Gore?

I got to see both of Al Gore's worlds. I guess I'm one of the few people that spent any amount of time-- I didn't spend a lot of time, but when I worked up there, and he was off at school; I spent some time up there in that summer, at the Fairfax Hotel... He looked forward to coming in at Christmas-time, Thanksgiving or whatever. I played local sports, and I had a key to the gym. And we'd pick up all my buddies and people that he knew, and we'd put together the pickup team. And we'd spend-- the bad days in the winter time that he was home, we'd more than likely, you'd find us in the local gym with a five-on-five or three-on-three basketball game. In the summertime our recreation was basically going to the lake and that sort of thing.

But other than that, I mean his life in the Fairfax Hotel was, it was no life for a kid as far as I'm concerned. I would not take anything in this world from my childhood and the way I grew up. I saw the negatives of the Fairfax Hotel; there were no kids. There were United States Senators walking around; two or three of them lived there. And it was a grown-up type world. And he could not wait to get back here. I mean it was kind of like let-your-hair-down time, and I can be myself, and I don't have to walk around in the lobby or running up and down the elevator where there's nobody that I can confide in or team up with... I know if he had his choice-- I can speak freely in making this expression for him-- he would take Carthage life over the Fairfax Hotel at any given time. Just not having the kids around; he had the kids he went to school with, but still, they were not close. I mean, he couldn't walk across the street and get his homework with somebody or that sort of thing.

What about Al's joking and laughing? Was there any sort of like wild, care-free personality?

Very much so growing up. Al Gore, from day one, has always had the serious side about him, that I can remember. I see it in him today. But still, he's probably one of the funniest people; dry-witted. His mind was always working in coming up with something funny to say to tie into whatever was going on. I look at him and think, well, he's 30 seconds ahead of the situation in mind. And I see that in him today in conversation, of being serious too also. But he could come up with some really funny stuff.

...

Al and I would sneak out of the house...I remember one night we got out, and we ran into some construction. They had these blinking signs to show caution. So we decided that we'd swipe a couple of those. And we brought them back, and we sneaked them in the house...We were laying there, and we'd drank a little bit too much beer maybe. And these lights continued to blink. And we couldn't go to sleep. They were lighting up this whole bedroom area every time they'd blink. I finally had the bright idea; I said, let's get up... if you're familiar with the Kennyport River in front of the house, there's a bridge at Highway 70 there. So we'd go over and take these lights and throw them off the bridge into the Kennyport River. We get back to the house, and we look back over towards the bridge. They generate this water, and when they let the water down, the water goes real low, and it gets down to about two or three feet with all the washing of the gravel and everything. It's pretty shallow at that bridge. And we were looking off the deck of the house, and we'd still see these lights in the water still blinking. They were still haunting us!

Jumping ahead, can you talk about the period when Al is at the divinity school, at law school?

I think that this comes along ... and he decides that divinity school is-- maybe he's [thinking], "I'm through with this." He's beginning to think politics, and I know this for a fact, because we talked about this. Once he decided that he was going to run for Congress in '76. And this was at the period of time that he was in law school. And it was a decision-- at that point in time we did talk some politics. "Do you think that I need a law degree to run for Congress?"

And my answer to that was, at that period of time in my life, with working for the big company and being around a lot of lawyers, I said, "We've got too many of them, and I don't think it'll make a bit of difference."...I thought it was a good decision for him to get out of it really. And it was a big deal with him. Because I think that he was really going to put on the pressure to finish law school as soon as he could to get that degree for the political reasons of that, not maybe to ever use it, but just simply because "I can tag that on." I do think there's something to be said for that.

But he decided not to. And he didn't make that decision off of what I told him. I think he made it off of the decision, "I don't think I've got time to go to law school and be in this political world, the grueling world of putting..." He had to do away with one or the other.

And describe the transformation, when he becomes Al Gore the politician, the candidate.

Oh, it's a relentless type situation that you know about. It's out there. The part of him being stiff and sincere and serious about everything, that's just part of him. He's not going to take off and do a lot of recreation. I mean, he gets entrenched in the situation, this is what I'm going to do; my mind's set. And the '76 campaign was unbelievable as far as his setback and...After he announced, we had lunch-- or had dinner; he fixed dinner for us at the house that we live in now. He brought up some people from the Tennessean and some close friends. And it was a small group, and he went around the room asking each one of us what we had to offer him in advice.

My advice to him in 1976 was to get a haircut and buy him some clothes. And I said, "Other than that, I don't know what you're going to do." Some of the other guys who were probably better and well-prepared and more educated for the political arena had some more advice for him that day, but that was my advice to him.

What effect did Nancy's death have on Al?

I remember it was devastating to him, and the closeness of losing Nancy... Al Gore is a very emotional, well-kept inside person. I mean, he's no different than me or you losing somebody that's close to him of grieving. But he does the manly thing. He covers up. And it shows sometimes. I've seen it in this campaign, with him not being able to grieve his father's death, early on. With his stiffness, he becomes-- and it shows. The press picked up on it. And I know what the problem was, because he came off of his father's death and the grieving of that, and never got to air out. You know, you have to be able to sit down and share it with somebody, you're grieving. And there was not time there. Tipper was going in one direction, and he was going in the other direction. And all that rolls over in through that early part of this campaign...

There's been some criticism of him talking about smoking and tying her to the cancer situation. And there's been some criticism of him talking about Albert's situation and bringing that into the political arena. I look at that different, and I can look at that different, simply because that's his way of releasing it. And I think there's something to be said for that. I mean, that took a lot for him, if you know Al Gore, to talk about that...Whatever you're making out of a campaign of him getting up and talking about that. But I know what a toll it took on him to be able to get up and make a public speech and talk about that.

If he is such a private person, why would he talk about Nancy's death in such a public way?

I think part of it was, basically just to release that. There could have been some political aspects to that, along with being totally against smoking, and this is the best analysis that I can make of why I am against it, and what it has done to me. And everybody in the United States has been touched with tobacco in a death. It's like alcoholism; it's like cancer. And he was trying to make his point.

Is he a straight shooter?

He's as straight a shooter as any politician in the country today... I think he gets off on the political agenda of trying to do the politically correct thing. He's not the type person that can dodge the situation. And when he tries, it focuses and it comes out so prevalent. I mean, I can immediately in an interview on TV, I can look at him on C-SPAN, any time he's on TV, and I can tell you exactly how he feels.

...

I can tell when he's nervous and not eased with what he's fixing to say, let's put it that way. You know, Al Gore has never lied to me. Maybe he's lied about some situations in the political arena, or talked in circles. To me, all politicians are experts in talking around what they're trying to really say, and to keep the flow of the interest going. It's keeping people interested.

If you had to give him advice as a candidate, what would it be?

What I would want him to be is just to be himself, and take the farm and the family values of what he learned in 1976, doing all the town meetings for the years he did those, and coming back home; and he grew a lot in mind of bringing the hometown values of what he learned from his district back to Washington during that period of time.

I think that's what we need. We need to get to the grass roots of what's happening out here amongst America today, rather than being the inside Washington person with all these high-priced people around you trying to program you to do this job. I'm not-- I think it's a waste of time and a lot of money to go out here and spend to be President of the greatest nation in the world. And I think it's gotten so politicized, commercialized, or whatever's the word. My vocabulary gets limited when I'm talking about this. I know what I want to say. I'd like to see him just be himself, and be the family person he is, and carry those values through to wherever.

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