How did you first come to know Al Gore?
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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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