the choice 2000

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interview: james fleming
photo of james fleming

Fleming attended Vanderbilt University in the mid-1950s with Nancy Gore, and he and his wife remained close friends with Nancy until her death. He paints an affecting portrait of Nancy Gore, as well as Albert Gore Sr. and Pauline Gore. He shares his impressions of the families' inner workings, and speaks about the relationship between Albert Gore Sr. and Al Gore Jr.
What was Nancy Gore like when you came to know her at Vanderbilt?

Nancy was not in a sorority. And it was unique that Nancy had strong enough character and strong enough personality to not conform to the standard Vanderbilt ways expected of a co-ed in those times. Nancy was her own person. A delightful individual. So Nancy went through rush, and I'm not sure what happened, but she didn't get the bid she wanted. So she didn't pledge a sorority. And what was unique about Nancy is this. She had the character and conviction enough to stay in school; whereas back in those days, if a Vanderbilt girl did not get in a sorority, most of them left school. The vast majority of them left school. So there were very few independent women at that time. But Nancy Gore was one of them.

But she still managed to connect with her classmates...

Yes she did. She thought enough of herself, and she was able to absorb those blows, that she was able to go elsewhere for her social connections, if you will, in this community. And I think Nancy connected much easier with men, and men interested in government, law, politics, as I see now; than it was to connect with women. So she had relationships with women who were roommates, and some of the peers of hers; but she didn't pal around with a lot of women, if you will. But she palled around with a number of men, on an equal basis, not as a romance...

Nancy did her own thing...I think that Nancy had very definite ideas of who she was and who she wanted to be friends with, and who she didn't want to be friends with, conversely. So she chose some really neat people to be friends with. I don't remember her bringing home a single loser in any type.

She was friends with interesting people?

They were interesting people, that's right. They were not fake. They were not social-minded, if you will. They were real folks who had very definite opinions about government and politics. She was interested in government and politics in those days. And I think part of my interest in it stems from my relationship with Nancy, in that this led to many encounters, and meeting many people, along the way. So I was a real fan of Nancy Gore.

You were still in school when you met Nancy's family? Describe Pauline Gore, if you will.

Pauline Gore? She would be my choice of a mother. I would rather have Pauline as a mother than any woman that I know right now. In my life. Pauline would be my first choice to be a mother... She was intelligent, interesting, loving, caring. She cared about us--that is, Nancy's friends. She truly cared about who we were, and what we were doing, and where we were going, and what our ambitions were; and what part she could contribute to our life. And she was anxious to introduce us to her friends and her way of life. A very unselfish woman; but very kind, considerate, and loving. I can't say enough good things about Pauline Gore.

He trusted his mind over his heart, and I think that that is so today; that Al did not learn to go to his heart. Mrs. Gore was the ultimate in confidence, in a confident woman. She knew who she was, and she took great pride in who she was. There wasn't any doubt in Pauline's mind that she was a good person, a good mother, that she knew the right directions to send her children. She was right about religion; and she was right about her politics.

Did she have a set plan for her children?

It was very obvious from Al's and Nancy's plans that there was someone behind them and someone who was guiding them. And they respected their mother tremendously. And I think it was generally recognized that Pauline was the spiritual foundation of this family. She was the brains, if you will, and in some ways gave great guidance to the Senator, to Senator Gore, about when you should do this and that, and what was proper; "Come on, Albert, we need to get out of here. We've been here long enough, we need to go somewhere else." She was always the person behind Senator Gore, telling him--if you will--what to do. Not that he didn't have a mind of his own, but assisting him, and reminding him, cajoling him, in a loving way.

Many people have said of Pauline Gore that she has real political smarts of her own. Did you see this to be true?

An event happened in Nashville that was a congregation of the new Democrats, the centrist Democrats. And there was a political affair at the governor's mansion in Nashville. The Gores gathered at my house Friday going out there. I went out there. It was Nancy and Frank, and Senator and Mrs. Gore, and Al and Tipper. Al was being prepped by his mother, I suppose, and this is Pauline. "Now Al," she says, "You know that Bill Clinton from Arkansas. He is not a nice person, and I don't want you associating with him."...I didn't know Bill Clinton at the time.

But Frank said, "Did you hear that, Jim? Let's go meet Bill Clinton." So we went over there, and Frank and I sought out Bill Clinton. Nice guy, I mean a heck of a guy! We just struck up a conversation. It was easy as pie. And just charming. Couldn't have lasted over five minutes, but a very pleasant experience, I remember that. And I thought, I said, "What's wrong with this guy? Why doesn't Pauline think he's a nice person?" So Pauline apparently had information that I didn't have at that time,...she had some knowledge of his history at that time...

She didn't miss much politically. She could seize up a person just like that. Friend or foe, immediately. And know whether this would be a person that we would want to cultivate for Al's career, for the family, or someone that we just sort of know, and he's a Democrat and we'll play the game--you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.

What was Albert Gore, Sr. like?

Well, the Senator was pretty aloof and austere, and emotionally a bit chilly, most of the time; and sometimes appeared detached, whether lost in thought or whatever. He was somewhere else most of the time in the conversations, or sitting around the table, or being around the house. The Senator seemed to have other things on his mind. And in personal relationships, he was not nearly as warm as Pauline.

There is a story about Senator Gore asking you to go coon hunting...

It was one winter night. Gosh, it was cold. I can remember how cold it really was. Senator Gore wanted to take me coon hunting. And he said, "Jimmy, this is an experience that you must have. It's something that, if you've never been, you've missed something that you'll enjoy, I think. So you come with me." So it was just Senator Gore and I. So we went out in his truck, and we went off in the night down some lonely country road. And you could hear the dogs yelping in the distance. And we came upon this group of farmers who had their dogs out. And they all knew Senator Gore.

So we got out of the truck, and we walked down across a pasture, and built a large fire, almost a bonfire. We sat around there. And we had some moonshine whiskey that we passed around. And everybody drank out of the same bottle! And it was a wonderful time.

Then you would hear the coon dogs be on the trail of a coon. He'd say, "He's on the trail." They they'd say, "He got the coon freed." And they'll say, "There's old Queenie," or "there's old Jess." So each farmer could identify his own dog. And Albert really, he enjoyed this so much. And I must say that I enjoyed this experience. I guess this is probably the most pleasant recreational experience that I'd ever had with Senator Gore... He was right at home. He was one of the guys. These people loved Senator Gore; these farmers really loved him and respected him; and considered him one of them. It was a moving experience.

Were the two children different?

Nancy had more of a mind of her own. She had a path and a direction that was sometimes divergent from what Pauline or her father chose for her. But she pursued that avenue with great fervor. So Nancy was the child that would rebel against the wishes of her parents... As a young person, Nancy was a very independent soul, and resisted instructions from her parents sometimes.

Did she have ambitions for herself?

She was her father's campaign manager in one race. And I don't recall which one it was. She certainly had opportunities to do things that she could have pursued, if she wanted to go further in that career. But you know, she was one of the first members of the Peace Corps. That's what she was doing over at Duke when she met Frank Hunger. She was recruiting for the Peace Corps. But after Nancy met Frank, and after they married, then her direction changed. And she wasn't interested in a career for herself.

Up until that point, yes, she was open to doing many things. She worked at the World's Fair. I think it was in Amsterdam, one year. And spent two extra months touring Europe, by herself. She went to summer school in Mexico to learn Spanish, and about their culture. So Nancy had a variety of interests, and great opportunities.

What are your first impressions of Al Gore?

The first memories that I had of Al Gore [are that] he got in the way that weekend. He got in the way of us young adults, having a good time! And the thing that he did that aggravated us so much was that he memorized the television commercials, and then he would come up and recite them all for us. Just interrupt whatever we were doing, and stand up there, and recite commercials perfectly.

What is your sense about Al's relationship with his parents?

Well, you know, Al had his father as a prototype. And Al adored his father. Al spent as much time with his--when we were around the family, Al spent as much time with his father as he did with anyone else, altogether. So there was obviously a close relationship between Senator Gore and young Al. So you know, Al patterned himself after his father. And his father was constantly giving Al advice. "Do this, son; look like this; it's time to get up and go out there and work; it's time to come in, Al." He was always the one who directed Al's activities for the day, if you will.

...

You know, he adored his father so much, and imitated and emulated his father. Many of his characteristics and his mannerisms are like his father. And I always thought that maybe this stiffness was a genetic thing. You know, the way we hold our head, the way that we walk, the way that we smile, is genetically inherited in some ways. And Al was very much like his father, whether he'd learned this environmentally or whether this is part of his physical being. He was always, as you looked back, always had the demeanor similar to his father, who was an aloof, austere, cool type of person, except when coon hunting!

And what was Al's role within the family?

You know, Al was at some level idolized by his parents. This was the chosen son, the heir apparent. Nancy wasn't going to do it, whether she was a female or whether she was a rebel, this was not the path that Nancy chose. But it was the path then that was chosen for this gifted son. And it was obvious that Al had a very good mind early on. He was a very, very bright young man. And that was obvious to all.

And then, if properly trained and brought up, he would truly be somebody. And I don't recall the first time that I heard that we were going to groom him to be President of the United States, but Nancy Gore--who I'm sure heard this from her parents--told me on many occasions when she and I were enjoying a cocktail together, "Al's going to be President of the United States, Jimmy. You just wait and see. This is the direction that we're going in." And she was very serious about that, and the family was serious about that. So it was something that happened early on, and something that Al was trained to be.

How would the Senator relate to Al?

They always had serious talks. And I can remember going to Carthage one weekend with Nancy and my wife, and I think it was just--well maybe--well, Frank wasn't there yet--and sitting down with Senator Gore and young Al. Now Al was probably in college or--he was a young man. And they had a conversation going. And Pauline said, "Jimmy, go out there and speak to Albert and Al." So I went out there and sat down with them.

Well, they were engrossed in one of the deepest conversations that was so far above my head that I never got into it. They kind of put up with me for being there; but they were talking about the government in Sweden, and Cabinet appointments in the Swedish government--things that I had no inkling about. They really didn't let me interrupt that conversation. They were engrossed very seriously, very deeply, in it.

And in such a conversation would they thrust and parry as equals? Or would it be the student at the feet of the master? What would the dynamic be?

It was Socrates and his student. I think Al had tremendous respect for his father. And of course, Albert had a world of experience and knowledge; and Senator Gore was an intelligent guy, a worldly person. And he imparted this knowledge to Al on occasions that I was there. And Al listened attentively. I never saw Al in a dispute with his father, if you will. In these deep, philosophical discussions, he would ask Al his opinion--I've heard him ask Al his opinion. Al would give his opinion, but it was never argumentative at all. And it would always go back to what the Senator said. That turned out to be the bottom line, what Senator Gore thought.

...

Al Gore always trusted his brain, his mind. He had a wonderful computer up there, and this is what he always went to, and he trusted that. He trusted his mind more than his heart. He trusted his mind over his heart, and I think that that is so today; that Al did not learn to go to his heart. I think that from his relationship with his father early on, that he always trusted his mind. I never heard a conversation that they had that wasn't intellectual. It wasn't about emotions and feelings. It was about things that occur in the mind.

A number of people in Al Gore's life, mentors--like Marty Peretz at Harvard and John Siegenthaller at the Tennessean--have expressed this interest in reaching out to Al, making a kind of personal investment in him. What is it about Al that inspires a desire to do that?

He has star potential. He's good-looking, dead good-looking. He's earnest; he's serious-minded. He is the most intelligent person around that you've ever met, for his age. And he had a solid upbringing, and personal and social standards of a high caliber. So he was the type of person that you would want to be your governor or Senator. I mean, we couldn't wait for Al to make up his mind. When he finally decided to go to Law School as a preliminary to launching his political career, we really got excited; we said, hey, it's finally going to happen!... If you talk to other reporters with him who were working at the Tennessean at that time, they were excited about Al, what Al was going to do. You know, Al was going to be President of the United States, and Sig was going to guide him that way. And it was, he is the heir apparent. "Come on Al, hurry up and do it."

What is Al Gore like in his early days in Congress, as a politician?

I think he was easier at meeting people, and more real, than he is now; in that he was apparently more natural, and didn't think about, "How do I look?" You understand what I'm saying? "How am I doing?" He was more spontaneous. And he was a real charmer, I think. He was to me. I was excited about him...He seemed to sparkle a good bit. I saw some of Nancy Gore in him.

And then, when Al is thinking about running for the Senate, and then decides too, things are complicated for him. Nancy is sick. How does that affect him? How does he handle it?

Al called me from Washington when the biopsy came back, and Nancy was in the hospital. And he said, "I'm coming to Nashville tonight, and I want to talk to you about this." So he arrived at my house here in Nashville, and we talked. And what was remarkable is that Al knew all about cancer of the lung. As we talked, he knew all the cell types. He knew the prognosis for each one of the 10 major cancers that can be found in the lung. He knew generally what the treatment was. So Al was--I didn't expect anything less from Al, to tell the truth. I was surprised because here he was talking to someone who had a special interest in cancer. I had taken a year out and done some cancer research, and Al knew that. So I had a special interest in cancer, although I was a plastic surgeon at that time.

So here he was, and I said, "Al, where'd you learn it?" "I just know that." "You didn't; come on! You stopped by the National Institute of Health, the cancer portion of that, and received this information." But that's the way Al was, you see. He would go into a situation, trusting his mind entirely, and could memorize--unbelievable memorized.

...

But he was very realistic about it. I think he knew that the prognosis was not good, and he was greatly saddened by it. And he was fearful of what Nancy would have to go through. They were close; they were close.

Nancy passes away, Al wins his Senate seat. He goes back to Washington, and in about three years he decides to make a bid for the presidency. What makes him decide to do this?

Pauline and Albert had aspirations for Al way on, even when he was a teenager--maybe even at nine and 10--this boy is going to be President. And Albert saw an opportunity, I'm sure, for a scenario whereby he could get the nomination and could become President of the United States. He could at this young age--what was he, 39? So there was money available from certain friends of Albert's. So they made a rapid decision to do the race.

Al's got energy. I mean, he'll go after it. I mean, the guy is physically strong. And he will bite off a big hunk and chew. So I really wasn't too surprised. I didn't think that he could get the nomination, and I feared that he might get a pasting in the primary races in New Hampshire and Iowa, and elsewhere. And indeed he did, because he was the neophyte at the infighting of politics on that level. But I'm sure Albert encouraged him to do this.

And looking at Al Gore these last eight years, as vice-president, does it strike you as surprising or unexpected that he has been such a loyal vice-president, sticking by Clinton through all the scandals?

That didn't surprise me, no, because that's the politically expedient thing to do. And that seemed to be the proper thing to do politically for Al's future. I think Al has a great sense of loyalty. Al's a very ethical person inside. Politics may not be as ethical as he is pure, in here, you see. But that's the nature of the game. You have to play that game. And I'm sure that was a politically expedient thing...I think that's just the nature of American politics...This is your aspiration and you've got to do these certain things to get there...I don't see Al is weighing this on a moral basis. This is what you do to get there.

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