What were your first impressions of Al Gore?
Harrelson is the former director of the divinity school at Vanderbilt University. He provides insight into Gore's decision to attend divinity school and the affect his studies had on his life and career. Harrelson also reflects on Gore's relationship with his parents, and how Albert Gore Sr.'s political career shaped his son's career.
He's a handsome man. He's a clean-cut man. Sober. And it certainly
caused us to say, "Well, now, what is Al doing here? And surely he's not going
to be a minister." I think we thought right off that this was not a commitment
to consider ministry in a congregation as his future life. I don't believe
that to his press. It certainly was not in any conversations I had with
him. But I certainly got the impression of a person who is going to be a
national leader, and who is here to listen and to learn, and who probably will
not complete a degree.
But what he was was a person who heard about this divinity school as a place
where ideas were being discussed. The question, how do you relate Christian
faith to public life, to public affairs, to economic life? And he didn't
necessarily believe, I'm sure, that we had the answers to those questions. But
he knew that he was coming into a community with a ferment on just these
questions. And I think Vietnam helped to enlarge his sense of the need for him
to be in such a community....
Was young Albert Gore a conscientious objector?
He has been much more ready than I have found conformable to say, "Evil has
got to be resisted, and the use of force by nations and by groups is certainly
in principle a perfectly appropriate thing for people to do." Now, he went to
Vietnam. My son and many others also went, with great misgivings, but really,
I think, on the basis of being able to say, "We don't see anything particularly
good here, coming out of this war. But here we're being required to do
something, and the evil of it doesn't seem to be so great that we can't go
along." I think it was just that kind of principle. I don't think that he
went for pragmatic reasons, to show that he simply had been there while some
others did not, with a future political career in mind. There have been
persons who have probably said that, but that was not my impression of him.
But he was not a conscientious objector...
Did you get a sense that Al Gore's parents had political aspirations for
From early days, I think we all had the impression that Albert Gore's
parents were going to make him show cause why he should not be a national
leader. Well, I think both of them were really so ambitious for Albert, and so
convinced of his ability. He had that Harvard degree. He had done well in it.
He was ready to expose himself to the world, and to ideas, and to take up one
kind of study and then another, ready to be a newspaper reporter for a while.
I think the whole exposure of his life had been to answer the question, do I
follow in my father's and mother's footsteps, or do I not? And I think he was
disposed to. But he didn't want simply to move into state politics and become
a state representative or senator, or take any of the short steps that would
lead him to national leadership. He was a much more reflective person than
that, I think. I think what he wanted to do was to sort out what the country
most needed, and what among those things he might be best able to provide.
What is your sense about how Al's upbringing in these two
worlds--Washington and Carthage--has affected who he is?
[Albert Sr. and Pauline Gore] are southern people who become people of the
world. And Al Gore is never quite a southern born and bred person. He's
really a part of Washington life, and the eastern educational world, with deep
loyalties to the south and some of its virtues. But a person who never really
had to spend much of his time, as I did, trying to overcome what I took to be
the stigma of a southern birth, and a kind of heritage of slavery and of
bigotry and of shabbiness-- See, he'd never had to go through that. But many an
intellectual youth from the southeast-- especially the southeast-- had this
sense of the dichotomy between some glorious elements of their heritage and a
heritage that was so desperately evil that it had to be overcome. And so I
think that often meant that persons from the south with ability would come with
a sense of shame about elements of their life, elements of that culture, shame
in part because they loved it, and shame in part because it deserved to be
called what it was. And I think both Pauline and Albert Gore shared that kind
of an understanding, that this heritage of ours, wonderful though it is, is
really so deeply flawed that we cannot affirm it and be comfortable with our
Al didn't have quite that sense, because he never really was so deeply enamored
of his life as a southern boy that it had taken possession of him, as it had
for me, causing me this sense of shame that I should have been a part of
something like this, even though I could say my father was a liberal person. I
did better than some...So I think the contrast between the two is that he's in
a position to take some pleasure in the good elements of this southern society,
and not, to their extent, feel himself the product of its foul side.
Another is, I think, that is a certain pragmatism that develops in Al that
tempers the influence of both the Gores upon him, a pragmatism that enables him
to see that the world is a very, very evil world in some ways, but it's a world
where it's possible for good people to make a dent in it. And here I've
sometimes said that I think that Al Gore and Bill Clinton, both Baptists, share
one, the one side of the Baptist heritage, and the other, the other side. Al
Gore, from his parents and in his own life, ...and from other people about the
nature and destiny of human life. He knows that everybody is capable of
horrendous evil, and enormous good. It's a part of the Calvinist heritage.
Whereas Bill Clinton is much more touched by the free-church part of this
Baptist heritage, which says every soul is competent to care for itself under
God's leadership, with the help of the spirit. And you know, you just aren't
too much preoccupied with that Calvinistic streak that sees people really evil
in their hearts. Not basically good, but prone to evil because that's the way
the world is, and at the same time, capable, with God's help, of transcending
So there's this, I think, that is not quite the same kind of religious heritage
that I see in Pauline and in Albert Sr., who are themselves, I think, more
moralistic, more a part of what you could call a Wesleyan tradition, where
human beings have got to work very hard. They've got to be better than they
tend to be. For the younger Gore, I think those problems are more
intellectual, and they have this pragmatic side of keeping him in the middle of
But you know, for Clinton, for that other kind of Baptist, what you develop is
extraordinary confidence in yourself, in your own ability to make it. And
that's not the kind of ambition I see in Al Gore. The kind of ambition I see
in him is to fulfill that job of work that really is his to fulfill. And
that's Calvinistic too.
How does Al Gore Jr. compare to his father as a politician?
Al Gore Jr. has never enjoyed public life like that. That's not congenial
to him. Temperamentally I'm sure he's not at ease in doing it. He has to
force that, and that's why, of course, he appears so awkward. But now,
Pauline, also, was perfectly at home in this society when she needed to be.
And they would get caught up in and, as I say, rejuvenated, by this work. I've
seen Pauline Gore at democratic meetings in Nashville over and over again,
where she's just delighted to be there, and sitting through all of these
tedious things, and letting every politician there present who needs to have
the floor for a while have the floor. She's much more a political person, and
even more than her husband, I think.
Al Gore Jr. seems to have more trouble connecting with his
Albert Gore Sr. got elected over and over again by learning ingeniously how
to do that. And that's what he knew. He knew that his son had to feel some of
those passions. He didn't have to be on one side or the other, necessarily.
But you've got to care. You've got to care about those things.
But Al didn't. He couldn't.
No, he couldn't. He couldn't feel that, I think.
Well, as I say, I think part of it's temperament. I think part of it is
the way the intellectual heritage of religion, Calvinist religion, developed.
And there what you learn is that all people are flawed, and if all people are
flawed, then it's a question of how to mitigate the consequences of that
flawedness. So you don't take it so seriously that the south was born in
slavery. You don't take it so seriously that we live side by side with blacks,
and on many levels are very close with them, but still sort of deep down in our
guts know that white people are better than blacks. And that's the hellish
part, that you don't have to do a thing to be a racist. And that of course
applies to us all, but it applies in a distinct way to southeastern people,
where slavery was so deeply ingrained in us all.
Does Gore recognize that he's not "connected" to the people? Does he
see it as a weakness?
I think he's seen it as a limit, and he's worked, therefore, all the harder
at the ways in which he can excel. What he's done is to become a master
analyst, not with the quick study brain that Bill Clinton has, but he's become
an absolutely indefatigable student about one area of life after another after
another after another. So his attainment of high position and his fulfilling
the offices depend, I think, in his own mind, on a kind of mastery of the
particulars, and an ability to sort them out, and to weigh this side against
that side. Those are the things where he sees himself to be capable of
handling all of this. Whereas many of the persons he's going to be serving in
the south, and has served so well in the south, are going, I think, always to
feel that Al doesn't quite know what makes us tick.
So, going back a bit, where does divinity school fit into all of
I think a part of coming to Vanderbilt was to get into a situation of
ferment that was already there, and was a way also to sink some deeper roots
into that southern culture, which he need, to know better and to feel more at
home with it. And I think he saw in this faculty a group of people, many of
whom were not southerners, but who had become so passionate about the struggle
for justice in the south that he just saw this as a good place to be.
And there it was clear that those days at the divinity school had really
helped. Because he taught theology, though in a lay person's way, on that
occasion. And it was clear that some of the concerns that he had explored and
had laid out for him by those faculty members were very much with him as he
talked about the question, when does life begin? And what do you do with those
leftover fertilized eggs, and things of that sort. And he was a magnificent
leader of that subcommittee. He actually knew more than most of the witnesses
who were appearing before him, from the professions.
Does it help him connect more?
What I would see, anyway, is that Albert Jr. will have to drum up a sense
of deep, deep caring about issues of the sort that causes an audience to be
galvanized by that same concern. Whereas the normal disposition is for Al Jr.
to explain complex issues, and in effect to be the teacher rather than the
leader of the society. And Al Gore Sr., I think, would say, "If you're going
to sway and draw enthusiasm out of a political group, you must find a way to
let your own passions come to the fore. How can you do that?" If you don't do
it, as I was saying, you certainly may not feel this sense that I've
overstated, and I've made a fool of myself. I've been a ham. I've done all
these things publicly for which I'm ashamed of myself. Because you won't have
done them, and you won't have anything to be ashamed of. But at the same time,
you won't have brought the charisma to your grooves that they genuinely need in
order to have a sense that this way of going is not just nice, but it's
glorious. That's, I think, the problem.
But in public life, simply to help people to do what seems like a good thing is
not adequate. It's not adequate in ministry and religious leadership. And
political leadership and religious leadership are very close to one another.
Because there you can't just say, "My religion's really very nice. It's aiming
in the right direction. There are problems. But it's going in the right
direction. It's really very nice." You've got to say, "Good God, this is
glorious." And if you can't say that about your program, about your plans,
then that's just stepping them down so much that the opposition immediately
sees this won't work. NOW's our opportunity. NOW's our opportunity.
Can you talk more about this relationship between religion and politics,
[Gore] sat in on some of my classes on the prophets...And they are great
for politics, great for political speechmaking, because they so wonderfully sum
up out of a heritage shared very widely in the world, but certainly in the
south many of the things that you're most passionately committed to. But he
didn't leave there having been sort of brought to his knees by these
denunciations of an evil society. Some of our students did. Many of them who
never became preachers became social workers, and leaders in state and local
government, and are now working in the poverty programs to this day, because
they were so captured by this Jewish and Christian heritage that says this evil
world has got to stop being so evil. That's the stuff of passion. What he
needed was to reflect. What he needed was to sort things out. And sorting
things out is different from being taken possession of by those deeply, deeply
shared notions of what human beings are doing to themselves and to their
So, what did he ultimately walk away with? What effect did it have on
I think it had a great effect. I think it was confirmatory of his way of
sorting things out. Here his father miscalculated. How could he have done
that? He miscalculated. He let his passion get the better of him. He let his
opposition to the Vietnam war tilt him in a direction that his up-to-then loyal
supporters could not follow him.
What are his strengths as a politician?
He's quick on his feet, and he knows how to play the game, awkward though he
is at it. And he's indefatigable. Anyone who works that hard can count on the
work ethics paying off. So I think that that's more it. And there's nothing
folksy about him. He can talk the language, but there's nothing folksy about
him. He can't really be absolutely informal, I don't think. He's always a
person of dignity, and he's always a person who's got an inner core that's not
to be exposed to this public life, and when Al Gore leaves, you still don't
know much more about the inner person than you did when he arrived.
It's true. We hear again and again that you don't ever see the "real"
He's not the kind of person who would know how, calculatingly, to use a
personal incident to gain sympathy or understanding. It must be that this was
triggered by something in the immediate occasion-- and I can't recall those
occasions in detail-- that led him then to talk about this personal incident,
recognizing that he was doing something uncharacteristic, but unable, quite, to
stop. So I think that it was a fluke, something, in both instances, not
calculatingly planned. But analogies form sometimes, and persons who have
strong control over their lives are also persons who have some brooding matter
in their lives, something that they advert to over and over again when they
think about life and death, or when they think about human mortality generally.
And those pop up.
Lots of things he could plan, but not, I think, to share intimate particulars
out of his own inner life of pain and suffering. Both of those things are
matters of the deepest pain and suffering. And they're also both out of
control...And if you spend your whole life trying to control the features of
your thought and the features of your world, and come to terms with it, and you
have these pockets of the uncontrollable, you're going to keep those under lock
Ultimately, how important is his religion to him? How important is it
for us to understand him as a religious person?
I think he is a religious person, a deeply religious person, a person for
whom the inner core of that religious faith is probably not really deeply known
to him. It too is framed, and that's a good thing, because religion is an
awfully dangerous thing when not framed. But if the frame is too much intact,
then something of the gift of religion is not shared as deeply as it might be.
And there you know the contrast between Clinton and him, I think, is another.
Because everything's sort of upfront with Bill Clinton. For him, it's an
element of his own inner life that I think does not strictly control his
actions, but it is an element of his life that is a deep resource for
addressing his actions, for coming to terms with his actions. He knows how to
repent,...I think genuinely to repent. Al Gore's religion is so structured,
not now in details, as a theologian would want to structure it for a class, but
it's a way of framing life that enables you to look with confidence to the
future, to have some sense that there's a purpose in life that extends beyond
its physical years, a purpose in life that has to do with why we have a
universe at all. So it satisfies questions that haunt people if they're not
satisfied, but it does not sort of operate as that churning reality in your
guts that enables you to fall on your face and rise again, to be humiliated and
stand up again, knowing that things can be laid aside, that you're sort of in
the care of one who doesn't just answer your question, but who cares for your
To the extent, now, that this religion drives him, it drives him, I think, by
offering a kind of solace, and a kind of aesthetic power, that things are
capable of coming to terms with. So you can sort things out. And religion
provides sort of a kind of seamless bond. It's not one section over here that
you deal with outside of religion and another one over here. It's much more a
seamless garment, in which the religious answers dovetail with the public
answers, and with the secular answers, generally. That's a very satisfying
religion, and it's the characteristic religion, I think, of many, many people
throughout the world, especially persons who have gotten away from the more
emotional side of religious worship, or of religious talk...You can have a
Roman Catholic understanding along those very lines. You can have a Protestant
of any sort understanding along those very lines. It's a way by which people
practice their religion, and feel its weight. That is, I think, the religious
temperature that this man has.
Now, that is also capable of proving unsatisfactory. And the two elements you
mentioned earlier about his son and his sister could very well be signs that
there's a religious longing in the man that might be more potent as a force to
break out than a desire to be, just generally speaking, more emotional or more
passionate about things. Because many people that I have known who have been
rationalist religious folk do get shaken up, and don't lay aside the
rationality, but let things flow that have never flowed before. So he might
get, if he goes to, say, one of those black churches in Washington some day,
and begins to say, "It's time for some of us white people to be members of
these black congregations, see what we can learn, and see if we can't feel
something about the depth of our own religion," that could shake him up.
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