What were your first impressions of Al Gore?
Jost is currently a reporter for Congressional Quarterly. He attended Harvard University with Gore and later worked as a reporter with Gore at the Tennessean newspaper. In 1977, Gore appointed Jost as his press secretary and legislative assistant. He provides insight into Gore's early career as a journalist, his motivations to run for Congress, and some of Gore's early goals and achievements as a Congressman.
Serious. Somewhat reserved, I guess. Not a completely happy go lucky
college junior or senior. I think that that's when I knew him. But a serious
young man, interested in talking about politics, and very attached to
Why did he come to the newspaper?
I think he was still finding himself, in part. He had been a journalist in
the army. We see now from the book that he's written that he has some instinct
as a writer. When I was in the congressional office, one of the things that he
took a lot of pride in was the newspaper column that he put out on a weekly
basis. I drafted those, but he took care in working with them, and was proud
of them, and did some op-ed articles early on, and has continued to do op ed
articles occasionally. So I think he really is a writer, in part. He also saw
journalism as a way, I think, to have an impact on public policy, without at
that point deciding whether he wanted to go into politics, which decision he
wasn't ready to make.
Did you and your fellow reporters ever doubt that politics was in his
There are certainly people in the newsroom who say they always knew. I
wasn't one of them. I took him at face value. I thought he was a journalist.
He was a pretty good reporter in the first couple of years of moving through
from assignment to assignment. Then when he worked on investigative stories,
he turned out to be a hell of a journalist. Very hard working, very smart and
crafty in piecing together a story. Good instinct for recognizing a story.
It's a well-told tale by now, but he had this interview with a source. The
source was complaining about what the source thought was bureaucratic delay in
getting an alley closed so that he could build a building. And Al, in that
conversation, said, "Don't you realize? You're being shaken down. This is a
councilman looking for a bribe. And he was right...
When Gore takes this insinuation of a bribe attempt to Sigenthaller, he loves
the idea of working with the district attorney on a sting, a sting that will
capture a crooked councilman and produce one hell of a story. It did produce
one hell of a story. Gore listened to the critical conversations between the
businessman and the councilman, in a police car-- in a district attorney's car,
actually-- a few hundred yards away from the conversation. And then the
exchange of money was arranged to be at 7th and Union in Nashville, a downtown
street which happened to be within view of the offices of the
Tennessean's lawyers. So we had the tape. We had the pictures. We had
the reporter who was in on the initial planning of it all. And the story's
splashed across the front page, including the pictures, exclusively for the
Tennessean, and exclusively for Al Gore.
This is completely consistent with the character we keep hearing about
about this guy. Extremely thorough, analytical, hardworking, and really goes
at it. Is that right? Is that how you'd describe him?
Absolutely. In the four years I worked for him in Congress, he devoted
120% of his time to the congressional job. In Washington, he would maintain a
very tight schedule. He was always doing something. He would be one of the
members who would take mail to committee meetings so that he could sign mail
while trying to pay attention to the committee meeting as well. He was always
tightly scheduled. It's legendary now, but in terms of going back to the
district, he would leave Washington at 5:00, on a 5:00 plane, get to Nashville
in time to drive a short distance for an open meeting Friday night, wake up on
Saturday and have four or five open meetings, dotted across the map, and then
fly back on Sunday morning to have 2/3 of a day with his family. He kept up
that schedule for all four years that I was there, and thereafter. He had this
huge map of the district with little red pins showing every place where he'd
had an open meeting. There were places where he'd had open meetings where the
only place to have a meeting-- a town so small that the only meeting place was
the grocery store.
...It was in part to react to the conventional wisdom that his father lost in
part because his father lost touch with his constituents. It was also in part
because he got something out of it. He gained suggestions. He gained
firsthand touch with how government was affecting his constituents. And on
more than a few occasions he would come back with suggestions that were
prompted by remarks he heard at the open meetings.
Why do you think he went to divinity school?
The only explanation that I can offer from my conversations with him is
just this personal quest for knowledge about what the universe is all about. I
would discount the notion that he was kind of deliberately marking time. I
think his entry into politics was not quite happenstance, but it wasn't well
thought out. It wasn't, I'm going to run for Congress by the age of x. He was
taking advantage of opportunities that presented themselves, finding himself at
the same time. And when the congressional seat came up, it was a sudden
decision. And if it hadn't come open, I don't know what he would have done.
Was it part of some larger plan for a career in politics?
I think there was no straight path to politics. I think he was a good reporter
and he enjoyed it. He did concentrate on the public policy aspects of
journalism. He wasn't the kind of person who'd go for the personal biography
and the style type story. He gravitated toward stories involving government
and public policy. But in that there wasn't a well thought out plan: this is
good preparation to actually run for office.
Then he went to law school because of his disillusionment with the way that the
Haddock case had come out, and said, "You know, to make the judicial system
work better, maybe I should go to law school, so that I understand it and so
that I might be able to participate in it." I don't know whether he ever
thought of himself as public prosecutor, as going in that path. But the way I
view his development at that point, he wouldn't have crossed that bridge. He
wouldn't have thought, "What shall I do with my law degree?" Just, "If I have
a law degree, I would be in a better position to do something."
In 1976, Joe L. Evans, a veteran congressman from Tennesse,
decides he will retire. And Al Gore abruptly decides he will make a bid for
Evans's seat. Did you play a role in that campaign?
For two and a half months I was the press secretary, and in a sense, the main
staff person at the headquarters itself... Al called me and said, "I need
somebody to be my press secretary. Will you do it?" We were both 28. We both
had this common career path up to that point. I figured that it would be
interesting, educational. And I naturally assumed that no 28-year-old would
get elected to Congress, so that two months later I would be back in the
How much of the victory is attributable to the Gore name, the father, the
Certainly the Gore name was an important asset. It's what made him a
credible, a plausible candidate at the outset, and within that district, the
Gore name was largely positive. There are other parts of the state, more
conservative, where it would have been more of a liability. But it was an
asset in that district, that has a good history of progressive political
After he wins the election, you join his staff in Washington as the
press secretary/legislative assistant. How did Al Gore establish himself as a
Again, as in so many other parts of his career, he established himself by
working hard. He got good committee assignments, and he worked them hard. He
got an excellent subcommittee assignment working on the oversight subcommittee
of the commerce committee. Oversight subcommittee in effect gave him the
opportunity to be an investigative reporter with a subpoena. And he remarked
on that to me. He said, "The way you work one of these stories is just like
the way you work the story as a reporter. You call somebody. You find out
what they know. Then you find out who they know that you should talk to next.
You follow the leads, and eventually you piece together a good story." And the
oversight subcommittee gave him a good forum for telling the story in a way
that would get national coverage, and would have impact on the legislative
Being a comer really involves, also, headlines, etc., right?
He was media savvy from the start...He was involved in a hearing
investigating Gulf Oil for its participation in an international uranium
cartel. International uranium producers wanted to fix the price of uranium.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity to a lot of
Tennesseans, was heavily into nuclear power, had to buy uranium. So the
utility in the state was paying artificially raised prices for its basic fuel
because of this international cartel. Gore saw this as a great story. It's a
great story in his family's tradition of populism. And he worked that hearing
hard... And the thought occurred to him that this was exactly like Patty Hearst
saying that she had participated in bank robberies because she'd been forced
to. So at the hearing he suddenly sees it, and he writes down, "Corporate
Patty Hearst." And he immediately covers it up so that no other member will
see it. And when it gets his turn to ask questions, he asks them that
question, and he says, "So you're saying you were, in effect, a corporate Patty
Hearst?" It was a great question. It was a great headline in Newsweek,
as I remember it.
Were there some issues this guy was running to get fixed?
We started in the midst of the energy crisis. High oil prices, concern
about exhausting our supplies of oil and natural gas. And absolutely, during
those four years, he had a mission to solve the energy crisis. And he did it
in a-- He shaped his views in a very pragmatic, problem-solving type way. He
had concerns about nuclear power, but he didn't want to shut it down. He saw
the oil industry as needing regulation at the time, and so he worked for that.
He saw solar, geothermal, and wind energy as offering environmentally better
alternatives for energy, and pushed those. Early on, he had a conference on
solar energy in his district, precisely to sell solar energy to his
constituents at the same time he was working in Washington to increase
appropriations for solar energy research.
Was he passionate or analytical?
Oh, he was passionate about that issue. He was also analytical. They're
not exclusive in the way he works an issue. The work he did on toxic wastes--
He was passionate about the effect that mishandled toxic waste was having on
working class families in Love Canal, working class families at the west
Tennessee sight that was part of the focus of attention...
He gets emotionally involved in an issue, not to the point of berating the
staff, but motivating the staff to think, this is an important problem. It can
be solved. Government can solve it, and that's what we need to do. And just
any number of examples of that: toxic waste; organ transplant, an issue that
came up after I left; infant formula; issues that had real impact on people's
lives; and issues on which he could find common ground with a broad range of
What can we see in that period that you really know him, what do we see
there, in terms of character, that will help us decide about him as a
Both as a reporter and as a young member of Congress, he cared very deeply
about the effect that government had on people's lives, and he used his
intelligence and his diligence to try to make government work better for
people, and to try to help people, to try to help his constituents relate to
government in a more positive way, so that part of the reason for going back to
the district so assiduously was so that the people in that sprawling, rural,
small-town district would know that the government wasn't some faceless entity,
but was in fact, had a face, and that the person with that face cared about how
government affected their lives.
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