the choice 2000

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interview: ken jost
photo of ken jost

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.
What were your first impressions of Al Gore?

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 Tipper.

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 future?

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...

In the four years I worked for him in Congress, he devoted 120% of his time to the Congressional job. 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 newsroom.

How much of the victory is attributable to the Gore name, the father, the family reputation?

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 thought.

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 comer?

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 process.

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 people.

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 person?

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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