Questions about Al Gore's use of marijuana first arose in Gore's
campaign for Congress in 1976, but only in an off-the-record
conversation with a reporter from the Nashville Tennessean. Not until
his presidential run in 1988 did the matter force significant public
comment from Gore. |
At a 1988 press conference, Gore admitted to experimenting with
marijuana a few times during his Vietnam years and immediately
afterward. But this, he argued, needed to be understood in the context
of a great "period of change" in the nation, as well as in himself.
"Like many others in my generation," he said, "my life reflects the
times." The matter seemed to be over before it started.
No sooner did Gore answer one question, however, when he was confronted
with another: Had he truthfully characterized the extent of his
marijuana use? Gore did not answer this question directly. A reporting
team from the Tennessean investigated, interviewing forty people, mostly
Gore's former colleagues from the paper. In the resulting article
published on November 10, 1987, only one person voiced personal
knowledge of Gore's marijuana use, saying "I can remember only one
specific time, and I think it was right after he got back from Vietnam
in 1971...Once he was into life back in the States, I just never saw him
involved in anything like that." Who was it who seemingly broke ranks
with the others in offering any details of Gore's drug use? One of
Gore's closest friends from Nashville, a man whose wife introduced
Tipper Gore to photography--a Tennessean reporter named John Warnecke.
Perhaps because his account seemed only to confirm Gore's own, nothing
more was made of it.
Some ten years later, however--and more than twenty years after he
smoked pot with Gore--John Warnecke offered a new version of the story-- "compelled," he said, to correct the record
and to clear his conscience. In 1987, Warnecke said, he had lied to the
Tennessean and to the New York Times when he minimized Gore's drug
use--and the lie increasingly "bothered" and "haunted" him.
Warnecke said he believed that his statements in 1987 were a "more nuanced,
authentic-sounding lie" than what the Gore campaign had strongly urged him to say. But a lie nonetheless, and Warnecke couldn't
live with himself. In recent years, he attempted to contact the Gores
about it, he said, but the Vice President and his wife did not write
back or return his calls. As part of his psychotherapy, Warnecke felt
he needed to come clean.
How were Warnecke's latest comments regarded? Bill Turque, the Newsweek
reporter who was first to talk to Warnecke, corroborated much of Warneckežs account with reference to "another close friend from Gore's Nashville period who declined to be named." What was the point of re-telling the story? Turque reported Warnecke's argument for the continuing relevance of the information: "The issue is not smoking dope," he told Turque in a
1998 interview, "but [rather] the measure of a man who would browbeat a
friend into covering up."
David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima took a somewhat more critical view of
Warnecke, although they did not cast doubt on Warneckežs core claims. The co-authors of a Washington Post series on Gore's
life--and, subsequently, a book, The Prince of Tennessee (Simon and
Schuster, 2000)--characterized Warnecke as "an important figure in
Gore's countercultural life during the Nashville years," but also added
a number of cautions: Warnecke "seems to have selective memory that
puts him in the center of all the action," they wrote. And "whether
Warnecke played the Mephistophelean role that he claims for himself
remains uncertain and debatable." Warnecke's repeated claims to have
smoked marijuana with Gore hundreds of times, Maraniss and Nakashima
found "unfathomable," considering Gore's work schedule and other
commitments. Like Turque before them, however, Maraniss and Nakashima
seemed satisfied that Warnecke, who has been treated for drug dependency
and depression over the years, was motivated to come forward on the eve
of the Democratic primary season mainly for reasons of personal growth.
In the Spring of 2000, the publication of Bill Turque's biography,
Inventing Al Gore (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), set off a minor wave of
attention to Warnecke's claims. One reviewer mentioned the story as an
example of Gore's willingness to "unleash political hatchet men" to
smear an old friend who was telling the truth (National Review, April
17, 2000); another reviewer, on the other side of the political
spectrum, told the story to point out Gore's hypocrisy in failing to
endorse the medical use of marijuana (The Nation, May 22, 2000). Warnecke has granted interviews to a small number of magazines and news outlets, but the nation's major television networks and leading newspapers have paid the story little or no attention.
In a statement on January 24, 2000, Gore did not directly deny Warnecke's claims, but, rather, dismissed the matter out
of hand as "something I dealt with a long time...old news." A writer at
the conservative Weekly Standard countered, "Old it may be, but if Gore
is willing to fudge on this, what else is he trying to hide?" Few have
taken up the story as a measure of Gore's character or otherwise,
however, and it seems to figure not at all into the year's presidential
FRONTLINE interviewed John Warnecke in the Summer of 2000, during the course of reporting "The Choice." Two different people corroborated Warnecke's claims--each of whom knew Gore and Warnecke during the period of the early 1970s when Gore and Warnecke were close friends. Though neither would speak on the record or go on camera, both people assured FRONTLINE that they knew Warnecke to be telling the truth when he talked about he and Gore smoking pot many, many times more than Gore has publicly claimed.
Though he maintains a relationship with Tipper, Warnecke has not spoken
with Gore since the Fall of 1987 when he first spoke to the Tennessean
about Gore's drug use.
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