the choice 2000

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interview: arlie shardt
photo of arlie schardt

Schardt served as press secretary to Gore's 1998 presidential campaign. He speaks about Gore's strengths and weaknesses as a politician and reflects on several key moments of the 1988 campaign.
What was your first impression of Al Gore?

Our meeting for [an] interview [he'd done in New Hampshire] was the first time I had ever met him. And as we chatted for that hour going from New Hampshire into the Boston airport, ... he impressed me as someone who was very, very smart. Number two, he was very incisive in all of his questioning of me. He didn't know me either. He may have seen my resume, but it might have just been back at the campaign headquarters in Washington.

And then it turned into a very nice, easy dialogue for an hour. We talked a lot about news. I had been for years with Time magazine and Newsweek magazine and we had a lot of mutual acquaintances or friends that we talked about. And he asked me in great detail a whole list of names off the top of his head, about wanting to know if I knew this reporter, or that bureau chief, or that producer, or that broadcaster, and so on. It was a very, very warm and intelligent, and positive conversation. I enjoyed it.

What would you say are his greatest strengths? And his weaknesses?

The fact that he is smart as hell and that he is extremely focussed, and, I would say, he always seemed to me, in every kind of a situation that I saw him in, to be generally unflappable. His weakness would be that darn curse of being, so often being stiff, which is such a contrast with--I'm sure you've heard this 100 times, that, in private, he could be loose and funny and pull jokes and pranks.

I remember one time he made a video about one of the staff members who was leaving--this was right after the campaign was over, and the staff member had also been on his senate staff, that was going to take a job back in Tennessee. And Al did a really, really funny video that was played at the farewell party for this guy, and had the whole room cracking up. He was droll, he was tongue-in-cheek humor, and some kind of just broad humor. And I've seen him on some of our flights where everybody was cracking jokes, and he was roaring right along with everybody else and having a great time.

So I think it is definitely an obstacle to his connecting with mass audiences that he doesn't show that side of himself more often, than you see it if you're with him a lot, because it's there, but it's not there enough.

How did he take advice on the campaign?

My first full day on the job, Al was being interviewed by David Frost, who was doing that series of puff pieces on the candidates, and they were interviewing at in their home, in the living room. And I still remember this because Al was hugely conscientious about making votes on--taking part in any votes on the Senate floor. The interview was going on, and he had his beeper on, and right in the middle of the interview, the beeper went off, and there was an important vote going on, and Al just said, "We're going to have to stop and I got to go to the Senate and vote."

... everybody was cracking jokes and he was roaring right along. I think it is definitely an obstacle...that he doesn't show that side of himself more...And so we raced into his car and drove--he just drove like a madman, I was scared to death, and we went screeching right up to steps of the Capitol, and he ran up and cast his vote, and then came running right down again and got in the car and we drove off again; and on the way back, he asked me how I thought the interview was going, and I said I thought it was going okay but--I made a bunch of suggestions. And I kept thinking, "This is strange that this guy, he's a major political figure already, and he's been in this all his life, but he was doing a lot of things in the interview that are kind weaknesses in terms of a television interview, like kind of looking up, like that, to think about an answer, sometimes."

So I made some suggestions to him that I thought would help smooth things out for the second half, and you could kind of see his hands getting tighter and tighter on the steering wheel, and his jaw getting a little tighter. I didn't know whether I was getting myself fired or whether he just didn't like to take advice or what. But we got back to the house, and he did all those things, and the second part of the interview really went over much better than the first half. I figured, "Well, for whatever reason that he was doing those things before, whether he wanted to hear about changing them or not was beside the point. He took the criticism--it was constructive criticism, and he took it well, and the second hour, hour and a half went quite well.

...

He can be a micro-manager. And he is so smart, that he keeps an enormous amount of detail in his head, as well as policy and strategy ideas. When he was on the road, he was calling back to the campaign headquarters many, many times every day to check in on how everything was going, and talk with Fred Martin his campaign director. If I wasn't traveling with him, if I was back in Washington for a period working out of the headquarters, I would get a call two or three times a day wanting to know what was in the news, and what was going on, and what was being asked of us by reporters who were back in the capital and so on. So he played a very, very involved role at all levels at all times.

Was that helpful or hurtful do you think?

I think it kept people alert. I think he asked good questions. I'd say if there were any one thing that I would say to characterize one of his most salient characteristics, it would just be that he is an extremely brilliant guy, and he knows not only, he's not only on top of a lot of subjects but also was--As I say, he was criticized by many people also for being too much of a micro manager. And I can't pretend to know all the conversations that went on between him and other senior staff members, but I think most of the time people felt that it kept things humming, and kept people on their toes. It was an enthusiastic staff anyway.

You met with a number of obstacles, so to speak, along the campaign trail. One of those was Mayor Koch's endoresement speech. Can you talk about that?

...Mayor Koch had finally made his decision and in fact had endorsed Gore as his choice for the nomination, and of course there was great jubilation, because there had been terrific competition, especially with Dukakis, but a couple of the other ones also who were seeking that endorsement. Everybody regarded it as a real plumb and a very important step.

And it began that way: We went into New York, scrapped the afternoon plan because Mayor Koch had set up a big press conference in City Hall, and the place was a mob scene. And Al gave a very good speech, and Koch gave a very good speech. And then, boom, the Jesse Jackson remark about himeytown comes out, and Koch is infuriated, and he had a right to be upset about it, it was not a very politic or a smart thing of Jackson to do, I don't know why he did it.

But that began taking over the news. And, in the meantime, we were still going up in the polls, I think we got up over 20% after several days in New York, but, slowly but surely, this attack by Koch against Jackson began dominating the news, and also it began kind of subsuming Al's campaign and his message. And we got the point where we were trying everything we could, at various campaign stops around the metropolitan area, to avoid having Mayor Koch with us, because the politic thing was that, as the Mayor, he would be the first speaker, and he always went into this tirade about Jesse Jackson and himeytown. It reminded me of the captain on a sinking ship; he would almost be having to put his hand over his heart and start out every street corner rally by saying, "The Mayor is speaking for himself, and I'd like to talk about my campaign now. I mean, Al was doing everything possible to deflect attention from it, but it just got worse and worse, and it hit us very badly, there was no question about it."

The irony was that, from all the signs that any of us could see, Gore and Jackson were actually very close friends, it was a friendly rivalry. They spent a lot of private time together--like, after an event where all the candidates would speak, they would often wind up in one of the green rooms or meeting rooms afterwards and chat privately for 3o or 4o minutes.

The campaign also faced another landmine over whether or not Gore had smoked marijuana.

In the Atlanta airport, a TV crew came running up to Al and just threw a camera in front of him and said, "Have you ever smoked pot?" We had to catch a plane, we had to get the connecting flight to go onto Florida, and there wasn't time to do anything. We said we would answer the question in the morning, that we were getting on this flight and heading on.

And so I went to the campaign headquarters in Washington, and Al continued on to Florida...It was incredible, there was a huge amount of panic. People were thinking, "My God, this is going to be the end of the campaign, the sky is falling, and all this stuff."

It didn't seem that way to me, because Al was not perturbed by the question; it was just that there really wasn't time to answer it. So he finished the event in Florida and then got onto this small plane that took forever to get him to Iowa, and I had gotten an early flight there, and I was waiting for him, with a number of the other staff...I had set up a press conference for like 4:30 that afternoon, well before the dinner was going to start. And I said, "We ought to just deal with it right now," and he said he totally agreed, that he thought that would be the thing to do. It was quite a walk from the hotel to where the event was, and our only conversation was just tell it like it is. So we got to the room, and it was jammed. There must have been 50 or 60 reporters, and they were really loaded for bear, and Al just stepped up and started talking. He said, "I know there's been a question being asked of the candidates about whether they ever tried marijuana," and he said, yes, he had, a couple of times, I think in college, and a couple of times in Vietnam. And they asked a few more questions about it, and after about six or seven minutes at the most, you could see that it was over, because the reporters started asking questions about other subjects, and that seemed to be the end of it.

Why do you think that he decides to run in '88?

I don't know why he chose to do it then, except that I think that he very strongly felt, and a lot of his admirers and supporters in Tennessee and around the country, felt that he was still well qualified. He had been in public service for most of his life, he had been a journalist for a brief period before that. But he had been in the House for a number of years, and in the Senate, and obviously you know the background of how he grew up with a father who was a senator.

So he knew the ways of government about as intimately as anybody could. I think he had certain things that he wanted to get across.

How much of it was running for himself, and how much of it was running for his dad?

I think he was running for himself, although certainly his dad were, and his mother, were both enormous influences on him, as I'm sure is already well known. But his dad played a very, very active part. He had an office in the campaign headquarters over in Roslyn. He was in there every day, or else he was on the road every day. I believe that he eventually -- this is Gore senior now, Senator Gore senior -- I believe that eventually spoke in all 49 of the continental states. I'm not sure that he got to Alaska or to Hawaii, but I think he did make a point of making an appearance in all the other 48 states. He was usually present at most of the major strategy meeting meetings where there would be a large group.

Describe the relationship between father and son

It was, really I feel like at that point it was the relationship between two grown men who were very, very close. His father obviously wanted him very much to become the president some day, wanted Alan to become the president. When we were on trips, occasionally Senator Gore Sr. was with us, and they would talk about everything from family to campaign strategy at those times. But it was clearly a very close relationship.

I remember, I think one of the things that stood out most in my memory was that after Super Tuesday when the campaign won, I believe, seven states. We were having a big rally after the results were all in down in Nashville at, I believe it's the Grand Old Opry Hotel was the place. There was a great big sort of a ballroom there with a stage.

And Al was up on the stage, and his family, and a lot of his closer supporters, and Al gave a thank you speech and "We're going to go onto victory" and so on. There was obviously tremendous excitement and enthusiasm that night.

I went up to the podium to start helping Senator senior to step down because there wasn't a stairway. So...he was just going to reach down, take my hands, and step down. And all of a sudden I reached up and then just then he threw his hands up in the air and then he looked down and he said "Arlie, that boy is going to be president."

Do you have any other memories of the '88 campaign that stand out in your memory?

I remember one time in Atlanta, it was during a Jefferson Jackson weekend, and all of the candidates were there. There were people from all over the southeast attending a huge day of speeches, and workshops, and a big dinner that night and everything. Then the next morning there was a big parade up Peach Tree Street. In all, at that point, I think seven democratic candidates were to be lined up in this parade up the Avenue, along with a lot of prominent Civil Rights leaders, and so on.

And as they were lining up I went up behind Al and just literally reached up and pulled at his jacket until I was pulling it up over his face. He looked around because he didn't know who the hell was doing that, and he looked annoyed, which anybody would. I said "Al, I'm not going to let you wear that jacket in this parade." It was a beautiful, sunny day.

So finally he agreed and we stripped it off, so there was this phalanx of people marching up the street. The next day on the front page of the New York Times was a big photo of this scene of all of the candidates, and Al just looked like Superman. He just stood out so much because he's got broad shoulders--And everybody else was kind of faded into the dark business suits that they were all wearing, and then here was this one guy with just a shirt and a tie down there. And so we try to use that as an example of why he should do that more often, but it never really worked.

There were other times where he did finally toss the jacket aside and pull down his tie, and he always gave much better speeches that way too. He can do it very easily, and it was always a mystery as to why he didn't, what it was that held him back from doing it more often.

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