the choice 2000

hometools for choiceare you sure?bushgore

interview: john warnecke
Editor's Note:

Further consideration of the context surrounding FRONTLINE'S interview with John Warnecke, as well as the various readings of his story by others, can be found in the accompanying Editor's Note.



photo of john warnecke

A colleague of Gore's during his days as a reporter at the Tennessean, Warnecke and his wife were close friends of both Al and Tipper Gore when the couple first moved to Nashville. Among other things, Warnecke discusses Gore's life after Vietnam, his decision to leave newspaper reporting and the law for a career in politics, and his use of marijuana in the 1970s.
How did you meet Al Gore the first time?

I first met Al in 1970 during his father's senatorial campaign. And Al came into The Tennessean with his father. I guess he was on vacation from Harvard. Anyway, I went up and introduced myself to him and I knew his father quite well. I'd been with him, with his father. And that's the first time I met Al, and we sort of hit it off instantly.

What were you doing for his dad?

I was covering the politics in the 1970 race [for The Tennessean] and one of the people I was covering was Senator Gore, who had been targeted by President Nixon and the Republican Committee to-- They wanted his seat. They wanted Bill Brock in it. And I did a lot of investigative work for the paper involving the kind of tactics the Republicans were using, fear and scare... And the Senator was very grateful to me to have exposed Nixon's plans in The Tennessean, and how they were targeting Senator Gore.

Now, Al Gore comes in. What kind of a guy is he, and why did you guys hit it off?

I at that time had been at the [Tennessean] about a year and a half. I came from San Francisco. I came from a background of the Grateful Dead, with the hippie movement. I was a radical. And I had long sideburns and very long hair and I think Al saw me and had heard about me from either his father or somebody in his family. And he just lit up to me, and I-- I liked him. He looked like a pretty good guy to me. And as we got to know each other, later, when he moved back to Nashville and as time went on, we became the closest of friends, like brothers. It was great. It was a great relationship.

The fact that you both had fathers that were very successful and very famous, in their own rights, how did that come into play in sort of your friendship?

Well, both Al and I had famous fathers. Al's father was a senator and my father... designed President Kennedy's grave and had gone out with Jackie and was one of the well known-- best known architects in the United States. And we both had these very famous fathers and we had this problem of being the oldest sons of very famous men. And it became an issue that both Al and I used to talk about quite a bit. The struggle to be independent. To go our own way. To cut our own path and not to ride on our fathers' coattails... We wanted to be our own guys and we wanted to cut our own path. And Al wanted to be a newspaper reporter. He didn't-- In the back of his mind, he knew he wanted to be in politics, but he was trying to avoid it and fight to be his own man at the same time. Just the way I was-- my years with the Grateful Dead was a way to fight my father's influence on me...

What was Gore's role in his dad's 1970 election?

During that campaign, [Al] made the decision to enlist, to go to Vietnam. He was strongly against the war. He did not want to go to Vietnam. And it was a very difficult decision for him to make. But he didn't want it to reflect on his father's campaign. He didn't want it to reflect on his father... We would have long conversations about Vietnam and whether he should go or not. What our friends were doing... There might have been other reasons, but the real reason had to do with his father's campaign. And his desire not to hurt his father...

So when he talked about it, making the decision to go, it was wholly based on politics?

It was mostly based on politics, yes. I mean, Al-- There's no question in my mind, Al was born and has had one goal in his life, and that is to do what he's doing right now. And that is to try to become President of the United States. And he was going-- He is and was going to do everything he could to get himself in that position. And I think he saw that being in the Army certainly would help his resume, let's say, to become President. And as well, his father had this issue-- His father being one of the first senators to come out against the war and just being used against him. He did not want to harm his father's campaign. But he didn't talk to me about the guys out in Carthage. That never came up. Never.

Why does this man want to be President so much?

That's a good question. He's obsessed with it. He-- His father's story of almost being Vice President in the '56 convention, being that close, I think that that was a big story in the Senator's mind and handed down to Al as something that he had to-- That he had to finish for his father. So in my mind, Al has always had this drive to become President. And everything he's done has been calculated to prepare him for the Presidency... And he's gotten into trouble sometimes because his desire to become President has gotten-- Has been so strong, it's made-- He's made bad decisions in certain issues. He's done some things that--

Policy-wise you mean? Or give me an example?

Well, for one, smoking drugs, or smoking dope and taking drugs with me. I think if he was that aware, he wouldn't have done it. If he was really thinking about the Presidency. He would have known. But the way we smoked pot, when he would run around the room and close all the curtains and hide-- Turn the lights out, it was clear that he didn't want anybody to see, look in our living room and see him in there, or have the possibility of being seen smoking pot. So I think that's the kind of thing that he did... This desire to become President is an obsession with him. And I also think Al thinks he's better-- There's a big ego in that man. He thinks he's better than everybody else. There was no question in our relationship, he thought he was better than me.

Why did he have such self-assurance? Was he that intelligent? Was he that talented? Was he the true golden boy?

There are aspects of Al's personality that are truly phenomenal and I sit in awe. When he was in law school, I've never seen a guy study harder. He not only would take written notes from all his classes, he would then go home and type them all out so he had both written and typed notes.

On the other hand, he-- By setting himself above other people and away from other people, he-- People stayed away-- I think people were put off by him. And I think that hurt him... He was a difficult guy to be around, and people talk about him being stiff. He is very stiff, and he is very controlling. And he doesn't let you really know what's going on in his mind.

Even friends?

Even friends. Yes. It's very hard to get to know him very well. He didn't have many friends, frankly. Our friendship developed, and I had to put up with a lot, I think, to have this friendship...We'd play basketball, for instance. He always had to win. He could not walk off the court until he was-- Until he had many more points than I did. When he would write-- When he would do an investigation-- If that investigation didn't result in a conviction or in some positive-- In some real change happening, he would be terribly dissatisfied with himself. He had to see power. He had to feel the power that he had, and the power that he could effect on other people. He was just not happy if he wasn't doing that...

Tell me about your lives together in Nashville?

In the beginning, when Al and Tipper first moved to Nashville, they moved into--My wife and I, we had a house. And we moved a block away into another house, and we gave them our house. So we were living about a block away from each other And Tipper never-- didn't feel comfortable with Pauline and the Senator. When Al was in Vietnam, she spent more time at our house with my wife and with me. She just seemed to feel more at ease with us than going out and finding companionship in Carthage out in the country.

Let's say more about Vietnam. How did Vietnam affect Al Gore?

When Al came back from Vietnam, first off, in my recollections, he didn't talk about it very much. When he did talk about it, it was almost in a whisper. He felt-- I think he felt ashamed for going to Vietnam. I'm assuming here. But he didn't talk about it very much. He didn't talk about great honor or joy or fighting or the stories that he wrote. He didn't boast about it and he didn't talk about it. It was something he did, and he didn't want to talk about. He just was very quiet about it...I think it had a bigger effect on him than people realize...

Why The Tennessean? Why did Al take the reporting job after Vietnam?

That's a good question. I think Al had-- Al came back from Vietnam and he had some time off to think about things. And he had written a couple of articles for The Tennessean. I think [editor-in-chief] John Siegenthaler had talked with him and offered him a job. I think there was some pressure from John to work at the newspaper. I don't think his father wanted him necessarily to be a reporter ... It was a way to avoid giving in... To show his father that he was his own man. That he was going to do his life his way and he wasn't going to go right to law school, let's say, as his parents probably wanted him to. That he wasn't going to do it their way.

So, was he a good reporter?

That's a tough question to answer. I think Al was... a pretty good reporter, although I think he was too self-conscious about who he was. When he would go to cover council meetings or cover different stories, you know, it would be Al Gore, the son of the Senator, not Al Gore the reporter, going to cover it. And I think that that made it difficult for him to be the kind of reporter that he wanted to be.

There was a couple of investigations didn't go right for him. He didn't want his name, he didn't like his name, his byline in the paper very much. Eventually he ended up in the editorial department where you write anonymously. He seemed to settle there. Not only do you write sort of anonymously in the editorial department, you also write in a dream world about what might happen, what would be best for city council, what would be best for the city or the state of Nashville. And I think that-- There's a part of Al that is the dreamer. And I think that being in the editorial department, he-- that allowed that side of him to come through...

Let's talk about the '76 election. Why did Al Gore jump at the opportunity in '76 to run for Congress?

Al and I-- like I've been saying, we had this very close relationship. We would get high on pot, and we would talk issues and [drink] cognac ... [smoke] pot or hashish or whatever, and we would argue issues as if we were politicians, as if we were federal-- as if we were congressmen or senators. And we would debate back and forth over these. And things like the B1 bomber or integration or investigations and things. And we would argue back and forth.

It was clear to me at this time Al was in law school, and it was clear he was just-- He was like a lion in a cage waiting for something to happen. You know, for-- to sort of open up so he could make a step into politics. And he didn't know what it would be exactly. And when Joe Evans, the fourth district Congress, decided he wasn't going to run again, from what I gather, [Tennessean editor-in-chief John] Siegenthaler told Al. I know that Al called me very, very early and it was-- You know, it was like, "Evans is resigning. Do you think I should"-- And he asked me. "Do you think I should run?" And I-- Of course I said yes, and I saw this as an opportunity. Why go to law school and study law when you can make law? And I told him definitely he should run for Congress. And this was his big opportunity.

He immediately went for it. There was no waiting at this point. It was as if he's been practicing for years and years for this opportunity, for this day to come. And he grabbed it like a football player taking a handoff. And he just ran with it. He-- First off, he didn't-- He did not want to be-- He did not want to have his father and his mother around. He wanted to do this on his own. He and Tipper. And they moved out to Carthage and permanently set up headquarters at his home. And Al started going around from town to town introducing himself to people.

He made an announcement. I was-- One morning he called me and he said, "I'm going to announce that I'm running." And he asked me to go out to the Carthage courthouse steps, and there's a picture of Al and I and Tipper sitting on a chair with Karenna, a little baby. And there was nobody else there... Al's speech, he was nervous. He gave his little speech. It wasn't that great. It was awkward. It was his first speech. He was awkward. He was nervous. But he pulled it off, and that was the opening speech.

But like I say, it was almost barren, the courthouse, the Smith County Courthouse. And I think it had a certain symbolism. And he's always, ever since then, he's always announced each campaign from the Carthage Courthouse. That's where he always goes...

Before we move on, can we say something more about the pot smoking days. What was it like? You'd go to his house or you'd go to his house? What would you do?

We smoked a lot of grass. Far more than he's acknowledged... Al and Tipper would come over, and the first thing Al would do, usually, to check outdoors, look out the windows, roll down the shades. You know, ask me if I had any marijuana and joints. I always had. I had good connections in San Francisco, so I always had the best dope in town and I never charged him for it. I always gave it away. We had a sort of a motto in the hippie culture that you shared your dope...

Why did he like to smoke dope? Did it relax him? Did it make him more--

I think it relaxed him, but you wouldn't notice it if you looked at him. He was still a pretty stiff person. He wouldn't loosen up and crack a lot of jokes and get silly. That's not-- First off, that's not Al. He's a very serious person. I mean, everyone keeps saying-- I keep reading, "Well, you got to see Al when he lets his hair down. He's really funny." Well, occasionally he does-- But it really isn't Al. Al is a very serious guy and he's always thinking about serious issues and about serious matters. And I think the marijuana stimulated that, stimulated our conversations about different things, political things.

At that time, I think, if I can remember correctly, he was for the legalization of marijuana as I was, as was everybody in America who smoked grass. College kids. But the stories that are out now about Al not smoking very much grass just aren't true. We smoked a lot of grass, and he smoked a lot of grass. He didn't just try it a few times.

What's the first time you guys smoked dope together?

I think we first smoked grass-- I think my reputation preceded me as this sort of legendary hippie who had been with the Grateful Dead from San Francisco. We had a lot of grass. And Al sought it out. I think he wanted good grass. I think that's what he wanted. And I always had it, and I was always giving it away. We probably first smoked grass when he first came back from Vietnam. Maybe before he went. And we continued to smoke on a constant basis. And when I say constant, I don't mean every day, but we smoked several times a week.

We would smoke at his farm, we would smoke in the car. We would smoke-- I remember one big long drive to Memphis to get a certain kind of barbecue for a lunch we were having...and smoking grass all the way down and all the way back in the car. I remember going to beer parties at my neighbor's house and Al always hitting me up for joints... I was his source. Mainly because he always knew I always had grass on me. I always had a rolled joint, usually shoved behind my ear. And I always was willing to share it with my friends. So Al knew I could get him high...

So explain how that came out of the newspapers and why it affected you?

Well, it's affected me greatly. In 1988, when Al was running for President the first time, I was on his campaign committee in Northern California. I had raised a fair amount of money for him and introduced him to a lot of political people in the Bay area. But one day in 1988, I got a call and it was Peter Knight, Al's assistant. And he wanted me-- He said that the marijuana issue was going to come up and he wanted me to say that they were going to probably call me and the press was going to probably call me. And they wanted me to say that I don't know anything about Al's pot smoking and this is private. The press has gone over the line and gone into what they consider private matters.

So tell me mid-October, 1987, you get a phone call from Peter Knight?

Yes.

Tell me about that.

That was the first call. Peter had-- I had known Peter from organizing fund raising affairs for Al, and Peter said that the marijuana issue was coming up and the press was on it, asking questions about Al's marijuana use. And they wanted me to basically deny that Al smoked with me and to say to the press that that's none of their business. That they've gone over the line as far as questioning people, and they wanted me to-- To basically lie to the press when they called... I didn't agree with them. I thought that was a bad strategy because-- They were telling-- From what I gather, and from what my wife had called and told me, this is what they were telling everybody. And I said, "If everybody sys the same thing, you're going to raise a red flag to the press." And I said-- I promised that I wouldn't hurt Al. I promised that I wouldn't hurt him. But I wasn't going to say that they'd gone too far in asking the question.

But were they asking you to lie, or were they asking you to just not talk to the press?

Well--

By saying it's none of your business, it's basically saying you're not going to talk to the press?

Yes. They said don't talk-- Don't talk to the press about Al smoking dope. That, to me, is a lie. I mean, I've been in seminary for six years since then. That's a lie. That's a lie of omission. And looking back and what finally drove me to tell the truth was the fact that I knew it was a lie. And I didn't-- When The Tennessean called me finally, and the New York Times called me, I did not hurt Al. I did tell them a story that Al smoked a little bit, but he didn't like it. Didn't agree with him.

I thought I helped Al because I basically agreed with what he said, which was that he tried it a couple of times and-- And dropped it with that. The issue died, as far as Al went, the issue died at that moment when I-- in the article in The Tennessean and the AP article that came from there. I'm the one quoted at the top as the person who says he smoked a little bit and didn't like it. That was far-- So far from the truth that I can't believe I said it. But I was-- When the New York Times called me, and asked me, I was crying. I asked this lady to not question me. And I started to cry, it hurt me so much to not tell the truth...



How did you end up the conversation with Peter Knight?

I believe-- This is hard, but I told him I wouldn't-- I would not say what they wanted me to say. But that I wouldn't hurt Al. That's how that ended.

So then what happened?

Then about an hour later, I got a call from Tipper or Al, one of the two. And they were very nervous and agitated with me because I didn't agree to say exactly what they wanted me to say. And they went over again. We went through it again...

When you talk with Al, if he wants to make a point and he will say the same thing that he wants you to say or believe over and over and over again. In different ways. In different styles. So when I told him I wouldn't hurt him, he would come back again and not believe-- It was as if he wouldn't believe me. And it got to be very frustrating, these conversations. Because I wasn't going to agree with him, not to lie. I wasn't going to agree with him to tell the press that this was private and not a public issue. And I wouldn't give in. And he-- He pushed me hard. And I kept telling him I wouldn't hurt him. I couldn't hurt him...

I told them that I wouldn't hurt him. That I basically would say that you tried it a few times and didn't like it. And I was going to back up what he'd already said. And nothing more. And that I wasn't going to hurt him. I kept telling him that. "I'm not going to hurt you."

And then that call was over. Then I got one more call an hour later. This was getting ridiculous. I got one more call. This time it was Al, Al alone. And he was asking me again to put forth this line that this was a private issue, not privy to the press to know anything about. And I kept-- I repeated again to him that I was not going to hurt him. "My God, you're my best friend. I'm not going to hurt you. I can't hurt you, Al. It's not in my conscience to hurt you."...

Tell me if I'm wrong, but it seemed to be what they were asking you was-- They didn't want you to make up a story. They wanted you to just not talk to the press and throw the press off by saying "It's none of your business?"

Yes. That's what they were asking me to do.

Why were they asking you to do that?

Because I think that's the position that Al took back then. You know at that time, a candidate for the Supreme Court [Douglas Ginsburg] had been-- The story leaked out that he had tried marijuana in law school with some of the students, and he was immediately withdrawn as a candidate from the Supreme Court. This was a big issue at that time. I think they were very scared that this would become a big issue... They were worried, genuinely worried about me telling the truth. And I just-- I'm not a good liar. Although, like I said, when the New York Times called, I cried. When Jim O'Hara called from The Tennessean, I said Al tried it a couple of times but he didn't like it. That's all. Just a few times. I backed up what he said. And it basically killed the issue for Al. I didn't hurt him. What I did do was hurt myself, I found out later. I hurt myself terribly by lying for Al, by covering up.

So why are you now talking about it?

...It hurt me a lot to lie. It hurt The Tennessean.-- The Tennessean had this history, this integrity of being tough on politicians and telling, digging into political characters and finding out what was going on with corrupt politicians... I felt like I betrayed my own paper. So eventually I had to tell the truth...

In the course of the last ten years, Al has changed a lot. Particularly being around Bill Clinton. And every time the Clinton Administration would be caught in some kind of lie or some kind of scandal, I knew that I was part of another cover up and that I was part of a cover up and that I was needed to tell the truth. So I-- And in addition, Al and Tipper had put me on this sort of black list, that they weren't responding to my calls anymore. They weren't answering my letters...because of the pot thing, I was no longer in their lives.

So the guilt that I was feeling kept building, and it kept building, and it kept building. And I was seeing a therapist and finally I had to, like Vietnam soldiers, I have to go back and face the battlefield where they killed. I had to straighten out my life so I could live with myself. So I found this. Well, I didn't find him, but there was a writer-- There were several writers writing about Al and one of them called me and I felt it didn't belong in a newspaper or a magazine. I wanted it in a book. And so I picked Bill Turque and told-- Bill called me to interview me. I guess he was calling a lot of people and he'd heard about me, that I was a good friend of Al's. And so he called me and I told him the truth, that I did lie. And Bill put that in his biography of Al and Newsweek magazine.

Since then I feel very relieved. I feel very strong. I feel very empowered. I feel that Al no longer has a grip on it like he had by holding me to this lie. I have a clean conscience and it was necessary for me to do what I did to get a clean conscience.



How do we know that you're not lying now, and that you were actually telling the truth before?

You have to know me, but I'm not one to make up lies. Before, when I lied and covered up for Al, it was difficult for me to do. What I'm saying now, I'm saying because, one, I'm clean and sober--and have been sober 21 years, and I really can't lie. That's one of the things I can't do. And two, my guilt over what I had done to the public, I felt I had to redeem myself. I had to clear my conscience with The Tennessean and with the New York Times and I had to get myself free of this noose that Al had put around me to keep me from talking.

So what's the difference between then and now? It's going to have to be up to the listener to believe me. I have nothing to gain for this. I'm not receiving any money for telling the truth. I don't go out seeking publicity. I just want the story told and told once and told right.

Why is this important to understand this about Al Gore?

I think the American people need to know the kind of character of one of the candidates that's running for President. I think the American people need to understand before they vote, not after, like President Clinton. But before they vote. I think they need to understand what Al will say and will do just about anything to get elected, including lying about his drug use.

I also think that drug use is a major issue in our country today, and it's not being dealt with by any of the press... This war on drugs has gotten way out of control, and Al is part of it, and he's very hypocritical to be putting people [in jail] and to stand against marijuana when in fact he smoked a lot of marijuana. And so it's important that the American people know that this is the kind of man who's running for President.

Was your story ever denied by anyone?

Al has denied the story. And Al basically won't talk about this. But no one truly denied--

But your story was disregarded by a lot of people. And what was the argument they made? Why you're not believable?

Oh, well, the story-- The people that are playing the party line are saying that I'm mentally ill and that this is a psychotic, that I'm stretching the truth and this is a psychotic--a story from someone who's psychotic. I'm not psychotic in any sense of the word. And I do see a therapist for depression...

Do you take--

I take antidepressants and I take anxiety medicine. I take medicine under the care-- I'm under the care of a psycho-pharmacologist at Stanford University Medical Center. I don't take any other medicine other than what she gives me.

Would that affect your ability to remember the truth in any way?

No.

Would there be any reason that you would be lying about this, for any reason, to--

I can't think of any. I finally just had to come out with the truth. It has been in me. It had haunted me. Al had-- And Tipper had not answered my letters. It was bothering me. I wrote them letters about it. I made phone calls to them. I had to talk to them about it. I couldn't go on anymore and they refused to respond to my letters. So I did what I knew how to do to straighten it out, and that was to find this author, Mr. Turque, and tell him the story.

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