the choice 2000

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interview: dr. walter harrelson
photo of dr. walter harrelson

Harrelson is the former director of the divinity school at Vanderbilt University. He provides insight into Gore's decision to attend divinity school and the affect his studies had on his life and career. Harrelson also reflects on Gore's relationship with his parents, and how Albert Gore Sr.'s political career shaped his son's career.
What were your first impressions of Al Gore?

He's a handsome man. He's a clean-cut man. Sober. And it certainly caused us to say, "Well, now, what is Al doing here? And surely he's not going to be a minister." I think we thought right off that this was not a commitment to consider ministry in a congregation as his future life. I don't believe that to his press. It certainly was not in any conversations I had with him. But I certainly got the impression of a person who is going to be a national leader, and who is here to listen and to learn, and who probably will not complete a degree.


But what he was was a person who heard about this divinity school as a place where ideas were being discussed. The question, how do you relate Christian faith to public life, to public affairs, to economic life? And he didn't necessarily believe, I'm sure, that we had the answers to those questions. But he knew that he was coming into a community with a ferment on just these questions. And I think Vietnam helped to enlarge his sense of the need for him to be in such a community....

Was young Albert Gore a conscientious objector?

He has been much more ready than I have found conformable to say, "Evil has got to be resisted, and the use of force by nations and by groups is certainly in principle a perfectly appropriate thing for people to do." Now, he went to Vietnam. My son and many others also went, with great misgivings, but really, I think, on the basis of being able to say, "We don't see anything particularly good here, coming out of this war. But here we're being required to do something, and the evil of it doesn't seem to be so great that we can't go along." I think it was just that kind of principle. I don't think that he went for pragmatic reasons, to show that he simply had been there while some others did not, with a future political career in mind. There have been persons who have probably said that, but that was not my impression of him. But he was not a conscientious objector...

Did you get a sense that Al Gore's parents had political aspirations for their son?

From early days, I think we all had the impression that Albert Gore's parents were going to make him show cause why he should not be a national leader. Well, I think both of them were really so ambitious for Albert, and so convinced of his ability. He had that Harvard degree. He had done well in it. He was ready to expose himself to the world, and to ideas, and to take up one kind of study and then another, ready to be a newspaper reporter for a while. I think the whole exposure of his life had been to answer the question, do I follow in my father's and mother's footsteps, or do I not? And I think he was disposed to. But he didn't want simply to move into state politics and become a state representative or senator, or take any of the short steps that would lead him to national leadership. He was a much more reflective person than that, I think. I think what he wanted to do was to sort out what the country most needed, and what among those things he might be best able to provide.

What is your sense about how Al's upbringing in these two worlds--Washington and Carthage--has affected who he is?

[Albert Sr. and Pauline Gore] are southern people who become people of the world. And Al Gore is never quite a southern born and bred person. He's really a part of Washington life, and the eastern educational world, with deep loyalties to the south and some of its virtues. But a person who never really had to spend much of his time, as I did, trying to overcome what I took to be the stigma of a southern birth, and a kind of heritage of slavery and of bigotry and of shabbiness-- See, he'd never had to go through that. But many an intellectual youth from the southeast-- especially the southeast-- had this sense of the dichotomy between some glorious elements of their heritage and a heritage that was so desperately evil that it had to be overcome. And so I think that often meant that persons from the south with ability would come with a sense of shame about elements of their life, elements of that culture, shame in part because they loved it, and shame in part because it deserved to be called what it was. And I think both Pauline and Albert Gore shared that kind of an understanding, that this heritage of ours, wonderful though it is, is really so deeply flawed that we cannot affirm it and be comfortable with our lives.

He's always a person of dignity,  always a person who's got an inner core that's not to be exposed to this public life... Al didn't have quite that sense, because he never really was so deeply enamored of his life as a southern boy that it had taken possession of him, as it had for me, causing me this sense of shame that I should have been a part of something like this, even though I could say my father was a liberal person. I did better than some...So I think the contrast between the two is that he's in a position to take some pleasure in the good elements of this southern society, and not, to their extent, feel himself the product of its foul side.


Another is, I think, that is a certain pragmatism that develops in Al that tempers the influence of both the Gores upon him, a pragmatism that enables him to see that the world is a very, very evil world in some ways, but it's a world where it's possible for good people to make a dent in it. And here I've sometimes said that I think that Al Gore and Bill Clinton, both Baptists, share one, the one side of the Baptist heritage, and the other, the other side. Al Gore, from his parents and in his own life, ...and from other people about the nature and destiny of human life. He knows that everybody is capable of horrendous evil, and enormous good. It's a part of the Calvinist heritage. Whereas Bill Clinton is much more touched by the free-church part of this Baptist heritage, which says every soul is competent to care for itself under God's leadership, with the help of the spirit. And you know, you just aren't too much preoccupied with that Calvinistic streak that sees people really evil in their hearts. Not basically good, but prone to evil because that's the way the world is, and at the same time, capable, with God's help, of transcending it.

So there's this, I think, that is not quite the same kind of religious heritage that I see in Pauline and in Albert Sr., who are themselves, I think, more moralistic, more a part of what you could call a Wesleyan tradition, where human beings have got to work very hard. They've got to be better than they tend to be. For the younger Gore, I think those problems are more intellectual, and they have this pragmatic side of keeping him in the middle of the room.

But you know, for Clinton, for that other kind of Baptist, what you develop is extraordinary confidence in yourself, in your own ability to make it. And that's not the kind of ambition I see in Al Gore. The kind of ambition I see in him is to fulfill that job of work that really is his to fulfill. And that's Calvinistic too.

How does Al Gore Jr. compare to his father as a politician?

Al Gore Jr. has never enjoyed public life like that. That's not congenial to him. Temperamentally I'm sure he's not at ease in doing it. He has to force that, and that's why, of course, he appears so awkward. But now, Pauline, also, was perfectly at home in this society when she needed to be. And they would get caught up in and, as I say, rejuvenated, by this work. I've seen Pauline Gore at democratic meetings in Nashville over and over again, where she's just delighted to be there, and sitting through all of these tedious things, and letting every politician there present who needs to have the floor for a while have the floor. She's much more a political person, and even more than her husband, I think.

Al Gore Jr. seems to have more trouble connecting with his constituents.

Albert Gore Sr. got elected over and over again by learning ingeniously how to do that. And that's what he knew. He knew that his son had to feel some of those passions. He didn't have to be on one side or the other, necessarily. But you've got to care. You've got to care about those things.

But Al didn't. He couldn't.

No, he couldn't. He couldn't feel that, I think.


Well, as I say, I think part of it's temperament. I think part of it is the way the intellectual heritage of religion, Calvinist religion, developed. And there what you learn is that all people are flawed, and if all people are flawed, then it's a question of how to mitigate the consequences of that flawedness. So you don't take it so seriously that the south was born in slavery. You don't take it so seriously that we live side by side with blacks, and on many levels are very close with them, but still sort of deep down in our guts know that white people are better than blacks. And that's the hellish part, that you don't have to do a thing to be a racist. And that of course applies to us all, but it applies in a distinct way to southeastern people, where slavery was so deeply ingrained in us all.

Does Gore recognize that he's not "connected" to the people? Does he see it as a weakness?

I think he's seen it as a limit, and he's worked, therefore, all the harder at the ways in which he can excel. What he's done is to become a master analyst, not with the quick study brain that Bill Clinton has, but he's become an absolutely indefatigable student about one area of life after another after another after another. So his attainment of high position and his fulfilling the offices depend, I think, in his own mind, on a kind of mastery of the particulars, and an ability to sort them out, and to weigh this side against that side. Those are the things where he sees himself to be capable of handling all of this. Whereas many of the persons he's going to be serving in the south, and has served so well in the south, are going, I think, always to feel that Al doesn't quite know what makes us tick.

So, going back a bit, where does divinity school fit into all of this?

I think a part of coming to Vanderbilt was to get into a situation of ferment that was already there, and was a way also to sink some deeper roots into that southern culture, which he need, to know better and to feel more at home with it. And I think he saw in this faculty a group of people, many of whom were not southerners, but who had become so passionate about the struggle for justice in the south that he just saw this as a good place to be.


And there it was clear that those days at the divinity school had really helped. Because he taught theology, though in a lay person's way, on that occasion. And it was clear that some of the concerns that he had explored and had laid out for him by those faculty members were very much with him as he talked about the question, when does life begin? And what do you do with those leftover fertilized eggs, and things of that sort. And he was a magnificent leader of that subcommittee. He actually knew more than most of the witnesses who were appearing before him, from the professions.

Does it help him connect more?

What I would see, anyway, is that Albert Jr. will have to drum up a sense of deep, deep caring about issues of the sort that causes an audience to be galvanized by that same concern. Whereas the normal disposition is for Al Jr. to explain complex issues, and in effect to be the teacher rather than the leader of the society. And Al Gore Sr., I think, would say, "If you're going to sway and draw enthusiasm out of a political group, you must find a way to let your own passions come to the fore. How can you do that?" If you don't do it, as I was saying, you certainly may not feel this sense that I've overstated, and I've made a fool of myself. I've been a ham. I've done all these things publicly for which I'm ashamed of myself. Because you won't have done them, and you won't have anything to be ashamed of. But at the same time, you won't have brought the charisma to your grooves that they genuinely need in order to have a sense that this way of going is not just nice, but it's glorious. That's, I think, the problem.


But in public life, simply to help people to do what seems like a good thing is not adequate. It's not adequate in ministry and religious leadership. And political leadership and religious leadership are very close to one another. Because there you can't just say, "My religion's really very nice. It's aiming in the right direction. There are problems. But it's going in the right direction. It's really very nice." You've got to say, "Good God, this is glorious." And if you can't say that about your program, about your plans, then that's just stepping them down so much that the opposition immediately sees this won't work. NOW's our opportunity. NOW's our opportunity.

Can you talk more about this relationship between religion and politics, the parrallels?

[Gore] sat in on some of my classes on the prophets...And they are great for politics, great for political speechmaking, because they so wonderfully sum up out of a heritage shared very widely in the world, but certainly in the south many of the things that you're most passionately committed to. But he didn't leave there having been sort of brought to his knees by these denunciations of an evil society. Some of our students did. Many of them who never became preachers became social workers, and leaders in state and local government, and are now working in the poverty programs to this day, because they were so captured by this Jewish and Christian heritage that says this evil world has got to stop being so evil. That's the stuff of passion. What he needed was to reflect. What he needed was to sort things out. And sorting things out is different from being taken possession of by those deeply, deeply shared notions of what human beings are doing to themselves and to their world.

So, what did he ultimately walk away with? What effect did it have on him?

I think it had a great effect. I think it was confirmatory of his way of sorting things out. Here his father miscalculated. How could he have done that? He miscalculated. He let his passion get the better of him. He let his opposition to the Vietnam war tilt him in a direction that his up-to-then loyal supporters could not follow him.

What are his strengths as a politician?

He's quick on his feet, and he knows how to play the game, awkward though he is at it. And he's indefatigable. Anyone who works that hard can count on the work ethics paying off. So I think that that's more it. And there's nothing folksy about him. He can talk the language, but there's nothing folksy about him. He can't really be absolutely informal, I don't think. He's always a person of dignity, and he's always a person who's got an inner core that's not to be exposed to this public life, and when Al Gore leaves, you still don't know much more about the inner person than you did when he arrived.

It's true. We hear again and again that you don't ever see the "real" Al Gore.

He's not the kind of person who would know how, calculatingly, to use a personal incident to gain sympathy or understanding. It must be that this was triggered by something in the immediate occasion-- and I can't recall those occasions in detail-- that led him then to talk about this personal incident, recognizing that he was doing something uncharacteristic, but unable, quite, to stop. So I think that it was a fluke, something, in both instances, not calculatingly planned. But analogies form sometimes, and persons who have strong control over their lives are also persons who have some brooding matter in their lives, something that they advert to over and over again when they think about life and death, or when they think about human mortality generally. And those pop up.


Lots of things he could plan, but not, I think, to share intimate particulars out of his own inner life of pain and suffering. Both of those things are matters of the deepest pain and suffering. And they're also both out of control...And if you spend your whole life trying to control the features of your thought and the features of your world, and come to terms with it, and you have these pockets of the uncontrollable, you're going to keep those under lock and key.

Ultimately, how important is his religion to him? How important is it for us to understand him as a religious person?

I think he is a religious person, a deeply religious person, a person for whom the inner core of that religious faith is probably not really deeply known to him. It too is framed, and that's a good thing, because religion is an awfully dangerous thing when not framed. But if the frame is too much intact, then something of the gift of religion is not shared as deeply as it might be.

And there you know the contrast between Clinton and him, I think, is another. Because everything's sort of upfront with Bill Clinton. For him, it's an element of his own inner life that I think does not strictly control his actions, but it is an element of his life that is a deep resource for addressing his actions, for coming to terms with his actions. He knows how to repent,...I think genuinely to repent. Al Gore's religion is so structured, not now in details, as a theologian would want to structure it for a class, but it's a way of framing life that enables you to look with confidence to the future, to have some sense that there's a purpose in life that extends beyond its physical years, a purpose in life that has to do with why we have a universe at all. So it satisfies questions that haunt people if they're not satisfied, but it does not sort of operate as that churning reality in your guts that enables you to fall on your face and rise again, to be humiliated and stand up again, knowing that things can be laid aside, that you're sort of in the care of one who doesn't just answer your question, but who cares for your inner being.

To the extent, now, that this religion drives him, it drives him, I think, by offering a kind of solace, and a kind of aesthetic power, that things are capable of coming to terms with. So you can sort things out. And religion provides sort of a kind of seamless bond. It's not one section over here that you deal with outside of religion and another one over here. It's much more a seamless garment, in which the religious answers dovetail with the public answers, and with the secular answers, generally. That's a very satisfying religion, and it's the characteristic religion, I think, of many, many people throughout the world, especially persons who have gotten away from the more emotional side of religious worship, or of religious talk...You can have a Roman Catholic understanding along those very lines. You can have a Protestant of any sort understanding along those very lines. It's a way by which people practice their religion, and feel its weight. That is, I think, the religious temperature that this man has.

Now, that is also capable of proving unsatisfactory. And the two elements you mentioned earlier about his son and his sister could very well be signs that there's a religious longing in the man that might be more potent as a force to break out than a desire to be, just generally speaking, more emotional or more passionate about things. Because many people that I have known who have been rationalist religious folk do get shaken up, and don't lay aside the rationality, but let things flow that have never flowed before. So he might get, if he goes to, say, one of those black churches in Washington some day, and begins to say, "It's time for some of us white people to be members of these black congregations, see what we can learn, and see if we can't feel something about the depth of our own religion," that could shake him up.

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