the choice 2000

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interview: judge gilbert merritt
photo of judge gilbert merritt

Judge Merritt served as chief judge to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit in Nashville until 1998. He is a family friend of the Gores, and came to know them through Nancy, whom he met at a dance at the Castle Heights Military Academy. He speaks about Albert Sr. and Pauline Gore and Al's relationship with his parents. He also reflects on the political expectations Al's parents had for their son.
Can you paint a picture of Senior Senator Gore? What was he like?

He was a delight. He was outgoing; less reserved than she, much more inclined to operate on the basis of instinct, impulse. He had a great sense of humor. Loved to make a political speech; loved to be the center of attention. And was very straight-forward as politicians go. And I think everybody who knew him liked him.

And what was Pauline Gore like?

She was a woman who had a strong sense of duty to help her husband and children, and had a very good mind and ability to do that. And she had learned some law, and she absorbed politics after her husband got in politics. And was an extremely capable wife and help-mate to a politician. And a good mother.

How did they interact with each other?

He was a more voluble, outgoing fellow with a good sense of humor. Good storyteller, and usually a wonderful off-the-cuff speaker. And Mrs. Gore was a more thoughtful on the surface, more serious on the surface, and not quite so outgoing; and I think more thoughtful about what was going to happen in the future. He just seemed to sort of live from day to day. He was very intelligent and had a lot of courage.

But she did seem to have a lot of influence with her husband. She had real political smarts.

[There's] kind of an amusing story about that. I called him on the phone and said, "Senator, I'm interested in [running for the office of the United States District Attorney in Tennessee]," basically. And he said, "I'll be in Nashville at the end of the week. How about meeting me at the Hermitage Hotel, and we'll talk about it. I'll have a suite there." So I met him at the Hermitage Hotel...We had a conversation, and he was always very friendly and nice. But he said to me, "You know, you're so young"-- I think at that time I was maybe 28, and he was right about that. And he said, "I'm kind of looking for somebody with a little more gray in his hair, like Jared Maddox," who was the former Lieutenant Governor of the state and an old friend of Senator Gore's. And I thought-- but he said, "I'm not excluding the possibility. But you understand that I'll have to take responsibility for any mistakes that the United States Attorney makes, and I'm more subject to criticism if you're younger than most people think the United States Attorney should be."

 when he was 12, I started playing ping-pong with him one time.he's the most competitive little fellow that I ever saw.  I thought, "Well, that doesn't sound too promising."...So Senator Gore went home-- and I get this story from Nancy not long afterward-- went home and said, "Well Pauline, you'll never guess who I talked to today who wants to be United States Attorney, Buddy Merritt," which is what they called me back in that day. And she said something like, "Well, what did you say to him?" And I said, "Well I think you're probably too young. I need somebody who has a lot more experience.

And Pauline said-- and he said to her, "Don't you think he's too young?" And she said, "Albert, when you were 28 years old, what were you doing?" He thought for a minute, and he said, "You know, I had just been elected Superintendent of Schools of Smith County." And she is reported to have said, "Well, I think he knows more about being United States Attorney than you knew about being superintendent of schools when you were 28." And I think in a few days Nancy called me to tell me that story, to say that Pauline had intervened on my behalf, and she thought everything was going to be okay.


She had a good bit of influence. And she's a very intelligent woman... There's a sequel to that story. I introduced Senator Gore years and years later when he was in his 80's down in Chattanooga. He was dedicating this law library, and I thought I'd have a little fun. So I got a bunch of lawyers and judges, and I introduced him with that story. And he came up, and there was a long pause. And then he turned to me-- and he must have had 3-400 people there-- he turned to me, and he said, "Gil, you're not the only mistake I ever made, but you're the only one I can remember my wife led me into."

Which parent does Al more resemble?

Al is more like his mother, in the sense that he is more studied. He thinks first, and acts later. Kind of like his mother, and a little less inclined to act on the basis of instinct and impulse as his father. But he has many of the characteristics of his father. His sense of humor is not so public as his father, but I think, from what little I know, he has a good sense of humor, and he is very combative. I first can remember him when he was 12. I started playing ping-pong with him one time. I told Nancy, he's the most competitive little fellow that I ever saw. And I was 10 years older than he, or 12 years older than he. He is very competitive...

A lot of people I know-- some of my black friends who are for him say the same thing--you know, what's the trouble there? Why does he have this persona? What is the trouble? And I really don't know the answer to that. You can't be something other than what you are at the core. And at the core, he is a serious-minded person who at least in public does not give this loose, friendly, uncontrived, "I'm yours" impression that at least some politicians--and particularly a politician like Clinton, and to some extent his father--gave. He is as he is. And he's a hard-working, dedicated fellow. But he is not always smiling. And I think he's...more like his mother, always thinking.

Do you have a sense that the Gores had certain expectations for their children?

And I don't think that the Gore family ever encouraged their children to be ambitious, to make a lot of money. Senator Gore and Pauline both had a big public spirit about what people should do. They should serve the public interest. And that duty is paramount after family and things like that. And he probably thought, in line with that, that journalism is something where you are like a lawyer to some extent, or like the old image of lawyers, serving an interest that is beyond your own greed. And that probably was a factor.

Certainly divinity school would have been a part of that kind of thinking. I expect divinity school and journalism sort of went together. He was carrying out in a larger way the family tradition of serving the public interest, rather than just serving your own narrow monetary interest. That's all speculation.

Do you think that there would ever have been any chafing under the burden of expectation?

I'm sure that he has rebelled some in little ways as a child growing up. I don't think that he has ever deviated on any major thing, or anything that you and I would say well, he probably ought not to have done that. I think his rebellion would have been minor ways, just not always obeying his mother and father about this or about that; or running out and drinking a beer when he was 16, or something. His nature, I think, is-- not quite like Nancy's--is to do what is expected. And I don't mean by that just be conventional. But to follow goals that are held high.

Now Nancy was kind of more of a rebel. And she would have been more interested in Faulkner than politics, when she was a young girl growing up. I don't know about Al in that respect. I didn't know Al in that same way growing up, but I don't think he was as much of a rebel as Nancy. But I would think that being the child of Pauline and Albert Gore would have been a very positive experience.

Could you speculate on some of the reasons why Al Gore Jr. decides to run for president in 1988. There has been a suggestion, perhaps even by Al himself, that his father pushed him to it.

Senator Gore had great pride and hopes for his son. Back in that day, I don't think that people thought that the daughter was going to get involved in electoral politics. So he didn't-- and I don't know that Pauline did either-- think that Nancy was going to be the political leader of the next generation. But he, I think, had a great deal of hopes for Al. And I think that he really wanted Al to run for president before he got too old to watch him run. And I think maybe one reason Al ran in '88 was Senator Gore talked him into it. That's my feeling about it. . .

Al told a story that on Christmas morning his father said, "Al, let's go downstairs." I guess it was cold that morning, and his father had a big roaring fire down there in the fireplace. And his father told him that he ought to run for president. There had been some talk about it, of course, and that "now's the time"; on the theory that, I think he would have said half-seriously, "I want you to run before I die!" But I think he also said, "You never know what's going to happen in one of these things until you get your feet wet. The turtle never moves until he sticks his neck out, you know. So you've got to see what..."

Q: Jumping ahead to the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, do you think that Senator Gore and Pauline ever worried that Al might be damaging his own political future by alligning himself with Bill Clinton?

Yes, I'm sure they did. I'm sure that when Clinton got into trouble from time to time, Senator Gore was critical. Not publicly critical, but yeah. And Pauline would have been too. Pauline analyzed things up one side and down the other. Yes, I'm sure. But as you said earlier, Bill Clinton, who I met several times--two or three times when he was in Law School--his personality one-on-one is very much like Senator Gore's. They're just good people to talk to. You can say whatever you want to about their conduct in certain respects. But just to sit down, ride somewhere in a car, and talk, or have lunch or something, they're just interesting people to talk to, and very solicitous of whoever's around them, make people feel good. That's just a great politician.

So what do you think Bill Clinton has brought to Al Gore?

He's certainly brought eight years of experience, in many different ways. Both in the sheer politics, and watching [Clinton], Al's probably a better speaker having, from the wings or the back, watched President Clinton, who is very adept before the camera and before a crowd. And I'm sure he's absorbed like he absorbed from his father. I'm sure he's absorbed some things about Clinton's personality and how that occurs. He's certainly learned by being there every day, and being a diligent student, he's certainly learned a lot about political affairs, foreign affairs, etc. Just, he's an intelligent man... they appear to like each other, as many people who are opposites or not the same like each other. They have a similar interest in seeing that the country does well as they see it. And I would think he's learned a lot.

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