With the TV off last week, due to the fierce competition between Olympic ads and the unbearable sincerity of political candidates, there was time to read an election-year exposé on Vice President Al Gore. Al Gore: A User’s Manual, by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffery St. Clair, offers a chilling perspective on the man who will most likely be the next president.
While the book has its flaws, the effect overall leaves the reader wondering where the differences between Bush the Younger and Gore the Younger exactly lie. If you totally buy Cockburn and St. Clair’s depiction, Gore is George Jr.’s evil twin, with a blind lust for power and money, and a Nixon-like need for control that makes him more likely to launch a missile at Iraq or Serbia on a particularly grumpy afternoon.
The difficulty in completely buying this unsavory vignette of Gore is the authors’ interjections of their own political opinions, coupled with a fast-and-loose way with the facts (There is no bibliography or source index with the book). Worse are some of the quantum leaps made to imply the Clinton/Gore administration’s duplicity in plotting against the citizens of our fair republic. For instance, the last chapter of the book is devoted entirely to Tipper Gore’s depression and treatment with Prozac. The authors juxtapose the sordid tale of Tipper’s mania and subsequent stumping for Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant that developed Prozac, with a generic quote from Hillary made at a summit on youth violence: “I think part of what we’ve got to do, though, is to reflect how we can both identify and get help to children who need it, whether or not they are willing to accept it.” Her words, though neither helpful nor interesting, hardly warrant the inference made by the author: “In other words, the First Lady was advocating the forced drugging of kids with Ritalin, Prozac, Luvox or kindred psychotropic drugs.” She may have been doing so, but without more information or a specific context, such conclusions can only be construed as hysterical conjecture.
Both authors indulge a kind of journalistic middle-finger of the ilk best left to Hunter S. Thompson, who was never credible with this device but at least made it hilariously entertaining. These guys (forgive the lack of clear delineation between writers, but the book doesn’t tell how the writing was divided) compromise credibility and at times lack the originality that makes lampooning public figures a viable art form.
In writing about Tipper’s efforts to have music censored in the mid-’80s, for example, the authors go way out of their way to quote from Frank Zappa’s “Ms. Pinky,” a farcical song about the pleasures of intimate contact with a Barbie-type doll. While the song is funny, this kind of adolescent editorial crotch-grabbing detracts from the eloquence of Zappa’s testimony to congress, in which Zappa righteously accused Congress of distracting the American public from the evil-doings of their work, which at the time was rewriting the tax code to benefit the rich.
Without the gonzo invective, the reality is there’s enough factual dirt on Gore in the book to give liberal voters and readers pause. St. Clair and Cockburn take care enough to collect anecdotes from other journalists and biographers of Gore and support their biggest contentions with plain facts. Just investigating Gore’s voting record as a senator is enough to lend skepticism to the claim that Gore will be the ecological savior of America: As the book points out, the League of Conservation Voters, heavily tilted in favor of Democrats, rated Gore at only 66 percent, among the bottom of Democratic senators of his day.
Other unpalatable events from Gore’s past are well-researched and evenly written about here. The racist Willie Horton tactic so cynically employed by the Bush campaign in 1988 was actually Gore’s idea, or so it would seem. (Gore threw the furlough program and the Horton case at Dukakis in a debate before the former lost the nomination by an embarrassingly large margin.) Gore advocated for the heartless and politically unnecessary Welfare Reform Act in 1996, slashed vital services in every government sector from affirmative action to the Pentagon through a Gingrich-style “reinventing government” directive, and was the complicit in the betrayal of mainstream environmental groups from pretty much the first days of his stint as vice president.
It is on this final count that Al Gore: A User’s Manual depicts the sort of devious politics it describes in the first sentence of the book: “Al Gore distills in his single person the disrepair of liberalism in America today, and almost every unalluring feature of the Democratic Party.” Beginning with a skeptical glance at Gore’s book Earth In the Balance (in which Gore lays out his green epiphanies), and then juxtaposing the contradictions inherent in courting the support of large environmental groups like the Sierra Club (to pass things like NAFTA or the Clinton Forest Plan), and ending with a deconstruction of Gore’s proposed energy plan (which features a Bush-like $68 billion in tax breaks and subsidies for petroleum and utility companies), readers may find a candidate alarming similar to another pseudo-Southern candidate running on the Republican ticket.
The pattern in which Gore exploits public interest groups and betrays their constituents is disturbingly well-established, and the authors rightfully call into question the perspicacity of green organizations endorsing Gore.
If the reader can filter out sentimentality and hyperbole, Gore’s undeniable penchant for dismissing any avowed ideology for a quick jolt of political currency can be understood from this hastily written book. Whether or not Gore is as evil a money-grubber as the authors portray him appears to be a risk voters are willing to take again.