A Political Life
By Bob Zelnick
Regnery Publishing 384pp $29.95
Vice-President Al Gore is a bundle of contradictions. In private, he can be loose and disarmingly funny. But in front of the cameras, as everyone knows, he's stiff and often painfully preachy. He built a nearly spotless reputation as an ethical "Mr. Clean," but he engaged in questionable fund-raising activities at a Buddhist temple and inside the White House. He has run for national office as a New Democrat moderate, yet he compiled a generally liberal voting record in Congress. He has been perhaps the most powerful Vice-President in history, yet many Americans seem hesitant to promote him to the top job.
This should be the stuff of first-rate political biography. And with the 2000 election nearing, publishers are rushing to get their Gore bios on the market. The first out of the gate: Regnery Publishing Inc., known for its conservatism and virulent anti-Clintonism.
Gore: A Political Life, by former ABC News correspondent Bob Zelnick, provides ample evidence to rebut the theory that the media are unadulteratedly liberal. Zelnick throws enough right jabs and right hooks at the Vice-President in the course of the book's 384 pages to make Mike Tyson proud. He calls Gore an environmental extremist, a control freak, and a child of privilege who has spent his entire life working either for the government or a newspaper. Zelnick's Gore specializes in "stiff-necked condescension" and, particularly on matters of the environment and race, resorts to "arrogant demagoguery masquerading as principle."
Tough talk. Unfortunately, the book is more opinionated than it is revealing. There are few new disclosures--the book is what is known in journalism as a "clip job." Just about every expose ever published about Gore seems to make a cameo appearance. It is difficult to tell how much independent reporting Zelnick did because he borrows quotations liberally, often without attribution. The book has no footnotes or bibliography. Occasionally, he writes that sources "told the author" something or other. One can only assume that most of Zelnick's quotes do not come from his own reporting.
While Regnery has won the publicity war by rushing Zelnick's book into print, the publisher pays a price for being first. The book contains numerous factual errors. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt is described as a onetime Speaker. Although he covets that position, he has never held it. The Gallup Poll is called "Gallop." Former Senator Harris L. Wofford of Pennsylvania is renamed "Harrison." Gore media guru Bob Squier, former Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato, Under Secretary of State Stuart E. Eizenstat, and Clinton "bimbo eruptions" specialist Betsey Wright, among others, have their names misspelled.
The heart of Zelnick's book is Gore's environmental philosophy. Zelnick rightly points out some of Gore's rhetorical excesses: his invoking the Holocaust repeatedly in discussions of environmental challenges and his likening of humankind to a "dysfunctional family" on green issues. In a harsh analysis, Zelnick compares Gore's attempts to discredit his ideological foes to the Inquisition and Stalin's reign of terror. Unfortunately, in trying to demonstrate Gore's alleged extremism, Zelnick becomes as dogmatic as he accuses Gore of being. A balanced approach would have been far more useful.
Zelnick's political analysis suffers graver flaws. There are several inexplicable bloopers that make a knowledgeable reader question the author's political savvy. In addition to Gephardt's phantom Speakership, Zelnick mixes up the dates of the critical Michigan and Illinois Democratic showdowns in 1988--something that any sophisticated analyst would know.
Even worse, he asserts that, after the electoral debacle of 1994, "many wondered whether Gore should challenge Clinton for the Presidency in 1996...." That's far-fetched. There was never a serious drive to persuade the loyal No. 2 to overthrow his boss, the President.
Despite these shortcomings, there's value in Zelnick's book. His description of Gore's childhood, Harvard University experience, military service, and work as a daily-newspaper reporter are interesting and--while usually reaching the most negative conclusion about Gore's motives--contain enough information for less biased readers to draw their own.
Zelnick also has dug up a number of past Gore utterances from his failed 1988 Presidential campaign that could come back to haunt the Democratic front-runner in 2000. Among them: Gore's description of the Veep's job as "a political dead end" and his verbal trashing of Iowa, the state that holds the nation's first Presidential caucus. Zelnick's work will be invaluable for anti-Gore "opposition researchers" in 2000.
The author is at his best when describing military subjects. Clearly, this former Pentagon correspondent and Soviet specialist knows what he's talking about when it comes to weapons and international relations. His uncharacteristically evenhanded section on Gore's support for the Persian Gulf War is particularly compelling.
At his best, Zelnick is like a woodpecker drilling away at Gore's carefully crafted reputation for moderation and integrity. Conservatives will love this book. Others might be better advised to wait for some of the later entries in the Gore bio sweepstakes.