We joined the vice presidential motorcade on a ninety-degree September morning in Silicon Valley, where a sweating Al Gore headlined a campaign rally at a small suburban park in Sunnyvale, a marathon of hand-shaking, baby-kissing and disciplined salesmanship. A couple of hours later, we were off to Moffett Federal Airfield, an overscaled military base with runways long enough for the space shuttle to land and hangars so big, they seemed a part of some other civilization. Within minutes we were airborne, en route back to Washington.
Air Force Two bears few traces of luxury or personality. The traveling press sits in the back of the plane. There are 20 roomy seats and electrical outlets for your laptop. In a campaign as insistently on-message as Gore’s, it seems only fitting that the first meal served is a bowl of Wheaties. Once the plane hits cruising speed, the Secret Service agents –— large, calm guys (and one woman) who really do wear bad suits —– take off their jackets. When they brush by you walking down the aisle, their big, black handguns are right at eye level: a strange but somehow comforting sight. The military attache, an attractive Air Force major radiating cheerful authority in her well-pressed uniform, carries a bulky, black nylon briefcase wherever she goes: “the football,” which contains the codes for launching nuclear war.
The campaign staffers sit in the middle of the plane, in seats that face one another around tables. In contrast to the Secret Service agents, they are skinny, wired and young –— the smartest kids in your high school class. Gore’s best friend and brother-in-law, Frank Hunger, a silvery Southern gent with a handshake like old, good leather, moves easily between the staff area and Gore’s private cabin, which is at the front of the plane. It’s hard to tell exactly what Hunger does here, other than provide balance: “Everything’s just more relaxed when Uncle Frank’s around,” says one young press aide.
Two hours after liftoff, a markedly relaxed Al Gore welcomes us into his cabin at the front of the plane. The cabin is hardly lavish. It’s outfitted with a fold-out couch, a desk and a couple of swivel chairs. The pared-down informality reflects the mood of the campaign. You get the feeling that a Gore White House will be one endless casual Friday –— the kind of place where people come to work in their recreational clothes because they know that’s the closest they’ll get to actually getting out and having fun.
The vice president had been wearing cowboy boots for his public appearances. Now he’s traded them in for a pair of quilted slippers – — the type you’d buy in a sporting-goods store. Next to the couch sits a bulging Eagle Creek backpack, all straps and buckles.
Our interview begins promptly. There is little small talk or chitchat. Gore is attentive and friendly and answers our questions with a thoroughness that is almost wearying. His speech is a marvel of dependent clauses that roll down the tracks of his thoughts like fully loaded freight cars. If you interrupt him, he will hit the mental PAUSE button and, once you are done, will pick up exactly where he left off. A little less than two hours later, as the plane begins its descent into Edwards Air Force Base, Gore signals the end of the first portion of the interview by taking out his Palm Pilot and checking his email.
Gore is a man whose view of the world seems to have been as equally formed by listening to Bob Dylan songs as by reading dense policy reports. At one point, we ask him to take apart the lyrics of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” which contains his favorite Dylan line: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” When we get to the line, “But even the president of the United States must have to stand naked,” Gore smiles and interprets it for us: “The president of the United States is a human being – an ordinary person put into an extraordinary job. And sometimes that person must stand apart from all the trappings, illusions and perquisites, and all the authority, and be seen as a person – for who he or she is.” Exactly. —W.D.
What are the most fun parts of the campaign?
I’m not really a natural politician, in the sense of backslapping and constantly calculating the political import of this or that. It takes me awhile to get into a campaign; it’s as if I need a longer runway to get airborne. But once I get liftoff, I just feel a great thrill in getting up and speaking. Meeting in small groups, shaking hands, working the crowd, whatever it is. I really love it.
Was there a moment when you felt you hit your stride in this campaign?
In the primaries, it came in late August of ’99, after I came back from climbing Mount Rainier with my son. And being completely away from the race for three days and nights — concentrating basically on survival, because I’m not a very good mountain climber — cleared my mind.
And I realized: Running for president is a hell of a lot different than speaking as a vice president, where you are constantly mindful of how to push the administration’s agenda forward. I realized that I had to have a direct emotional contact between me and the American people. That may sound elementary, but it was a shift that was slow in coming. Once it came, I began to hit my stride.
After the primaries I think I hit a lull, during which my opponent tried to change a lot of his postures and positions. As a result, we didn’t do very well right in the period after Super Tuesday. But then I began to get back into my stride. And I’m not sure I can give you an exact moment the second time, but I know I began to feel it about four weeks before the convention.
Before the Democratic convention, Bush was far ahead in the polls and was looking pretty hard to beat. But after you made your acceptance speech, you vaulted right over him. What do you make of that bounce?
In this case, “bounce” is a metaphor that conceals more than it reveals. “Bounce” implies a temporary rise that, by the force of gravity, comes back down. I think that another metaphor is probably more explanatory: I think that I went into the convention with some ballast that was holding me below water. I always thought it would change at the convention.
What was the ballast?
The fact that people perceived me primarily in terms of my role as vice president. And after eight years of seeing me standing behind the president — motionless, silent — … in a quintessential second-banana role, many felt I was asking a lot of them to hear me speak in a presidential voice and to define myself as an aspirant for the number-one position. And journalists, in a good-faith effort to interpret the reality that they report every day, had a similar challenge.
All the stories about reinvention, about me changing my image, trying to be something I’m not — all of those were superficial manifestations of the deeper perception of many in the press corps: They knew me in the role of vice president, and here I was being presented to them as somebody speaking as a would-be president.
But, inevitably, at convention time, you have a unique chance to step out on your own and be seen for who you really are. And that’s why I was determined to say, as I did in the speech: “I stand here before you as my own man.” And that cut the rope tying me to the ballast — and I’ve floated toward the top. And now you see them, on the other side, desperately trying to tie ballast back to me. And it doesn’t work.
There was something special about that speech.
It was directly from my heart. I got some help on it, but I wrote it myself.
You were so plain-spoken.
That’s the way I am when I write. If you read the eulogy that I gave for my father or the speech that I made at Ebenezer Church on Martin Luther King Day a few years ago or some of the other speeches that I’ve really taken the time to write myself, you’ll hear the same voice, and the same plain-spoken approach, because that’s all I know how to do.
One other factor: The convention was preceded by my decision to ask Joe Lieberman to be my running mate. And there was a magic about that combination that is hard to describe. There was a huge release of energy that came with that, that I didn’t know would come. I knew it was the right thing to do. I just trusted my gut. I knew that there were a lot of unknowns. It was a leap off a cliff, in a sense. But I hoped there’d be a pool of clear, deep water to land in — and, sure enough, there was.
It was most comparable, really, to the excitement generated by Clinton picking you. In terms of doing something imaginative, different and from the heart.
Actually, it hit people in much the same way… . And, if we’re successful, Joe will have a similarly expansive interpretation of the true significance of my picking him [laughs].
What do you do to relax on the campaign trail?
I do interviews with journalists who can ask in-depth questions….
No, I like to watch movies; I like to exercise; I like to hang out with my family; I like to have a beer with Frank Hunger — my best friend and brother-in-law. I like to go for long walks, read books. What books have you read lately?
I read a really interesting book called Jonah: The Anatomy of the Soul, by Stephen Goldberg. It’s not for everybody. And I really liked The Marriage of Sense and Soul — Ken Wilber. It’s an examination of how to reconcile science and religion. I really enjoyed The First World War, by the military historian John Keegan.
Do you read any lighter stuff?
Sometimes. Not lately… . I like movies a lot. I watch more movies than I read books.
What’s in your top five from the past year?
Being John Malkovich; East Is East; Shall We Dance? I liked Gladiator a lot — I thought that was an excellent movie. I loved The Matrix. I loved the metaphor. Somebody gigged me in the mainstream media for not liking too much violence in the movies but simultaneously liking that movie. Well, you know, it was rated for adults. It was very violent, but it was a terrific movie. And I can hardly wait for the sequel.
Gladiator was very violent, too.
A brilliant movie. I also liked Erin Brockovich. I thought that was a fascinating movie. I also liked Three Kings. I thought both of those were under-appreciated by the reviewers. Every once in a while you’ll find a movie that gets somewhere between good and lukewarm reviews, and you see it for yourself, and it’s just a knockout. Usually it’s the opposite experience. You get all these puffy blurbs, and then you see it and you think, “Well, it’s OK, but not that good.”
I liked the one about the guy who went cross-country on a tractor to reconcile with his brother, The Straight Story. I thought that was cool.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of John Lennon’s death. In the same issue this interview will appear in, we’re asking a bunch of musicians where they were when they heard the news that he was shot. Do you remember that night?
I was at home, in Arlington, Virginia, and it was just devastating. Because it was not only the loss of a great man, it was the loss of a true genius. And I have to say that I’m sure that I’m not the only one who felt the loss of all the music that he had yet to write. The loss of any chance the Beatles would come back together and bring us a new sensibility, from the standpoint of that incredible gestalt that they had. I thought of the senseless violence in our society, and the ease with which people who obviously shouldn’t have access to guns can get them.
They’re your favorite group, right?
Oh, yeah. They had something almost impossible to describe. I went to their first concert in Washington, D.C., which was on their first tour. I remember the night they were on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” I was about 14. And the next day, something had changed. There was not only a new sound, there was something else that was new.
What are your favorite Beatles records?
I guess Rubber Soul is my favorite album. I just think that it’s an amazing album. I loved Sgt. Pepper, the White Album. Sgt. Pepper was a real tour de force. I’m not enough of a music historian to know whether this is accurate or not, but from my limited knowledge, it seemed to me to be the first time that an album had an integral quality that made it a whole piece of work from beginning to end.
Were you the type of kid who, when a record came out, you had to go down to the store and buy it that day? Oh, yeah, and then I would sit down with my headphones on and listen to it from the very first note to the very last note, several times.
Who’s your favorite Beatle?
In the last couple of weeks, both you and Gov. Bush have appeared on “Oprah.” Now David Letterman has suggested that you both go on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” How much money do you think he’ll win? How far will he get?
On that show? Oh, I have no idea. I’m not going to take that bait… . He’s already a millionaire [laughs].
You live in this climate now where everything that you do is controlled — for access, image, what you stand in front of, what you say, where you appear. It seems like a really isolated environment. How do you stay normal?
First and foremost, Tipper keeps my shoes nailed to the floor so that I don’t lose touch with gravity. She’s my bellwether. And there’s no way to live with her and not remain in close touch with what life’s really all about, because she’s got a heart with perfect pitch. Secondly, I’ve got really good friends that I hang out with and whom I call on the telephone from the road, just to touch base with and get my reality checks from.
Are most of your good friends in the political world?
No, no. They’re guys I grew up with, guys I was in Vietnam with, guys I was in the Army in Alabama with, guys I was in school with.
What do you think Ralph Nader’s candidacy is contributing, if anything, to this year’s political conversation?
Well, I think that it’s likely that most people, before the end of the campaign, will want to make a choice between the candidates that are most likely to be in contention.
But do you think his candidacy contributes anything to the dialogue? Obviously, what he has to say represents a point of view closer to yours than George Bush’s.
Whenever that subject comes up, it usually comes to my attention in the form of somebody who says that they like what they hear him saying about X or Y, but they really don’t like what he’s saying about several other things. Or I hear people say, “Well, I liked what he said about this, but I’m supporting you because I think you can really win and get something done about it.”
I also hear people say that it seems disingenuous for him to claim that it doesn’t matter who appoints the next three justices of the Supreme Court. Most people think that it does matter — because a woman’s right to choose, civil rights, disability rights, antitrust law, environmental law all hang in the balance. And the majority appointed by the next president will interpret the Constitution for the next 30 to 40 years. And the argument that it just doesn’t make any difference whether I appoint three justices, or whether Bush appoints them — with the concurrence of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson — is an argument that I think most people reject.
Have you ever met George W. Bush?
Yes, but never for more than a brief exchange: “Hi, how are you?” I saw him at one of the governors’ meetings when he came to the White House, and I saw him at an all-star game when he was a baseball owner. That’s about it.
What do you think of him?
I don’t know him well enough to have a judgment about him. And I’m leery of going on the cartoon image that I get from the news media.
What do you think of the campaign he’s running?
[Pause] I don’t know yet. Nietzsche once said, “The end of a thing is its nature.”
Is that your final answer?
Since I don’t have a lifeline, yes.
What did you actually have to do with the creation of the Internet?
In my first term in Congress — I was elected in 1976 — I began a series of meetings, under the rubric of a group called the Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, between interested members of Congress and computer scientists, geneticists, futurists and others. It became apparent that the juice was in the information revolution. Computer-processing power was doubling every year and a half, but the transmission lines for information were still based on twisted copper. The number of bits per second was static, and it wasn’t increasing; meanwhile, processing power was expanding geometrically, logarithmically, explosively.
That had particular significance for me, because, when I was 10, my father, who was the author of the Interstate Highway bill, often took me to the meetings of his committee that designed the interstate-highway system. And he often explained why it was such a major project for him. Our family used to drive back and forth, six or seven times a year, between Carthage, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C., on two-lane roads. I remember going from Carthage to Nashville at nighttime, on old Highway 70, and seeing a long line of red taillights stretching out for miles and miles and miles.
Years later, that analogy jumped out at me. Just as the proliferation of cars and trucks after World War II made the two-lane roads obsolete, the proliferation of personal computers and the growth of processing power — in the wake of the Apollo program — made the old two-lane information pathways obsolete. At least, prospectively obsolete. And in short order.
Did you imagine back then that there’d one day be a consumer use for the Internet?
Oh, yes. And I began evangelizing the idea of an information superhighway. There were a lot of others who did the work, who came up with the discoveries. And I never said I invented the Internet. But where the congressional role was concerned, I did take the lead. And I went beyond having hearings — I introduced legislation. I pushed big increases in the funding for research into how to expand the capacity of fiber-optic cable, how to develop super-computers that were more powerful, how to develop the right switches and algorithms to handle the information flow. I went to talk with people who had the early networks — like DARPAnet, which was a tiny little Defense Department network on which the first e-messaging — they didn’t have the term e-mail yet — was taking place.
I wrote a piece of legislation to establish something called NREN: the National Research Education Network. The idea behind it was to create large supercomputing centers, which didn’t exist then — research centers that had leading-edge computer capacity — and then to link them with high-volume data links as a demonstration project to show what could happen.
In doing this, I went back and studied Congress’ role in the development of the telegraph. Do you know the story of Samuel Morse? He was a portrait painter, and he was painting a portrait in the White House of President Franklin Pierce. And his wife, back in Virginia — later to be West Virginia — fell ill and, over a two-week period, died. The word did not get to him, because it had to come by horseback. Had he known, he would have been by his wife’s side. He was consumed with guilt, as well as grief, and he thought, as an artist, “What could I do to make sure that nobody else feels this pain that I feel?” And he invented the telegraph. Anyway, the government’s role was to build this demonstration line between Washington and Baltimore.
The NREN was a demonstration of what could be done. I always felt that once the capacity was demonstrated, it would grow out from the backbone, as other people wanted it. I also introduced the Super Computer Network Study Act, which created the laboratory where Marc Andreeson developed the first graphic Web browser.
Most people didn’t see the sense in this, because they had no experience with what the transmission of computerized data meant. I met with the last chairman of AT&T before it was dismantled — a guy named Charles Brown — and I tried to sell him on the idea of a project to vastly expand the information networks to handle this new computing. Mr. Brown had zero interest in this. More to the point, he had negative interest.
What about campaign-finance reform? If you actually look closely at the accusations made against you in the Buddhist-temple fund-raising controversy, they are really very technical.
First of all, I’ve acknowledged that I made a mistake by going there. Everybody knows that we need a new campaign financing system. I’m for full public financing. That has been my position for twenty-four years. When I was a young congressman from a rural district of middle Tennessee, I advocated, over and over again, full public financing of all congressional House and Senate elections.
So where are you putting that in your priority list?
The McCain-Feingold bill will be the very first bill I send to the Congress. I would prefer to tackle the larger public-finance initiative, but most of my allies in the campaign-finance-reform battle feel that the best is the enemy of the better and that it’s only realistic to try to get McCain-Feingold first. And since they’ve worked so hard on this, I bow to their judgment. But I want to follow it up.
That would make you the first president ever to advocate full public financing?
I think so, but I don’t know the answer to that.
You’re an important adviser to President Clinton. If you win the election, will you be asking him for advice?
Well, I’m certain that we’ll remain friends all our lives. And if there’s some subject where I think the country could benefit from having his advice given, then I, of course, wouldn’t hesitate to call him. Same with Jimmy Carter; same with President Ford; same with President Bush. But, you know, it would depend on the issue. He’s got a lot of plans for what he wants to do.
Did you ever think that there was a point, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment process, that you would become president ahead of schedule?
You mean, that he would have to resign? No, I never thought that. My duty was to the country. And during a time of stress involving the possibility of a change in the presidency, the absolute worst thing that I could have done would have been to pile on, or appear to be trying to aid the forces attempting to push him out of office.
This was a very complicated, nuanced situation. There was no black-and-white. What was going through your mind?
Well, my relationship with the president has basically four parts to it. Number one, he’s my friend, and the friendship is genuine. And it’s important to both of us. Number two, I was disappointed, very deeply, by what he did; condemned it; said it was indefensible. Had the same reaction that most people had. Number three, I have worked alongside Bill Clinton in winning a lot of battles on behalf of the American people. And I’m proud of our accomplishments. Number four, I’m running for president on my own.
Now, at any given time during the last couple of years, depending upon the question that was asked, the questioner might hear one or two of those four elements and not absorb all of them. Because human relationships are complex, and journalism often puts a premium on simplification. If I said, “I’m running on my own,” some would say, “Oh, he’s distancing himself from the president.” Then they would hear me say, “He’s my friend,” and they would think, “Oh, now he’s reversed course and is embracing him.” Nothing of the sort. All four elements are continuously present in the relationship. And, yet, the fact that everything about that was charged with 10,000 volts, and whoever touched it got a zap from it, made it very difficult to deal with. For anybody, much less somebody in my position.
You’ve been described as the most influential vice president in American history. In what areas do you think you made a difference?
I defined my role as vice president in a very simple way: I wanted to serve my country by doing whatever I could to help Bill Clinton be the best president he could possibly be. And that meant doing different things at different times. It meant giving him advice on how to approach the job personally; it meant being a sounding board for him on every important decision that he made; it meant strengthening his hand in meetings, where we’d do a good cop-bad cop routine. Like with Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey and Trent Lott. Or with foreign leaders.
It also meant taking special responsibility for certain issue areas where he asked me to play the lead role. And among those I would cite environmental policy, science and technology policy, information policy, Russia policy, Ukraine policy, Egypt policy, South Africa policy, reinventing government, the community-empowerment board, crime prevention, space policy… . What am I leaving out? Oh, the Caspian Oil Pipeline, the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996, empowerment zones.
Of all those things, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
Getting an agreement at Kyoto, Japan, on global warming — which provides the foundation for bold action in the years ahead. Casting the tie-breaking vote on the new economic plan, which reversed course on economic policy and helped to produce the prosperity we have. Reducing the size of the federal work force by 360,000 people — more than ever in history — through the reinventing-government program and beginning the process of real reform in government.
You hear this phrase “reinventing government” a lot. What exactly does it mean, and why is it so important?
Government is, in many ways, the last institution in our society to undergo the kind of change that corporations and nonprofits have gone through. The new techniques of the information age — the management revolution, human relations — have barely scratched the surface in the way government operates. I want to move most government services onto the World Wide Web. I want people to be able to contact any service provided by the U.S. government and come away from the experience thinking: “Wow, that was really good.” And, you know, we can do that. It sounds far-fetched, but it’s really not. It can be done.
For eight years I’ve led this reinventing-government effort, and I know where the rats in the barn are. I know where the bodies are buried. Let me use a different metaphor: I know where the bureaucratic waste is. And my biggest allies have been federal employees, who are sick to death of it. You know, the men and women in the lower ranks of federal employees can give you a Ph.D. in an afternoon on how to shake up and transform this government.
What do you think you’ve learned about yourself during the last eight years?
I’ve learned a lot about the decision-making process — when the stakes are high and the pressure’s on. One of the biggest surprises for me was a mundane recognition that might seem obvious: The decisions that make it to the Oval Office are the ones that haven’t been picked off by somebody down the ladder, the ones that nobody else can figure out how to resolve — so they’re all tough.
The second realization was — and this is hard to describe, until you see it — the tough decisions actually come in clusters, in squadrons, in flotillas. And it’s uncanny.
Normally in your life, if you’ve got a real bet-the-farm decision, you work through it. You take your time. You gather all the facts, and you finally get to the result you think is right. And then you feel a sense of relief. You kick back and relax a little bit.
Not in the Oval Office. Because, usually, when you get to that point, and you’ve made the decision, there are a couple more circling the office, waiting to land on the desk. And it’s one right after another. You can have a huge foreign-policy crisis, and, right in the middle of it, two domestic-policy crises break down the door on their way in. And you’re dealing with them all simultaneously. It’s hard to describe.
But, having been through it for eight years now, I recognize the pattern. And making decisions of that kind is a little bit like working out with a Nautilus machine. When you start, you get sore. But if you keep it up on a regular basis, you build up your muscles. I think there’s the equivalent of decision-making muscles, and they get stronger the more you use them.
Speaking of tough decisions, one of the first things to cross the next president’s desk will be the National Missile Defense program, which has now been specifically deferred to the next administration. Here’s where we’re at with the program: The first tests of the technology have failed; the scientific community says it’s unfeasible; and if we go ahead with the program, it will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, with no assurances that it will ever work. Are you going to put an end to this nonsense?
If I’m entrusted with the presidency, I’m going to proceed with the testing program, to evaluate the limited defensive system that has thus far not passed the test. At the same time, I will attempt to convince our allies of why we should be concerned about the possibility of a rogue state, like North Korea or Iran or Iraq, acquiring a small arsenal of ICBMs with nuclear warheads — and why it’s in our interest, if that occurs, to be able to protect the country against the blackmail that would accompany possession of such an arsenal. And, simultaneously, I’d work with Russia and China to explain to them why they need not fear this. And, indeed, to invite them to participate.
Which way would you like to see it go?
I’d like to see arms control work, but not with any illusions. It’s not impossible that the diplomatic and political developments now underway in North Korea and in Iran could lead to a different sort of solution to the problem. But if these nations developed nuclear arsenals, and if this system is proved to work, objections on the part of the Russians will not be a sufficient reason for me not to approve it.
What’s your opinion of Russian President Vladimir Putin? How do you feel it’s likely to go with him?
The jury is still out. I first met him when he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. He’s obviously a smart man; he’s obviously a good politician. His deepest heart on reform is not yet fully decipherable. I’m troubled by the actions he’s taken against the free press in Moscow. Other steps he’s taken are cause for good feelings. So the record, so far, is mixed. The very fact that he has the confidence of the Russian people is itself a good and stabilizing development, and there’s no question that the Russian economy is beginning to improve significantly — and thereby give people more of a stake in continuing and accelerating the reform process.
What does he need to do right away?
You really cannot have a successful economy in the information age with repression of free speech. There are different models around the world, and some appear to work for a short period of time. But only the coupling of political and economic freedom will provide sustained prosperity and freedom over an extended period.
What about Africa? The whole continent seems to be in deep trouble — AIDS, civil war, poverty. How are we going to help those countries?
With trade, and aid, and intensive involvement. The future of the world depends, more than many realize, on the healing of Africa’s place in the world. It’s the big missing piece. Just as the emergence of Latin America over the last few decades resulted in the fastest-growing markets for the U.S. economy, so the emergence of Africa in the next decade can lift the world economy to new heights. The potential is vast, but the problems are daunting. We have to avoid what is called “Afro-pessimism.” Because for every horror story — and there are lots of ’em — there are also less prominent success stories.
One of them is Nigeria, the largest country on the continent. We saw the transformation of South Africa. With Olusegun Obasanjo’s government in Nigeria, we now have the possibility of an emerging-market democracy in the heart of the continent. We have seen a success story in Uganda against the AIDS epidemic, which may be replicated elsewhere. We have staved off the famine in the horn of Africa this year — largely with U.S. aid. We’re seeing some progress elsewhere.
Now, the problem areas are Congo-Kinshasa — where the civil war has mutated into eight or nine simultaneous subregional civil wars. The movement toward stability in the Great Lakes region is proceeding very slowly, with Burundi making some progress in the wake of the Clinton-Mandela intervention. Rwanda’s President Paul Kugame is beginning to play a more constructive role. Yoweri Museveni is pledging cooperation in Uganda. We’re seeing some improvement in the cross-border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Congo-Brazzaville, the other Congo, is emerging from its domestic strife.
The problems are so deep. How much money will it cost the United States to set things right in Africa?
We should pursue multilateral debt relief, but trade will ultimately play a larger role than aid. It’s not just a question of money. It’s also a question of institutions. They have to get the basics right. There has to be rule of law. There has to be a capacity to put legal and accounting systems in place, reform of markets.
Again, I’m an optimist on Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is going to emerge, in this decade and the next, to move toward full partnership in the global economy.
How do we shape our relationship with China?
China is one of the keys to the future of our world. It has such a large population and such a large economy and such a deep and broad pool of talented people. It’s going to be a force in every sphere.
Opening the world market to China’s participation on fair terms is an important first step. One of the most important features of the trade normalization agreement that was just reached has to do with the Internet. The openness of the Internet will lead to a very profound social and political transformation in China.
There are now regular demonstrations taking place in China, over social and political injustices, that never happened before. The Fulan Gong phenomenon is one of several movements — it’s the biggest and most prominent — that would not have been possible without people feeling a degree of freedom to associate, even when they’re persecuted. There have been more than 10,000 village elections in China — most of them free, according to the Carter Center. They have postponed the planned step to take it up from the village level to the equivalent of our country level, but that’s probably coming.
Do you know this much about everything?
Well, I’ve been lucky in what you’ve asked me about…. I’ll tell you, one of the things that has been a great learning experience for me as vice president is that I spend at least a half an hour every single morning reading through the intelligence briefings from around the world that are organized for me by the CIA. And it’s like anything else. If you do it every single day, you end up learning something.
How do we handle the ongoing tensions with the Chinese government?
Well, we have to keep perfect pitch where the Beijing-Taipei relationship is concerned. We have to be true to our core values and continue insisting, strongly, that human rights and religious and political freedoms be respected. We have to continue working with them on the full range of issues in the bilateral relationship and wait for the democratizing aspects of free markets — and the liberating influences of the Internet — to work.
I co-chair a binational commission with Zhu Rongji — who’s the prime minister of China — on the environment and sustainable development. I went over there, to the Great Hall of the People, and gave them a long presentation on global warming. People who know me and who know how obsessed I am with trying to confront this issue — and have seen me give my presentation to anyone who’ll sit for it — will not be surprised to know I gave it there.
They were very polite and listened to it. I found that there were incredibly smart scientists there who knew the straight story on global warming and are trying to convince others in China to wake up and do something about it. They have a huge crisis with water in China, and, under Zhu Rongji, they are beginning to take on problems of pollution in a very serious way. And they have a massive reforestation program that will soon be the largest in the world.
What’s your take on Colombia? To some enormous degree, the country is controlled by drug traffickers. It is torn by civil war and seems to be falling apart before our eyes. And now, the Clinton administration has just announced that we will be sending them $1.5 billion in military aid. Are we going to have to send in troops?
Well, Colombians themselves will decide the future of Colombia. But we are actively helping the freely elected government, chosen by the people of Colombia, in its effort to deal with narco-terrorism and control the excesses on both sides.
A lot of people are drawing analogies to Vietnam.
I think it’s a false analogy. We have a chance to help the good guys prevail. You know, Mark Twain once wrote, “A cat burned on a hot stove won’t sit on a hot stove again — but he won’t sit on a cold one, either.”
[At this point, we land at Edwards Air Force Base, outside Washington, D.C. The vice president offers to continue the interview aboard Marine One, the famous helicopter often seen taking off from and landing on the White House lawn, that will take him back into Washington, D.C. There is a short delay while he changes into a tuxedo. A few minutes later we are airborne again. Gore’s entourage has been severely whittled down by now. The press corps and most of the campaign staff have been loaded into vans. We are accompanied by two Secret Service agents; an aide who briefs him on his next appearance — a speech before the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; and the ever-present military attache carrying the football. Hanging on the wall is a framed eight-by-ten glossy of Bill Clinton. Once aboard, Gore directs me to his seat, which is located in the center of the cabin, by the biggest window.]
You said earlier that helping to draft the Kyoto Accords was your proudest accomplishment as vice president. And yet the Senate will not even debate the treaty, let alone ratify it. Why not?
Well, if it was debated now, the debate would lead quickly to a vote.
And it would be defeated?
Right. There wouldn’t be enough votes to justify bringing it up. But public opinion is going to change that. I mean, last month we got a new study showing that within fifty years, the North Pole is going to be completely melted in the summertime. And the effect this has on climate change is just staggering. While some of the precise impacts are beyond the powers of supercomputers to predict, there’s simply no question about the fact that the changes are extremely harmful and costly.
But that doesn’t get the Senate to start debating the Kyoto treaty.
When the people of this country hear Mother Nature knocking on the door more insistently each year, at some point very soon we’re going to cross a threshold beyond which they start demanding that the Senate act, and that the entire Congress act.
If you are president, will the treaty come up for debate? Will you use the power you have to force the passage of this treaty?
Yes. But it’s going to be a race for public opinion. Because the only way the Senate’s going to turn around is with a big change in public opinion. And I want to focus that opinion.
Are you prepared to get up there and lead the charge?
Oh, yes, of course.
You’re prepared to go up there and twist these Senators’ arms?
Of course. Of course. That’s one of the main reasons I’m running for president. [The vice president interrupts himself, signaling that this portion of the interview is over. There are sights to take in — in this case, the stunning, floodlit grandeur of the capital city at night. Gore points to the Washington Monument, which, until recently, had been wrapped in scaffolding while undergoing an extensive renovation.]
Is it more luminescent since the overhaul?
A little bit…. Some people are kinda sorry to see the scaffolding taken down.
I liked the scaffolding. It was like Christo — you know, the guy that wraps things? I’m a fan of his work.
Oh, me, too! Me, too! He’s one of my favorite artists. He’s just fabulous. We know him and his wife, and she’s an integral part of his…. I took a project, an idea, to him. I found out, unfortunately, that he does not take any ideas from anyone else. You know, there’s some artists who have a special relationship with a muse that — I mean, they’re monogamous with the muse. [Laughter] They will not allow anybody else to contribute an idea. And he’s that way.
But here’s my idea, just so you’ll know it. You’ve been to Moscow?
You know those seven huge buildings that are all identical, that Stalin built? One’s a hotel, one’s the foreign ministry. It looks like a wedding-cake building. Pay attention the next time you’re there to this particular style. There are seven of them. Stalin liked the first one so much, he told them to build six more just like it. And they dominate the landscape in Moscow.
Well, I thought it would be a cool idea, if Christo could raise the money — easy for me to say. But I thought it would be a cool idea to drape all seven of them in a different pastel color. Just as a revolutionary act. [A few minutes later, we land by the Reflecting Pool just south of the White House, and Gore speeds off in his motorcade to his back aboard Air Force Two, this time en route from Andrews Air Force Base to Chicago. It’s a Saturday afternoon and altogether more relaxed.]
What was going to Vietnam like? You had been against the war but volunteered anyway. It must have been pretty wild to go there as a twenty-two-year-old.
Yeah, it was. I was based about forty-five minutes away from Saigon, and I spent most of my time traveling in the country. My orders allowed me to hitchhike on any helicopter or fixed-wing plane that had an empty seat. I went over there as an opponent of the war, but in retrospect, it’s now obvious that both the pro-war and anti-war opinions were wrong in many respects. Those of us against the war were wrong in believing that the Viet Cong were this indigenous revolutionary force trying to rid the country of foreign domination. They were a complete tool of the North Vietnam army the entire time. But the pro-war types were wrong in failing to see the extent to which anti-colonialism was really a very big part of the reason for the sentiment in the North and among those in the South who sympathized.
How did your time there change you, personally?
Oh, I grew up a lot. I lump it together a lot with my two years in the Army. I had what was, in many ways, a privileged upbringing. And as an enlisted man, I was thrown in with kids from every conceivable background. For many generations, our country had the benefit of the homogenizing, democratizing force known as Universal Military Service — the draft. And, you know, though the volunteer Army is a success, I think we lost something with that.
I did not see combat. And I didn’t do the most, or run the greatest risk, and I don’t want to leave that impression. But there is, nevertheless, a vividness in a war zone that is unlike anything else that you experience. You’re constantly aware of a certain background level of danger that’s, in some ways, intoxicating.
I was like a lot of guys in that when I came back from Vietnam, I had this pull to go back over there. It’s hard to explain. But if you talk to Vietnam veterans, you’ll find this as a recurring theme. You come back home, and life is not as vivid. And maybe for that reason — maybe because it was an unfinished experience. You know, you get in a war, you want to win a war. I mean, not that I had a bayonet in my teeth — I certainly did not. But I found it quite a growth experience.
You wrote “Earth in the Balance” nearly ten years ago now. It has to be the most thoughtful, well-researched book ever written by someone running for national office. And, in many ways, very radical. Has anything happened since you became vice president that has changed your views?
I stand behind it all. But I have to admit that I made a mistake in saying that we should transition out of the internal-combustion engine over a twenty-five-year period. We should do it much sooner than that [laughs]. And that’s really the only change. You know, the science in the book has held up extremely well. They haven’t really challenged, successfully challenged, any of the assertions or findings.
Tree reforestation has come under scrutiny as being not as successful a program as scientists once thought —
There are always these little tweaks. It’s not —
I was just trying to show a little knowledge there —
What that study showed was that it’s not as good as keeping the old forest. It still helps to sequester carbon. Do you know about my satellite?
No, go ahead.
You remember the first picture you saw of the Earth from space? That had a huge impact, right? That picture was taken on December 11th, 1972, and it is the most published photograph in history. It’s also the last picture of the Earth taken from space. If you see a picture of the Earth — in a newspaper or a magazine or an advertisement — it is that picture. I’ve got it blown up, massive size, on my office wall in the White House.
How can we get another one of those? I mean, how come we don’t have more? Well, that was taken by the last Apollo flight. The orbiting satellites we have now are not far enough from the surface to get that perspective. They only see a part of the surface. That picture is so rare, because it’s one of the few where the sun was directly behind the spacecraft, so the Earth is fully lit.
So I’m thinking, “How do we get more stuff like that?” And I did a little research, and I thought about it. And I actually had a dream one night and woke up in the middle of the night. My staff says never to talk about this, because it sounds … it sounds a little … Rod Serling. But I woke up at two o’clock in the morning. And I got on the Internet and went to a couple of sites and figured out how to do this.
The next morning, I called Dan Golden, who heads NASA, and went through it with them. There is a point in space, a little under a million miles away from the Earth — between the Earth and the sun — called the L-1 point, where the gravitational pull of the Earth and the gravitational pull of the sun are exactly equal.
And you put a satellite out there, and it stays there, between the Earth and the sun. And when the Earth goes around the sun, the satellite stays in between them. So it always is looking at the Earth, and the Earth is fully lit.
So what our country’s going to do — the launch is scheduled for January — is put a little satellite on the space shuttle, put it into orbit — and then, with a little motor, putter out a million miles. Put a ten-inch telescopic lens on a color-television camera. Turn that sucker around and we’ll have twenty-four-hour live color-television pictures of the Earth available on the Internet, worldwide, on any cable TV or TV outlet that wants to use ’em. If you want it as a screen saver on your desktop, you can have it. And it’ll measure the net energy balance, gain and loss, for the first time. It’ll have an instrument on the back end — this was not my idea, but it’s a damn good one — to serve as an early-warning of solar flares … solar storms that disrupt communications. And it’ll give a constant view.
In the same way that the first photo created a revolution in thought, this will make it easier to focus our collective attention on what the hell’s going on here.
One of things you talked about in the book was calling annual meetings with world leaders — like the G-7 meetings — to coordinate worldwide global-warming strategy. Is this something you plan to do near the beginning of your administration?
When I went to Kyoto, we got a breakthrough agreement. We got sidetracked after that on the Senate, but let me come back to the agreement. That agreement initiated a round of regular global meetings on global warming. They’re at the subministerial and ministerial level, but there are regular meetings. The next one is going to be in November, I believe. And the run-up to it is going to coincide with the election this fall. There were some who wanted to postpone that until later so it wouldn’t get mixed up with our election process. But I argued we should just go straight ahead. We can’t waste a day on this.
The point of it is, there are already regular global meetings set up. And there are other regular head-of-state global meetings at which global warming can be added to the agenda. I will certainly insist on bringing it up at the global meetings of heads of state at every opportunity.
So why wouldn’t you use your status as the most important leader in the world to focus, again, the attention of the heads of state in a plenipotentiary meeting on this issue?
I don’t rule that out. It’s just that I’ve learned enough to know that process matters. And when countries come to the table to discuss an important subject, they make more progress if their relevant scientists and bureaucrats have gone through a process to prepare.
Not to drive this into the ground, but would you contemplate such a thing as calling for a regular cycle of global warming summits, like the G-7 meetings?
I don’t rule it out. You know, if I thought that would be the best way to do it, I’d have no hesitation whatsoever.
On the internal-combustion engine: You seem pretty motivated to get rid of it. What will it take to get the American car manufacturers to go along with this?
Oh, listen — they’re ahead of the curve.
Well, what about the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, in which the federal government gave the Big Three automakers a couple billion dollars to develop a next-generation, fuel-efficient car? What the designers came up with was something technologically impressive — a diesel-hybrid engine — that has no chance of ever being a viable car that Detroit will be able to market.
Let me give you my perspective on it, OK? One of the first meetings I had after the election in ’92 was with the Big Three. And they came in and argued for a massive tax on gasoline. Does that surprise you? It surprised me a little bit, too. But it doesn’t anymore, because I know much more about how they think and where their heads are really at. There are a lot of good people in these companies. You oughta sit down with Billy Ford, or Harry Pierce at GM, or some of the others. It would really surprise you. They are anxious to build the cars of the future and sell them here and around the world. They face some real-world practical challenges.
I sat down and personally negotiated the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles — in a series of meetings with the Big Three in my office in the White House, at my home and in Detroit. And we set a goal. It was hard to get them to agree, but they finally did. And the goal was a car with the same comfort, the same affordability, the same market attractiveness — but a three-times increase in fuel efficiency.
They signed onto a goal that they had no idea how to reach. The diesel, and the hybrid that you referred to earlier, is an interim step. The step beyond that is fuel-cell cars. The waste stream, instead of being pollution, is water — clean water. And we’re really close to that.
Do you have a timetable in mind?
The first fuel-cell bus will be sold to run on the streets of America next year. There are fuel-cell vehicles that will be sold within the next few years.
That are going to be cars that people will actually want to drive?
Yes. But, but — here’s the but. When you’re doing something new and you’re making them in very small lots, the per-unit cost is higher. One of the keystones of my program is to have sizable tax credits to even out the cost. So that if you want to buy a fuel-cell car, you’ll get a large tax credit that will make the cost of that car equal to what it would be if you bought one of the old kind. And then, as the demand increases and they build more of them, the price comes down.
But it goes beyond cars and trucks and buses. We’ve got to completely redo the old dirty power plants, and the boilers and the furnaces. I announced a massive program, in the midst of the campaign, to do this. And the utility industry came out, many of them, and endorsed it. Because they see the handwriting on the wall.
How far along would you like to be, in terms of percentage, in eliminating internal-combustion engines in the next four years?
Oh, it would be foolish to give a percentage. Change like this is not a linear change. You get to a threshold — you reach a so-called tipping point — and then you see dramatic change. You know, look at the Internet. When we went into the White House, there were fifty sites on the World Wide Web — five zero. Now millions upon millions — and the amount that it increases every day is incredible.
Now, if you had asked me in 1992, “By the end of your eight years as vice president, what percentage penetration in American homes for the Internet would you like to have?” You would have thought I was crazy if I gave you the number that it actually turned out to be. But we have a chance to do that and more with fuel cells, and with new technologies, to save energy and reduce pollution.
And you think the car companies will do this voluntarily — with some tax subsidies? How tough are you prepared to get if the automakers don’t get in line?
Well, we have laws that require the reduction of emissions. You know, when you say voluntary — you know, it’s not an either/or proposition. If you’re positing the choice of passing a law requiring that cars be made a particular way, that’s not going to happen. The better way to approach it is to find the momentum of the market forces and use them to our advantage. In a free society, there’s a limit to the use of command-and-control mechanisms. Right now, partly because of the PNGV program, there is a massive cutthroat competition in the world auto market to develop fuel-cell cars. And they’re all going up to this little company in Vancouver, Ballard Systems. GM’s got its own indigenous development. The Japanese are coming in with their version. All over the developing world, there are crowded megacities with pollution levels far in excess of anything we have in the United States, with the possible exception of Texas — I’m kidding on the last remark. But in all of those cities, their leaders are experiencing demands for higher standards of living from people who are watching global television — and seeing the higher standards of living in the U.S. and Europe. And at the same time, their pollution overburden is a serious health crisis. So the market for new kinds of cars and trucks and furnaces and power plants is enormous! It’s expected to be, like, $10 trillion in the early part of this new century — if somebody can come up with a better mousetrap. And if we give incentives to develop those technologies here, then the market incentives and the competition to reach those markets, are going to take over after that.
Would you elevate something like this to NASA-type status?
Let me ask you to fast-forward to 2008. Your administration is ending. What do you hope you will have accomplished, and set in motion, by that time? What will be the big things that you’ll like to have done
Well, I would hope to see — I mean, first of all, my hubris alarm goes off when I get a question like that, and I want to couch my answer in all the appropriate qualifiers. But if I’m privileged to serve the American people as president, I would hope, at the end of my time — however many years — that I would have been able to … see this country lead the world to embark on the path of solving this problem of global warming. I would hope to bring about truly revolutionary improvements in our public school system. I would hope to revolutionize the way our self-government operates, by cutting out as much of the nonsense as possible.
I’d want to see no American dying from colon cancer, lung cancer or prostate cancer, and I’d want to see a sharp drop in mortality from other cancers. I’d want to see a cure for diabetes and HIV-AIDS. I want to use the human genome, and the attendant revolution in genetics, to bring about the same kind of transformation in health care that we’ve seen in the information sciences.
What do you think are the differences in the types of the challenges young people face today, compared to when you were young?
The cloud thrown by Vietnam was different from anything they’ve got right now. The period of disillusionment that began with the assassinations and continued through Vietnam and Watergate, and Nixon, really has, in some ways, continued up until today. I don’t think we’ve had a long enough period of uninterrupted healing to restore the natural buoyancy in the body politic.
Voter turnouts continue to decline. One of the challenges I am most eager to undertake is trying to change that. These kids today are more involved with charities and community service and social activism than we were. Our generation thinks of itself as unique in that regard.
The difference is, it hasn’t yet translated into the kind of political involvement that we got into. And I hope that’s changing. But I think that the level of cynicism about government has remained pretty high. It’s improved a bit in the last several years. It hit its peak probably in ’90, ’91, ’92 — and now it’s started to come back a little bit.
How can government reconnect with youth?
By just shooting straight — and really trusting people with the unvarnished truth. Even if it’s hard to hear. And if I have the chance, I plan to give it to ’em.