Eight days after solidly winning the New Hampshire Democratic primary, Vice President Al Gore glides into a classroom in a Detroit elementary school with the assurance of a man trained to put the world at ease. All his movements seem to happen at the same speed, deliberate but still smooth, apparently self-conscious but still easy. Up close, the effect is neither wooden nor robotic. He seems like a man who enjoys a hard-won sense of casualness.
Through the run-up to the primary season, Gore, 51, was in deep trouble. His campaign was a non-starter: a numbing succession of dense policy and tone-deaf politics. Everywhere he looked, the news was bad. Polls suggested that Texas Gov. George W. Bush would trounce him in the general election. If he could even get that far. In his own party, Bill Bradley, the one-time basketball star and U.S. senator who holds himself above politics, attacked Gore as the embodiment of business as usual. Gore began to look less like a candidate who could extend the alchemy of President Clinton’s extraordinary economic record and more like an underling trapped in the boss’ shadow.
Gore reacted by changing his wardrobe, moving out of Washington and trading one set of high-priced consultants for another. Reporters mostly snickered, but the strategy worked. In the days since New Hampshire voters confirmed the political viability of the new Al Gore — the engaging, easily provoked scrapper who elbowed Bill Bradley out of the way — the vice president has been a study in constant political motion, ripping across the country to sell a hopeful vision of a green, wired, equal-opportunity future in which the economy booms and the Republican party as we know it becomes obsolete.
And now, while the nation attends to Bush’s struggle for survival against Sen. John McCain, Gore has started to carry the vaunted “air of inevitability,” that state of political grace where a candidate appears comfortably ahead and studiously avoids the kind of embarrassment that invites headlines and scrutiny. Today, Gore’s schedule is packed with the kind of low-excitement events sure to flatter the faithful and keep the wolves at bay. This morning he announced a new education initiative. Later in the day he’ll speak at a union rally in Dayton, Ohio. But first he takes the time to talk to Rolling Stone, granting his first extended interview since regaining frontrunner status.
Though it is a Wednesday afternoon, Gore is dressed the way important people dress on weekends: knit shirt made of fine wool, a blue blazer and trousers of the indeterminate brownish color that middle-aged men look best in. And cowboy boots, because he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s from Washington. Our conversation is wide-ranging and substantive, covering topics from the environment to the drug laws, from his distaste for the leadership of the NRA to his favorite Bob Dylan song (“Just Like a Woman”). In conversation, Gore seems not so much an eager-to-please candidate as an earnest, thoughtful man with a pastor’s demeanor. Clearly used to being the smartest guy in the room, he’s direct, animated, friendly, a light touch with a hint of sarcasm. But then, with alarming suddenness and little warning, he’ll turn into a “politician.” When it comes time to snap a picture, the vice president is shaking your hand and beaming at the lens before you are even aware of the camera.
Gore mentions Bill Bradley only once but takes aim at the rivals for the Republican nomination — easy target Bush and the surging McCain — making it clear that he is starting to look beyond this spring’s fight for his party’s nomination and setting his sights on the November election.
What kind of music do you listen to now?
I listen to all kinds of music, and I enjoy all kinds. We are eclectic in our taste. I like rock. I like country & western. What we end up listening to as much as anything now is, we put our satellite dish on HIT LIST and listen to the selections that they have of the new Top 40 songs. Then we’ll look at the little description at the bottom of the screen, and Tipper will go out and buy the CDs of the ones that we like.
What’s the latest one you bought?
Who are your favorite artists?
Well, the Beatles are in a class by themselves … for a lot of reasons. And Bob Dylan, John Mayall, Bonnie Raitt and k.d. lang.
Is it true you memorized the lyrics to Dylan’s “Masters of War” when you were in college?
Oh, yeah. I knew virtually all of the Dylan oeuvre. I listened to every single song that he ever wrote. I think that he’s just an incredible genius. Same with Hank Williams. Williams comes from my part of the country. I think Dylan himself has always believed that Hank Williams was one of the greatest American poets. But I think the two of them are really good. I think Tracy Chapman is really good also.
Do you have a favorite period of Dylan’s — his folk stuff or his rock stuff or his later stuff?
I like it all, but I think that the addition of the new energy when he went electric on Highway 61 Revisited.
Blonde on Blonde?
Blonde on Blonde. “Just Like a Woman.”
Do you play music at the office?
Yes, but I haven’t been in the office in a year. [Sings] “She aches just like a woman… …”
What do you think the impact of popular music as a whole has been on culture and society?
[Sings] “… But she breaks just like a little girl.”
It’s a liberating force. It is a voice for the nontraditional view. An outlet for marginalized voices. It’s an avenue for new ways of seeing and understanding and hearing our world. It’s magical. It opens people up in ways that words alone do not.
Do you listen to rap music?
Well, I listen to it. But I don’t follow it in the sense that I have any expertise in it. I mean, I like Faith Evans; I guess she’s sort of on the margins of the category. In the ’98 campaign I started doing rap on the stump, including one time in the Bronx in Spanish, which was a lot of fun.
Do your kids listen to any music that you can’t stand or find objectionable?
I certainly hear pieces that I don’t particularly care for. I don’t put whole categories of music under a label like that. But there are pieces that I absolutely love. I can hear a new song and just fall in love with it right away; you just know it when you hear it. For example: This is not all that new, but Kim Richey did this song, “I’m Alright.” You ever hear that? She’s country, but you would love that song. It’s an example of a lyric and a tune that will just catch you, and that happens to me all the time — I fall in love with a piece of music. But I surely hear a lot of things I don’t particularly care for. Sometimes they’ll grow on me, though.
Let’s say you’re president and somebody walks in with the news that a 14-year-old boy has killed 12 students at his high school. When they arrest him, it turns out that he has some violent video games at home and he listens to heavy-metal music. What would your reaction be when people started blaming the murders on video games and heavy metal?
I think we have to approach the problem holistically. We need policies that make it easier for parents to balance work and home, and to spend more quality time with their children. But the one thing all these tragedies have in common is guns. I think we need to get guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. I favor, and first proposed, a photo license ID for the purchase of new handguns. I have proposed what’s called super-tracing to help track the guns.
We need more guidance counselors and psychologists. We need more mental-health treatment. I think we need to understand the importance of giving kids a sense of meaning in their lives — a conviction that their lives have purpose, that they’re connected to caring families. And communities where they can fill their lives with positive, creative activities. Now, down the list, if you’re making a list of the contributing cause, I think that vulnerable children can be influenced by an overdose of violent imagery.
Do you put it at the same relative level as the availability of guns? How would you rank the two? If you had a choice, as president, to use your powers and resources to focus on one underlying cause, guns or entertainment, what would it be?
If you gave me a choice between guns and entertainment, obviously guns are amenable to government action, whereas the content of entertainment is protected by the First Amendment. I think that self-restraint in the media is important.
The fact that the average child sees 20,000 murders on television by the time of high school graduation should give us some pause. Violence is a cheap industrial ingredient that is too frequently used as a substitute for creativity.
When you talk about self-restraint, would you want to create a set of voluntary guidelines that the industries affected would agree to submit to?
Look, I oppose censorship, period, I am opposed to the government regulating content, period. I think that the encouragement of self-restraint is an appropriate role. The V-chip is an appropriate choice to give to parents of young children. I think that labeling was a good idea. I know it’s controversial, but less now than it was when Tipper started advocating it. I think that the voluntary agreement entered into by the Internet service providers to give parents a protection page that includes one-click access to an immediate listing of what Web sites their kids have been visiting lately is a good idea. Because that’s bargaining power in the hands of parents — that’s not censorship, that’s parenting.
The first thing that happens when one of these incidents occurs is that a bunch of conservative senators stand up and blame violence in movies and music and video games. Do you think a real cause of some kid going out and massacring twelve people is that he played a violent video game?
Well, I think that there are some people who are afraid to take on the gun lobby, and they pump a lot of energy into criticizing the entertainment issue in order to compensate.
So you think it’s scapegoating?
Yes, I do, but I think that there are others who are plugged into the entertainment scene who overreact in the opposite direction and assert that it plays no role whatsoever. Now, of those 20,000 murders that an average child sees on television before graduation, most are images that fall like water off a duck’s back to no great effect. But I think some of this violent imagery falls into the minds of children who, for whatever reason, are slightly more vulnerable — not many, but some of them are. And the imitative behavior or numbness to violence that can be accentuated by that exposure I think is undeniable. I mean, the fact that the two kids who perpetrated this horror at Columbine said, “This is gonna be just like Doom” is not irrelevant to our effort to understand what’s going wrong here.
Look, we have a flood of negative attack political commercials on television every two years, and voter participation is going down. Would you say that this constant diet of negative attack ads plays no role in spurring the disillusionment with the political process? You would not. And in the same way, this ubiquitous use of progressively more gruesome violence in modern entertainment has an impact.
There’s a violent pop culture in Japan and England, all over the world……
And the one thing that stands out here is the availability of guns. American music is the dominant music of the world. American movies are the dominant movies of the world. These violent images are available in almost all countries, yet we are the one country with this incredible rate of gun violence. And it’s because of the widespread availability of guns.
How would you characterize the leadership of the NRA?
Oh, I think they’re very destructive. I haven’t been afraid to take them on. I cast the tie-breaking vote to close the gun-show loophole. They targeted me.
Do you think they behaved responsibly?
No, of course not. They’ve behaved with breathtaking irresponsibility. And I think they’re losing the confidence of many of their members and former members as a direct result.
Do you think the NRA is to blame for the fact that advanced automatic weaponry is so extraordinarily available to our kids?
Yeah. The history of our frontier and the place that guns have occupied in the American consciousness does reflect a rather persistent importance that guns have occupied in American life since the pre-Revolutionary War period. But I also think the Second Amendment is clearly misused and misinterpreted by gun advocates today.
Demographically, you are right in the middle of the Sixties generation. What do you think were the most meaningful events of the Sixties, and what lessons do you draw from the era?
The idealism of the New Frontier awakened my generation around the same time that Bob Dylan was asking in song, “How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?” And then the assassination of President Kennedy marked a dividing line between the pre-Sixties and the Sixties. The country seemed, for many of us, to begin to lose its way. The confident, successful choices associated with the post-World War II era gave way to a series of blunders and bewildering mistakes that were epitomized by the Vietnam War and also had counterparts in domestic policies.
The civil-rights movement inspired us and raised our hopes and inflamed a love of justice that we hoped would roll down like mighty waters — the biblical phrase so often quoted by Thurgood Marshall and Dr. King. And then the assassination of Dr. King and, before that, the assassination of Malcolm X and the race riots that began in Watts in ’65 shattered those hopes. Bobby Kennedy’s campaign, likewise, raised hopes that our country was about to get back on the right path, and then he was assassinated.
Are you speaking for yourself?
I’m speaking for myself, yet I am also offering my experience as a representative experience of my generation. But I can only speak with authority about my own experience, and for me the assassinations were important punctuation marks for the Sixties.
Which one would you say hit you the hardest?
Well, all of them. The assassination of President Kennedy came at the start of this roller coaster through the rest of the decade. And, as first in the sequence, it probably had the most impact, although they were all crucial. In 1968, a few months after Bobby Kennedy was killed, I was at the Democratic convention in Chicago, as I know you were. I saw the Army jeeps with film cameras mounted on tripods carefully making pictures of all of us standing on either side of the street, and it was a chilling situation.
Then when Nixon was elected, it really took the wind out of the remaining idealism that so many in my generation felt. My father was targeted as the Number One target in the 1970 election by Nixon and Agnew. After his defeat for standing on principle, on the day after Christmas 1970, I left for Vietnam. When I came back, I watched Watergate unfold. I think, in many ways, “the Sixties” ended with the Nixon helicopter lifting off from the White House lawn after he resigned, taking off for San Clemente.
How did your experiences in the Sixties shape your values today?
Commitment to civil rights and equal rights and human rights. And the ending of discrimination on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation, or disability, is a core value that comes out of my experience in the Sixties. The sense of idealism that survived and endured the decade has come back strong, not only for me but, I’m convinced, for millions of others in my generation. The insistence upon setting idealistic goals and shooting for them is something that is innately American but is also particularly shaped by the experience of those years.
What do you say to people like William Bennett who argue that the triumph of Sixties culture is responsible for all that’s wrong in society today — moral decay and so forth?
I don’t even know where to begin [laughs]. I just think that’s wrong.
You’ve now spent eight years working with President Clinton. He must be the most influential person besides your father in terms of what you’ve learned about politics.
[Softly] No, I’m not sure that’s the case.
Well, what have you learned from him about governing?
I think that his stamina in the face of the most persistent assault that I’ve ever seen a president endure is testament to a personal energy toward good governance that is really remarkable. Never giving up, and saying to yourself, “I’m gonna prevail,” is an important lesson. The level of energy devoted to an incredible range of issue and challenges is also admirable. You know — education, crime reduction, the environment, civil rights… … you can just go right down the list, and it’s such a lengthy list.
Clinton is an acknowledged political master and has such incredible command of the process. Have you picked up any lessons on being a politician from him?
Sure. I’m not sure that I can identify what I’ve learned in detail, but I think that the persistence and stamina that I talked about is probably the most striking characteristic that I take away from the experience of working with him. We’ve had a very close friendship and working partnership.
What presidents do you admire the most?
Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson.
Which ones would you most like to emulate?
I think that the moral dimension to the leadership Lincoln offered during a time of unprecedented challenge is the highest quality to be desired in a president in times of crisis. I think the steadiness and contextual genius of Washington in gracefully, seemingly effortlessly, establishing patterns that were the equivalent of perfect pitch for American democracy is a quality that is devoutly to be desired in any president. The intellectual genius of Jefferson, combined with an intuitive capacity for a startling vision of human freedom, is at the heart of what the American experience is all about. Now, the energy and drive of FDR and Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton are essential for a successful presidency in the kind of world we live in in this new century.
What do you think it says that a clearly popular president was almost brought down by a sex scandal last year? If you look back on it, what do you think we’ve learned from the whole ordeal?
I don’t know. …We learned that the president made a serious mistake that hurt a lot. Hurt him and hurt the country. But we also learned that the American people have the wisdom and the sense of perspective to completely reject the kind of disproportionate penalty that the Republicans obsessively pursued out of motives that were too revealing of political ambition.
Do you think this hurt the Republicans?
Yes, I do. I don’t know fully how. I think the opportunity cost has not been fully measured or calculated yet. I think that they spent a lot of time and energy that would have been much more fruitfully invested in trying to solve the problems that face the American people. And as a result, they are way behind the curve now, and they are still advocating an outdated agenda that has, piece by piece and as a whole, been completely rejected by the American people.
And they don’t seem to know it yet. They relied so heavily on their assumption that the American people would feel the same obsession they felt and the same revulsion. They didn’t understand the context.
They didn’t understand that the American people understand human nature — the way our founders understood human nature. When they look at the performance in office of Clinton and the successes of his economic, social and foreign policies, they place his personal mistakes on the scales and they’re outweighed by all these accomplishments and successes. Some of them have changed their views of him as a person, but not their views of him as a president and certainly not their willingness to see him removed from office as a result of a personal mistake.
You’ve talked openly — and without regret — about smoking pot when you were young. Do you think it’s appropriate that the punishment for possession or smoking or even selling small quantities of marijuana can lead to a prison sentence?
I do not favor the decriminalization of marijuana.
That’s a different issue.
The extent of the punishment is a matter that is primarily an issue of local and state law. I think that the country’s posture against drug abuse is one that ought to put more emphasis on prevention and education, but I’m not prepared to support a weakening of criminal sanctions. Federal law requires mandatory minimums.
Do you think that is the right policy?
I support the “three strikes and you’re out” approach. I think that the nature of the offenses that are calculated in the formula could usefully be reviewed to place more emphasis on violent crime.
Do you like the mandatory-minimum laws?
I have supported them. I think that drawing a hard line against marijuana use is the right thing to do. I know we disagree on that.
Yes, we do.
How about medical marijuana? Voters in seven states have supported the use of it, yet the Justice Department is prosecuting people for selling and distributing marijuana for medicinal purposes.
That’s an issue that I think ought to be decided on the basis of science and not on the basis of a political judgment.
Or even votes?
Or even votes. Absolutely. I support vigorous and well-funded research into the potential uses of marijuana or the cannabinoid components of marijuana to see if there are any uniquely beneficial medical properties. I think that a decision ought to be made on the results of such research. And pending that, I am not in favor of the medical use. My sister was prescribed marijuana cigarettes when she was going through chemotherapy in an effort to save her life from lung cancer, and that was during a time when Tennessee had legalized medicinal marijuana.
Did she use it?
Yes, and it did not work for her. Thus far, the research does not justify its use. And so I oppose it.
In terms of the economy, we’re doing great now, but people fear that so much of our prosperity is based on a big Internet bubble and that if these stocks collapse we could be in for some tough times. Is that a worry to you?
As my friend [former Treasury Secretary] Bob Rubin often says, “Markets go up, and markets go down.” The responsibility of policymakers is to make sure that we get the fundamentals right. And different analysts value the market in different ways. Will we have a correction? History says we will. Are we in a new era now? I think we are. How do those two realities interact? I don’t know.
In the 1970s we had an industrial economy, much smaller than the economy we have today. The sudden increase in the price of oil, engineered by OPEC in 1973 and then again in 1979, sent shockwaves through the economy; the sudden increase in an external price factor bumped the pattern of our economy into a new relationship between inflation and unemployment. All of a sudden we had to come to grips with a new word, stagflation, which was coined to express the prevailing surprise that we could have high unemployment and high inflation at the same time. The leading cause was this massive impact of much higher oil prices suddenly being imposed. It took years for that to cascade through the economy.
Today we have an information economy, much larger than the industrial economy of the Seventies. The price for processing information is just as important in today’s economy as the price of oil was in the industrial economy, and now there is a sudden and dramatic external price shift — but instead of the price of information going up, it’s going down. It’s being cut in half every 18 months. And that is bumping the economy into a new relationship between inflation and unemployment.
These days, the business pages are treating us to a regular diet of surprise that we can have very low unemployment — four percent right now — and low inflation. And unlike the oil shocks, this hasn’t happened twice in six years, it happens every 18 months, and it is continuing to happen.
Business organizations most effectively adapt to this new reality by getting on the Internet. Businesses are forging new relationships not only with their customers but also with their suppliers and their employees and everybody else in the market. It’s hard for businesses to raise prices now, because customers can go out there and find it from somebody else on the Internet. And if a business feels pinched in its margins, then it goes on the Internet and looks for more competitive suppliers and subcontractors. So it’s not immediately clear to me that those who are betting on the higher values of Internet stocks are automatically wrong. We are living through a historical discontinuity. And at the same time, “Markets go up, and markets go down.”
What do you think of the way George W. Bush is conducting his campaign?
Well, I’m gonna try and stay out of the Republican semifinal and concentrate on the Democratic semifinal. But I think that Governor Bush is advocating a very obsolete agenda. I mean, I also think that Senator McCain is. I think Senator Bradley is too, to a lesser extent. But, I mean, neither Bush nor McCain has the guts to say it’s inappropriate to fly the Confederate flag above a state Capitol. Neither of them sees the danger of going back to illegal, back-alley abortions. Neither of them has a view of the need to invest in public education as the key to a learning society.
What do you think it says about Bush that the day after he gets trounced in the New Hampshire primary, his next event is at Bob Jones University to receive the endorsement of Dan Quayle?
[Laughs hard] Yeah. [Laughs more] Well … …I would say that his instinct for strategic scheduling at that instant probably did not strike fear in the hearts of McCain’s campaign.
What do you think of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura? I like him; I think he’s certainly entertaining. I don’t agree with a lot of his ideas, but I think that he’s quite refreshing on a lot of other levels.
Is there a lesson to be learned in the way he connected to voters in his state?
He ran a great Internet campaign. People always want a sense of who the authentic person is that they’re dealing with: “What’s this person really like?” But I’m not an expert on his career.
One of the most interesting things in your book, Earth in the Balance, was the way you questioned whether you’d done enough to raise the issue of global warming, and yet you don’t seem to have talked about the issue very much this campaign. Will it be a central issue for you this fall?
Yes. Yes, it will be. If you look back over the debates that I’ve had with Senator Bradley, you’ll see that I have raised it in these debates numerous times. And, in fact, when protesters tried to disrupt the last debate in Iowa on the issue of global warming, I pleaded with the moderator to turn to the issue — even though those demonstrators went about it in an inappropriate way, I agree that global warming ought to be front and center in the campaign. I have brought it up numerous times. I’ve done events. The mainstream press does not like to cover the issue. It is not seen as part of the PC list of big issues.
Why do you think that is?
Well, I think that if you go out and ask the American people what’s the most important issue facing us, it’s way down on the list. I think the media are influenced by things like that. I think that the continuing opposition to a meaningful effort on global warming by a lot of people in the corporate sector has an influence on the media, too. But the attitudes are changing dramatically now. There’s been a real sea change in public attitudes as well as corporate attitudes. And I’m going to make it a big issue in this campaign.
As president, how will you go after those interest groups that are against real change?
For more than 20 years, I have carried this banner of concern about global warming, and I have tried to awaken America’s passion for solving this problem. There is a tremendous economic opportunity for the country here. I read a story in the Wall Street Journal last week about the chamber of commerce in Hong Kong issuing a report saying that the city’s economic future is threatened by pollution levels that are discouraging businesses from locating there.
Throughout the developing world, growing cities have levels of pollution that are completely beyond anything in the American experience. And throughout the world, the growing population and the rising aspirations of people are driving a desire for higher standards of living without the levels of pollution that have previously been associated with that kind of growth. New technologies, new processes, new ways of going about it represent the real key. And if we build and sell those technologies here in the United States, we’re going to ensure our dominance of the world’s 21st-century economy, just as we were the leading power in the 20th century.
What about the U.S. auto industry, which once again seems hooked on selling gas guzzlers?
Specifically, in ’93, I negotiated a partnership for a new generation of vehicles with the Big Three. Next month they are going to unveil new prototypes. GM just announced a hydrogen-fuel-cell car — it gets 108 miles per gallon. The chairman of Ford, Billy Ford, just announced that he foresees the end of the internal-combustion engine. Those aren’t my words. Those are his words. Daimler-Chrysler just bought Ballard Power Systems, the leading fuel-cell company. You’re seeing a tremendous shift in the industry from being a part of the problem to being a part of the solution.
Even so, you’re going to have to spend a lot of political capital to combat this.
And if I am entrusted with the presidency, I intend to do just that. This is one of the main reasons I’m running for president. I don’t need to be president for a sense of personal wholeness. I don’t need this to round out my personality. I want to be president in order to make the world a better place and to make our country a better place.