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Don’t let ’em kid ya.
By Tim Findley

Too much gets made of it maybe, but it’s still true that most of us with family ties in the really rural West can’t be said to be real hands when it comes to understanding and working national politics these days. Unless you somehow want to count Ronald Reagan, we still haven’t produced any politician with enough standing in Washington, D.C., to get us much beyond a mention at the White House prayer breakfast.

We don’t contribute enough money or produce enough votes even to hold sufficient influence over our own senators and congresspeople, who sometimes seem actually to enjoy patronizing us like we were naive children while they carry out bold and stupid new acts to impress the environmentalists and social reformers living in the suburbs. We hunker down with whatever we’ve got left and do the best we can to see that we won’t be losing more of it at the hands of some fool who thinks the polls can better tell him what to do than can his own half-forgotten conscience. Maybe we’re just too simple, or too honest, or just too plain country to hope for better.

It wasn’t always that way, of course. Back when the nation was new and the country was in freshly-opened western territories like Kentucky and Tennessee, veterans of the Revolutionary War were rewarded with parcels of land in the new frontier, giving them opportunity and hope, and over time, not a small amount of influence on the way our democratic republic did its business. That was how Al Gore Jr.’s ancestors first settled in the middle of Tennessee near a place called Possum Hollow. The land wasn’t the best available then–or now. It was full of hills and gullies and small streams too shallow for canoes. But it served its purpose for the small farmers who planted truck crops and tobacco.

Granted, the Gore family got its start in agriculture nearly a century before when many of us in the “real” West can say our family trees got planted, but there are at least a couple of other differences that gave them an advantage. The Gores’ land was fee-simple. It didn’t have to rely on keeping good relations with federal public wilderness around it. If the streams were small, they were still plentiful. And the “culture” of Tennessee that evolved from that tended to make for cooperative agreements when it came to markets in the nearby east.

Vice President Al Gore can say, as he often has, that his family was never rich, but it can also be said that the family would have to trace back several generations to claim any real experience at being poor. The Vice President, in fact, sometimes has a little difficulty in recounting himself as a Tennessean. He was raised in a hotel suite in Washington, as most people know. Bob Zelnick in his book “Gore: A Political Life” cracks that Al Jr. in his years at prep school and Harvard took “Southern” as a foreign language.

You could put aside the Civil War with a mention that Gore’s ancestors, like most landed southerners, fought on behalf of the Confederacy. The VP can’t be proud enough of that not to grandstand about removing the stars and bars from public places in the new south, and he is always quick to point out that his family never owned slaves. But neither did most of the other small farmers in the neighborhood of Possum Hollow.

For that much anyway, Al Gore Jr. can hold intact his self-professed image as a southern liberal with agrarian roots. If you translated that into terms of our “real” West today, it seems like Gore ought to be able to fit right in, after a little practice at wearing a Stetson and somehow losing that eye-bulb look he has like a dude watching the bull break through the fence. It’s been said before that the Vice President seems to have all the personality of someone recently smacked with a two-by-four, or maybe of the two-by-four itself, but then others say he’s just very thoughtful.

Beyond that, if we need to find some candidate that can sort of reflect our own values and experience, Al Gore can reach into his kit of family background and come up with some surprising nuggets. The family made money at tobacco, of course, and that was just good sense farming of the kind we can understand. But the real money in Gore’s own immediate family didn’t come from the “fixin’s” exactly, it came, surprisingly, from cattle.

His father, Al Gore Sr., rose, as most folks know, out of those modest Possum Hollow surroundings to build an impressive political career of his own, starting from Superintendant of Smith County Schools, to the State Commissioner of Labor, to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and on to the U.S. Senate, where he served for nearly 20 years in an ever-more influential position as the “Gentleman from Tennessee.”

Now, we in the “real” West have certainly had our share of long-term and influential U.S. senators born and raised, as most claim anyway, in humble beginnings. But even Texas might be pressed to find a politician of their own who had better success with cattle after getting elected.

To understand that, we have to shuck some of that crude innocence folks are always accusing us of, and accept what now seems an undeniable fact that what we thought of as honest diplomacy and sincere democratic ideals even in the 1950s and 1960s was sometimes based on evil deceit and bottom-line treason posing as successful politics.

The richly-valued herd of Aberdeen-Angus cattle that really made Al Gore’s family rich was built from bulls and heifers supplied from the breeding stock of one of the world’s richest, and perhaps most sinister men, Armand Hammer, the only capitalist ever awarded the Order of Lenin. Hammer wasn’t a spy in the James Bond sense. Indeed, during his most active period of shuttling between Washington and Moscow in the 1950s and ’60s, he was a very public, if curiously-motivated American entrepreneur. It would only be years later, and still disputed by some today, that records revealed Hammer to have been not just a spy, but a spy master, who infiltrated the most powerful elements of the American political establishment and put in place an espionage network in the United States and Europe on behalf of his real leaders and bosses in the Soviet Union.

Hammer’s “cover,” or maybe just Hammer’s own cynical greed, was that he got richer and richer by doing it, peeling a personal wealth from both sides and knowing how to distribute portions of it to maintain his influence. Zelnick reports that the FBI was on to him from the 1940s, but by then Hammer had worked his way into the protective trust of the Roosevelt administration. After FDR, Hammer held on to his influence with close contacts in the Democrat power base of the United States government. Among his three most reliable political friends was Senator Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee.

If that just made Gore a good cattle producer, then maybe those of us out “here” could even understand that, but the truth was that buying political favors, regardless of their real cost, seemed to be a learned lesson. None of the Gores’ neighbors in Tennessee, not even one who would ultimately recommend Al Gore Jr. to Bill Clinton, could ever understand why the Gores got such higher prices for their cattle from an impressive assortment of investors that included even Joe Dimaggio. Politicians, celebrities, representatives of business interests, came from all over the country to pay premium prices for the Gore breed.

Al Jr., of course, couldn’t be expected to have known anything about that. He was busy schooling himself, as one observer put it, “preparing to run for President since the eighth grade.” He started just as his father had, although skipping the local office steps to win a race for Congress in 1976.

Al Gore Sr. had entered the political game in 1938 with the help of a fiddle he liked to haul out and play now and then on the campaign trail. The family story goes that the Senator’s more sophisticated wife, Pauline LaFon, always frowned on that, and that by the time their son was ready for political office, both the Senator and Al Jr. had been thoroughly refined in what was amusing and what was not. Never an outstanding student, Jr. usually took the safest route and waited for his mother to smile first. She almost never did.

His father had finally lost an election in 1970, ending an impressive career as a moderate southern Democrat with close ties to such as Kennedy and Johnson, but with a clear voting record against the Civil Rights Act. Not really crushed by his election defeat, Al Sr. quickly found his place in private industry, as vice president of Occidental Oil Company, the international mega-firm owned and controlled by Armand Hammer. Occidental, incidentally, made multi-millions in dealings with Libya, but diminished in its status after discovery of the company’s role in the pollution of Love Canal–something else Vice President Al Jr. would later claim credit for “discovering.”

Moving up from Congress to the Senate, Al Jr., by now an heir to not only a cattle empire, but to petroleum and mining interests as well, declared himself to be a concerned environmentalist. His book “Earth in the Balance” was regarded by some on a level near the importance of Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage.”

Young Al couldn’t have learned all that idealism from his father, however. Zelnick, in his book on the vice president, quotes the senior Gore as saying in the ’60s, “Ecology is now a household word, but many of those who use it do not seem aware of the fact that by definition ecology is tied to economics, that man’s well-being is tied to his being; that although preservation of an unsullied crystal stream, a purer atmosphere, a virgin tract of forest, or an unblemished landscape are noble goals, they are not the noblest; the noblest is to provide man with the basic stuff of his existence–food and housing, and meaningful work....”

Junior, however, never played the fiddle, and, as Zelnick suggests, was only a “virtual” Tennessean. His ambition was to get elected without making a down-home fool of himself. So maybe Al Gore Jr.’s semi-sophisticated association with radical environmen- talism doesn’t make him any more a radical shade of “green” than his father’s association with Armand Hammer made Al Gore Sr. a “red.” It just tells you a little more, doesn’t it, about all those complications we simple folk in the rural West still don’t seem to understand.

Zelnick, a senior correspondent for ABC assigned to the Pentagon and Soviet affairs, understood it in terms of Al Gore’s life-long ambition to be President. It is a uniquely American story which Zelnick set out to write in 1997. His network news bosses, however, said Zelnick, unlike such collegues as Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, for example, could not write a book about a public news figure he was likely to cover. Give up the book, or give up his job at ABC, they told Zelnick. After 20 years of award-winning work, Zelnick left the network.

Most troubling about that seems to be the indication that those in control of the news media would prefer that their own reporters not know too much–particularly about such potentially powerful figures as Al Gore Jr. The Vice President himself may have had some role in convincing ABC of that. Even so, Zelnick’s book, produced in the spring of 1999, was a year later still the only serious work available on the strangely-driven heir to the Gore and Clinton legacy.

Like an imaginary prince, virtually from birth, Al Gore Jr. began establishing his credentials, building a resume uniquely intended for the most important job in the world. Summers and some holidays when he did spend time in Tennessee, his parents saw to it that the boy actually did feed the hogs and plow a hillside. In his private schools, he was directed toward social sets and even roommates like Tommy Lee Jones considered to have likely success on their own. When the war in Vietnam came along, Junior found himself a billett in the rear echelon as an Army journalist, but near enough to hear enemy gunfire which he later claimed was directed at him.

Al Gore Jr. isn’t lying quite the way some people think. If Eric Segal said the Vice President’s claim to have been the model for Segal’s schmaltzy “Love Story” was not true, Segal also suggested that the real model may have been Gore’s roomate at Harvard, Tommy Lee Jones. If Gore simply could not have “invented” the Internet as he claimed, those who did create it remember him being eager to get in on its potentials.

Vice President Al Gore appears to be a person who fabricates himself from the pieces he finds around him. Like the junior reporter he once was, he imagines himself in the story, always striving to make best use of it in his compulsive desire for power.

When it comes to those of us in the rural West, Al Gore’s imagination is even more disturbingly out of touch with reality. Whether or not Al Gore himself actually wrote “Earth in the Balance,” the bottom line in his alarmist book conforms to the most dire warnings of radical environmentalists who insist the planet is doomed unless the United States takes unilateral steps in reducing pollution by reducing wealth and population. Those most expendable in that theory are those who rely most on the land and its natural resources for their livelihood. Occidental Petroleum or the mineral wealth found on Gore’s own Tennessee property, or the oil-funded foundations that enrich the environmentalist movement are not seen as part of the problem. Tobacco rich, cattle rich, oil rich, politically well-placed families should only suffer from lack of planning–or of insufficient campaign contributions.

Expect to see Al Gore in a Stetson sometime before November. Expect him to say he has some personal knowledge of cows. But unless you’re inclined to believe that any of it means more to him than the amount of campaign money he can raise from curly-topped green radicals, don’t get carried away.

If what happened to Zelnick at ABC is any indication, the national media pack won’t be probing too much in Al Gore’s past, or, if they do, it won’t be to demonstrate that the Vice President can’t be trusted. Believe it. If it’s Gore, the West will get just what it expects. And then it might just be time to let the bulls out the gate.

Investigative reporter Tim Findley says, “It’s terribly discouraging that no one is calling Gore on this.”

Another Thought...

Basic sophomore journalism used to instruct students how the Fourth Estate was changed by the investigative reporting of professional pioneers like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell.

Their chief success was in exposing the corruption of Interior Secretary Albert Fall in 1922 in leasing federal oil reserves to favored financial backers of President Warren G. Harding. The series of stories on the Teapot Dome and Elk Hills reserves resulted in a national scandal and the eventual conviction and imprisonment of Fall for accepting bribes. Harding was disgraced and died in office.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton declared Elk Hills in California as no longer essential for national security purposes to serve the United States Navy.

In 1998, with the help of Vice President Al Gore, the Department of Energy concluded the largest divestiture of federal property in the history of the United States by selling the Elk Hills oil reserve to Occidental Petroleum for $3.65 billion.

For the price, Occidental acquired 47,000 acres with more than 900 wells producing some 55,000 barrels of oil a day. It is one of the 11 largest oil and gas fields in the United States.
The deal went largely unnoticed by the national press.–Tim Findley


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