Gore works to reveal his passion

Easy rapport with voters doesn't come naturally to a reserved politician

November 28, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Ten years ago, after the Orioles' season opener at Memorial Stadium, the only son of Sen. Al Gore let go of his father's hand on a packed Baltimore sidewalk. It was nearly dusk as 6-year-old Albert Gore III, a rambunctious towhead, bolted into the street. A second later, he was struck by a 1977 Chevrolet and tossed high in the air. His father watched as the boy landed in a gutter, near death. Al Gore waited in the road for the paramedics, praying.

The story that Gore went on to tell after that day became a seminal one in his biography. He described himself, a senator born into a striving family, as a man who until that moment had lived his public life too remotely. The accident left young Albert in a Baltimore hospital for a month, badly battered, and prompted what Gore described as an urgent search for meaning.

When his child finally recovered, Gore was on his way onto the national stage, where he offered himself as a changed man who viewed politics in a more personal way.

As he runs for president, this theme -- the emergence of a deeply human Al Gore -- is surfacing again. While some may describe the vice president as a programmed politician wired for robotic speeches, the Gore narrative recasts him with soul. As his supporters did in 1992, they are again talking loudly about the New Gore, a public figure finally free to reveal his truest self. But, to some, this story of Gore's personal transformation is difficult to reconcile with his campaign's basic struggle: making Al Gore seem real.

Many closest to Gore say the personal journey of 1989 is still with him. In its aftermath, they say, he began taking risks -- from his early pro-environment stand against big business to his hawkish voice on Kosovo in the administration to his high-profile role on U.S. relations with Russia. After the accident, friends say, Gore spoke openly about his own inner crisis, triggered by that trauma, and revealed himself to voters in ways he never had.

Perhaps most significantly in the wake of the accident, Gore passed up a campaign moment that friends argue was rightfully his. Saying his family needed him after the accident, Gore decided not to run for president in 1992.

"That was just such towering, beautiful, magnificent evidence of his seriousness as a dad," said the Rev. James Dunn, a Gore ally who has occasionally ministered at the Gores' Virginia church. "He did and said what he believed even if it hurt."

But to others, Gore's battle to communicate had only begun. To some, the only change was that Gore aggressively sold himself as a regular guy. His style was attacked, as he hired experts on relationships -- from a New Age-style facilitator at a Cabinet meeting to feminist author Naomi Wolf in this campaign -- to master the mechanics of public connections when critics say his own instincts failed.

Perhaps most damning, some argued that Gore mined Albert's accident for political advantage at the 1992 Democratic convention, when he joined the ticket as the vice presidential nominee and used his son's accident as the backdrop for a campaign speech.

"It struck me as unseemly," said Mark Crispin Miller, a New York University media studies professor. "Who am I to say that he didn't mean it? But still, it did seem like he was exploiting the near-tragedy for a rhetorical effect."

Parent's nightmare

It began as the sort of afternoon fathers and sons dream about -- Opening Day of baseball season, with a Cal Ripken homer, extra innings and a home team win. Gore brought kindergartner Albert, already a fan, to watch the battle against the Red Sox and the game-day pageantry, as President George Bush tossed the first pitch high and outside.

The pair were leaving the stadium hand in hand just as Jasper McWilliams, a 22-year-old in an old Chevy, was cruising down Hillen Road. The child dashed into the street and was hit as Gore and his wife, Tipper, watched.

The Gores declined to be interviewed for this article, but several doctors, family friends and visitors to the hospital recalled what happened next.

Two emergency room nurses, who happened to bring their medical kits to the ballpark, stumbled on the scene. They began working on Albert, trying to stabilize him in the dimming afternoon light. At a distance, police interviewed McWilliams, who was later acquitted of minor traffic charges.

Albert got to Johns Hopkins Hospital still conscious but bleeding heavily. His spleen was badly torn, several organs were bruised, and his leg, ribs, collarbone and shoulder blade were broken. Doctors would soon be operating, removing more than half of the boy's spleen to stop his bleeding, and later putting pins in his broken bones and much of his body in traction. Dr. David Dudgeon, the first doctor to see the child, remembers Gore struggling with the fear and panic of every parent's nightmare. "Al Gore was used to being a man of authority," he said. "And now it was taken out of his hands."

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