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August 21, 2000

To the editor:

In a recent article, the New York Times described the disenchantment of Al Gore’s long-time friends with the way Gore has been portrayed in the press. Richard Cohen’s August 17 column, "Al Gore’s Distance," is a good example of why folks are upset.

Cohen asked a perfectly reasonable question—does Gore have what it takes to lead? But Cohen’s method was dismaying. "There is something about Al Gore that people don’t like," Cohen announced in his opening sentence. "What’s noteworthy, even jarring about the accounts of those who knew him at both St. Albans school in Washington and at Harvard was their almost irresistible urge to get in the elbow"—to criticize Gore.

That might be worth discussing, if true. But is it? To support his claim, Cohen "lifted quotes" from the new Gore bio, The Prince of Tennessee, by David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima. Here was Cohen’s nugget paragraph:

"[Gore] was an egregious little tattletale," said Barbara Howar, who knew him as a kid. A former teacher remembers him asking, "Sir, is this the time to be rowdy?" Another teacher described him as "a very competent young man" but "not scintillating." A former classmate put it this way: "He wasn’t somebody you got to know real well."
But the cited remarks are in no way "typical" (Cohen's word) of what is found in the Maraniss book. Indeed, they don’t even support Cohen’s case. Consider who Cohen is quoting. Cohen’s readers aren’t told this, but Howar was actually a friend of Gore’s sister, Nancy, and was ten years older than Gore. Her comment describes Gore at eight years of age, when she and Nancy would baby-sit for him! Next, Cohen quotes two teachers; the first repeats a meaningless comment Gore made when he was perhaps ten. In fact, Cohen quotes only one of Gore’s peers, who comments about not getting to know Gore well. But again, Cohen omits some basic context. Why didn’t the speaker "get to know Gore real well?" The speaker says that is partly because Gore wasn’t a boarder, like other St. Albans students. This becomes, in Cohen’s hands, a "jarring" indication that people in general "don’t like" Gore.

How do Gore’s peers actually recall him in this book? Four of Gore’s college roommates are quoted extensively; none utter a word of criticism. (I am one of them.) Beyond that, Maraniss and Nakashima spoke with "several dozen men from [Gore’s] graduating class" in Dunster House, the Harvard dorm where Gore lived for three years. The authors recorded a few mildly negative (anonymous) comments. But here was the overall judgment:

Most regarded Gore as neither princeling nor stiff. Dennis Horger remembered him as "a good listener, and with all the egos in a place like that, it was not a quality many people had." Robbie Gass considered him "a straight guy in the best sense of the word. Not a straight arrow, but a good guy. He talked straight. You knew where you stood. He was not a game player." Peter Goldberg thought back on Gore in the dining hall at breakfast leading a "funny and interesting" discussion of what was in that morning’s New York Times. But the most common memory of Gore retained by his Dunster classmates placed him down in the basement lounge. It seemed as if he and his pals were there almost every night, playing pool, chomping on hamburgers, watching the news and then Johnny Carson.
It is simply false to say that Gore’s peers disparage him in this book. But neither do his teachers. Here is Richard Neustadt, Gore’s thesis adviser at Harvard:
"I have a soft spot for good students who seem to be really turned on and really want to carry on with me and do something serious," Neustadt recalled. And there was Gore—"this big, hulking, serious guy who is so interested. How can you resist?"
Pretty "jarring" stuff, don’t you think? Here are two St. Albans instructors:
He was balanced and steady and "didn’t go swinging off one way or another," according to Stanley D. Willis, an English teacher and director of admissions. In that sense, Willis believed, Gore "sort of did in a way exemplify the St. Albans boy." While some boys were "restless under discipline," recalled the Rev. Craig Eder, the school’s chaplain, Gore used discipline "for its main purpose, which is to get things done." The comment Eder remembers writing most often on Al’s report card was "Good Boy, Doing Well."
This book is full of positive comments about Gore from friends and instructors. This includes not only his associates from St. Albans and Harvard, but his childhood friends from Tennessee as well.

Yes, Gore’s friends are angry and upset. But the Post’s misled readers should be angry too. Good teachers throw work like this in the trash. So what is it doing in the Washington Post, during an important election?

Yours truly,

Bob Somerby