His father's son, and the worse for it

It struck me long ago that it's hard to be the son or daughter of a politician: while politicos selfishly bask in some spuriously glamorous spotlight, their children are all too frequently emotionally neglected. A surprising number of political offspring on both sides of the Atlantic - far higher than national averages, I suspect - end up committing suicide, becoming drug addicts, alcoholics, and so forth. Over the years, I've therefore developed an acid test when trying to deduce the true personality of a politician - look at his (as is usually the case) kids first. Most of all, does he exploit them for political ends?

Kennedy, Nixon, Carter et al: all fail this test immediately. Ludicrously, Jimmy Carter once even invoked the views of his nine-year-old daughter Amy on nuclear proliferation. Surprisingly, and notwithstanding his manifold sins and wickednesses, Bill Clinton passes my test; with a few exceptions he has done his best to keep Chelsea out of the spotlight.

That's not so, however, with Al Gore. I remember standing in Madison Square Gardens in the 1992 Democratic political convention listening to Gore delivering a much-rehearsed tear-jerker about how his young son was almost killed in a traffic accident. Then the boy was ushered on to the stage to roars of acclaim. It was all truly nauseating: not just the use of a family trauma for political soap-opera ends, but the invasion of the little boy's privacy.

Heaven knows what this does to the psyche of a child too young to understand his own father's exploitation of him.

That boy is now a teenager who - at least partly because Gore used him as a political pawn when it suited his own ends - most of Washington feels free to gossip about. The Washington Post reported that the boy has since become involved with drugs. His school then refused to make him a prefect.

The vice-president, furious that a Gore - yes, a Gore! - could be slighted in such a way, wrenched his son out of that school and put him in another. Just another day in the life of a child of a politician obsessed with his own image.

You may have gathered by now that I am not too taken with the man who is now a shoo-in (or, as the Independent memorably put it not long ago in an effort to show it knew its Americanisms, a "shoe-in") as Democrat candidate in next year's elections.

Amazingly, only four vice-presidents in US history (including the father of the man who may be his opponent, George Bush) have gone on to be elected to the presidency; if forced to make a prediction, I would guess that Gore is more likely to end up on the much bigger list of vice-presidents consigned to history rather than to the White House.

His 2000 campaign, nonetheless, is superbly organised. He kicked off this week in New Hampshire, where he was hugged by Dick Gephardt, House minority leader. His coffers are already bulging. He has made so many trips to California - the most populous state in the US, now with 54 electoral college votes - that his staff have lost count and can say only "at least 50". He has announced grants and federal policies that will bring California more than half a billion dollars. He has supported Clinton in his woes but this week has sounded like Edward Heath frantically pirouetting to avoid saying "Thatcher"; not once did the word "Clinton" cross his lips.

In other words, Al Gore is following the script perfectly. The problem is with his personality.

A poll by the Pew Research Centre suggests that nearly half the nation's undecided voters (and more significantly, almost a fifth of its Democrats) will not vote for Gore; there is something too smug, self-satisfied, emotionally distant about him. He just doesn't, somehow, feel our pain like Bill does.

Which brings us full-circle to personality problems that beset the children of politicians. Gore's very pompous father, Senator Albert (who died last December, aged 90) was elected to the House in 1938 and then to the Senate from 1953-71. Throughout this time, young Al was brought up largely by nannies and learnt at a precociously young age to avail himself of room service at Washington's Fairfax (later Ritz-Carlton) Hotel, where the Gores lived. (How Gore Sr, formerly a school teacher from Tennessee, managed to live a life of such luxury is something of a mystery: his moneybags appears to have been the late Armand Hammer, for whom he opened doors in Washington.)

This upbringing helps explain, first, why Al Gore is distant from real people and, second, why his image-advisers are always telling him to try to emote: hence the speech about his son, and a later tear-jerker about the death of his beloved sister from lung cancer.

Because he can't be himself - patrician, aloof, arrogant - he becomes prone to gaffes. Last week, to the astonishment of all who heard him, he proclaimed suddenly: "I took the initiative in creating the Internet." He also once announced that the story of how he and his wife got together was so moving that it was the basis for the film Love Story.

In a recent welcoming speech Michael Jordan, the basketball star, was mystified to hear himself being praised by Gore as "Michael Jackson".

For a skilled Republican, therefore, Gore could be easy meat next year; the trouble for the Republicans is that skilled ones are decidedly thin on the ground these days. Perhaps any politician ruthless enough to exploit the pain of his little boy will be able to barnstorm his way into the White House in any case.

I still have my doubts whether Gore will make it, though; and, using my patented acid test, he doesn't deserve to, either.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Unions smell a foregone conclusion