QUESTION: What attracted you to the history of the American South, particularly about the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal and the Modern South?
ANSWER: When I was 12, I read an old book on my father’s bookshelves, “America Came My Way”. The author had toured the U.S. in 1935 interviewing prominent Americans and one of his chapters was entitled “Huey Long Takes His Shirt Off”. I was intrigued by the colorful politics described in the chapter but also by the footnote which pointed out that Senator Long had subsequently been assassinated. In 1959 assassinations were not the commonplace events that tragically they would become in the 1960s. So, the chapter stuck in my mind.
In 1966 as an undergraduate in Cambridge I was about to take my first ever course in American history. A new book on the New Deal had just become available in the U.K. As I read it, I discovered that Huey Long was a significant figure in national politics and, like many of my generation, I was fascinated by the New Deal. FDR was a hero to Left and Right in the U.S. — on the left for bold policies to tackle the Depression, in contrast to the conservative policies pursued in Britain, on the right, for saving Britain through U.S. intervention in World War II.
From the start I was intrigued by how apparently conservative southerners supported the New Deal and how New Deal policies were implemented at the local level in the federal system. That interest led ultimately to my Ph.D. on the AAA’s tobacco program in North Carolina (my first book) and then my 1989 general book on the New Deal and the 2008 book on FDR and the Hundred Days.
Q: What compelled you to write a biography of Albert Gore, Senior?
A: I was interested in how southern liberals, who were avid New Dealers, handled the issue of civil rights after 1945 since race had not really been an issue for them in the 1930s. The way I wanted to tackle it was through the Southern Manifesto. Three congressmen from North Carolina who I had read a lot about in the 1930s had refused to sign. I set about looking at the papers of all those who did not sign. That was why I first went to Murfreesboro in 1990 and later spoke on Albert Gore and civil rights at a conference at MTSU in 1996.
I had no intention to write a biography of Senator Gore, indeed, I had always expressed some skepticism about the value of biography. But in January 2000 I was asked by the Gore Research Center at MTSU, which held his papers, if I would consider writing one. The Center had received a challenge grant to fund a biography. It seemed a wonderful opportunity, since, in so many ways, I considered Senator Gore a significant figure in the transformation of the South. A year later, I was formally asked to write it. (The Center wanted to run my name past Al, and, of course, the vice-president was rather busy in 2000!).
Q: Why do you think Gore entered politics in the first place and briefly describe his gift as a stump speaker and orator?
A: For a hard-working ambitious young man from a small farm in the Hill Country, politics was a way to advance yourself. He had made himself an influential figure in Smith County as education commissioner, secured a law degree by part-time study, and served as Commissioner of Labor in Governor Browning’s administration. To run for an open congressional seat in 1938 was a logical next step. But he was also a committed follower of FDR, the New Deal and Cordell Hull. He already had a wider view of the world than many of his contemporaries.
Gore started his political career when an ability to speak on the stump at meetings across the district, and later the state, was essential if you did not have a political machine behind you. It may have been in the 1938 campaign that his ability to play the fiddle made a greater impression than his oratory, but by the time he ran for the Senate in 1952, he was a formidable campaigner, who was much in demand to speak for the Democratic Party in other states. He sometimes started campaigns late in the years that followed, because of Senate duties, and he never worked to develop and maintain a political organization. But once on the campaign trail he was tireless. Observers like Tom Wicker of the New York Times, Governor Winfield Dunn and Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers all thought he was unmatched in the effectiveness and the passion of his stump oratory.
Q: After reading your book, it seems Gore must have had a brilliant mind and been a quick study but also was an idealist and a maverick. Would that be accurate and if so, how did these traits help him and perhaps also hinder him in being a successful politician?
A: He made himself an expert on, for example, wage and price controls in World War II, nuclear testing, the peaceful development of atomic energy and taxation. People in both government and the Senate listened to him with respect. But he was something of a loner and determined to go his own way if he thought he was right, and he clearly really irritated established figures on campaign finance reform, tax cuts and the Vietnam War.
Q: He was one of three Senators from formerly Confederate states who refused to sign the 1956 Southern Manifesto that opposed desegregation and voted for the 1957 Civil Rights Act yet voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. How can you explain his actions?
A: He also voted for the 1965 Voting Rights Act and cast courageous votes against Nixon’s southern nominees to the Supreme Court. Actually, his voting pattern was rather like other southern moderates in Congress such as Jim Wright of Texas. Gore never claimed to be a shining knight ion the race issue. He was always looking for an alternative issue to the race issue. Partly that was prudential. He wanted to avoid an issue that would divide his lower income white and black supporters. Partly, like other southern liberals he believed that gradual racial change would come with economic growth in the South. But he had a basic sense of fairness, a belief in the right of all citizens to vote and respect for the law. He showed real courage in the vote against the Manifesto and his election campaign of 1958. After 1960 it was a much harder balancing act as civil rights protests grew. He had always been more directly aware of his white constituents’ reactions than the impatience of his black supporters, because he campaigned for the African-American vote like other southern moderates, through intermediaries, rather than personally.
Q: How would you describe the way he dealt with racial issues in his own state?
A: Much of the time, he did not have to get involved directly because governors were handling school desegregation, sit-ins, compliance with the 1964 Act, and later more violent protest. After he was re-elected in ’64, he certainly felt freer to support voting rights and an end to housing discrimination.
Q: As early as 1963 he was against the U.S. going to war in Vietnam and already realized it was unwinnable. What led him to those opinions which proved quite prophetic?
A: His visit to Vietnam in 1959 led him to doubt that the U.S. could ever win a war in Vietnam when the regime was so increasingly authoritarian. He was skeptical of the official administration line under JFK because he trusted David Halberstam’s reports for the New York Times on what was really going on on the ground. He always feared that the war would, like Korea, end in a war of attrition or, worse, a nuclear confrontation with China.
Q: Briefly describe his relationship with President John F. Kennedy and what did the death of JFK mean to him politically?
A: He liked and admired Kennedy. They were friends, especially after a dinner party hosted by Charles Bartlett that was the occasion of JFK and Jackie’s first date. He knew he could make a case to Kennedy who often used him as a sounding board. So, despite disagreements on Vietnam and tax cuts, the Kennedy years were the most fulfilling for the Gores in Washington, the more so because Nancy [Gore’s daughter] was so important in the early years of the Peace Corps.
Q: For what reasons did he and President Lyndon B. Johnson become bitter enemies?
A: Ultimately because of Vietnam but it went back further than that. They had the same background, they were both southern liberals, they cooperated on much major domestic legislation, they worked hard to like each other, campaigned for each other, their wives were friends. But they hated each other. On LBJ’s side, he and his allies could not stand Gore’s self-righteousness. On Gore’s side, he disliked LBJ’s cruelty and his excessive closeness to wealthy financial interests.
Q: What were the three main factors that caused him to lose his Senate seat in 1970?
A: Vietnam, Race and School Prayer. But those issues also summed up the fact that Gore’s worldview was no longer that of the majority of white voters in the state who no longer believed in the federal government as the answer to their problems.
Q: Bill Brock, who captured his Senate seat, considered Gore arrogant, pompous and standoffish. When you visited Gore in Carthage in 1990, what were your first impressions of the man?
A: First, that on a Saturday afternoon in December at the age of 83 he was out on the farm fixing a fence and taking a check from a tenant to the bank. Second, that Pauline Gore was a charming and gracious hostess — and clearly much more than that. Third, that they were clearly proud of Al. Fourth, that Albert was very happy to talk to an unknown Brit arriving out of nowhere about the issues in the ’50s and ’60s and his career after 1970
Q: How badly do you believe Gore wanted to be president?
A: So many of the potential Democratic presidents were senators, and Gore had no reason to feel inferior to any of them. He had been seriously considered for the vice-presidency in ‘56. He could have been forgiven for thinking ambitious thoughts about being the first southern President, especially after LBJ became vice president and appeared to be marginalized politically. Gore would have only been 61 in ’68. But, in practice, I think he recognized by 1960 that was not the route he was going to take and I don’t think it bothered him.
Q: What would you list as Albert Gore Sr.'s three greatest accomplishments while in Congress?
A: The Interstate Highway Act; his early contribution to the desirability and feasibility of a ban on atmospheric nuclear tests; the protection of public power and the TVA in the 1950s.
Q: How great an asset was his wife, Pauline, in his career?
A: Difficult to over-estimate. A natural politician who was also more pragmatic than Albert — convincing him at times not to bang his head against a brick wall, but to focus on getting policies through.
Q: What would Gore think of the state of politics in the U.S. today?
A: I think 1) he would be appalled by the influence of money in today’s elections and the need, as a senator, to focus on raising money for re-election from the moment you get elected; 2) though a fierce partisan himself, he would deplore the polarization of politics, the personal abuse and the reluctance to work across the aisles; 3) he would be depressed by the fact that public religiosity has become so important and uneasy with the role of evangelicals in creating hot-button social and cultural issues, rather than economic and social justice issues; 4) he would be astounded that a president could be so ignorant of history and so unconcerned about facts and evidence.