Tuesday, December 8, 1998
"The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."
My father was the greatest man I ever knew in my life.
Most of you know him for his public service, and it could be said of him, in the words of Paul, that this man walked worthy of the vocation wherewith he was called.
There were those many, many who loved him, and there were a few who hated him --hated him for the right reason. It is better to be hated for what you are, than to be loved for what you are not. My father believed, in the words of the scripture: "woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you."
He made decisions in politics that were such that he could come home and explain to his children what he had decided, and why.
He went into the world with peace. He held fast to that which was good. He rendered to no one evil for evil. He was of good courage. He strengthened the faint-hearted. He supported the weak. He helped the afflicted. He loved and served all people who came his way.
None of this was a secret to the world. As most of you know, there was a time when some people thought my father should seek the highest office in the land. Here's what he said about that idea: "The lure of the Presidency never really overwhelmed me, though there were times when the Vice Presidency seemed extremely attractive."
Now, that's humility.
And he did love mercy and do justly.
The last advice he gave me, two weeks ago, when he was almost too weak to speak -- was this: "Always do right."
He was born on an isolated, poor dirt farm on the banks of the Roaring River in Jackson County, Tennessee.
His father was a friend of Cordell Hull, who of course later made all the families in this part of the country proud by becoming a Congressman and a Senator, and then Secretary of State. My grandfather and Cordell Hull floated logs down the Cumberland River to the point where it meets the Caney Fork at Carthage. My father's boyhood dreams were taken by the currents of both men's lives. He was always a farmer, and he became a statesman.
Soon after he was born, his whole family moved to Smith County, to a place just west of Carthage called Possum Hollow.
He grew up in what he described as "a self-giving, self respecting household," and he said, "although the chores were heavy and the discipline absolute, there was love in our family and reverence for each other."
He went to work as a teacher, in a one-room schoolhouse in a mountain community in Overton County named Booze. He was eighteen years old, and had three months of college. His students called him "Professor Gore."
He read voraciously, and taught himself to use language with precision. The Leather Stocking Tales were his favorites. I always marveled at his vocabulary and -- as I grew older --at his unusual pronunciation of certain words. For example, instead of "wound," he always said "wownd." I used to challenge him on the words I was certain he mispronounced, but invariably, the dictionary also contained his preferred version, with the italic note "archaic." As many have said since his passing, he was an original.
As he continued his education at Murfreesboro State Teachers College, and continued working in all his free hours, he learned the lessons of hard times, trucking livestock to market only to find that they sold for less than the hauling fee.
The Great Depression awakened his political conscience. He often told me of the deep emotions he felt watching grown men with wives and children they could neither feed nor clothe, on farms they could no longer pay for -- grown men who were so desperate, the tears streamed down their cheeks when they received their meager checks for a whole season's work on their crops.
The kindling for his political philosophy piled up on Sunday afternoons among the whittlers, with whom he sat under the shade trees of the Carthage Square, and listened as Congressman Hull talked of important business in the nation's capital.
When my father first heard Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the radio, the kindling caught fire.
He became the youth chairman in Tennessee for FDR in 1932. The following year, he became a candidate himself for the first time -- for Smith County Superintendent of Schools.
He lost the election -- and then his teaching job -- but he gained respect from those who heard him. Indeed, when the man who won the race unexpectedly turned gravely ill soon after the election, he surprised the County Court by recommending my father as his replacement before he died. This gift from his dying former rival made a deep and lifelong impression on my father. It was one of the reasons why he never said a harsh word about any of his opponents for the rest of his career.
He soon began YMCA night law school, even as he continued as Superintendent of Schools and awoke well before dawn to tend his crops.
I don't think I ever saw him tired. But he must have been sleepy after such long days andnights, facing an hour's drive yet to return from Nashville to Carthage on old Highway 70.
So he went looking for coffee, and found it at the old Andrew Jackson coffee shop, which stood not a hundred yards from here. He loved to tell the story of how the coffee didn't taste good unless it was poured by a beautiful young waitress named Pauline LaFon. She was going to law school by day, and working nights.
They say opposites attract.
They didn't marry right away. She left for Texarkana, put up her shingle, and practiced oil and gas law. But his coffee turned bitter, and eventually, he persuaded her to come back as his wife.
Of all the lessons he taught me as a father, perhaps the most powerful was the way he loved my mother. He respected her as an equal, if not more. He was proud of her, but it went way beyond that. When I was growing up, it never once occurred to me that the foundation upon which my security depended would ever shake. As I grew older, I learned from them the value of a true, loving partnership that lasts for life.
After managing the successful campaign of Governor Gordon Browning, he became Tennessee's first Commissioner of Labor, and started Unemployment Compensation in the face of powerful opposition. He enforced mine inspection laws for the first time in history. He administered our first minimum wage law: it was twenty-five cents an hour. He defended the right to organize. He was always, always for working men and women.
He loved practical jokes. His humor often had an edge. One Saturday night in the early 1930's, at a party he organized in a barn by the Cumberland River for a group of friends in Carthage, he planted the suggestion that quite a few rattlesnakes had been seen in the area the preceding day. Surreptitiously, in the shadows thrown by the fire, he attached a fish-hook to the pant-leg of his friend Walter Merryman. At the other end of the hook was tied a large blacksnake he had killed in the barn before the party guests arrived. Rejoining the circle, he bided his time for a moment and then suddenly pointed toward Merryman's leg and shouted: "snake!" The more Merryman jumped and ran, the more determined the pursuing snake appeared. The prank worked a little too well, when the fish-hook dug into Merryman's calf. Certain that it was a rattlesnake's fang, he collapsed in fear. It took several months for the friendship to be repaired, but the story became such a local legend, that someone told me about it again last night at the wake.
It's difficult to follow the rhythm of his life without hearing the music that held him in its sway ever since the spring day a fiddler named Uncle Berry Agee played at the closing ceremonies of Ms. Mary Litchford's First Grade class. It was a magical experience that ignited a passion for playing the fiddle so powerful that later in his life he sometimes worried that if he gave in to it, it would somehow carry him away from the political purposes to which he was also powerfully drawn. Before long, by the grace of his mother, and with the help of his brother, he marshaled the impressive sum of five dollars to buy his own fiddle. And soon thereafter, his classmates nicknamed him "Music Gore."
He always told lots of stories. But without a doubt, the one he told most often was about a Possum Hollow hoe-down held at his house, to which several musicians were invited, including a traveling mandolin player with one leg, named Old Peg, who spent the night in their home.
My father had just finished the eighth grade, and his devotion to music had become, in his words, "all-absorbing." The next morning, he helped his father hitch up the harness for Old Peg's horse and buggy. Each time he told the story; the buggy grew more dilapidated; before long, it had no top; the harness was mostly baling wire and binder twine. He counted that scrawny horse's ribs a thousand times for me and my sister, and then counted them many times again for his grandchildren. As Old Peg left the sturdy Gore household, the buggy was practically falling apart. As the impoverished picker wobbled precariously down his less traveled road, my grandfather waited until he was just out of hearing range, then put his hand on my father's shoulder, and launched a sentence that made all the difference: "There goes your future, Albert."
My grandfather's humor had an edge to it, too.
Don't ever doubt the impact that fathers have on their children. Children with strong fathers learn trust early on, that their needs will be met, that they're wanted, they have value, they can afford to be secure and confident, they will get the encouragement they need to keep on going through any rough spots they encounter in life.
I learned all those things from my father. He made all the difference.
Boys also learn from their fathers how to be fathers. I know I did.
When my father first ran for Congress at the age of 29, he worried that people would think he was too young. So he vowed to always wear his coat, and he affected a formal demeanor. With Old Peg still wobbling through his unknown future, candidate Gore vowed also to never play the fiddle in public. Which brings me to what was, by our official family count, my father's second most frequently told story:
It's Saturday night in Fentress County. July, 1938. The crowd is gathered in the hot crowded courtroom for my father's speech on reciprocal free trade. There's a bustle through the door at the rear of the crowd. Three of my father's musician friends are working their way through the crowd, toward the podium, and one of them holds a fiddle over his head. My father speaks louder and more rapidly about the evils of tariffs, hoping -- he claims -- that the fiddle will go away. By now, though, his alter ego is standing directly in front of him, holding the fiddle in outstretched arms, and demanding loudly: "play us a tune, Albert."
Trapped by this powerful drama, he seizes the fiddle and unleashes his music. And then the crowd goes wild! My father always chuckled when he delivered his favorite punchline: "They brought the house down."
Once he was reconciled to who he really was, there was no turning back -- and thecrowds did love it. He brought the house down wherever he went.
In August, he was elected in the Democratic primary and that was it, because back then, no Republicans ever ran.
In September, he went to Washington with his wife and baby daughter, my sister Nancy, not yet one year old, and he was invited to play his fiddle in Constitution Hall, with Eleanor Roosevelt in the audience.
Fourteen years later, when I was four, he moved to the Senate. The incumbent he defeated, Senator Kenneth D. McKellar, was the powerful Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and sought to remind the voters of his power to bring money to the state with his omnipresent slogan: "The thinking feller votes McKellar." In keeping with my father's campaign philosophy, he never once had a negative word about his opponent, and always admonished his supporters never to remove a McKellar sign. Instead, acting on my mother's advice, we put up new signs directly underneath McKellar's. Every time we found a sign that said "The thinking feller votes McKellar," we put our new sign directly underneath it proclaiming: "Think some more and vote for Gore."
By defeating McKellar -- and more broadly, the Crump machine -- he helped establish the terms of a new politics for Tennessee and the entire South: a progressive politics that rejected race-baiting and connected our region to the rest of America. And he carried those values onto the national stage. In 1956, my father hoped to be Adlai Stevenson's running mate. So did Estes Kefauver, who felt he had earned it. And so did my father's friend and Senate classmate, John F. Kennedy. It was quite a convention.
I'm particularly proud that my father was way ahead of his time in fighting for civil rights. Discrimination against blacks deeply offended his sense of justice. He talked about it to Nancy and me often.
When I was eight years old, we lived in a little house on Fisher Avenue, halfway up a hill. At the top of the hill was a big old mansion. One day, as the property was changing hands, the neighbors were invited to an open house. My father said: "Come, son, I want to show you something." So we walked up the hill and through the front door.
But instead of stopping in the parlor, or the ornate dining room, or the grand staircase with all the other guests, my father took me down to the basement and pointed to the dark, dank stone walls -- and the cold metal rings lined up in a row.
Long after he left the classroom, my father was a teacher. And I thank God that he taught me to love justice.
Not everyone was eager to learn. One unreconstructed constituent once said, in referenceto African Americans -- though that was not the term he used -- "I don't want to eat with them, I don't want to live with them, I don't want my kids to go to school with them." To which my father replied gently: "Do you want to go to heaven with them?"
After a brief pause came the flustered response: "No, I want to go to hell with you and Estes Kefauver."
All that driving between Carthage and Nashville, and between Carthage and Washington, made him impatient for better roads. During World War II, he had been the first Congressman to decline a commission as an officer, and join the Army as a private. FDR called all the Congressmen back from service; he later went back in. And during his service in Germany, he was impressed by the Autobahn.
In 1956, he personally authored and passed into law the Interstate Highway Bill, the largest public works endeavor in the history of humankind.
We traveled down here this morning from Carthage on Old Highway 70, the same road he first took to Nashville 75 years ago; it's a long way. He's taking his last trip home on I-40, part of the 44,000 miles of Interstate that he created.
He wrote and passed the first Medicare proposal ever to pass on the Senate floor in 1964. One year later, after the Democratic landslide, Medicare became law.
For more than a decade, he controlled all tax policy on the Senate floor -- because a majority of his colleagues had absolute trust in his conscience, his commitment to fairness, and his keen understanding of the law.
He was the best speaker I ever heard. When he spoke on the Senate floor, the cloakrooms emptied, the galleries began to fill, the pages sat in rapt attention. He had a clarity and force that were quite remarkable. People wanted to hear him speak, and they wanted to know what he said, because they knew that whatever he said, he believed with his heart.
Time and time again, with the crispness of his logic and the power of his oratory, he moved his listeners to adopt his opinions and cheer. Indeed, the morning after his very first speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, in 1939, the New York Times reported that his remarks "stopped the show" and received "an ovation of proportions such as are usually reserved for elder statesmen." His speech changed enough votes to defeat the measure he opposed. That's what happens when you bring the House down.
Keeping alive the tradition of Cordell Hull, he fought tirelessly for reciprocal free trade. he always emphasized the word "reciprocal." And he often quoted Hull, his mentor, saying "when goods do not cross borders, armies do."
He was an early supporter of Israel. As Chairman of the Foreign Assistance Appropriations Subcommittee in 1948, he authored and passed the first American aid to the new Jewish state.
He was the nation's leading expert on outer space law, and authored the treaty banning weapons from space.
He led the fight to negotiate and ratify the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an agreement which many believe was the turning point in the nuclear arms race. And of course, he was an early, eloquent, and forceful opponent of the Vietnam War, and it cost him his seat in the Senate.
My father was brave. I mean really brave. He opposed the poll tax in the 40's and supported civil rights in the 50's. By the time he was in his final Senate term, I was old enough to understand clearly the implications of the choices he made when he repeatedly rejected the advice of many fearful political allies, who urged him to trim his sails. He was proud to support the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was damned if he was going to support Haynesworth or Carswell -- Nixon's suspect nominees -- for the U.S. Supreme Court. And I was so proud of that courage.
And even then, he almost defied the odds and won. But a new ill wind was blowing across the land. And in many ways he was unprepared for the meaner politics that started in 1970.
For example, he never, ever had a press secretary on his payroll, for 32 years. He was offended by the very thought of using taxpayers' money to pay the salary of someone whose principal job was to publicly flatter him. He preferred to speak plainly for himself. Indeed, many older Tennesseans will tell you that what they remember most about my father was his live Sunday morning radio program on WSM, where he presented the news from Washington "as I see it."
The night he lost -- in 1970 -- he made me prouder still. He said: "defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out." And then he turned the old Southern segregationist slogan on its head, and declared: "The truth shall rise again."
I heard that.
The next day was the first time I ever remember our roles being reversed, the first time I gave back to him what he taught me. We were in a canoe on the Caney Fork, just the two of us. Near to despair, he asked: "What would you do if you had had 32 years of service to the people, given to the highest of your ability, always doing what you thought was right, and had then been unceremoniously turned out of office? What would you do?"
I responded, "I'd take the 32 years, dad."
It's not correct to say that he went back to his farm. Throughout his entire career in public service, he never left his farm. He loved to raise Angus cattle. In the audience today are quite a few Angus breeders from around the country, who are among his closest friends. It was his recreation. He always said: "I'd rather find a new black calf in the weeds than a golf ball in the grass."
Our farm was also an important school where he taught me every day. He must have told me a hundred times the importance of learning how to work. He taught me how to plow a steep hillside with a team of mules. He taught me how to clear three acres of heavily-wooded forest with a double-bladed axe. He taught me how to take up hay all day, and then take up the neighbor's hay after dinner by moonlight, before the rain came. He taught me how to deliver a newborn calf when its mother was having trouble. He taught me how to stop gullies before they got started. He taught me how to drive, how to shoot a rifle, how to fish, how to swim. We loved to swim together in the Caney Fork River off a big flat rock on the back side of his farm.
Once, my father was giving a magazine reporter from New York City a tour of the farm when he came across a cow stuck in the river mud, and the reporter had no idea what to make of it when he stripped naked and waded into the mud, emerging a half hour later with his cow.
After he left the Senate, he went into business. For ten years, he ran the second-largest coal company in the country, driving back and forth on the Interstate connecting Tennessee with Lexington, Kentucky. At the time of his death, he was still serving as the senior director on the board of Occidental Petroleum. But just as with farming, he had always been in business. He owned a feed mill. A hardware store and sporting goods store. A towing and auto repair shop. He sold boats and motors. He had a gasoline station. He leased the space for three restaurants, a barber shop, a beauty shop, a natural gas distributor, a veterinarian's office, and a union hall. He ran a commercial egg production house with 10,000 chickens. He built and operated the first so-called "pig parlors" in this part of the country. He developed real estate, and built houses and apartments for rent. He was always busy.
When I eventually left journalism and entered politics, he was a source of invaluable advice in my races for the House and Senate, and later, when I ran for President, he personally campaigned in every county in both Iowa and New Hampshire. I constantly run into people in both states who know him well -- not from his days in the Senate, but from his days as a tireless octogenarian campaigner.
In 1992, when then-Governor Clinton asked me to join his ticket, my father became an active campaigner once again. At the age of 84, he and my mother took their own bus trip that year. And what a crew was on that bus: Albert and Pauline Gore, Tony Randall, Mitch Miller, and Dr. Ruth.
He convinced one young man from our campaign to come back to work on the farm, but the fellow soon left and asked me: "How do you tell a man who is working beside you and is 84 years old that you're quitting because it's too hot and the work is too hard?" I had learned the answer to that when I was still young: you don't.
At age 85, he embarked on a major new project -- the antique mall and car museum in South Carthage.
Two years ago, when he was 89, he was still driving his car. I had great difficulty persuading him to stop. When I asked my friends and neighbors in Carthage to help, one of them said: "Oh, don't worry, Al. We know his car. We just get off the road when we see himcoming."
Once though, he didn't know his own car. He left a store, got in somebody else's car, and drove home. Carthage is the kind of place where people often leave the keys in the ignition. Luckily, the store owner drove my father's car up to his farm, left it in the driveway, and then drove the other fellow's car back to the store before he knew it was missing.
There are so many people in Carthage who have bent over backwards to help my parents over the past few years. My family is so grateful for the quality of kindness in Smith County. Thank you.
And during the months and weeks before my father's death, we have been blessed with the devotion of a wonderful collection of round-the-clock care givers and doctors and nurses. Reverend Billy Graham wrote recently: "we may not always be aware of the presence of angels, we cannot always predict how they will appear. But angels have been said to be our neighbors."
All I know is that my family is mighty grateful to the people who have shown so much love to my father, and we found out that a lot of our neighbors in Smith County and the surrounding counties really are angels. We've asked all of them who helped us with my Dad to be here today -- and on behalf of my family I want to say thank you.
He died bravely and well. As it was written of the patriarch Abraham, he "breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people."
And we know that "those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death."
As many here know, it's hard to watch the sharpness of a parent fade; hard to watch, in the words of the poet: "How body from spirit does slowly unwind until we are pure spirit at the end."
We're a close family. But the time we had together over the last few weeks to say goodbye truly brought us closer still. We're grateful to all those who have reached out to us, many of whom understand the need because they themselves have suffered loss. As is our custom here, neighbors brought food, and we tried to concentrate on making ready for today.
So here's what I decided I would like to say today, to that young boy with the fiddle in Possum Hollow, contemplating his future: I'm proud of the choices you made. I'm proud of the road you traveled. I'm proud of your courage, your righteousness, and your truth. I feel, in the poet's words, "because my father lived his soul, love is the whole and more than all."
I'll miss your humor, the sound of your laughter, your wonderful stories, your sound advice...and all those times you were so happy that you brought the house down. Your whole life has been an inspiration. I'd take the 91 years. Dad, your life brought the house down.
President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore