In His Own Words: Al Gore Describes His Life Along the Mississippi

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Vice President Gore on the campaign trail

The sun is slowly setting behind me as my campaign paddle wheeler, the Mark Twain, steams into port in Hannibal, Missouri — the final stop on a nearly 400-mile trek down the Mississippi River. As you know from your own trip down this great waterway (captured in a recent special issue of TIME magazine), life on the Mississippi is nothing short of spectacular.

Tipper and I, along with my vice presidential running mate, Joe Lieberman, and his wife, Hadassah, flew overnight from Los Angeles following the Democratic National Convention to begin our journey. Despite only a few hours of sleep on the plane, the cheers of the delegates filled our hearts overnight and buoyed us with energy. Daybreak in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the embarkation point for our cruise, also proved inspiring as thousands of campaign supporters lined the shore to see us off.

As we traveled the river, we met local residents who make their living on and around the Mighty Mississippi, including dockmasters, fishermen and environmentalists. Friday night, as our boat approached its last stop of the day in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, a team of talented water skiers formed a pyramid to guide us into shore. Thousands of cheering local residents — enough to fill three towns from the area — watched, and listened, and stayed late into the night to share their hopes and dreams for the future with us.

There is one indelible image from that rally in Prairie du Chien. I was talking about the need for a real Patients' Bill of Rights, and the crowd was really roaring. Tipper noticed a woman crying softly near the front of the crowd. Afterwards, we both went up to her and asked her what was wrong. She explained that her daughter had a prescription for a wheelchair, but her HMO wouldn't pay for it. I promised her I would fight for her, and help her stand up against the powerful interests.

Daybreak Saturday brought more large crowds to the banks of the Mississippi — and this time many wished Tipper a happy birthday. We traveled the river together, greeting residents as we rode — some in person as we passed through locks and dams along the way, others from afar with a wave or a yell towards shore. A group of high school students camping on the shore of the river stoked their campfire and yelled in support as we drifted past. Local residents hung banners from bridge spans and boat launches situated along our route.

But my favorite were the two gentlemen standing among the trestles of a railroad bridge outside of Sabula, Iowa, who smiled and cheered when I confirmed that their railroad attendant shack had cable TV.

Our second day was capped off in Clinton, Iowa, where again thousands of friends waited late into the night to sing happy birthday to Tipper and present her with a beautiful — and delicious — birthday cake (the sixth one she got on this day).

A brief hiatus from the water on our third day of travel as Tipper and I, again joined by Joe and Hadassah Lieberman, boarded campaign buses and traversed the Hawkeye State. We stopped at local firehouses, diners, and parks, where I had the pleasure of introducing my running mate and his wife to some old friends from our caucus days.

And then of course there was today. As I write this, the final stop on the tour is still to come, but our journey down the Mississippi has already been a great learning experience for us all. TIME magazine was right — a trip down the Ole Miss allows you "to hear, from a very local perspective, some of the great issues we face as a nation." I saw first hand how working families need a champion to stand up and fight for them. I heard from folks whose voices have been muted by the powerful special interests. And I learned that if we work together, and we believe in our hearts that our efforts are sound, that we can accomplish great things for the people of this region — and the entire country. So let me be clear, no matter how many miles I log between now and November, I will never forget the people I met this past week along the main stream of America, and let me assure you, Tipper and I, along with the Liebermans, certainly will be counting the days until we can return again.

Anatomy of a Vice-Presidential E-Mail's Mark Coatney tells the tale of how Al Gore banged out a digital diary of his trip along the Mississippi

The trail of Al Gore's e-mail from a campaign laptop PC to our inbox started with a terse phone message sent from the lobby of the Los Angeles Mondrian hotel — "Lehane? Tumulty. Call me about an e-mail" — and ended at a Gore rally in Hannibal, Mo., four days later when a guy named Mouse, sitting in a BBQ joint called Buddy's, clicked Send. In between, well...

This was in Los Angeles, on the last night of the Democratic convention, and I was getting ready to travel on Gore's four-day "Charting America's Course" riverboat excursion. I was filling in for Karen Tumulty, our regular correspondent assigned to Gore. I'm a rookie when it comes to this stuff, so Karen left a message for me on the cell phone of Gore campaign spokesman Chris Lehane. You're all set, she tells me, and I sprint for the press charter flight out of LAX to La Crosse, Wis.

At some point during a harried and sleepless night and next day, I hook up with Lehane, a sort of higher-pitched, 78-rpm Mike McCurry who likes to use words like "indefatigable" and ask reporters if they're sure the world wouldn't be a better place if they quoted him using the word "indefatigable." On the trip, Lehane is the semi-porous membrane between reporter and Big Cheese, and press requests are supposed to go through him. So I'm more than a little worried when he tells me the e-mail proposal sounds fine, but that he doesn't know when the vice president will have time to write an e-mail. I tell him that it's just a five-minute bit about what's happening on the trip. Oh, we should be able to do that, he says. Great. Everything is under control.

Saturday. Everything is not under control. By day's end Lehane still hasn't given me the hookup. I'm getting nervous; access to Gore himself has been virtually nonexistent so far; only daughter Karenna and her husband, Andrew, have been spending much time down below decks with the newsies. My editor's getting nervous; he wants this to work. Maybe I can ask Karenna to take up a note? Maybe pigs will fly. Lehane promises an answer by Sunday. I think about how to arrange an honorable death for myself.

Sunday. We're in. Lehane says the vice president will do it sometime on Monday. My editor loves me. I'm king of the world. I sleep the sleep of the righteous.

Monday. It's 3 p.m. Where's my damn e-mail? The vice president is rewriting. I consider the advisability of shouting "Gore! Where's my copy!" up the stairs. I consider whether this would cause the Secret Service guys to politely and firmly toss me overboard. I reconsider.

Hannibal, 7 p.m.: We pull into town. The rally's rocking. There are little Tom Sawyers everywhere. Everybody runs off the boat. I've only got about an hour left before everybody in the campaign packs up and flies to an event tomorrow in Milwaukee. I don't have the e-mail. I'm totally screwed.

I'm saved! Word comes that Brian Reich, the campaign's briefing guy, nicknamed Mouse after the can-do character in "The Matrix" — which, incidentally, is one of the veep's all-time favorite movies — is in the media filing area with the laptop. He's ready to send, if I can just get over there and give him my editor's e-mail address.

And so it is that Brian and I transmit from the temporary media filing area, a dim restaurant called Buddy's, as the reporters eat ribs and send in their stories and the piped-in sound of Gore's rally speech makes Joe Lieberman sound strangely like Winston Churchill. As Lieberman says, only in America.

Here are Some Fun Al Gore E-Mailing Facts: The veep types his own e-mail, and is a touch-typist. ("Remember, he's a former reporter," one staffer reminds me, which in fact did nothing to reassure me at the time. I've been in newsrooms. I've seen journalists both hunting and pecking.) He "banged it out" sitting atop the Mark Twain riverboat on a gray and sultry Monday afternoon after a morning in which he was up before dawn to appear on seemingly every network morning show. He followed that with a lengthy chat with the reporters on the boat, headlined a rally in Quincy, Ill., conducted an onboard town hall meeting about tax reform, and I think sometime in there made and packed some very nice fried-chicken box lunches for a hungry press corps.

By the way, the vice president violated all my instructions. He wrote a first draft, printed it out, and then expanded on the original in a 20-minute rewrite session. This despite my exhortation that this should be a breezy, five-minute note, as if he were writing a quick, funny-thing-happened-today e-mail to a friend. Of course, this may be how the vice president dashes off e-mails.