by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair
(Verso) $23

by David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima
(Simon & Schuster) $23

by Bill Turque
(Houghton Mifflin) $25

TO HEAR HIS APOLOGISTS tell it, there is a good Al Gore and a bad Al Gore. Good Al is a man of thoughtful mien, probing conscience, and gentle spirit who never really wanted a life in politics, a first-rate painter in his school days and later the author of an impassioned, soul-searching treatise on saving the planet--saving it, that is, from men like Bad Al, a craven, preening opportunist who did indeed enter politics and whose performance with respect to foreign policy, the Pentagon, the environment, crime, and poverty would do the most rabid claque of Republicans proud.

The truth is that no one other than Tipper and the Gore family therapist need trouble herself over Good Al, as he has never intruded on the business of governance. In that domain there is only Bad Al, the man once described by his cousin, Gore Vidal, as having "all the makings of an American Cromwell."

David Maraniss, co-author of The Prince of Tennessee, wrote a fine biography of Bill Clinton, First in His Class; but in that case he had a good character to work with--wily, engaging, and genuinely complicated. He's not so lucky this time. Both Maraniss and Inventing Al Gore's Bill Turque devote considerable energy to the purported tussle between Good Al and Bad Al without ever seeming to notice that it's always Bad Al who carries the day. Their ethically embattled Gore is pure contrivance. In one sense they had little choice in the matter, it being the job of Beltway journalists (Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima labor for The Washington Post, Turque for Newsweek) to invest presidents and presidential candidates with qualities such as intellectual substance, moral concern, and the capacity for fruitful introspection, whether the politicians possess any of those qualities or not.

In their telling, consequently, even the most cold-blooded political decisions are frequently made to seem the product of anguished internal debate. Consider an episode from Gore's record on defense spending and foreign interventionism, a fair place to start in light of his striving to position himself as an arms-control expert from his earliest days in the Senate. In 1991, Gore was one of only 10 Senate Democrats to vote in favor of George Bush's Gulf War resolution. Turque relates with the utmost credulity Gore's own story of his "excruciating" choice, then adds, "It was a gutsy decision, perhaps the one in his career closest to a pure act of conscience." Maraniss' version is less swooning, but he too buys the line that Gore experienced moral agony over the Gulf War vote.

This is plain silly. A cursory examination of Gore's record suffices to prove his enthusiasm for all things war-related, but only Cockburn and St. Clair bother to undertake such an analysis. (Of the three books reviewed here, Cockburn and St. Clair's is far superior in its exhumation of Gore's record on policy questions as a legislator and as vice president.) During the '80s, they report, Gore supported Reagan's bombing of Libya and invasion of Grenada, voted for the B-1 and B-2 bombers, and engineered a deal with the Reagan administration that helped resurrect the moribund MX missile program. Gore partisans like to claim that their man and his coterie were snookered by the White House in that instance, but in the words of one former House Armed Services Committee staffer, "They were willing pawns of the Reaganauts, determined to screw over the [nuclear] freeze movement in order to advance Gore's career." Later Gore would oppose a series of efforts to trim the defense budget after the collapse of the Soviet Union, among them the transfer of a relatively meager $3.1 billion from the Pentagon to fund a variety of domestic programs, including Head Start.

Approximately one million Iraqi children have died since the 1991 Gulf War as a direct result of the war's bombing raids against the country's civilian infrastructure and the subsequent U.S.-led sanctions against the import of vital goods, avidly backed by Gore. As vice president, in fact, Gore has been a steadfast proponent of foreign interventions. He pushed both of the Clinton administration's bombing raids against Iraq, along with its excursion to the Balkans and its still-unfolding foray into Colombia. And on the campaign trail this year, he has promised that a Gore administration would bring more of the same. Terming his foreign policy "Forward Engagement," Gore pledged "a more robust form of Clintonism," write Cockburn and St. Clair, "highlighted by quicker interventions, less diplomacy and more firepower."

This, per Turque and Maraniss, is the man who writhed in moral anguish over his Gulf War vote. Gore no doubt fretted, but it had nothing to do with the prospective loss of life on either side. The real source of his angst was laid bare in a subsequent conversation with an aide, Steve Owens. If the war went badly, Gore said, "I may just have thrown away whatever future I had with the Democratic Party." If it went well, on the other hand, Gore would be almost uniquely well positioned vis-à-vis prospective Democratic rivals. It was not a terribly risky proposition; the war would be unpopular only if it involved protracted ground fighting with heavy American casualties, and one has to suppose Gore knew enough about U.S. military capabilities to presume that unlikely. Happily for him, unhappily for us, his modest gamble paid off. As of this writing, Gore continues to lead the dull, callow George W. Bush in most polls. If elected, he will make liberals and progressives miss Bill Clinton; he may make them miss Nixon before he's through.

Al Gore was born in 1948, the second child and only male heir to a budding Tennessee political franchise. His father, Albert Gore Sr., was a New Dealer elected to the House of Representatives in 1938 and subsequently to the Senate in 1952. The elder Gore was not without his own presidential ambitions--at the 1956 Democratic convention, he worked himself into an unseemly lather at the prospect that he might crowd his way onto the ticket as Adlai Stevenson's number two--and he was thought by colleagues to be pompous and aloof. But there ends any similarity between father and son. Gore Sr. was one of the Senate's earliest opponents of the Vietnam War, one of the architects of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and a supporter of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Owing in no small measure to his position on Vietnam, Albert Gore Sr. was defeated for re-election in 1970. All three books ponder the Oedipal significance for young Al of his father's rise and fall. Suffice it to say that if Gore took anything from his father's example, it was an unshakable resolve that he would never be caught up short by bucking powerful forces on principle. He would instead slay his father symbolically, and avenge the old man's political demise by winning at all costs.

Toward that end he has been petty and mean-spirited, greedy and self-seeking, to an extent only a Nixon man could truly appreciate. This side of Gore emerged in full flower during his first run at the presidency, in 1988. The other Democratic candidates fairly reeled at the attack posture Gore brought to that year's primary season debates, but the watershed moment came late in the game when, after an insufficient showing on Super Tuesday, Gore chose to continue his dead-in-the-water candidacy through the New York primary. Turque and Maraniss take the Gore camp at its word as to motive, characterizing the move as a bit of self-delusion bred by the heat of competition. Cockburn and St. Clair make the rather more convincing case that Gore served as the party's designated hit man, sent in to help torpedo the insurgent candidacy of Jesse Jackson in concert with Jackson-bashing former Mayor Ed Koch, who felicitously turned up as Gore's top endorser in New York. In reward for his efforts, they write, Gore was able to retire a $2 million campaign debt in near-record time that summer--a striking lesson in what the combination of phone work and fealty to power could do for a candidate's war chest.

As Bill Clinton's vice president, Gore reputedly possessed an almost unprecedented amount of clout in several areas, most prominent among them foreign policy and the environment. In regard to the latter, Gore proved to be an architect of the Clinton administration's signature stratagem of triangulation, whereby the Clinton gang aligned itself with a bipartisan coalition of congressional Republicans and the most conservative elements of the Democratic Party against progressives inside (and outside) the party. At Gore's behest, a number of environmentalists were appointed to staff positions in the administration, and Gore aides such as Katie McGinty were always available to listen to the plaintive cries of activist groups. They got "access," in short, but it was all they got. Clinton and Gore proceeded, meanwhile, to build an environmental legacy that one veteran activist, David Brower, termed "more [harmful] to the environment than Reagan and Bush combined." The administration opened old-growth forests for cutting, sold off oil rights in federally owned nature preserves, and, perhaps most consequentially, passed major trade agreements that undercut scores of environmental regulations in the U.S. and other countries--efforts in which Al Gore played key roles.

But the undiluted essence of Gore may be best captured in a snapshot from the last presidential campaign, in the fall of 1996. At the time, Clinton enjoyed roughly a 20-point lead over Bob Dole. His re-election was assured. The notorious Republican Congress of 1994 was on the run; indeed, Clinton's rehabilitation after a disastrous start to his first term was due in great measure to the even greater unpopularity of Newt Gingrich and his feral, beady-eyed horde. Around this time, two things happened. First, the latest congressional welfare reform bill landed on Clinton's desk. He wavered in regard to signing it; the election was drawing close and it looked as though the Democrats might retake the House, at which point a less extreme bill might be passed. Most of the Cabinet favored a veto--even Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin reportedly deemed the bill too draconian. Only Al Gore, along with Dick Morris, pressed Clinton to sign, as he of course did. The second telling incident came when representatives of the Democratic National Committee approached Clinton about the release of some of his campaign funds to help finance races in close House districts. Gore vehemently opposed the plan. As Cockburn and St. Clair tell it, "It's a measure of how a number of Democrats view Al Gore that some participants in that meeting felt the only explanation for his conduct was that he did not want the Democrats to recapture the House because victory would elevate [Gore rival Dick] Gephardt to the prominence of Speaker of the House."

The point is that--contrary to the desperate mythologizing of liberals who still cling to the party--no one pushed Gore toward being a reactionary New Democrat; he jumped, early and avidly, and he did so for exactly the same reason as Clinton, because he saw in it the greatest chance for his own advancement. What a bitter little joke it is to watch him crisscrossing the country now as Al Gore, Trustbuster. (And lest one doubt that it is a joke, take the reassuring word of Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, the group that anchors the Clinton-Gore-Lieberman right wing of the party. From is quoted nodding and winking at the reinvented populist Gore in a recent Washington Post article.)

Gore is one of the more shallow, grasping, transparent figures to skulk across the national stage in an age that has seen no shortage of these types. His closest contemporary in this regard, though deceptively different in public demeanor, is probably his fellow technophile and sometime-dinner partner Newt Gingrich. David Maraniss spoke about Gore with Richard Ben Cramer, the author of What It Takes, the epic-length tale of the combatants in the 1988 presidential race. Cramer interviewed Gore for his book, but quickly decided to drop him from the radar after Gore started testifying to the "thousands" of letters he had received begging him to run for president. "I thought to myself," Cramer said, "life's too short to talk to this guy anymore. It wasn't the fact that he wasn't telling me the truth, it was the pallid bankruptcy of the lies, all in service of a picture of himself that wasn't even interesting. He wasn't even an interesting liar."

Cramer added that he thought Gore incapable of giving an honest rendering of his motives and feelings, because "he was scared. He was scared of his own self." In this, at least, it behooves us to heed Al Gore.