Book Reviews

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Book Reviews

Al Gore: A User's Manual

by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair

Verso, 284 pp., $23

Inventing Al Gore

by Bill Turque

Houghton Mifflin, 448 pp., $23

Quick: Which major party presidential candidate supports the following position on welfare reform? "It [should allow] faith-based organizations to provide basic welfare services. They can do so with public funds -- without having to alter the religious character that is so often the key to their effectiveness. We should extend this approach to drug treatment, homelessness, and youth violence prevention. People who work in faith- and values-based organizations are driven by their spiritual commitment. They have done what government can never do: provide compassionate care. Their client is not a number but a child of God."

If you guessed Texas Governor George W. Bush, you would of course be wrong. As Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair helpfully recall in Al Gore: A User's Manual, that sanctimonious pabulum in fact issued from Vice-President Al Gore, speaking to an Atlanta audience in the spring of 1999. Gore wasn't precisely advocating welfare reform. He was instead applauding the already enacted first Clinton/ Gore administration welfare abolition law, which, among its many dismal provisions, allows federal welfare funds to be granted to "intermediary" organizations, which may use some of the funds to help welfare recipients -- while also underwriting proselytizing in religious or pseudo-religious nonsense. (In one church-run, state-funded "jobs" program near Austin, for example, applicants are told that if their bosses treat them badly, they should not object, because their true overseer is God.)

That was certainly not the worst effect of the bipartisan 1996 welfare deform bill (signed by Bill Clinton under the joint pre-election urging of sleazeball pollster Dick Morris and "populist" Al Gore), the long-term devastating effects of which have been temporarily masked by a cyclical boom in minimum-wage jobs. As Bill Turque recounts in Inventing Al Gore, even longtime welfare critic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called the intentionally punitive new law a travesty: "The premise of this legislation is that the behavior of certain adults can be changed by making the lives of their children as wretched as possible. ... This is a fearsome assumption." The dismal Clinton/Gore welfare saga (hypocritically highlighted by the Democratic candidates' immediate plea for re-election so they could "fix" the bill they had just enacted out of sheer opportunism) should make voters feel at least a twinge of sympathy for George W. Bush, who has supported virtually identical legislation in Texas, and who must indeed be wondering: Why can these guys get away with the kind of outrageous stuff I can't even contemplate?

That is indeed a question running through both these books about Al Gore, although Turque's is an encyclopedic and largely positive mainstream biography, and Cockburn/St. Clair's is a brilliantly venomous left-wing analysis of the chasm between Gore's reputation and his actual record. (Turque is a Washington correspondent for Newsweek; the widely published Cockburn and St. Clair edit an indispensable political newsletter, Counterpunch.) The book titles suggest the authors' distinct approaches, but also an echoing undertone: Inventing Al Gore evokes the persistent repositioning of a politician who reflexively defines expediency as principle, and A User's Manual describes a lifelong careerist who has climbed to the top of the American political heap by employing whatever cynical method it has taken to get the job done. Since those characteristics could just as readily be ascribed to this year's Republican candidate, the obvious question arises, What is the most important political difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore? The answer (for those familiar with both the Bush and Gore careers) is essentially that Gore has been at the political game much longer, and plays it better. (Whether that will be enough for victory in November is another question entirely.)

It isn't only famous political fathers, or the eager dismantling of the social contract, that Gore and Bush have in common. Like Dubya, Gore has vigorously promoted privatization of government services, including the self-regulation of industry. "Reinventing government," Gore has said, "is about giving businesses new opportunities to become trusted partners in enforcing laws." That blandishment includes -- as it has in Bush's Texas -- encouraging the corporate fox to guard the citizen's henhouse, and within it such delicate eggs as "worker safety, environmental protection and the whole range of regulatory functions." Gore's notorious REGO program (like privatization in Texas) also had the predictable side effect of job-slashing, in the words of Cockburn/St. Clair, "the way a corporate raider would after a hostile takeover." Gore didn't quite succeed (as he initially intended) at abolishing federal affirmative action programs, but in the words of a July 1999 report of the legislative committee of the National Organization of Blacks in Government, "Reinventing [government] has been generally silent about fairness and equality issues," and "has had a devastating impact on federal workers, particularly racial minorities." A foreign policy bully-boy and quick-trigger missile hawk, Gore is likely to be no better than Bush (or worse) on defense issues, and will continue to be positively fanatical in the continuing militarization and expansion of Israel.

As Cockburn and St. Clair convincingly demonstrate in a chapter titled "Playing the Green Game," even Gore's legendary environmentalism (for which he was dubbed "Ozone Man" by Poppy Bush) is largely a rhetorical construct, born of the vice president's strenuously hyperbolic 1992 book Earth in the Balance. Gore is always eager to publicly declare rescuing the environment "the central organizing principle of civilization." But in actual practice, when industry push has come to corporate shove (especially from major political contributors), Gore and Clinton have surrendered with unseemly alacrity. Turque describes a Boeing and General Motors deal Gore closed in 1997 with Chinese dictator Li Peng ("the butcher of Tiananmen"), and comments mordantly, "It didn't escape the notice of U.S. environmentalists that the man who once called carbon monoxide exhaust from cars "a mortal threat to the security of every nation" was signing a pact to bring 100,000 new vehicles without antipollution devices into the world." The Chinese deal is only one of many brightly hypocritical moments described in both these books, which go a long way toward explaining the recent formation of a national organization dubbed "Environmentalists Against Gore" (St. Clair is a founding member).

Voters who might be inclined (even at this cynical historical juncture) to take major-party politicians at headline face value should certainly read both these books. Gore supporters should certainly read Al Gore: A User's Manual. Should their candidate win, come 2002, at least they won't be able to claim they didn't know who they were voting for.

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