The Precarious Prince: THE MAN: At First Glance Al Gore, Child of a Stentorian Senator and a Formidable Mother, Seems to Have Been Born to Power-The 'Prince Albert' of Tennessee and Washington. but His Rise Was No Royal Progress. the Climb of a Son Who Didn't Think He Had the Option of Slipping

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At St. Albans, the tony prep school he attended in Washington 35 years ago, Albert Gore Jr. appeared, at least from a distance, to be a prince among princes. Even in a place populated by other ruling-class scions, Gore stood out. The class of '65 yearbook found him to be "frighteningly good at many things... Popular and respected, he would seem to be the epitome of the All-American young man," wrote the schoolboy editors. "It probably won't be long before Al reaches the top." Flattering and prescient words--but look again. His yearbook entry shows a cartoon of Gore as a statue on a pedestal, with a football, basketball and discus tucked under his arm. Gore is being made fun of, and not very subtly. The caption beneath his portrait quotes Anatole France: "People with no weaknesses are terrible."

Al Gore has been a remarkably thoughtful, disciplined and serious public servant. He is far more substantive than most politicians, including George W. Bush. Yet the jokes never stop: in 1988, when he first emerged as a national political figure, "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau dubbed him "Prince Albert," and the image stuck. No matter how many earth-tone, open-neck shirts he wears, no matter how often he tells of toiling in the fields as a youth, no matter how much hominy he drips into his voice, no matter how glowing the reviews of his bold choice of Joseph Lieberman as his running mate, he still comes across to many voters as remote and condescending--like a man in a navy blue suit, the senator's son, the Harvard preppie, the vice presidential heir apparent, waiting for his preordained turn at the top.

Gore knows that he has been a stiff ever since he was a little boy, and he admits he has labored mightily to loosen up. "It's taken 52 years to undo as much of it as I can," he declared, his voice full of mock gravity, to a pair of NEWSWEEK reporters. But, he added matter-of-factly, "I'm old enough to know that there's some things I'm not going to ever change." Sitting stock still in an empty hotel banquet room for an obligatory pre-convention interview, dressed in a navy blue suit, white shirt and red tie, Gore had the patient but long-suffering air of a man who must endure many indignities to achieve his goal.

Gore can, it's true, be annoyingly perfect. And yet, in some important ways, the caricatures miss the point. On closer inspection, Gore looks less like a self- assured prince and more like a man who is not entirely confident of his place, who feels compelled to constantly demonstrate that he is worthy. His upbringing and career path more closely resemble a precarious climb than a royal progress. He grew up in a family whose station depended on the whim of voters, and his parents never let him forget it. In Gore's public manner, so ponderous and deliberate, there seems to be a surfeit of caution, a fear of making the tiniest misstep. It's as if he had been raised from the very beginning not to let down his guard, even for a moment, lest he slip off his pedestal and plunge into obscurity. He has taken nothing for granted--not even, it would appear from accounts of his childhood, the love of his parents.

"Oh, a psychoanalytic model?" Gore deadpans when the Newsweek reporters venture that he has been shaped less by inherited advantage than by the precariousness of life. Stiffening, he begins to mimic Dr. Strangelove, twitching his arm into a jerky fascist salute. The vice president would naturally prefer to be known for his substantial record of public service rather than by journalistic attempts to plumb his psyche. But Gore himself has devoted a good deal of energy to trying to understand and explain his urgent need to please, first his parents, then the voters. He has read and expounded on books of psychology, looking for clues to his own makeup. He readily attributes his "formal bearing" to his father, who, he says, modeled himself on a Tennessee statesman, Cordell Hull, FDR's wartime secretary of State. …