Al Gore's Weak Defense
It has been, for Al Gore, a swift and brutal fall from grace. Before all the unpleasantness, the former vice president was mainly known as the planet’s premiere environmentalist and anti-global-warming crusader. He has been a bestselling author, Oscar-winning filmmaker, successful businessman and, lest we forget, the man millions still believe should have been sworn in as president in January 2001.
But now the 62-year-old Gore is tabloid fodder—notorious as a “crazed sex poodle.” That’s the nickname he allegedly received during a scolding from an aggrieved masseuse in Portland, Oregon, who claims Gore ignored her pleas to stop his inappropriate touching during a long-ago massage session. Today, ironically, the ex-veep is the target of seamy sexual allegations that rival those once leveled at his former boss, Bill Clinton, whose impeachable peccadilloes Gore privately blamed for damaging his own presidential campaign.
“Whenever you’re accused of anything these days, and it’s not true, you have to fire back with both barrels,” says Allan Mayer.
Now, four weeks into his multimedia ordeal, Gore hasn’t managed to formulate an effective PR strategy to counter the toxic fallout polluting his once-gleaming image. And crisis managers say his passive stance is only fueling the problem. What’s more, he has yet to personally confront the allegations in a public forum, and refuses to take questions from the howling media mob during increasingly furtive speaking appearances. Inevitably, the ugly charges and Gore’s apparent evasiveness are harming his reputation.
“’Crazed sex poodle’ has got to be one of the great coinages of our time,” says Los Angeles-based crisis-communications expert Allan Mayer, who says that Gore, if blameless, should fight the charges, possibly by going on a respected morning television show opposite a tough interviewer “like Matt Lauer.” Mayer also advises Gore to file a libel suit against the National Enquirer, which broke the story, and his accusers. “Whenever you’re accused of anything these days, and it’s not true, you have to fire back with both barrels—give an unequivocal denial and, if possible, an explanation,” Mayer says. “I find it hard to understand why he wouldn’t do that, except for the fact that it might be true. From the way he’s been behaving, the only logical inference is that there must be at least some truth to these allegations.”
Gore’s latest public crucible began June 1 with the surprising revelation—in the form of a joint email to friends from Al and Tipper—that they were separating after 40 years of marriage. A few weeks later, the National Enquirer began publishing accusations that Gore made unwanted sexual advances toward first one, and then three, female massage therapists in farflung cities—Portland, Beverly Hills, and Tokyo—during the past several years.
“To me, this is the new John Edwards story and it’s not over yet,” says National Enquirer executive editor Barry Levine, who pushed the Edwards scandal, the Tiger Woods scandal, and has been driving the Gore story, spreading cash where necessary to loosen people’s tongues. “Of course Gore is innocent until proven guilty. However, there seems to be a pattern here with this type of behavior.”
Last Thursday, according to the Enquirer and other, more mainstream media outlets, the ex-veep was forced to submit to the indignity of a grilling by the Portland Police Department, which has revived a moribund investigation (dropped for lack of evidence, law-enforcement officials explained) into an incident allegedly involving a masseuse named Molly Hagerty. The 54-year-old Oregonian, who coined the “sex poodle” nickname, supposedly visited Gore in his Portland hotel suite, and Gore allegedly tried to force her hand down his crotch and repeatedly touched her sexually during a three-hour session. Hagerty has since gone public—posing on the Enquirer’s cover with a pair of old pants that she claims were soiled during her encounter with Gore in October 2006. (It turns out that the pants, apparently, contain no telltale DNA, and the Portland Tribune has published extensive reports that leave room to doubt some of Hagerty’s claims.)
“Mr. Gore unequivocally and emphatically denied this accusation when he first learned of its existence three years ago,” Gore family spokeswoman Kalee Kreider said in a statement after the initial Enquirer story broke June 23 and the Portland cops reopened the case. “He stands by that denial.”
Members of Team Gore take strong exception to suggestions that his conduct lends credence to the charges, arguing that for the ex-veep to offer public commentary and insert himself into a law-enforcement investigation is exactly the wrong thing to do.
“The vice president has repeatedly and expressly denied the accusation,” said a Gore loyalist and Democratic consultant who asked not to be named. “Beyond that, the smart approach in these cases is to be respectful of law enforcement and their process. Ultimately, when the facts are on your side, a full, fair and complete investigation is much better vindication than an overly aggressive, premature, publicity campaign.”
On the other hand, if Gore did take liberties during massage, Mayer says it’s still not an irremediable situation. “Normally in a situation like that, what you say to your client is he got caught doing something naughty, but we have a very forgiving people in America. We love to catch people and we love to forgive them—if they’re honest and remorseful. But I’m not sure Gore has that in his DNA.”
Mayer points to former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer as a public official who did wrong, owned up to it, talked publicly about his failings in numerous interviews with journalists, and pursued an aggressive and, by most accounts, successful rehabilitation strategy. The future CNN host declined to comment on any invidious comparisons between his style and Al Gore’s silently passive approach. “I’m going to take a pass at this,” Spitzer told me.
Harvard Business School marketing professor John Quelch, an expert on the development and durability of brands, suggests that hard cases such as Gore’s can be difficult to fix.
“Personal brand equity erodes much faster than corporate brand equity,” Quelch says, noting that a troubled company like Toyota was able to survive its travails involving unexpected acceleration because it has amassed millions of satisfied customers over several decades. “When we are looking at transgressions of a personal nature, rather than corporate, we tend to be less forgiving—especially if the disconnect between the reality that emerges and the brand image that was cultivated is significant. When that gap is especially significant, then there can be a remarkable erosion of goodwill toward the personal brand.”
Given the straight-arrow image the ex-veep has cultivated, the Gore brand would seem particularly vulnerable to attack if the massage allegations—a big if—were shown to have any basis in fact.
“I personally have seen a lot of people melt down in this business and I don’t derive any pleasure from it,” says New York-based Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “It is awful to see it happen to this guy, who found his life’s work trying to save the world’s climate, and now he may not be known for that as much as he used to be—and that’s not good…. Can Al Gore come back? In a funny way, the best thing that can happen to Al Gore—and maybe the worst thing for everybody else—is for what he’s been saying about consequences climate change and global warming to actually happen. And then he becomes a visionary, and people are able to forgive him more quickly.”
At which point, presumably, as the ice caps melt and the oceans rise, the problems of a former vice president and his three masseuses won’t amount to a hill of beans.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.