CJRColumbia Journalism Review

January/February 1993 | Contents

Al Gore's Other Big Week

The Vice-President as Investigative Reporter

By E. Thomas Wood

One of the little-noted results of the 1992 presidential election is the elevation of a Watergate-era investigative reporter to within a heartbeat of the presidency. Al Gore spent four and a half years at the Nashville Tennessean -- from 1971, following a tour of Vietnam, until 1976, when he ran successfully for Congress. But he left his most important journalistic mark over the course of just two days: February 6 and 7, 1974, when he broke two separate stories that shook up Nashville.

Gore had been laying the groundwork for his double coup since his first days on the Tennessean, where, incidentally, his wife, Tipper, worked as a photojournalist. Taking on the usual assignments for a beginning writer -- from minor crime stories to a local suburb's annual "Hillbilly Day" -- the rookie quickly made an impression on the newsroom with his lively style and solid reporting. Within a year, he moved up to the metro government beat, and The Tennessean sent him to Columbia University for a two-week seminar on investigative reporting.

A cyncial observer might have interpreted Gore's quick rise as political back-scratching -- a favor to Albert Gore, Sr., the state's long-serving liberal senator, who had been turned out of office in 1970. There's no question that Tennessean publisher John Seigenthaler, a former aide to Robert Kennedy, ran a liberal newspaper. Moreover, it's hard to argue that any ordinary twenty-five-year-old reporter would have been invited to present expert testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee's hearings on tax reform, as Al Gore was in May 1973 by Senator Edmund Muskie. (He had written a series on property tax issues.) Gore's name opened certain doors. But it was also obvious that he displayed real talent.

"He was sharp, and people were scared of him because he knew what he was doing," recalls Joe Crockett, a former member of Nashville's Metro Council. "He was walking around with a note pad and it was not comfortable to have him walk up when you were talking among yourselves. A lot of people had done a lot of things."

Those "things" were part of a tradition of bribery and self-dealing in local government, some of which a pre-Watergate press had not pursued. Gore, however, wanted to take on city hall. He soon had his wish.

Meeting with Seigenthaler late in 1973, Gore laid out facts he had dug up and inferences he had drawn from weeks of studying council votes on zoning matters. The evidence was circumstantial but the scenario had the compelling whiff of extortion: in case after case, councilmen with the power to influence real estate zoning had introduced measures affecting the zoning of property with development potential, then mysteriously withdrawn the measures and just as mysteriously reintroduced them.

To prove what he suspected -- that the councilmen were tying up the measures until they were paid off -- Gore needed a source with inside knowledge. As luck would have it, a source appeared within weeks of Gore's meeting with Seigenthaler. Gilbert Cohen, a real estate developer, told Gore about his difficulties in persuading councilman Morris Haddox to put an alley-closing ordinance on the legislative calendar. The measure would affect one of Cohen's developments. Haddox had in fact introduced it, but had then moved to defer it indefinitely.

Gore, Cohen, Seigenthaler, and another player they invited in -- Nashville district attorney Tom Shriver -- concocted a sting operation to nail Haddox, a young pharmacist widely viewed as an up-and-comer in local black political circles. Cohen, wired for sound, met with Haddox to ask what itwould take to get the zoning measure back on the agenda. "It will take a grand," Haddox told him. Cohen laterhanded Haddox a down payment of $ 300, in a transaction secretly recorded by Tennessean photographers.

Meanwhile, Gore was on to another scandal. He had learned that councilman Jack Clariday, who had recently taken action to rezone several properties in his district, owned stock in two companies that profited from zoning variances he had sponsored. Clariday also appeared to have sought favors from developers in exchange for his support of a sewer line extension at a shopping center site.

On Tuesday, February 5, 1974, Morris Haddox reintroduced the long-delayed bill to close the alley for Cohen.

The next morning, in its lead story, The Tennessean laid out Clariday's stock ownership. It knocked the week's biggest breaking story -- the kidnapping of a newspaper heiress named Hearst -- to the bottom of the front page. That day, Gore testified before a grand jury about the Haddox investigation. That night, Haddox was arrested in the council chamber after the grand jury indicted him on bribery charges. He was attending a meeting of the ethics committee.

On Thursday, February 7, The Tennessean ran a series of front-page photos depicting the passing of the alleged bribe. Gore's article spelled out what looked like a clear-cut case of corruption. Gore had nailed two city councilmen in two days.

Morris Haddox was tried twice in 1974; Gore testified in both trials. Haddox employed an entrapment defense, accusing the newspaper of seeking to destroy his career. He said he had accepted the bribe because he was conducting an investigation of his own. The first proceeding ended in a mistrial, with the jury split along racial lines. In the second trial, after transcripts of the incriminating tapes were ruled inadmissible, Haddox was acquitted.

Jack Clariday, like Haddox, accused the newspaper of picking on him. "I kinda know how the good Lord felt when they drug Him down there to nail Him to the cross," he commented. A Nashville jury convicted Clariday of bribery in 1975; his three-year prison sentence was later suspended.

The political careers of both men soon ended,and a chastened council mended its ways considerably in the following years.

Did these ends justify Gore's means? Was it proper for a journalist to initiate an undercover operation and to work hand in hand with law enforcement authorities to snare an allegedly crooked politician?

John Seigenthaler admits to qualms, but defends the action. "I am as idealistic as I can be, but the reason it is so tough for us to develop a meaningful standard of ethics in journalism is that your are faced, from time to time, with critical decisions that cannot be made in the abstract," argues Seigenthaler, who retired from The Tennessean last year to become chairman of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Nashville. He notes that the Haddox sting was not part of a pattern of coziness between the newspaper and law enforcement. A few years earlier, Seigenthaler and district attorney Shriver had butted heads over The Tennessean's coverage of the trial of a doctor accused of performing illegal abortions. Shriver had asked the publisher not to print the names of two women who were slated to testify that they had gone to the doctor for abortions. Seigenthaler had refused.

In 1987, Gore's eagerness to play up his image as an investigative reporter led to one of the worst gaffes of his short-lived campaign for the presidency. Gore told The Des Moines Register that his reporting "got a bunch of people indicted and sent to jail." The Memphis Commercial Appeal caught the exaggeration, and newspapers around the country ran stories on it. At the same time, it emerged that the Gore campaign was distributing copies of two articles that made similarly inflated claims.

The overstatement did not sit well with Morris Haddox, who left the city council long ago but still runs a pharmacy in Nashville. "He needs to stop lying," says Haddox. "I've never been found guilty of anything."

Haddox sees the investigation that led to his indictment as part of a scheme by the city's white power structure to disenfranchise the African-American community. "They were trying to reduce the size of the council, to take the blacks out," claims Haddox.

This contretemps aside, Gore's journalistic credentials have served him well. For one thing, they provided him with one more way of differentiating himself from his opposite number in the recent campaign. While Al Gore was returning from Vietnam to become an investigative journalist, Dan Quayle was writing features for the Indiana Guardsman, house organ of the Indiana National Guard.