Man Without Qualities

Sunday, February 24, 2002

About That Résumé

Aaron Sorkin, the creative mind behind the hit television show “The West Wing” who has recently been troubled by what appears to a be serious drug problem, now says about the last Presidential election: "It was frustrating watching Gore try so hard not to appear smart in the debates. Why not just say 'Here's my f___ing résumé, what do you got?' We're a completely fictional, nonpolitical show, but one of our motors is doing our version of the old Mad magazine 'Scenes We'd Like to See.' And so to an extent we're going to rerun the last election and try a few different plays than the Gore campaign did."

Well, a more detailed examination of Mr. Gore’s résumé might be interesting, but perhaps not for the reasons Mr. Sorkin has in mind. I would like to concentrate here on the earlier portions of that résumé.

First, there was college. Bush attended Yale; Gore went to Harvard – both men were admitted as “legacy” students, since neither did all that well in high school. Harvard/Yale rivalries aside, that résumé item looks like a draw.

Mr. Bush seems to have had a rather steady, mediocre trajectory at Yale. He did, however, then enter and graduate from Harvard Business School – an institution which makes a point of forcing out the bottom ten percent of each class. So, of the major candidates in the 2000 election, Bush and Nader – but not Mr. Gore – hold graduate degrees from Harvard.

Early in college, Mr. Gore also failed to excel. Mr. Gore did better as he advanced, and received a degree as a "Government" major with honors from Harvard in 1969 – a fact that his various biographies play up a good deal. This is where the résumé examination may get interesting. In his later years at Harvard, Gore seems to have focused increasingly on courses in which the grades were based on term papers for which the work was done out of class, not exams. Mr. Gore’s courses also seem to have swung closer to “Government” topics in which Mr. Gore’s father’s office in Washington probably had a good deal of resident expertise.

For example, Harvard undergraduates write an “undergraduate thesis” – a long term-paper-like effort. Mr. Gore’s Harvard “undergraduate thesis” concerned mass communication and national politics. United States Senators normally have a lot of people hanging around the office who spend a lot of time on just that topic of mass communication and national politics. I know of no way to determine if Mr. Gore’s father’s buddies and consultants helped out on Mr. Gore’s undergraduate thesis and other papers. Perhaps others do. But, it is interesting that someone like Mr. Gore who had been an indifferent student in high school and early in college suddenly started performing better on term papers in his later college years.

Mr. Gore would not be the first student to "get serious" as he worked his way through college. However, one normally (although, not always) expects people who get serious to have developed a sense of academic and personal direction and purpose, and to maintain it after graduation. This appears not to have been the case with Mr. Gore. After graduation, he volunteered for enlistment in the U.S. Army and served in Vietnam - a decision apparently not based so much on any commitment to patriotism as a desire to preserve his future political viability. Returning to civilian life, Mr. Gore became an investigative reporter with The Tennesseean in Nashville. He attended Vanderbilt University Divinity School and Vanderbilt Law School. But he apparently reverted to his bad old scholastic habits, because his transcripts did not shine. An official capsule biography says he also “operated a small homebuilding business.”

He is also said to have used a great deal of marijuana during and after his days at Harvard, drug use perhaps approaching the levels that Mr. Sorkin seems to enjoy. For example, John C. Warnecke, a Tennessee friend of Mr. Gore, said in an interview: “I have first hand knowledge that he has not told the truth about his drug use. Al Gore and I smoked regularly, as buddies. Marijuana, hash. I was his regular supplier. I didn't deal dope, I just gave it to him. We smoked more than once, more than a few times, we smoked a lot. We smoked in his car, in his house, we smoked in his parents' house, in my house… we smoked on weekends. We smoked a lot. Al Gore and I were smoking marijuana together right up to the time that he ran for Congress in 1976. Right up through the week he declared for that race, in fact.”

It is not my point here either to criticize or to excuse Mr. Gore’s drug use, poor post-graduate scholastic performance or an apparent lack of direction after Harvard. However, none of these traits is generally found in people who get serious during college the way Mr. Gore claims to have done. Although Mr. Bush frankly admits he too lacked direction and continued to abuse alcohol until roughly his 40th year, there is no inconsistency in Mr. Bush’s record like that in Mr. Gore's. Since Mr. Bush experienced his conversion to a serious life, he has been, well, serious. That is generally what one expects in such cases, and it is odd that Mr. Gore's conversion to serious life seems to have included some substantial relapses, if his version of events is to be believed.

In the light of Mr. Gore’s now-notorious penchant for imaginative reconstructions of his past, the inconsistencies sketched above make it is worth asking: Just how did Mr. Gore manage that academic upswing in his later years at Harvard? Did he have “help” from Washington? Would that explain how he was an uncommitted student lacking direction and a desire to apply himself before and after Harvard and in his early time as a Harvard student, but seemed to "shine" for his later period in college? It would also help to explain how this "shining" might have occurred notwithstanding what appears to have been rather heavy use of marijuana, behavior more associated with the losing of one's way rather than the finding of it.

One hopes that Mr. Gore did not stoop to hiring someone to do his academic work as did his fellow Senator, Democratic Presidential aspirant and Harvard graduate, Ted Kennedy. But, in his defense, Mr. Kennedy has never masqueraded as an intellectual.

Mr. Gore does have such pretensions. Since Mr. Gore has now re-entered what he calls the "national debate," going so far as to sport a beret and an odd little French-intellectual beard - it would seem worth looking into the very question that Aaron Sorkin is urging the nation to ask. As Mr. Sorkin so directly puts it, just what about that “f___ing résumé?”


An astute reader writes with a fine point:

"I'm not so impressed with Aaron Sorkin's resume. A BA from Syracuse? In Theater Arts? Even for TV, that's not very impressive. Half the writing staff on The Simpsons are from Harvard. Even Conan O'Brian went to Harvard."

I wonder if Mr. Sorkin would be willing to turn over his proceeds from The West Wing to someone on his staff with a more impressive résumé than his? One can imagine the negotiations between Mr. Sorkin and his Harvard educated writer beginning with the writer's sally: "Here's my f___ing résumé, what do you got?"

But where to imagine the talks going from there? Perhaps Mr. Sorkin is working on that aspect right now, in the Presidential context, of course.

One might have thought that someone like Mr. Sorkin, who has undeniably accomplished much notwithstanding his unimpressive résumé, would understand how pretentious, silly, undemocratic and, ultimately, disgraceful, such thinking is. And it is not just Mr. Sorkin. The entire "I should be President (or Senator) because I had better grades than you did" argument that the Clinton/Gore camp has been extruding for years, with the help of their friends in the media, should be stopped. And those involved should be called to account in the media and at the polls.

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