Two days before the most hard-fought presidential election in American history, Al Gore's closest childhood friend is headed to a Tennessee Titans game, with a pile of pals in the same tour bus that carried Al Gore to the debate in St. Louis. "We gon' win this thing!" Steve Armistead shouts.
The Titans have never lost a home game yet.
"Just like Al Gore," notes one of Steve's guests, Dolly, who also grew up with Al. "He never lost a race in Tennessee either. And he's not gonna lose this one!"
"Damn right, Dolly."
The tour bus, which sleeps twelve and is equipped with sixteen TVs, is partly owned by Steve ("just a little side business"). Which is how it came to carry Al around St. Louis. "I brought it down there for him 'cause I knew he'd be more comfortable, and he just loved all the gadgets," says Steve, a year older than Al at 53. He slips to the back of the bus to fetch some refreshments.
"I don't know what the hell Steve sees in Al Gore," says Dick, another of Armistead's friends, who's a lobbyist for the nursing-home industry. He's not joking. Two more of Steve's guests are wearing Bush-Cheney buttons. "But lemme tell ya," Dick adds, "Al Gore hasn't got a better friend."
"And Al knows that," says Dolly, defending her man. "He's said as much."
"And then he said, 'I invented Steve Armistead,' " cracks Dolly's husband, Jim, who has brought along a Gore mask for the game.
"That's all right, y'all joke all you want," says Steve. "But we gon' win this thing."
When CBS predicts Gore will lose, Steve crawls into a fetal position on a bed. "I'm not giving up," he says.
Steve Armistead is the guy who keeps Al Gore real--or tries to. Who's been there for 44 years to remind him where he came from. Who's suffered with him through every crisis and every campaign since Gore first ran for Congress in 1976, when Steve drove the candidate on Election Night from Carthage to his victory party in Lebanon, Tennessee. When they began their trip, Armistead recalls, Gore was way down in the polls and "not a happy camper." But by the time they arrived, he had won the race.
Losing is just not in Steve and Al's repertoire. Especially now. "If he loses this one," Steve had confided the day before the game, "it will be the closest thing to dying for him." Which is why, even during the harrowing days that followed the longest Election Night in history, Steve still has no intention of giving up.
Three hours into the Titans game, Steve is watching calmly from the upper deck as his team is down by three in the fourth quarter. The rest of the crowd is going insane. "It's gon' be all right, they do this all the time," he says, popping a wad of tobacco into his mouth. With barely a minute left in the game, he's still confident. "I'm tellin ya, we're gon' win." And then, with eight seconds to go, they do. "Told ya," says Armistead, breaking into a wide grin. "Now you just wait till Tuesday, lil' girl. Gon' be just as exciting."
It's Tuesday, and Armistead is barreling down Route 70 in Carthage on his way to the Forks River Elementary School, a trip he has made every Election Day since Gore first ran for office. Tradition calls for him to stand against the powder-blue-painted cinder-block walls, outside the gymnasium where they used to shoot hoops, just to be there when Al enters to cast his vote.
On his way to the school, Armistead's cell phone rings for what seems like the twenty-third time. "Nah, it ain't rung 23 times. You Goring me?" He laughs. "We can't have any exaggerations today." He picks up the phone. "Gimme something good," he answers. "Uh-huh. All right, lemme holler back at you." He hangs up. "I told you we gon' win this damn thing." The early exit polls look excellent, he reports. Hell, even the media is getting with the program. "CBS has him up now," he says with a snort. "We go fifteen damn months and don't lead in a damn poll, and on Election Day we're up in all of them! Those sonofabitches--rootin' for a pinhead!"
Course, Steve never doubted for a minute that Al Gore could pull it out in the end. Well, okay, there was that moment two weeks ago when he found himself in the fetal position, sick with the realization that the Pinhead was really ahead. But he rallied. Gotta be there for Al. Like he's always been.
And this morning, he's especially insistent. "We gon' be drinkin' outta that Jack Daniels punch bowl in the White House! Just like Al promised." At a fund-raiser his buddies threw last year, the vice-president cornered a few old friends and told them that if he won, he'd keep a punch bowl of bourbon filled for them at the White House, just like the first president from Tennessee, Andrew Jackson, had reportedly done. "And he will," says Steve. "You gotta know Al."
Steve knows Al. They have been friends since Gore was 8 and Armistead was 9, bonding at the Smith County Fair, where Al "was showing his daddy's cows." As kids, the boys worked on the farm each summer, sneaking beers by the Caney Fork River and skinny-dipping in the public pool. They lived within a mile of each other, with nothing but hills in between.
Steve's father was a clerk in an auto-parts store; Al's was a U.S. senator. "But we didn't talk about junk like that," Steve says. When Steve was 10, the Senator gave him a job on the Gore farm, where every summer Al would join him from Washington, D.C. They spent their days together tending to the cows and their evenings getting into trouble.
By the time he was 17, Al had met his second girlfriend, Tipper; his first and only other girlfriend was Steve's sister, Donna. "I love Donna to death," says Steve. "We're blood kin." But they haven't spoken in two years, in large part because of Donna's decision to sell stories about dating Al Gore to the tabloids. "You just don't do that to someone you love," says Steve.
When Steve graduated from high school, uncertain of his future, Al called him from Washington. If he wanted to move to D.C. and go to college, Al said, the Senator would get him a job to help him pay his way through. So, while Al went off to Harvard, Steve worked as the elevator man in the Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, and took political courses at the University of Maryland, but did poorly and soon returned to Tennessee, where he went to work building roads and driveways. Today he's the roads superintendent for Wilson County, a political job he swears Gore had nothing to do with.
As Gore moved up the political ladder in Washington, Steve remained in Tennessee with his wife, a high-school English teacher, and two kids. They'd talk frequently on the phone and celebrated each other's family events. Along with Tommy Lee Jones, he served as an usher at Al's wedding. (The night before, Steve says, he and Gore went on a bender, arriving noticeably hung over before the nuptials.) It was Steve whom Al approached for advice when he was tortured about his decision to go to Vietnam, when he wondered whether it was time to marry Tipper. "And he was always there for me," says Steve, particularly when Armistead was battling alcoholism. Like George W. Bush, he has been sober since the late eighties. ("It's the one thing I respect him for," Steve says.)