Election Diaries: Pal of Al

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.)

During Gore’s term as vice-president, Armistead and his family visited in Washington and twice accompanied him to the White House. When Gore heard about Steve’s 50th-birthday party, he and Tipper were there to surprise him, even though the event took place at the same time the Buddhist-temple scandal erupted.

In just a few hours, Steve’s buddy may be elected president. “Oh, that’s where he totaled the Chevy Impala,” he says, pointing out the window, and recalling the day a teenage Al came running up to him on the farm, barefoot and horrified after he’d “flipped the car over about thirteen times into a gully” trying to pass a truck on his way back from summer class. Somehow, Gore crawled through the window and escaped unscathed, but was terrified of telling his parents about the wreck. “C’mon,” said Steve, swinging an arm around his buddy. “Let’s go tell your mama!”

“This here’s that bridge I told you about,” says Steve as we cross the Caney Fork River by the house Al grew up in. “We hid a lot of evidence under that bridge.” Like the time they were about 15 and decided, after maybe a beer or two, it would be fun to “get us some of those big wooden things with the blinking lights” used for road repairs. So one night they “borrowed a few” from Highway 70, loaded them into the Gore family car, and smuggled them into Al’s bedroom while the Senator and Ms. Pauline were out of town. “But the damn things kept blinking while we were trying to sleep,” remembers Steve. So they dragged them out in the middle of the night and hurled them from the bridge into the Caney Fork River. Unfortunately, “all you had to do was look in the damn river and you could still see them blinking …”

Though he has no official role in the campaign, Armistead nonetheless exerts a powerful influence, derived from his history and obvious loyalty to the candidate. Steve would do just about anything for Al. During that first election, when Gore realized that a handful of people from his hometown hadn’t voted for him, Gore dispatched Steve to “find out who they were and why.”

During the current one, he was pressed into active duty in Tennessee during “the slum-lord situation,” forced to deal with Tracy Mayberry and her overflowing toilets in the $400-a-month house she had rented from Al Gore. Steve was in charge of cleaning up the mess while Mayberry did round after round of embarrassing TV interviews. “After a month of that bullshit, I was pretty relieved when the damn Republicans finally moved her ass to Ohio,” he says.

His other role in the campaign was to serve as an occasional reality check for Al, usually at Tipper’s behest. She took pains to include him in “extended family conference calls” and asked him to show up at various campaign appearances. When her husband was around Steve, she admitted to Steve’s wife, Linda, he tended to loosen up.

He spoke onstage about Gore during the L.A. convention and was backstage during the last two debates. But his major job was to try to convince the media that Al is really a Tennessee boy, despite having spent most of his formative years in a Washington hotel room. “This is where his heart is, this is where his values come from. And this is where he’ll die.”

Finally, we pull into the gravel driveway of the Forks River school. Locking his .38 in the car, Steve strolls past the press vans, stopping only to be slapped on the back by a bunch of Secret Service agents and some very deferential members of the Gore campaign. “We gon’ win this thing,” he tells them. Yessir. Right this way, sir. They usher him into the school, underneath the no press signs, to a private part of the hallway. Several hundred reporters are also waiting inside the gymnasium.

The Gores slip in through a side door and meet privately with Steve before going in to cast their votes. The kids hug him first. “Little Albert,” Gore’s son, who celebrated his 18th birthday a few weeks ago in Missouri with Steve in attendance, reminds him that this is his first time voting. (“Imagine,” Steve says later, “casting your first vote for your daddy for president.”)

“Hey, pal,” says Al, bear-hugging Steve. “How’s it goin’?” He whispers in Steve’s ear that things are “looking great.” Steve asks Gore how his back is doing. He’s been worried about that since the St. Louis debate, when he noticed Al wincing with pain. Then Tipper grabs him by both hands and gets right in his face. “We’re gonna bring it home, Steve,” she says. “We’re gonna bring it home.”

At 6:30 p.m. Tennessee time, Steve leaves his home and heads to the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza in Nashville so he can be in the same hotel as Al for the night. “I have a change of clothes for him,” says Linda, loading a garment bag into the car. “You never know what’s gonna happen!”

As he strolls into the lobby of the Loews, former Gore campaign chair Tony Coelho shouts across the room, “Steve!” A few feet away from him is current campaign chair Bill Daley. “Hey, Steve!” Just as he’s in mid­bear hug with Coelho, a crowd in the lobby bar erupts in screams. “Is that Florida?” Daley asks. “Damn right,” says Steve. “Hell, he better give them free Prozac and Viagra and whatever the hell else they need down in Florida.”

In the elevator, more hugging with Gore’s son-in-law, Drew Schiff. By the time Steve and Linda get to their room, Gore has Michigan too. The Armisteads are waiting for Edd Blair and his wife, Betty, a state trooper. Edd is a former state trooper turned federal marshall and another childhood friend who’s been close to Gore for decades. When he worked for the Highway Patrol, one of his jobs was to guard his old buddy, then a senator, whenever he was back in Tennessee. “Blair, get your big ass up here!” Steve is shouting into the phone.

Edd and Betty arrive just as the pundits are debating whether Gore will lose Tennessee. “We gon’ win Tennessee,” says Steve. “We better,” says Edd, an enormous guy who talks without moving his lips. Dan Rather is saying “what a heartbreak it’ll be for Gore” if he loses his home state.

“Oh, kiss my ass!” says Steve.

Several minutes later, Gore takes Pennsylvania.

Now Dan Rather is saying that a Gore loss in Tennessee would be “Shakespearean.”

“I’m gon’ kill him,” says Steve.

Several minutes later, the bottom starts to fall out, starting with Gore’s loss in Tennessee. “Shit,” says Steve. “I can’t believe the dumb-ass people in this state! But we gon’ be all right.”

Except that now the pundits are claiming California is tight. “If Bush wins California,” says Edd, “you better hold me, cause I’m just gon’ jump out this damn window.” “Then let me go first,” says Steve, ” ‘cause I’m afraid I’ll land on toppa’ you and live.”

Steve kicks off his shoes. “I think I’m gon’ ask for Barbados. Whatcha think, Blair? You come visit me down there?” Then, all of a sudden, Gore’s electoral count decreases by 25 points as, one by one, the networks remove Florida from the win column, the room falls silent, except for the click of the remote control. Steve doesn’t even have a retort when Dan Rather says that this might be “sayonara” and that “it could be that the lights are going out for Gore.”

Steve crawls into a fetal position on one of the beds, and Linda lays down next to him. Edd is pacing by the window. “What do you think?” he says to Steve. “I’m not giving up yet,” he says and bounces off the bed. “We’re like the damn Titans here with eight seconds left.”

Now Dan Rather is saying Bush is close to being president of the United States, “but close only counts with hand grenades and horseshoes.”

“Wish I had a damn hand grenade,” says Steve.

At 2:17 a.m., when “Bush wins presidency” flashes on the screen, Steve is dead silent. Soon, someone from the Gore suite calls. Al is headed to the plaza to concede, Steve is told.

“Well, it’s been an inneresting ride, boy. It’s been an inneresting ride,” he says to Edd. “What are we gonna talk about now?”

Then another call comes.

“We got one time-out left!” says Steve. “Hell, I didn’t call overtime.”

Election Diaries: Pal of Al