[Hpn] The Weekly Standard Magazine

Bill Tinker wtinker@fcgnetworks.net
Mon, 12 Jun 2000 18:59:04 -0400


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The Weekly Standard Magazine











        Feature  June 19, 2000/Vol 5, Number 38
            Sanctimonious Slumlord
            Al Gore's treatment of his Tennessee tenants gives new meaning
to "compassionate liberalism".
            By Matt Labash

            "There is a difference between talking about compassion and
actually putting your highest ideals into practice."


            —Vice President Al Gore, December 2, 1998

            Carthage, Tennessee

            If Tracy Mayberry's life were a country song, it wouldn't be
sung by the ersatz Hat Acts or New Country bunnies currently infesting the
airwaves. It would be sung by the old cast of Hee Haw, who, for all their
hokum, exhibited a certain genius for tear-in-your-beer lamentations with
"Gloom, Despair and Agony On Me." The song's most poignant lyric went: "If
it weren't for bad luck, / I'd have no luck at all." For as long as she can
remember, that's the only luck Tracy Mayberry has known.

            Now 36 years old, Tracy was unlucky at 13, when she married her
first husband who beat her, then left her after she slugged him in the eye.
By the age of 16, she'd met her current husband, Charles. A second-grade
dropout, he hasn't had much luck either. Together, they started an unlucky
family. Charles brought along four kids from a previous marriage. They had
two of their own, then adopted two more—the unlucky offspring of more
unlucky parents. The five kids currently living in their house suffer every
malady from retardation to epileptic seizures. But luckily for the
Mayberrys, they get $1,536 in monthly disability checks. It's the only money
coming in, as 51-year-old Charles, a tobacco and timber cutter, is unable to
ply his trade since suffering congestive heart failure five years ago.
Herself a tobacco cutter, Tracy is also unable to work since her diabetic
stroke. While she's without a vocation (or welfare or food stamps, which
she's too proud to take), she has a new hobby: injecting herself in the
stomach with two shots of insulin every day.

            It might seem the Mayberrys' luck couldn't turn any worse. It
did. Eighteen months ago, they escaped a cramped three-bedroom trailer in
Cookeville, Tennessee, and moved to nearby Carthage, 50 miles east of
Nashville. Here, Tracy thought her family lucky when they secured a
$400-per-month four-bedroom rambler. But when she wrote out her rent check,
her luck turned for the worse—she discovered her new landlord was Vice
President Al Gore.

            Not that Gore was meddlesome. Though Tracy makes her checks out
directly to "Al Gore," and while the Mayberrys' house sits only 150 yards or
so from that of Carthage's Washington, D.C.-bred native son, Gore has been
extremely hands off. So hands off, in fact, that when Tracy complained to
Gore's property managers that the plaster was coming off the walls, the
linoleum was peeling off the kitchen floor, the basin of the bathroom sink
was a constipated sludge puddle, the guts of one toilet tank had to be held
together with Sunbeam bread bag twisties, and both bathroom toilets
overflowed—when they flushed at all—(making the whole house smell, in
Charles's formulation, "like sheee-it"), the managers managed not to fix
anything at all.

            Over the course of a year, Mayberry says she complained some 30
times to Gore's property managers, Charles and Audrey Elrod, a husband and
wife team who have been in the employ of the Gore family (going back to Al's
late father) for 12 years. The Elrods aren't some sort of distant managerial
subcontractor. They actually live on the acreage of Pauline Gore, Al's
mother. Audrey manages the staff of what Tracy's kids call "The Pink
Mansion," Pauline's house on the hill across the Caney Fork River, a view of
which the Mayberrys enjoy when they pop an Icehouse beer and kick back next
to the belching duct-taped air-conditioning window unit on their front
porch.

            Tracy hadn't had much luck getting any response from Gore
entities, but last month, when the Post Office delivered a notice saying she
had a registered letter from Al Gore, she thought she might have caught a
break. After all, it wouldn't seem too tall an order for the second most
powerful man in the world to make sure the Mayberrys' toilets flushed
properly. He could probably even get a good deal on parts, since his wife
Tipper was a shareholder in her father's plumbing supplies business (an
asset that Gore's 1998 financial disclosure report valued at between
$100,000 and $250,000).

            But when Tracy went to pick up the letter, it wasn't actually
from Gore. It was an eviction notice from Audrey, written on Gore Realty
letterhead, spelled "Gore Reality." The reality of Gore Realty, admits
Audrey, is that there isn't any such company, only the two rental houses Al
Gore owns. "That's just something we call it," she says. According to Gore's
most recent disclosure reports, he grosses $4,800 annually from the
stopped-up sinkhole that is the Mayberrys' home.

            The eviction letter stated that because of the unsanitary
condition of the septic system and the amount of time it would take to fix,
"We believe that it would be to everyone's advantage if you could find
somewhere else to move. This seems to be an ongoing problem with the
plumbing and it is not in the best interest or health of the people living
there for us to continue renting the house." Mayberry says that Audrey told
her the Secret Service would be taking over the house, an assertion Audrey
now backs away from. "Oh, that was just something I came up with," she says.
"[The Gores] never said nothing about that."

            True to form, Al Gore never said anything at all—at least not
until Tracy Mayberry called Nashville's NewsChannel 5 on June 2, to give
them a tour of the dilapidated house from which "slumlord" Gore was evicting
her. The next day, Tracy received a call from the force behind Gore Reality,
the vice president himself. He apologized profusely, telling Mayberry he'd
known nothing about the problems. To make it up to her, and to defuse media
interest, he promised to have the place repaired, to charge her no rent
until it was, to drop the eviction, and even to put the Mayberry family up
somewhere while the renovations were underway if they so desired. By the end
of the conversation, they were even talking dinner invites, with Tracy
promising to make fried chicken, cornbread, and a peach cobbler. (She may
have gotten carried away—when I ask if she'd really like to have Gore over
for dinner, she says, "No. . . . He invited himself, I didn't invite him. I
really don't care if I meet him or not.")

            As damage control goes, Gore's strategy largely worked. The
Mayberry story was nearly over before it began. Network newscasts ignored
it. Most major papers ran wire copy. So did the Nashville Tennessean, where
Gore once worked as a reporter, and whose Goreophile editor, Frank
Sutherland, has appeared in a Gore campaign video.

            If it were possible for Dickens to mount a comeback and this
time go Southern Gothic, a stop by the Mayberry homestead would give him a
good leg up on source material. The house sits a mere chaw-hock from the
Gores', and is nearly as close to the Golden Nugget Lounge, a kicker bar
that promises karaoke and one-dollar longnecks for the ladies. Around the
perimeter of the Mayberrys' medium-sized yard is a barbed-wire cattle fence,
a gentle reminder to their children not to wander off onto the Gore property
where they could get intercepted by Secret Service agents or electrocuted on
another interior fence. Like most rural southern settings, the Mayberrys'
yard exhibits a healthy amalgam of cars and dogs. In the driveway, there's
their son's beat-up '91 Camaro, Charles's '79 Bonneville with its festive
coat of gray primer, a 1990 Olds Cutlass, and Tracy's Ford pickup featuring
the bumper sticker "Women come and go, but you can rely on a truck" (the
Mayberrys have relied on theirs since 1988).

            On the dog side of the ledger, there's Miss Lady the boxer, Jake
the pit bull/rottweiler mix, and four others who are tethered to trees and
other immovable objects with thick timber chains. The dogs subsist on "fat
meat" donated by a charitable butcher. "Sometimes they eat better than I
do," says Tracy. "My husband says bologna is a poor man's steak."

            As for kids, the place is crawling with them. There's
25-year-old Linda, who Tracy says is retarded, though she doesn't seem it
("Just talk to her awhile," Tracy encourages). There's also 14-year-old
Anna, who is a self-described "maniac depressive," and who also experiences
such severe agoraphobia that her teachers drop her lessons off at the house.
Ten-year-old John, who sports an orange tank top and no shoes, is 5'3" and
211 lbs, says sister Anna, who adds, with clockwork timing, that he's on a
"see-food diet . . . if he sees it—he eats it."

            John remains unruffled. "I could live off cheeseburgers," he
says, though he often makes do with fried potatoes and pinto beans when
money gets tight—and it always does. The Mayberrys adopted 9-year-old
Candace—not knowing that she'd have occasional seizures, be mildly retarded,
and be prone to making mischief at school, such as when she told her
teachers that Tracy had given birth to twins, killed one, and given the
other away. Last up is 4-year-old Jordan, a hard-boned shirtless jumping
bean, who was also adopted from a mother who drank and took drugs throughout
her pregnancy, afflicting Jordan with fetal alcohol syndrome, attention
deficit disorder, and God knows what else. "He's been on the Ritalin," says
Tracy. "Sometimes it calms him down, other times it'll run him crazy."

            Tracy sits at her kitchen table in an aquamarine Winnie-the-Pooh
T-shirt, black sweats, and Birkenstocks. Since she spoke out against Gore,
she's received several abusive letters from his supporters. One called her
an "asshole Republican" (though she's always voted Democrat). Another said
she looked like a frog. "I don't wear makeup that often," she says. "I don't
dress to please anybody. Where can I afford to go?"

            Though Tracy doesn't own much—not even a full set of teeth—she
does have all the accouterments of a professional chain smoker, including
her Marlboro 100s and a cigarette pouch with a side holster from which she
draws her pink lighter. Husband Charles sits next to her, decked to his
facial stubble in faded denim. He doesn't say much, and when he does, he's
difficult to understand. Instead, he lets his black hat do the talking. It
says, "I can't take it anymore." And indeed he can't, as Charles's nerves
are shot, and he adjourns to a back bedroom where he falls asleep to the
accompaniment of "Busted" from Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison album.

            As Tracy gives a tour of her house, she speaks of its other
unnamed occupants—the rather robust arachnid population. Tracy says they've
killed all kinds of spiders, from black widows to fiddle backs. In recent
months, they've bought nearly 20 cans of Raid; they activate it, then go off
to hunt for other houses. While we are standing in Tracy's living room, a
large flying cockroach lands on the wall above my head. Tracy takes after it
with her ever-ready flyswatter, but she doesn't have the wingspan. She hands
it to me, and I make contact with the cockroach, dropping it to the floor—we
think. We hunt for a body for several minutes, but then call off the search
party, reasoning that even if we killed it, there're more where it came
from.

            While various repairmen scurry about the house under the eye of
property manager Charles Elrod, it's clear they have quite a job ahead of
them. Manhole-sized swaths of linoleum are missing from the kitchen floor,
though the Elrods, along with the Gores' local lawyer, James Bass,
not-so-subtly insinuate that the damage was done by the Mayberrys, since the
floor coverings were replaced before they moved in 1998. (Never mind that
the allegedly new linoleum pattern looks to have been out of style since
1978, that the size of the holes suggests the Mayberrys would have had to
drop a jackhammer from a forklift, and that the faux-marble countertops,
supposedly replaced around the same time, are in immaculate condition.)

            In the hallways, there are fault lines in the ceiling and
peeling plaster bordered by yellow rings, perhaps from old water damage. The
paint in some places is mismatched, but it wouldn't make much difference if
it were uniform, as it bears enough scuff marks to look like the inside of a
handball court. A red-faced, sweaty Plumber Bob goes to town in the
bathrooms, snaking and plunging, and dodging a chirpy local television
reporter who wants to know if she can get some footage of Tracy "talking
around the toilet."

            As we huddle inside the house, we hear the chopping of
helicopter blades. "Momma, it's Al Gore!" exclaims Anna. We all pile out
into the yard, tending to believe Anna, since one doesn't see much
helicopter traffic in Carthage—there aren't many places to land, what with
all the Kissing Dutch Children lawn ornaments. The helicopter hovers, then
disappears without revealing its passenger, but it is clearly not Al Gore.
At the moment, he is in New York, promoting his "family agenda" at a
$15,000-per-year Upper East Side preschool. He gets help from Rosie
O'Donnell, who tells the assembly, "I'm very fortunate that I am very, very
rich."

            Soon after the false alarm, Plumber Bob and Elrod, who looks as
if he coifs his hair with high-viscosity motor oil, haul one of the
perpetually clogged toilets out into the yard. They leave a trail of water
throughout the house that they don't bother swabbing up. While Plumber Bob
goes after the toilet with sharp objects and a garden hose, an ugly thing
happens. I'm standing in the front yard talking to Gore's man on the scene,
and he begins casting aspersions on the Mayberrys. Says Elrod: "I've been
aggravated to death. . . . They trashed the house. . . . When they moved in
. . . it was completely new inside and out." While Elrod says Gore
operatives told him that "we're supposed to be nice," he later claims he
even told Tipper Gore —"I think it was in an e-mail"—that the Mayberrys were
responsible for the disrepair. (A Tipper Gore spokesperson says she's heard
no such thing.)

            Elrod goes on to suggest that 14 people are living in the house,
though only 7 do. He says the toilets have not been cleaned, though Tracy
tells me she cleans her bowls at least once a week, and I spot cleaning
bleach in her bathroom. He suggests that the disrepair of the walls is their
fault, though the peeling plaster, for instance, is higher than any of the
children's natural reach, and young Jordan would have had to launch a
shotput to cause the cracks in the ceiling. Elrod even expresses regret that
they weren't evicted: "I think it would be in their best interest to find
another place to move."

            It exhausts credulity to believe that the Elrods, Al Gore's
property managers of 12 years, are speaking autonomously in this potentially
incendiary situation, even as Gore apologizes and makes restitution. Letting
surrogates attack, after all, is a familiar Gore campaign strategy. Gore
also has a political interest in appearing not to know anything about his
own rental property, particularly since Tracy Mayberry says the Elrods told
her no repairs could be made without Gore's consent. She says that she
implored the Elrods, on no less than five occasions, to contact Gore
directly. And a few months ago, she says, she even went so far as to call
the vice president's Carthage office to complain. (She was referred right
back to Gore's property managers.) Still, one might be tempted to give Gore
the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he has no time for such minutiae, as he
busies himself speechifying about compassion.

            But when I tell Tracy Mayberry what Gore's surrogates are
saying, she is no longer prepared to accept his pleas of ignorance.

            "Boy that makes me mad," she says. "All I ask for is to get my
house fixed, and they start attackin' me, sayin' I'm nasty. . . . You know
[Gore] has to know something about it. ...I don't have to put up with it and
I'm not going to."

            A day after visiting Tracy, I call for a progress report on the
repairs. The first time her husband flushed the toilet, she says, it seeped
water all over the floor. And, she says, the linoleum guys inadvertently
created two big dents in her kitchen floor by failing to patch up holes
before they laid the new covering. Tracy Mayberry has given up hope of
getting lucky enough ever to see her house repaired. So she's made another
plan. "I'm packin' my stuff up," she says, "and they can take this house and
go to hell with it."

            In a couple of days, Mayberry says, she will drop her children
off at her mother's trailer, while she and her husband sleep in their truck.
When they receive their disability checks on the first of the month, they'll
begin looking for a new place to live. "We ain't got the money for motels
right now," she says matter-of-factly.

            As for Gore, he might not want to count on Tracy's vote in
November, or even on a taste of that cornbread and peach cobbler. "The way I
consider it," she says, "Gore can kiss my ass." ®


            by Matt Labash




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