Meet Karenna! Al Gore’s Li’l Weapon

Karenna Gore Schiff, the daughter of the Vice President, blew into Neil’s Coffee Shop at Lexington Avenue and 70th Street, a few blocks uptown from the apartment she shares with her husband, 34-year-old Dr. Andrew Schiff and her 4-month-old baby boy, Wyatt Gore Schiff. Her hair was still wet, and she had chewed cuticles. “I really, really, need help with organization,” she said. “I’m always messing stuff up.” But at 26 years old, slight and 5 feet 6 inches tall, her disheveled glamour suggested at least some of what she refers to as her grandfather Albert Gore Sr.’s rural Tennessee “settler’s mentality.”

Still, Ms. Schiff suggested more Berkeley than Possum Hollow. She wore a ribbed black cardigan over a salmon colored T-shirt and spoke of being a beleaguered Upper East Side housewife, but if she was beleaguered it was a kind of Renee Zellweger beleaguered, that is, radiant. “I’m focused on, like, not leaving the house with baby spit-up all over me,” she said, “Basically. It’s not really a glamorous time.” But she looked glamorous at her coffee shop table, with the slight spine curvature that afflicts those who spend a lot of time sitting on floors Indian style. She said it felt as if she had left Harvard yesterday, even though it’s actually been four years.

Since early summer, when Al Gore’s Presidential campaign was already starting to gurgle unpretty noises, his oldest daughter (he’s got three, plus a son) became resolved to take a more active role in her father’s White House run. And she made good on her resolve.

Karenna Gore Schiff talks to her father nearly every day, sometimes many times a day. As they always have done, they talk politics. They talk about the campaign. Early in the campaign–long before Ms. Schiff introduced her father when he announced his candidacy in June–Ms. Schiff was reportedly also on the phone daily with Mark Penn, then Mr. Gore’s primary pollster, as well as with Bob Squier, then Mr. Gore’s media consultant. According to a source with knowledge of the campaign, Ms. Schiff began inserting herself into strategy sessions with Mr. Squier.

“He’s in a better place when [Ms. Schiff]‘s around,” Mr. Squier told Newsweek in August. When “Gore 2000″ moved its headquarters to Nashville, Mr. Penn and Mr. Squier didn’t. Washington insiders, who had been referring to Mr. Gore’s inner circle as “the five white guys” began asking if they should add the Vice President’s daughter to the equation.

“She doesn’t have a deep grounding in the horse-race aspects of a campaign that a good consultant would,” said one friend of Ms. Schiff’s. “She wouldn’t be able to tell you how to cut an ad or how to poll. But in terms of thinking through methods, she’s got a great ear. If Al Gore stood up and said, ‘I’m a good family man, I was a good father,’ he would sound even more insincere than he usually sounds. Karenna can stand up and explain those aspects of her dad.”

“People are used to hearing from spouses. They’re not used to hearing from children,” said Ryan Karben, the deputy majority leader of the Rockland County Legislature, who worked with Ms. Schiff when they were both summer associates at the Manhattan law firm Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett. “Everybody expects the classic image of the political spouse either hovering over the children or going out as a surrogate … But a child who can go out and speak credibly about a parent running for President, you don’t see that very often. George W. Bush didn’t really go out and do it for George Bush.”

As a result, Ms. Schiff’s life has been one long scheduling crisis, between classes as a third-year Columbia Law School student, breastfeeding little Wyatt (born, as if by political hoodoo, on the Fourth of July) and getting on the horn with Gore campaign consultant Bob Squier. Now, as Al Gore’s biggest, and potentially best champion, Ms. Schiff is taking it upon herself to do what the candidate, the candidate’s wife and a team of crack campaign operators have been struggling to do on TV magazine appearances and on the stump–somehow, make the Vice President seem more real, more human, less like the animatronic Abe Lincoln at Disney World’s Epcot Center. Ms. Schiff is strapping on the armor to save Daddy’s ass.

This is not a new goal. Al Gore tried to do the same thing by telling Talk magazine that he smoked dope in his six-month tour of Vietnam. Tipper Gore freely told any audience that would listen that the Vice President was a well-domesticated smoldering sexpot. But in contrast to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s 1992 presentations on marijuana and marital fidelity, nobody seemed to care. Now, the daughter is proclaiming to the nation should reassess her dad: He’s not a stiff, wonky snooze. He puts Tabasco on just … everything … He’s a jokester … You can call … him … Al.

“Karenna is realizing that the guy she reads about in the paper every day is different than the guy she knows,” said a friend of Ms. Schiff’s, who requested anonymity. “She’s more charismatic than he is. She can read an audience better.”

It is not a small task, and it requires organization, a thing that does not come easily to Ms. Schiff, who has gained a reputation among friends for losing A.T.M. cards and plane tickets. “My husband’s really well organized, so that I think it’s actually made me worse,” she said of Dr. Schiff, a nephew of the late, legendary owner of the New York Post , Dorothy Schiff. “You know, now, I have sort of a safety net.” Now she has files, three of them, labeled “campaign,” “law school” and “household.” She is thinking that perhaps she should get more.

“My husband got me a Palm Pilot … and it was working a lot better than the million scraps of paper. But then it failed! It just lost all the information I’d put into it.” She looked indignant for a moment, and then smiled, her eyes narrowing to slits. “I think I forgot to put new batteries in. But it didn’t give me enough warning that I needed to do that! Everything was gone. Drew, of course, luckily had saved all the stuff that was on it at some point on a disk somewhere, so that was good, but all that information was from a year and a half ago, so the friends that I’ve made in the past year are gone. I thought about calling one of them and I was like, I just don’t have any of their information!”

So much for fund raising.

She picked up a bottle of ketchup and started agitating it gently over her spinach omelet. Nothing came out. She started belting the bottom of it with her palm … hard. She then began shaking the bottle with a force that suggested her body was connected to a paint mixer, gazing at the inert sauce as though some force of nature was out to dash her plans–personal organization, ketchup, the Democratic nomination. Still nothing. “Ugh, this is going to be a disaster,” she said, wrinkling her nose, a slimmer version of her dad’s patrician beak.

Then she stuck her knife it in, and the ketchup ran free. She smiled.

Then she ate a hair, which she wasn’t sure was one of hers.

Once upon a time, life was easier. Ms. Schiff was Karenna Gore, one of dozens of senators’ daughters living in Washington, D.C. She went to the National Cathedral School. She played field hockey and lacrosse. During the summer, she’d go back to Tennessee and chew the fat with her grandfather, former Senator Albert Gore, one of Tennessee’s noblemen, who wore bolo ties, played the fiddle and plotted his son’s political future.

In 1988, she helped campaign with her father who had made a precipitous attempt at the Presidency and, endorsed by a flailing, frantic Mayor Ed Koch in the New York primary, lost. She bought Purple Rain . Her mom heard her listening to a song about “Darling Nikki,” whom Prince sang he had met “in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine.” Tipper Gore was appalled and waged a public war with Frank Zappa over dirty lyrics. Karenna was aghast, but managed to abscond with of some of the better smutty records that people were sending her mom.

After freshman year at Harvard, when she was working in Costa Rica for the summer, she turned on CNN in a hotel room and learned that her father was on Bill Clinton’s short list to be Vice President. Within weeks, she became known to the world as the head Gore Girl. “My parents never said, ‘Oh, you’re in the spotlight, and when you think about what you’re doing, think about us, and think about our image,'” she said.

But nationally, she was becoming something of a guilty pleasure for older men. She made Esquire ‘s list of “Women We’ll Wait For.” Spy magazine printed a racy comic called “The Gore Girls” as well as a cartoon in which a bathrobed Bill Clinton was teaching her saxophone fingerings while a bottle of champagne chilled nearby. “I do not like that magazine,” she told an acquaintance at the time. (When The Observer asked her about her relationship with the President, Ms. Schiff responded, “Um, I don’t see him that often.” But Ms. Schiff said Hillary Clinton had always been very supportive and that she only addresses her as “Mrs. Clinton.”)

Meanwhile, she sat alongside Henry Louis Gates and Yo-Yo Ma at Passover at the seder table of her father’s old Harvard mentor, New Republic owner Martin Peretz.

She said she declined Secret Service, although Harvard scuttlebutt had it that somewhere on campus, there was an entire floor of agents assigned to protect her. One person who met her a few times during those years described her manner as “like some yearning, long-suffering housewife might think that Greta Garbo would behave–just very polite, and sweet and warm, but somehow distant.”

At Harvard, Ms. Schiff went to see some Grateful Dead shows, befriended members of the Harvard hockey team and inspired reporters at the Harvard Crimson to wonder if they should print a story about if, and how many times the Vice President’s daughter had said Yes to bong hits. A story never ran. “I wasn’t self-conscious about my behavior,” she said. “I’m not comfortable cataloguing my sins, but I’m glad my parents didn’t make me feel that way. I certainly had the rocky adolescence and fun years at school, and I’m glad for that.”

After college, Ms. Schiff returned to Washington, D.C., and called up then New Republic editor Michael Kinsley when he was about to launch the Microsoft-funded on-line magazine Slate . “She did all the scut work,” said Mr. Kinsley. “The e-mails to the editor, that sort of stuff, you know, she scrubbed the kitchen floor, cleaned the toilets.” She also wrote about NATO expansion and the voting patterns of Hispanics, and she made use of the political education she had gotten at the dinner table, where Al Gore had taught his four kids about arms control by using salt and pepper shakers as model warheads.

Ms. Schiff also filed a trio of “Inaugural Insider” diary entries in January 1997 in which she admonished herself for lack of foresight in picking “Smurfette” as her Secret Service code name four years before; she wrote that the tents and plastic passages set up around the Naval Observatory for the inaugural events made her think of the scene in E.T. “when the government takes over Eliott’s home and he and E.T. lie side by side on cold metal tables, exposed and shivering.”

“Those diaries illustrated how perfectly she balances being a normal person and being the Vice President’s daughter,” said Mr. Kinsley. “They were in no way telling tales out of school, but they were also in no way agitprop, which is a very difficult trick to pull off.”

Like Al Gore’s deadpan Macarena impression at the Chicago Democratic Convention–the columns made the Vice President and his family approachable and accessible. There was one difference: The columns worked. Ms. Schiff was a natural. But, at that point, it didn’t really matter. Every pundit in the world was saying that Al Gore had the Democratic nomination, and most likely the White House, all sewn up.

In July 1997, Mr. Gore’s oldest daughter married Drew Schiff at the National

Cathedral in Washington, with a reception at the Naval Observatory; the staff signed nondisclosure agreements. The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that guests were served minted lamb in tomato cups, “a favorite of the bride.” That was about all the detail they got.

For the moment, it seemed as though Ms. Schiff was trading in the glare of being in the Second Family for the understated, quiet lavish life of the Upper East Side where Dr. Schiff’s family, one of the oldest, wealthiest German Jewish families in New York–though Dr. Schiff was raised Episcopalian–has reigned for years. At the turn of the century, J.P. Morgan considered Dr. Schiff’s great-grandfather, railroad tycoon Jacob Schiff, to be his only equal in business. Jacob Schiff had somehow traced his ancestry back to David and Bathsheba and kept a canceled loan check he had written for $62,075,000 framed behind his desk. Drew Schiff’s great aunt, Dorothy Schiff, ran her afternoon tabloid New York Post as a money-making liberal fiefdom from 1939 to 1976, when she sold it to Rupert Murdoch.

Mr. Schiff grew up on Fifth Avenue, then went to Deerfield Academy and Brown University, the only member of his family to belong to the Democratic Party. He volunteered for Mario Cuomo’s failed 1994 re-election campaign and in 1996, with the help of New York political strategist Hank Morris, ran for a vacant Upper East Side City Council seat. He was introduced to Karenna Gore that year by the wife of former Representative Tom Downey of Long Island. The courtship was brief and long distance, while Ms. Schiff worked at Slate in Seattle, and Dr. Schiff worked as a primary care physician at New York Hospital.

Before his marriage, Dr. Schiff played the New York society game a little: “He … left a few broken hearts,” said Christina Stewart, the editor of Quest , a magazine that chronicles New York society–but the Schiffs have been largely absent from New York society. “She just doesn’t like being in the insular, gossipy culture,” said a friend of hers. “Karenna doesn’t have a huge level of patience for insincere people or bullshit.”

For her part, Ms. Schiff didn’t quite understand when she was asked about her presence on the social circuit. “What is it?” she initially asked. “Oh, I don’t want to be a socialite,” she said. She said she was not aware that Manhattan File named her one of its best-dressed young socialites.

Then, for a moment, she furrowed her brow, which seemed to signal that her political instincts had kicked in. “Is it bad that I don’t want to be a socialite?” she asked. She seemed to not be sure.

Both Dr. and Ms. Schiff enjoy ordering Jell-O at diners, and Ms. Schiff said she was eager to investigate an Indian restaurant in Queens a friend told her about. “It’s supposed to be really inexpensive apparently, and it’s a buffet. Drew and I were like, we really gotta go check that out!”

The Schiffs’ wedding seemed to anticipate a quiet private life to come. Ms. Schiff announced her plans to enroll in Columbia Law School; they would be just another rich young professional couple on the Upper East Side. Then last winter, right about the time Ms. Schiff got pregnant, the world found out the President had been fellated in the Oval Office on a fairly regular basis by a woman about Ms. Schiff’s age. Her dad’s political fortunes seemed to change.

“That was definitely a difficult time,” said Ms. Schiff. “It was difficult and, uh, disappointing, I think just like it was for a lot of Americans. Probably a lot of Americans can relate to how I felt,” she said.

Then came the advent of Mr. Gore’s two least favorite words: “Clinton fatigue.”

“My dad’s not running against Clinton,” said Ms. Schiff. “And he’s not running with Clinton. And I think it’s sort of natural that the current President has a huge presence in the election. But I don’t think it’s good for democracy to have them define it.”

Ms. Schiff was spinning. She began making a chopping motion on the table, just like the pundits do on TV. And she was doing it well.

Ms. Schiff recently announced that she would be heading Gorenet, which is the Gore campaign’s equivalent to the Saxophone Club, which rallied 20-somethings to the Clinton cause in 1992. A couple of weeks ago, she sat across from Katie Couric and told the Today audience how great her dad was. She’s gotten to know Miramax Films head and Gore-Hillary booster Harvey Weinstein. The Gore campaign is featuring her prominently in a campaign video. She talks about her wedding, how funny her father is, how he used to come home from work and play all sorts of fun games with the kids.

“It’s hard to draw a line between things that my dad and I talk about because they’re interesting,” she said, “and me playing some kind of a role.”

She said the family has never discussed the possibility of losing the race. She also would not rule out the possibility that she would run for elected office sometime in the future.

“There are lots of things that I wouldn’t rule out right now, so I’m not going to rule it out. But that’s not to say that I’m hinting.”

She finished her red Jell-O.