Where there's smoke...

National | . . . there's political fire--as well as economic and moral issues

Issue: "Tipping the Scales," Oct. 5, 1996

From Carthage, Tenn.

Inside the political arena, partisans on both sides body slam their opponents. Bob Dole attacks the Clinton administration's squishiness on drugs. Bill Clinton hits back by moving the spotlight to tobacco and accepting the concept that cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are delivery devices for nicotine and should thus be under the authority of the Food and Drug Administration. Reporters get bored with the debate and move on to other issues.

What's left behind when the story-of-the-day changes? Facts, for one thing: Even a Clinton administration report notes that drug use among teens is up 105 percent since he took office. Personnel records, for another: President Clinton has gutted the office of the Drug Policy Administration. Old TV clips: Candidate Clinton telling an MTV audience in 1992 that if he had it to do over again, he would inhale when he tried marijuana. And new photos: Mr. Clinton's anti-tobacco stance was undermined when an Associated Press photographer caught the president smoking a cigar.

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Also left behind, if tobacco becomes in essence an illegal drug, are those families whose livelihoods depend on it. Outside the spotlight, they struggle with the complicated economic and moral issues that even a smoky haze cannot hide.

Dirt roads outside Carthage, Tennessee, lead past empty fields and full barns; it's harvest time and most of the burley tobacco crop has been gathered by farm workers and hung to cure in warm, airy barns. Throughout the Cumberland River valley, a gentle, sweet, and musky smell drifts by on the occasional breeze.

Wayne Taylor downshifts his Ford truck as he pulls off a road and onto one of his remaining fields of bright, golden tobacco. This is his land now, but it once belonged to then-Sen. Al Gore Sr. and his family. When Al Gore Jr. in 1988 spoke proudly of working in a tobacco field, he likely meant this very field.

Mr. Taylor, a lifelong tobacco grower, says it's not unusual that everyone in a family--even a senator's son--would work to raise a tobacco crop. It's one of the most labor-intensive crops grown. It's also one of the most rewarding: A family can cultivate a living on just 10 acres or so, he says.

"And a lot of families do," he notes as he steps from his truck and starts down a row of chest-high tobacco plants. "I know it's a health issue, but around here it's an economic issue, too. Most of all, though, it's a political issue. That's what this latest thing is. Politics."

Vice President Al Gore scored a political coup during his prime-time Democratic National Convention speech.

Speaking softly, he told conventioneers of his sister, Nancy Gore Hunger, who died in 1984 after a bout with lung cancer. She was 45. He told the tearful audience that his thinking about tobacco changed then. "Until I draw my last breath," he said in his speech, "I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking."

What Mr. Gore didn't recount was his 1988 speech to tobacco interests, during the presidential primaries, in which he said--four years after his sister died--that he was proud to have grown, cut, spiked, and cured tobacco himself. Nor did he tell of the tobacco money he continued to accept until as late as 1990. He admits to accepting $16,440 between 1979 and 1990 from tobacco political action committees.

One day after his convention speech, Mr. Gore said he had considered but rejected mentioning his family's involvement in tobacco farming during that speech: "I don't know, it just seemed like it might be better to focus on what was most important about this story."

In this warm field in the Tennessee hills, Mr. Taylor measures his words as carefully as he measures the nutrients in his soil. "I don't doubt Al Gore's sincerity, his love for his sister. That was a tragedy. She was only 45. But it's not as simple as all that. They're playing politics with a way of life, with livelihoods."

Mr. Taylor, 53, hasn't known any other life. His grandfather, his great-uncle, and his father all grew tobacco on this land. The barns he's filling with this year's crop have housed Taylor-grown tobacco for most of this century.

Little has changed, he explains. There's still no better way to grow the plants than to start them in greenhouses in the spring, then transplant them into the fields at the beginning of summer. They must be topped individually, and when harvested, cut one-by-one.


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