of Gore Pot Use Raise Complex Questions
New reports have surfaced that, if believed, would raise questions about the truth of Vice President Al Gore's statements on his use of marijuana 25 years ago.
The charges, which could reflect on the character of the candidate, also create a complex issue for The Tennessean. On one level they involve current and former newspaper employees and a web of friendships and relationships, going back 30 years.
For that reason, the newspaper is airing the issue publicly, even though its own investigation - which included contacting three dozen current and former journalists who worked with Gore - could not confirm the new allegations or definitively disprove them.
Since 1987, Gore has maintained his marijuana usage was "infrequent and rare" and ended in 1972.
However a former Tennessean reporter, who worked with Gore in 1971 and remained a good friend through 1976, now claims they smoked marijuana hundreds of times during those six years.
"More than 100. More than 200. More than I can remember. It seemed like all the time we were together we were smoking," said John C. Warnecke Jr., who worked at The Tennessean as a reporter from 1968-1971.
Gore worked at the newspaper from 1971-1974 and from 1975-1976 until he announced his candidacy for Congress - his first political race.
Warnecke also claims that he and Gore shared marijuana at least once after Gore announced his bid for Congress.
And, Warnecke claims he lied to news organizations in 1987 to protect Gore, saying then he remembered "one specific time" seeing Gore smoke marijuana.
Warnecke said Gore, who was running for president at the time, pressured him to "stonewall" on the marijuana question.
Warnecke, who later became a developer, is now living in San Francisco on disability payments for recurring depression. He said he strongly believes this country's drug laws are unfair and should be changed to decriminalize marijuana, among other things.
In response to Warnecke's new claims, The Tennessean contacted three dozen current and former staff members to see if the claims could be corroborated. Only one other person acknowledged seeing Gore smoke marijuana. None said Gore asked them to lie or shape their responses.
A handful, including the editor of The Tennessean, would not say what they did or did not see.
This controversy also highlights the effect of new Internet-based media on more traditional media. The story, which also may be included in a soon-to-be-released biography of Gore, first surfaced publicly on a Web site that advocates the reform of drug laws.
It bounced around several sites, slowly creeping into the mainstream media, and Gore addressed it yesterday on the campaign trail in Iowa.
A brief story about that issue circulated nationally by the Associated Press. It was only after the AP story that The Tennessean decided to publish the allegations.
A reporter said to Gore at a diner: "It's been reported that after you came back from Vietnam you were smoking on a daily basis."
Gore responded, "No. When I came back from Vietnam, yes, but not to that extent. ... This is something I dealt with a long time ago. It's old news."
A spokeswoman for the campaign said yesterday that there was no further comment about the issue.
Warnecke said he plans to vote for Gore and did not want to hurt his campaign.
He said his 1987 statements to The Tennessean and The New York Times weighed heavily on him, eating at his conscience. He said his therapist urged him to try to make amends.
"I owe this amend to them. And I owe it to my paper. I owe it to my readers. I owe this to apologize to them that I lied while Al was their representative. And this was not right. I was really wrong. And I should really take my lumps for this."
Warnecke said he regrets the timing of his statements coinciding with the presidential primaries. He expected the story to come out earlier in a biography written by a Newsweek reporter.
Warnecke said the story was to be included last week in excerpts from the book in Newsweek. He said when the magazine delayed the publication, he felt he should speak publicly.
Neither Newsweek nor the writer, Bill Turque, would comment about the matter.
Besides the Associated Press story, the charges have been picked up by several media outlets including The Washington Times, New York Post, Rush Limbaugh's radio show and the Drudge Report Internet site and the Internet magazine Salon.
Warnecke said in 1987 he argued with Gore, who was then a U.S. senator campaigning for president. He said Gore called him and asked him to "stonewall the press."
"There was no physical threat. But if you've ever talked with Al, he's very emphatic. And he's very forceful. He really laid it on me."
Warnecke said he made up the story of infrequent use. The two have not talked since 1987, although Warnecke has tried to contact Gore.
"I like Al. I love him like my brother," said Warnecke, 53. "I'm hurt that the drugs have come between us, and he won't communicate with me despite the fact that I write him letters and make calls to him. I'm very hurt by that."
Warnecke's former wife, who works as a photo editor at The Tennessean, would not talk about her friendship with the vice president and his wife.
But Nancy Rhoda issued this statement.
"John Warnecke has had some difficult times. I have a lot of empathy for him. And I don't want to hurt him. It was nearly 30 years ago, but I don't agree with what John has said. And no one has ever told me to keep quiet about those times. Ever."
Warnecke and Rhoda where married from 1970 to 1981.
Frank Sutherland, editor of The Tennessean and a longtime friend of the Gores, said he has not changed his comments since 1987 when he was first asked about them.
"If Al Gore wants to talk about his private life, that's fine," Sutherland said. "But I'm not going to talk about my private life. That's nobody's business."
Sutherland said he, Gore and Warnecke were good friends during the time that all three worked at the newspaper. But Sutherland would not characterize the truthfulness of Warnecke's statements
. "I can't answer that without hurting John. ... I don't want to hurt him. He's a friend."
Sutherland said he was never pressured by Gore or asked to shape his answers in any way. He said he has not spoken with Gore in about six months.
Another former journalism colleague, who would not comment on whether he saw Gore smoke marijuana, did vouch for Warnecke's honesty.
"I think he's gone through a lot. I think he may be an emotional guy. ... I think he's honest and an idealist," said Andrew Schlesinger, who was a reporter at The Tennessean in 1970-71
. Schlesinger, who later worked as a documentary maker for ABC News, said he has kept in touch with Warnecke over the decades, but has not seen him for several years.
He would not comment on any of the details of Warnecke's claims. But he answered "no" when asked if Warnecke had a history of exaggerating or if he found any of the claims to be outrageous.
Warnecke, who says he has been clean and sober for 21 years, does not advocate the use of illegal substances, but said he believes that if marijuana was decriminalized it would take illegal drug money away from criminals.
Warnecke said that before he quit, he was hooked on marijuana, alcohol and cocaine. He also admits to taking hallucinogenics in the 1960s when he says he helped manage the famous rock group The Grateful Dead.
Today, Warnecke spends his time taking care of his two children. They were left to his care when his second wife committed suicide about six years ago.
He said he suffered from depression before and after he worked at the newspaper.
Warnecke said he was willing to take a lie detector test to check the credibility to his statements. "I lied as a former reporter and I want to straighten it out.
Other Journalist Recalls Gore's Drug Use, But Says Use Was 'Not Regulary'
If Al Gore used marijuana routinely while a Tennessean reporter in the 1970s, it was not known to almost three dozen staff members who worked closely or socialized with him, they say.
Only two of the 36 journalists who worked at the newspaper with Gore and were interviewed for this story said they had ever seen him smoke marijuana. Three others would not say what they did or did not see.
None, except former reporter John Warnecke, said he or she was pressured by Gore to give a false account of Gore's drug use.
In 1987, Gore admitted using marijuana on "infrequent and rare occasions" while serving in the Army in Vietnam and later while living in Nashville, where he worked as a Tennessean reporter and editorial writer and attended classes at Vanderbilt University.
The two Tennessean staffers who said they witnessed Gore using marijuana -- Warnecke and Ken Jost, another former reporter -- disagreed on the extent of Gore's drug use.
Warnecke said Gore used marijuana "hundreds and hundreds of times" and quit only after announcing he would run for Congress in 1976.
Jost said the Gore marijuana use he witnessed was much less frequent.
"In the times I was around him socially, he used it occasionally," said Jost, now a staff writer with the Congressional Quarterly. "Can I swear to the number of times? No. It was a long time ago. It was more than once. It certainly wasn't every time I saw him and not regularly."
After leaving The Tennessean, Jost worked for Gore during his tenure in Congress and during his 1988 presidential campaign.
The three staffers who would not say what they did or did not see are Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland; Andrew Schlesinger, a former reporter; and Nancy Rhoda, a Tennessean photo editor formerly married to Warnecke.
Several current or former Tennessean staffers described Gore as a hard-working, intense and passionate reporter who, they believe, could not have kept up the pace if he were a routine drug user.
"He was very, very driven by the issues. Very serious," said Elaine Shannon, a Time magazine reporter who worked in the Tennessean's Washington bureau during Gore's tenure at the newspaper.
"I don't know when he would have had the time. You could tell he was going places and that he wanted to go places. He made no secret about that."
Former Tennessean staffers also said it was unlikely that Gore could have kept regular drug use a secret from his newshound peers.
"There were some people who did have that reputation, and Al was not one of them," said John Haile, who worked with Gore as a reporter and is now editor of the Orlando Sentinel.
Other current and former staff members who say they never saw Gore use marijuana and were never pressured to give a false account include:
John Seigenthaler, Tennessean editor during Gore's tenure, now chairman emeritus of the newspaper; Lloyd Armour, then executive editor in charge of the opinion page, now retired; Philip Sullivan, then an editorial writer, now retired; Gene Wyatt, then associate editor, now retired but writes film reviews for the paper; Wayne Whitt, former managing editor, now retired.
Jim Squires, then a city editor, now retired; Frank Ritter, then a reporter and city editor, now a columnist; James Carnahan, then state editor, now retired; Charles Fontenay, then rewrite editor, now retired.
Larry Daughtrey, then a political reporter, now a columnist; Jim O'Hara, a former editorial writer and reporter, who recently left a position as deputy assistant U.S. secretary of health; Doug Hall, then a reporter, now CEO of Earth Satellite Corp. in Rockville, Md.; Tom Ingram, then a reporter, now president of the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership; Marsha Vande Berg, then a reporter, now an independent journalist and consultant in San Francisco; Alan Carmichael, then a reporter, now retired; Bill Preston, then a reporter, now an administrative specialist with the Tennessee state attorney general; Candy McCampbell, then a reporter and copy editor, now personal finance editor.
Frank Gibson, then a reporter, now political editor; George Zepp, then a reporter, now a night regional editor; Gloria Ballard, then a reporter, now assistant features editor; Sandra Roberts, then a part-time librarian, now managing editor/opinion; Kirk Loggins, a reporter then and now; Dwight Lewis, then a reporter, now a columnist and weekend editor; Keel Hunt, then a reporter, now spokesman for Ingram Book Group.
Jack Hurst, then a Music Row reporter, now retired; Sandy Campbell, an editorial cartoonist then and now; Tom Squires, then a sports reporter, now editor and publisher of Sports Specialty Publications; Larry Woody, a sports reporter then and now; Jimmy Davy, then a sports reporter, now retired
Denies He Was Regular Marijuana
DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) - Al Gore denied on Monday that he had smoked marijuana regularly, even daily, with a Tennessee friend as late as 1976 as the man now contends.
The question came up when a reporter said to Gore at a diner: ``It's been reported that after you came back from Vietnam you were smoking on a daily basis.''
Gore responded, ``No. When I came back from Vietnam, yes, but not to that extent. ... This is something I dealt with a long time ago. It's old news.''
Gore said in 1987, during the 1988 presidential campaign, that he had used marijuana on infrequent occasions, the last time about 1972.
The Tennessee man, John Warnecke, was quoted by the online magazine Salon. He said he had covered up for Gore in the past but wanted to set the record straight. He still plans to vote for Gore, he said.
Downplays Pot-Smoking Claim
DAVENPORT, Iowa--Vice President Al Gore denied Monday that he had smoked marijuana regularly, even daily, with a Tennessee friend as late as 1976 as the man now contends.
The question came up when a reporter said to Gore at a dinner: "It's been reported that after you came back from Vietnam you were smoking on a daily basis."
Gore responded, "No. When I came back from Vietnam, yes, but not to that extent....This is something I dealt with a long time ago. It's old news."
Gored said in 1987, during the 1988 presidential campaign, that he had used marijuana on infrequent occasions, the last time about 1972.
The controversy arises from an upcoming biography, "Inventing Al Gore" written by "Newsweek" reporter Bill Turque, and from reports on the Web that Gore used the drug more and longer than he has previously acknowledged.
A Tennessee man, John Warnecke, was quoted by the online magazine "Salon" saying he had covered up for Gore in the past but wanted to set the record straight. Warnecke alleges he and Gore regularly smoked pot together as reporters at "The Tennessean in Nashville.
"I've been living with this for years and feeling horrible about it...," Warnecke said. "I like Al. I'm going to vote for him."
"Newsweek's" editors allegedly had intended to run excerpts from the book, but became concerned about the credibility of Warnecke, described as depressive and a recovering alcoholic by Salon.com.
Warnecke now describes Gore as regularly smoking pot until he first ran for Congress in 1976.
Former Sen. Bill Bradley, Gore's opponent in the Democratic primaries, also has acknowledged smoking marijuana in the past. Earlier in the campaign, Texas Gov. George Bush stated that he would have passed a drug test for the last 25 years but ruled off limits any questions about earlier years.