Gore's Grades Belie Image of Studiousness

By David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday , March 19, 2000 ; A01

If Al Gore is commonly thought of as a grind, the sort of fellow who during his school days would take notes in precise Roman numeral outline, strive mightily to ingratiate himself with teachers, and bring sterling report cards home to his demanding parents, his academic transcripts go some way toward subverting that notion.

From his lower school years at St. Albans to his incomplete effort at Vanderbilt law school, Gore was often an underachiever. Though his IQ numbers and aptitude test scores were well above average, his grades were uneven, never approaching the plateau of A's and B's that might be expected of one who possesses such a pedagogical demeanor. His generally middling college grades at Harvard in fact bear a close resemblance to the corresponding Yale marks of his presidential opponent, George W. Bush, whose studiousness and brainpower have been more open to question during this campaign.

Gore arrived at Harvard with an impressive 1355 SAT score, 625 verbal and 730 math, compared with Bush's 1206 total from 566 verbal and 640 math. In his sophomore year at Harvard, Gore's grades were lower than any semester recorded on Bush's transcript from Yale. That was the year Gore's classmates remember him spending a notable amount of time in the Dunster House basement lounge shooting pool, watching television, eating hamburgers and occasionally smoking marijuana. His grades temporarily reflected his mildly experimental mood, and alarmed his parents. He received one D, one C-minus, two C's, two C-pluses and one B-minus, an effort that placed him in the lower fifth of the class for the second year in a row.

For all of Gore's later fascination with science and technology, he often struggled academically in those subjects. The political champion of the natural world received that sophomore D in Natural Sciences 6 (Man's Place in Nature) and then got a C-plus in Natural Sciences 118 his senior year. The self-proclaimed inventor of the Internet avoided all courses in mathematics and logic throughout college, despite his outstanding score on the math portion of the SAT. As was the case with many of his classmates, his high school math grades had dropped from A's to C's as he advanced from trigonometry to calculus in his senior year.

When John C. Davis, a retired teacher and assistant headmaster at St. Albans, was recently shown his illustrious former pupil's college board achievement test scores, he inspected them closely with a magnifier and shook his head, chuckling quietly at the science results.

"Four eighty-eight! Terrible" Davis declared upon inspecting the future vice president's 488 score (out of a possible 800) in physics.

"Hmmmm. Chemistry. Five-nineteen. He didn't do too well in chemistry."

As Davis moved down the page, his magnifier settled on Gore's more promising achievement scores in other scholastic realms.

"English. Seven oh-five. Right at the top!"

"U.S. History. Seven oh-one. Not so bad."

Then he came to Gore's results in IQ tests taken in 1961 and 1964, at the beginning of his freshman and senior years. "One thirty-three and 134. Absolutely superb. That means tremendous ability."

These high IQ and achievement scores did not necessarily translate into equivalent high grades for Gore in high school English and history. From ninth grade (called Form III in the Anglophilic St. Albans culture) to his senior year (Form VI), he earned an equal number of C's and B's in English, but no A's. In history during those four years, he also moved between C's and B's until his senior year, when he broke through with an A-plus in Sacred Studies, a religious history course. He pulled steady C's for all three years of high school French. The one course in which he received straight A's was art, which he took all four years of high school.

"You have here a boy who shows a lot of potential," Davis said after inspecting Gore's tests and grades. "He was as a rule a hard worker, but he wasn't really interested in certain things, and when he wasn't so interested he tried faithfully to do what he was supposed to, though not necessarily very well."

Gore's reputation for being earnest and hardworking, if sometimes pedantic, is often contrasted with the personality of his political patron and White House boss, Bill Clinton, who is considered more extemporaneous. But they shared one surprising trait from their school years, a tendency to procrastinate on subjects that did not enthrall them and then cram at the last minute. Clinton once skipped his Yale law school classes for three months before borrowing a friend's notes, then ended up scoring better on the tests than his classmate did. Gore was less daring, but many of his St. Albans classmates remembered how during his senior year he often put off studying for exams until the night before, when he would sneak down to the 24-hour Little Tavern on Connecticut Avenue and cram all night in a back booth.

Clinton ended his secondary school career ranked fifth in his class of several hundred at the public Hot Springs High in Arkansas, while Gore left St. Albans ranked 25th in a senior class of 51. But reputation was everything in high school. The prestige of the private school in Washington, its history as a feeding ground for the Ivy League, and the confidence college admissions officers had when examining a St. Albans transcript--where there was no grade inflation and a C meant a C--all served Gore well when it came to getting into Harvard, the only school to which he had applied.

The late Canon Charles Martin, headmaster at St. Albans during Gore's era, used to say that he was "preparing his boys for the kingdom of heaven, not the kingdom of Harvard," but in fact he was doing both. Earlier in the century, St. Albans had been known as a pipeline for Princeton and Haverford, but that changed in the mid-1950s when Harvard decided it wanted more Washington and Virginia boys and accepted all 16 St. Albans boys who applied. By the time Gore's class came around in 1965, a recommendation from the St. Albans administration was about all it took for one of its students to get in.

Davis wrote Gore's recommendation, and said he was never concerned about the young man's transcript full of C's and B's and his middle rank in the class. "In Al's case he was what Harvard most wanted at that time," Davis said. "What they wanted was competent academic performance plus future potential. Plus they were very impressed by the fact that he was a political son. Colleges like Harvard, Princeton and Yale are just as excited to get important sons as top academic scholars. They want our boys as much as our boys want them. And Al was captain of the football team. Any nice big boy was welcome if he played football."

Gore flirted with English at Harvard, dreaming of a life as a novelist, but decided to make government his concentration. He got off to an uncertain start in that subject, with a C and C-minus in his first two courses, before righting himself. In his junior year, he earned a B, a B-plus and an A-minus in three government courses, and he aced his senior government thesis on the impact of television on the presidency, a strong finish that made him a cum laude graduate. His devotion to the subject by then was so intense that he gave much of his time to a not-for-credit seminar with his favorite professor, Richard Neustadt, an expert on the presidency. Bush, a history major, scored mostly B's in that subject, as was first reported in the New Yorker, though the five history courses he took his senior year were all pass-fail.

After serving in the military for two years, Gore returned to graduate school late in the summer of 1971, first taking religious studies courses at Vanderbilt and then entering the university's law school. His efforts in both instances were incomplete, reflecting the uncertainty he felt during that period about what he should do with his life. He had considered everything from writing to police work.

He took the religious studies courses while also working full time as a journalist at the Nashville Tennessean, and after getting off to a strong start with an A-minus in Ethics, he failed to complete any of the three courses he took in the fall of 1971, and those incompletes eventually lapsed into F's. He returned for another semester in the spring of 1972, when two more incompletes turned into F's. Two years later, he enrolled in law school and spent three semesters there taking heavy course loads while still working at the newspaper. He performed satisfactorily, with a high grade of 81 in Legal Writing and a low grade of 69 in Civil Procedures II. Partway through the spring semester in 1976, he decided to run for an open seat in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District. His mother, Pauline Gore, herself a lawyer, tried to persuade him to remain in school while running, but he withdrew, turning away for good from the academic life, while beginning a political career in which he increasingly took on the characteristics of a scholar.

Gore has never released his transcripts, which were obtained independently by The Washington Post. Parts of them have been cited as well by Bill Turque, a Newsweek writer who has written a biography of Gore titled "Inventing Al Gore."

The vice president chose not to comment on his grades and test scores, but his press secretary, Chris Lehane, responded with lighthearted sarcasm. "This just proves that many of the preconceived notions of Al Gore have been stiff and boring," Lehane said. "He in fact has a very rich and well-rounded background--artist, athlete and academic."