On August 30, 2000, Vice President Al Gore called the Catholic Digest offices from a campaign stop in Seattle. The call came about three hours late, and the candidate seemed tired and rushed. He was, nonetheless, slightly ahead by now in the polls and was apparently in good spirits, chuckling readily. He was also meticulous about his facts, pausing to ask an assistant to follow-up with the precise numerical reference for an immigration bill he was discussing with editors. The question-and-answer session lasted about 25 minutes. Five minutes after the candidate hung up, a staffer called with the requisite information.

Catholic Digest: Americans are divided on the issue of immigration. Do you think it should be easier or more difficult for citizens of other nations to make new homes in this country?

Gore: For many, America represents hope, the promise of a better life for present and future generations. As a nation with a long and proud history of immigration, we can appreciate how new Americans enrich all of our lives and make our country stronger with every generation. That's why I have a fair and comprehensive immigration agenda that's based on family reunification, provides humanitarian protection for refugees, and addresses labor needs while ensuring that American workers are not adversely affected.

In the past, I have fought for and won the restoration of some of the unnecessary cuts in benefits that had absolutely nothing to do with the 1996 welfare law's goal of moving people from welfare to work. I will continue fighting to reverse the remaining cuts to health, nutritional, and disability assistance to certain legal immigrants. I [also] support permitting individuals who've been living in the United States for a long time and are of good moral character to become legal permanent residents.

I also will continue fighting for reinstatement of section 245-I of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which allows certain immigrants eligible for residency to have their papers processed here in the United States, rather than force them to return to their country of origin [while they wait]. This policy keeps families from being torn apart and allows thousands of future Americans who are in this country to legally process their permanent residency applications in a humane and dignified manner.

To what extent should the United States cooperate economically with nations such as China, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and others that repeatedly violate the human rights of their citizens?

If I'm entrusted with the presidency, human rights will not simply be one in a list of priorities. It will be a fundamental commitment and a core value that will undergird all of our efforts on the international stage. I support the trade sanctions we have against countries that abuse human rights, like Cuba, Iran, and Burma. I've spoken out against human rights problems in China, and I will continue to do that. I will continue to press for human rights as I have done throughout my entire career. And I will invest in programs that promote human rights, the rule of law, and political freedom.

Pope John Paul II and many leaders of all denominations around the world have called for debt forgiveness on the part of rich nations toward poorer ones as the millennium begins. What's your position on the matter?

I wholeheartedly agree with those religious leaders who have called for debt forgiveness. I am committed to reversing the widening gap between rich and poor nations. As I've said over and over, the global economy must be the proverbial tide that lifts all folks and never a wave that overwhelms the most vulnerable.

Many leaders say our national economy is doing exceptionally well with record profits, plenty of jobs, lots of consumer spending. However, there are many working families not quite getting by. How do you intend to address this apparent gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots"?

I want our prosperity to enrich not just a few, but all our families. We must invest in education, heath care, tax cuts for middle-class families--not a huge plan designed to primarily benefit the wealthy. We need retirement security. We need reforms. While we should be pleased by the progress made so far, we should also recognize that there are still stubborn pockets of poverty left in our country. Millions and millions of families are hard-pressed to make ends meet.

As vice president, I've worked to protect low-income Americans, especially seniors, from, for example, the dangers of devastating heat and cold by defending the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. This program helps low-income Americans pay the cost of heating or cooling their homes. I've also outlined a series of steps to strengthen families and make it possible to balance work and family, and to promote responsible fatherhood. Steps include: requiring all fathers who owe child support to pay or go to work; providing job training and job opportunities for fathers; strengthening child-support enforcement; increasing the amount of child support that gets paid directly to poor families; and increasing the amount of income a married couple can earn and still receive the full earned-income tax credit.

I believe in giving access to affordable quality health care to every single child in this country and also to the parents of those children when their family incomes are below two-and-a-half times the poverty line. Finally, I believe that education is the best anti-poverty program ever invented. Disadvantaged children who attend preschool benefit the most. They repeat fewer grades, they learn at a higher level. That's one of the reasons that I have been such a strong supporter of Head Start and want to expand Head Start. I have made one of my signature proposals an initiative to provide quality voluntary preschool for every 4-year-old in America, and millions of 3-year-olds as well. That's one part of my plan to bring truly revolutionary improvements to our schools.

Your opponent points to a $4.6 trillion surplus over the next 10 years. He plans to use the money for Social Security, initiatives for the working poor, and tax breaks. You've also alluded to the surplus. Our country's operating budget just about balanced last year for the first time in about 40 years, and critics still point to a $5.6 trillion national debt. Is it wise to start spending more so soon?

No. I have proposed a balanced budget for each year of my presidency and a paydown of our national debt to put us on the path to completely eliminating our national debt by the year 2012. The top priority should be investments in people to make sure that everyone participates in the economic success that we have today. The fact is, I'm not satisfied with the economy we have. Not only are millions left behind, not only do 44 million Americans have no health insurance, but among those who are working full time, there are tens of millions who are working longer hours with less time for their loved ones and less time to enjoy life. And they're having a harder time paying the bills. Prescription drugs are bankrupting too many people. These are all signs of why we need dramatic changes.

It's true that we now have the largest surpluses in history. We've worked hard to build those surpluses to take the place of the largest deficits in history, which we inherited. But we shouldn't squander the surplus in a big tax cut primarily for the wealthy at the expense of the middle class in a way that threatens to stop our prosperity and progress. The $4.6 trillion figure that you used includes Social Security and Medicare. I want to take Social Security and Medicare off-budget and put them in an iron-clad lock box with a sign that says, "Politicians: Hands Off." If you take the Social Security and Medicare funds out of the combined surplus and adjust for inflation, the surplus is actually not that large. And the $1.9 trillion tax cut for the wealthy proposed on the other side, coupled with their $1 trillion Social Security privatization plan, would overwhelm the surplus and put us back into deficit.

Legal scholars recently studied U.S. state and federal court records and found that as many as 50%, and possibly more, of those sent to death row since 1973 might have been innocent. In light of this new research, do you feel any need to reconsider your position on the death penalty?

I support the death penalty for the most heinous of crimes. I believe that in death penalty cases there should not be any reasonable doubt about the guilt or innocence of the accused. Because of its scientific precision, DNA testing can, in some cases, conclusively establish the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant. It is therefore imperative that our legal system consider this evidence in all of those cases where it's available. At least eight individuals sentenced to death have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing, some of whom came within days of being executed.

What would you say is the most difficult thing that you've ever had to do?

[Candidate laughs.] Physically, the climbing of Mount Rainier last year with my son. If I'd known how hard it was to get to the top, I probably never would have tried it.

How about politically?

My vote on the Persian Gulf War was very difficult, but it was the right thing. When I was a young man in college, my decision to volunteer with the Army and go to Vietnam even though I disagreed with the Vietnam War was a very difficult decision, but also turned out to be the right one.

What would you say to a young person who's tempted to take drugs?

Don't do it!

That's what you said to your own children?

I try not to violate the privacy of my conversations with my own children, but you can rest assured that any child I've had a conversation with about drugs I would give the same advice to.

Even among Catholics for whom the pro-life issue is not the only factor in deciding how to vote, there is clear opposition to partial-birth abortion. As a self-described religious person, what would you say to Catholics about this issue?

I strongly support a woman's right to choose. Consistent with that decision, however, I have long opposed late-term abortions. There are, in fact, rare and tragic situations that can occur in a woman's pregnancy when, in a doctor's medical judgment, the use of a late-term abortion may be necessary to save a woman's life or to protect her against serious injury. I believe that where the woman's life or serious injury to her health is concerned, that decision should be hers. I would not sign a bill that failed to include those protections. If those protections were included, I would indeed sign it.

Were you ever uncomfortable with President Clinton's moral decisions during your terms as vice president?

I would answer this way: My relationship with the president has four interrelated elements. The first is, he is my friend. And that friendship is genuine and deep. Secondly, I have criticized and condemned the personal mistake the president made that received so much media attention and that was disappointing to so many. Third, I have had the privilege of working alongside the president in pursuit of important goals and changes beneficial to the American people. And fourth, I'm running for president on my own, with my own vision, my own approach.

But I also want to say this: If you're talking about the president's decisions concerning his job and his policies, I have been very proud of the president's leadership, [for example] in promoting peace in Northern Ireland. Under President Clinton's leadership, America has been able to facilitate an emerging peace among a people who deserve a respite from the violence that has been so unjust and difficult for them. I can say the same about his efforts in Bosnia, and Kosovo, and Africa, and Haiti; the same for his efforts to bring economic prosperity, to reduce the crime rate, to improve education, to clean up the environment. So, I believe that the net result of his presidency has been good for our people.

We appreciate that, but we'd still like to know how you handled personal conversations with the president in the wake of the Lewinsky affair. I'm sure you can't tell us exactly what you said.

Because he's my friend, and because I respect my friendships, I protect the confidence of conversations of that sort.

But you did speak to him about it?

Well, yes, but I do not feel free ... I don't feel it's proper for me to violate the confidence of a friend-to-friend conversation.

Our final question is the most important one. Why should Catholics--in particular--vote for you?

Because faith and family are the core of what I am about. Because I believe very deeply in policies that strengthen families, that promote religious freedom, that respect the role of parents, that help parents not only in the economic struggle but in the struggle against a culture that competes with them in their efforts to impart proper values to their children.

Tipper and I just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. We just became grandparents a little over a year ago. We are oriented toward our family completely. Our four children and one grandson take up most of our free waking hours; that is, when we're not working on public service. I believe in hard work. I believe in holding to the right values. And I believe in keeping my faith as the center of my life and everything I do.

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