The Fall of Big Tobacco
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  Unlikely Alliance Enlisted President for Tobacco War

Last of three articles

By Ceci Connolly and John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 31, 1998; Page A1

Shortly after lunch one day last month, Al Gore slid into the back seat of his dark blue Cadillac and headed for Capitol Hill on a rescue mission.

With much of the White House machinery working overtime to manage the sex-and-perjury allegations engulfing President Clinton, Gore took it upon himself to revive the prospects for a broad new tobacco law.

Over the objections of some of the president's advisers, the vice president joined a group of Democrats on Feb. 11 to reiterate a simple message: Fighting tobacco is good policy, and good politics.

"I want to point out that the lay of the land is different now," he said, surrounded by lawmakers and a black children's choir imported for the photo opportunity. "Support for tough anti-tobacco measures crosses all lines of region, party and politics."

Worried the White House was losing interest in the battle against cigarette makers, the Democratic lawmakers were relieved to see Gore in the fight. In reality, he had been waging a behind-the-scenes crusade against the cigarette business long before many of them.

Three years earlier, Gore and two unlikely allies – David A. Kessler and Dick Morris – convinced Clinton that the time was right to take on the once-unbeatable tobacco industry. Relying on intermediaries and cryptic messages, the troika built the administration's case against cigarette makers, a case that helped hobble the industry and trigger the debate over legislative restrictions that is beginning in earnest on Capitol Hill this week.

At about the same time Gore was making his public case against tobacco at the Senate news conference last month, Kessler was busy running the Yale Medical School and disgraced pollster Morris was speculating in radio interviews about the sex life of the first lady. Kessler, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, still advises policymakers on the proposed national tobacco policy, but unofficially. Morris, after his publicized liaison with a prostitute, is merely an observer.

But in 1995, it was Morris – the brilliant, fidgety New Yorker, despised by the rest of the Clinton team – who concluded that the politician willing to fight the increasingly unpopular industry would be handsomely rewarded at the polls. Kessler, armed with scientific evidence and bureaucratic know-how, crafted a tough new proposal for regulating cigarettes as a drug.

Yet of the three, only one man consistently had the ear of the president, according to interviews with an assortment of people involved in the tobacco debate. In private, sometimes emotional, lunches with Clinton, Gore described his long and conflicting connections to tobacco. Few issues can push the disciplined vice president to the edge of rage the way tobacco does, say those who have observed him, yet few offer such great payoffs for a calculating politician in the 1990s.

And that is what frightens cigarette makers and some in the White House today as they attempt to fashion a bipartisan agreement that gives the anti-smoking advocates the money and programs they need to curb youth smoking – and the companies the lawsuit relief they desperately want.

When Gore joined congressional Democrats last month trumpeting aggressive anti-smoking legislation, cigarette executives shuddered.

"It was deja vu all over again," one lobbyist said with a grimace. Even some of Clinton's aides fear that Gore's personal vitriol clouds his ability to negotiate a reasonable compromise. But others see his strident anti-smoking rhetoric as the bargaining ploy of a veteran legislator staking out a negotiating position far from where he may ultimately end up.

One thing is certain. Alone, no member of the troika could have brought the powerful industry to its current weakened state. Together, Morris's political ambition, Gore's personal revenge and Kessler's desire for a crowning policy achievement combined to form a political tidal wave, its size and velocity drowning out the skeptics.

Morris's Reelection Plan

On June 21, 1995, President Clinton's political survival team gathered in his private, second-floor study for its weekly strategy session. In interviews, a half-dozen participants described that meeting and subsequent conversations to The Washington Post.

The Clinton-Gore team had hit its nadir the previous November when Republicans took control of Congress and the Democratic president was forced to declare his relevance. Polls showed he was at best tied with his likely presidential opponent, Robert J. Dole.

As they took their regular seats – Clinton in a wing chair at one end, the others in a semicircle around a large coffee table bearing the presidential seal – Dick Morris resumed his implausible pitch to take on Big Tobacco in the name of America's youth.

The regulatory details were secondary to Morris; it was all about politics. Cigarette makers were the perfect villain, he argued, and protecting children was a winner with the critical swing group of voters known as "soccer moms."

To the operatives in the room, Morris's idea was terrifying. No president – Democrat or Republican – had ever successfully taken on the wealthy tobacco lobby. When Clinton had tried to increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $2 to finance his plan for health care overhaul, the industry revolted by helping to defeat the bill – and helping defeat southern Democratic congressmen.

We'll be hit by a well-financed, brutal counterassault, warned deputy chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles, a native of tobacco-rich North Carolina and one of Clinton's most trusted advisers.

Harold Ickes, the bluntly profane political veteran, agreed. "This is a second-term issue," he snarled. "Leave this thing alone."

But Morris had detected a long-term shift in American attitudes on smoking. He didn't have enough data to prove his thesis, but he had managed to whip together a five-state poll showing that even in the Tobacco Belt, voters overwhelmingly supported efforts to crack down on teenage smoking.

"It doesn't make a damn bit of difference in some of these states," Morris said, according to notes from the meeting. "This will help you carry Kentucky. This will help you in Tennessee. You're dead in North Carolina anyway, but this isn't what's going to kill you. And it'll have no impact in Georgia or Virginia."

Leon E. Panetta, the chief of staff who served 16 years in Congress, was astonished. "You're full of [expletive]. This cannot be true."

Panetta didn't know what he was up against.

Seated on a blue camelback sofa closest to Clinton was a man who carried the legislative and emotional battle scars of earlier tobacco wars. Al Gore knew what it was like to be double-crossed by an arrogant industry, and he knew what it was like to lose a loved one to cancer.

Beet red and shaking, he muttered: "They're killers, they're killers."

Kessler's Unrelenting Drive

Gore's relationship with David Kessler began somewhat awkwardly in 1990. Suspicious that Republicans were trying to rush through Kessler's nomination as FDA chief, the senator from Tennessee held it up. But after investigating Kessler himself, Gore liked what he saw, sealing an alliance that would serve both men well.

In a town that values glibness, Gore and Kessler are two of a different kind. Bookish, bordering on nerdy, both see science as a logical component of political discourse. Stern, disciplined family men who were educated at Ivy League schools, they share a love of technology and intellectual debate.

After Clinton won in 1992, Gore urged him to keep Kessler in the new Democratic administration. Kessler returned the favor by leading the charge on the vice president's beloved reinventing government project in his own department.

It was Kessler who got to tobacco first.

"He was a bulldog on it, and there was a nervousness in the White House he just might go over the top," said one administration skeptic. The politicos who obsessed over electoral maps had a nickname for Kessler and his cohorts at Health and Human Services: the Hezbollah.

Even in his first meeting with Clinton, at a holiday party in December, 1994, Kessler had tobacco on his mind. As guests drifted up to the buffet and admired a 70-pound gingerbread replica of Clinton's boyhood home, the president stewed over his party's bitter losses in the November elections.

Huddled in a corner of the oak-paneled State Dining Room just a few feet from the gingerbread house, Kessler and his wife gently made their case.

"You can take on tobacco," said Kessler. "The right way to do it is by focusing on kids."

Silently, the president began to walk away. Then he turned back. If the focus is children, he said over his shoulder, "I'll support you."

Kessler laid the groundwork for the next few months and then, in spring 1995, he sent Jerold Mande, an aide who had worked for Gore in the Senate, to enlist the vice president. Carrying a bound copy of the plan, Mande briefed Gore on the agency's findings.

The proposed FDA rule drastically limited cigarette sales and marketing to children, imposing a ban on vending machines, prohibiting tobacco company sponsorship of sporting events and requiring the industry to pay for an anti-smoking campaign aimed at youngsters. The proposal Mande carried set the parameters of today's debate in Congress.

Participants recall that the session was quick, perhaps 10 minutes. Gore made no promise that he could deliver, but made clear he was up for the fight.

"I want to carry this in to the president," he told Mande.

Though firmly allied with Gore, Kessler also developed his own intelligence network to monitor White House developments. Associate commissioner Mitchell Zeller was designated to keep in touch with Morris as he lobbied the political team. At odd hours, in telephone calls from home, the Morris-to-Zeller-to-Kessler pipeline carried information from the White House back to the agency.

"I tested each of the provisions, and they were all very popular," Morris related. Most of the FDA's ideas, from restricting ads to banning billboards, "rated above 70 percent."

In the Wednesday night "residence meetings" led by Morris, Clinton seemed sympathetic to the anti-tobacco faction. More than once, he remarked that his daughter, Chelsea, had persuaded his mother to quit smoking. Still, the president's second term was imperiled and he needed reassurance.

After Clinton asked the pollsters to do more testing, they confirmed that by overwhelming numbers – sometimes 80 percent – Americans felt deep mistrust of the industry and supported many harsh restrictions. But the findings underwhelmed the president.

"It'll be a one-day story," Clinton told several aides. He was looking for big ideas that packed a political punch.

The value of tobacco was its symbolism, replied the consultants. On the campaign's two major goals – developing a family values agenda to woo moderate suburban women and countering the notion that Clinton was a waffler – tobacco fit the bill.

Slowly, as Morris convinced Clinton that the issue would not crush him in the South, could help in vote-rich California and fit in nicely with his overarching campaign themes, the president inched toward accepting Kessler's bold regulatory change.

Finally, in the last week of July 1995, Clinton convened what would be the final meeting on Kessler's proposal to regulate cigarettes as a drug, according to three people in the room. Gripping a newspaper account of an internal tobacco company document, Gore read: "Tobacco products uniquely contain and deliver nicotine, a potent drug."

After decades of denying its product was a drug, here was the evidence that cigarette makers knew all along that tobacco hooked smokers.

"Mr. President," Kessler concluded, "It would not be credible not to move forward."

The brief meeting was widely believed to be the decisive moment in the White House struggle over tobacco. In fact, Kessler, through his finely honed network of intermediaries, had known what was coming. Several sources say it was Gore who sent word to his friend at FDA that the president would eventually endorse Kessler's proposal.

For the dogged regulator with the tidy red beard, it was the end of a long, brutal struggle.

For Gore, it was just the beginning.

Gore's Conflict

The two sides of Gore's relationship with tobacco came into clear relief at the Democratic National Convention in 1996.

It had been a dozen years since Gore says he had his tobacco epiphany. As a young congressman from central Tennessee, Gore dutifully represented thousands of tobacco farmers. His father grew 20,000 pounds of tobacco, and Al Jr. bragged about how he spent summers picking, hoeing, chopping, shredding and selling the sweet-smelling leaf and as a young man, he smoked it.

So when the battle lines were drawn in 1984 over tough new cigarette labels, few expected to find Gore in the middle, shuttling between tobacco lobbyists and public health activists. After announcing what he thought was an acceptable compromise, Gore, a politician who had accepted $18,000 in campaign donations from the industry, learned the tobacco executives would not go along. His carefully crafted solution fell apart.

As Washington backpedaling goes, it was a minor transgression. But in Gore's eyes, it was the first of two searing betrayals by people he once considered friends. The second came when cigarettes caused the death of his revered older sister Nancy at age 46.

In the years since, he rarely spoke publicly of his sister's death from lung cancer. But one person he did confide in was Clinton. More than once during their private weekly lunches, Gore broached the subject of continuing to fight tobacco during a difficult reelection campaign.

"This is not going to be one of those freebies," Clinton told Gore – meaning the political price would be high. But politics wasn't the only thing on Gore's mind. Eventually he told the president the story of his sister's death.

"We've had so many conversations about his sister," Clinton recalled in one speech, "I feel I almost know her personally. And I could see in his eyes the – this determination to redeem the promise of her wonderful life."

Gore knew that many in the White House did not trust his instincts on tobacco because they feared his "emotional conflict of interest" impaired his judgment. But Clinton came to see Gore's tragedy differently. A master emoter, Clinton encouraged his seemingly stiff vice president to tell the story, perhaps at the Democratic convention in Chicago. It was an impassioned way to make a political point – and perhaps humanize Gore in the process.

In early August, Gore summoned a handful of advisers to the vice president's mansion to prepare for the most watched speech of his life.

"I think I'd like to talk about my sister's battle with cancer," two participants remember him saying. As his eyes welled up, he told his aides about his only sibling's prolonged illness and early death. It was a draining session and no one dared question Gore's intentions, though some wondered if the vice president was opening himself up to charges of pandering or hypocrisy. In the early drafts, aides say they left a blank section marked "6 minutes."

Even Gore did not know until minutes before he strode onto the stage of the United Center on Aug. 28 whether he was ready to deliver the account.

"When I was a child, my family was attacked by an invisible force that was then considered harmless," Gore said of his sister's smoking. As the raucous crowd fell silent and a tear rolled down his mother's cheek, Gore described his sister's struggle, losing a lung, taking heavy doses of painkillers and finally slipping into a coma.

"And then I knelt by her bed and held her hand. And in a very short time, her breathing became labored and then she breathed her last breath," Gore continued. "And that is why until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking."

It had been six years since Gore accepted tobacco money and five since his family owned a tobacco farm, but for many critics in the political establishment, including some in the media, the speech was a cynical attempt to capitalize on a personal loss.

"He's a turncoat," said one tobacco advocate, noting Gore's late arrival to the anti-smoking camp. "He was a supporter; he took their money. Then he turns on them for political reasons."

Outside the Beltway, the reaction was quite different.

GOP pollster Frank Luntz, watching with a group of independent voters, declared the speech a tour de force. "It moved people deeply, almost to tears," he said. "It was the story, the delivery, the whole package."

For Gore, the personal and the political had merged.

An Issue With Value

In the three years since the Clinton White House began its internal debate on tobacco, the administration has traveled far. Once fearful, the Clintonites now believe they can use the issue against Republicans in this year's congressional races. Money from a possible tobacco settlement has become the pot of gold bankrolling several new initiatives in the president's proposed 1999 budget.

Beginning in late 1994, the troika's political and regulatory assault on cigarette makers, buttressed by the lawsuits of 40 state attorneys general, triggered the fall of Big Tobacco. Fearful of bankruptcy, the tobacco barons agreed last summer to settle the suits at a cost of $368.5 billion. Now they must convince persuade skeptical lawmakers to accept the broad legal protections included in the deal.

But the tobacco companies know that getting congressional Republicans and Democrats to agree to a complicated deal means substantial input from the White House. And that means their fate could well be back in the hands of Al Gore in the next weeks.

Whether distracted by the Whitewater investigation or merely eager to bolster Gore's prospects in 2000, Clinton has increasingly deferred to his vice president on the subject of smoking. In many ways, Gore has become so closely associated with the push for reform that he embodies its conflicts – to the point where even people who know Gore well are wondering where he will come down.

Will he side with the most zealous anti-tobacco crusaders, settling only for restrictions that eviscerate the industry? Or will he help broker a compromise, making a deal with an entity he sees as the devil?

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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