The Fall of Big Tobacco
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Page Two

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.

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