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?
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