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  • Elevating the Office: Gore Changes Role of No. 2 Spot

    By David S. Broder
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, August 26, 1996; Page A01

    When Al Gore finished his stem-winding speech to 500 labor delegates this afternoon, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney gave him the best send-off any vice president could ask for. "I'm glad," Sweeney said, "to see those posters over there about Gore in the 21st century. But one thing at a time."

    That accolade from a man and a movement that fought Gore and President Clinton on NAFTA and welfare reform showed how successful Gore has been in wooing parts of the Democratic Party base that had no use for him when he first sought the presidential nomination in 1988.

    Even more important is how he has elevated his office -- an achievement that has drawn notice and praise from, among others, the man who wants to replace him.

    When Jack Kemp was chosen as the number two man on the Republican ticket, he told reporters in San Diego that "my model" for the role he hopes to play in a Dole administration "is Al Gore." Not Dan Quayle, who struggled for four years to overcome the initial impression that he was a lightweight. Not George Bush, who in Garry Trudeau's cutting phrase "put his manhood in blind trust" when he joined Ronald Reagan.

    Instead, he chose Gore, the social friend with whom he served for eight years in the House and the man he is scheduled to debate on Oct. 2 in what one Gore associate said "a lot of people will view as a preview of the 2000 presidential election."

    That Gore aims to be the next Democratic president is the universal assumption within the political community. But it is what Gore has done in the last four years -- both in government and in politics -- that has elevated him to a status no other vice president has attained.

    "His voice is heard on every policy decision the president makes," said one senior White House staff member, "and there are large areas of policy which the president effectively has ceded to him."

    A former member of the staff of Vice President Walter F. Mondale -- who was the first in his position to have a White House office and an open invitation to join the president at every Oval Office meeting -- said that "if Fritz [Mondale] was the breakthrough in terms of access, Gore is a breakthrough in terms of across-the-board influence and absolute control of some issues."

    A Clinton intimate and influential adviser said, "Gore is the dominant force in the administration, aside from the president."

    "It would be immodest for me to say it that way," Gore said in an interview last week. "I feel very good about the fact that the president has asked me for advice on the full range of issues he deals with. And some areas he has asked me to play a more forward-leaning role. Those include the environment, reinventing government, communications and technology policy, empowerment zones in the cities, U.S.-Russian relations, family policy and a few others."

    That is a breathtaking catalogue -- but hardly exhaustive. Cabinet members and White House staff officials say Gore is a vocal participant in the debates about every important administration policy -- and that Clinton gives every evidence of taking his opinions seriously.

    But much of the service he renders is behind-the-scenes. As one top White House aide said, "He does more to make this place work than anyone knows."

    Negotiating With Networks Last Feb. 20, Gore held an unpublicized dinner at the Admiral's House, his official residence on Massachusetts Avenue. The guests were the presidents of the three television networks and their top Washington lobbyists, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America and Gore's domestic policy adviser, Greg Simon. It was not a casual occasion.

    The TV executives were prepared to support the "V" chip, the device that would let parents control what their children watch. But the White House wanted more -- a "voluntary" industry program-rating system and more "family-friendly" fare.

    Two of the executives were blunt in challenging the right of the government to dictate what went over the air. If we agree to this, they wanted to know, what's the next thing you'll ask for? If we do what you want on this, are we still going to have to fight you on auctioning off the new spectrum of TV bands?

    "Things got pretty stormy," said one private sector participant. "Some of our people resented our being made the poster child for the Clinton campaign pitch to young families."

    Gore quietly rebutted the industry objections and asked Jack Valenti, the motion picture man at the dinner, to make the case that the ratings system had worked well for the film industry -- and that TV could earn goodwill by doing the same thing.

    Gore did not have to threaten. All the network people knew that Reed E. Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, had been placed in that job on Gore's say-so. They also knew that Gore and his wife, Tipper, had been dealing with the issue of entertainment content standards -- he in Congress, she in a well-publicized private campaign -- for years. It helped that Gore was, as one of the guests said, "as knowledgeable about telecommunications as any of the technical people these guys employ." And it helped that most of those present had supped individually at the vice president's table several times before this particular dinner.

    A few days later, Clinton was able to announce that the television networks had agreed "voluntarily" to start rating their programs. And a few months after that, following a similar session with Gore, they pledged to provide at least three hours a week of substantive programming for children.

    Gore's moves have not always been that deft. When the big telecommunications bill was moving through Congress last year, he was the White House point man, cuing the president when to threaten a veto, while encouraging legislators to keep plugging away. Just before Christmas, after a negotiating session of House and Senate conferees, it was Gore who rushed to the telephone to tell TV network anchors and major newspapers that the deal had been struck and the landmark legislation would become law.

    Republican leaders, already resentful of what they regarded as Gore's manipulative tactics with the news media in the ongoing and futile budget negotiations, blew up -- and put the bill on ice for weeks, until they could be the ones to take credit for its rescue.

    Still, neutral observers credit Gore with getting the measure through the Republican Congress and winning guarantees that the industry would help see that every school, library and health clinic in the country is, as Gore likes to say, "wired into the information super-highway" by the year 2000.

    "Hook-up days" for local schools in key states such as California have provided great photo-ops for Clinton -- another gift from his partner.

    Troubleshooting Space Program Early in the administration, Gore was asked -- as previous vice presidents had been -- to troubleshoot the space program, especially the controversial space station project. He jumped in and was able to engineer the breakthrough agreement with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin for U.S.-Russian cooperation in space.

    Their agreement has saved billions in development costs and advanced the timetable for the permanent orbital laboratory. Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Science Committee, a close friend of Kemp's, said, "The vice president has played an important role in the survival of the space station, by tying it to more important economic and political relations with the Russians. We don't always agree, but I enjoy him, because he likes new ideas and has a very keen interest in the future."

    The semiannual Chernomyrdin-Gore meetings, set up by Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin as a way to be sure that U.S. support for Russian economic reform remained at the top of both countries' agendas, have turned out to be more important than anyone imagined. With the wild swings in Yeltsin's moods and political fortunes, the prime minister has become the anchor point for U.S. policy, and the personal relationship between him and Gore a stabilizing force.

    Gore has established similar arrangements with South African President Nelson Mandela and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Administration officials say that Gore, who broke with most congressional Democrats to support the Bush administration policy in the Persian Gulf War, has generally been a hard-liner in foreign policy debates, urging the threat of force in Haiti, for example, and stronger U.S. measures in the Bosnia crisis.

    His most publicized domestic venture has been the reinventing-government project, which, among other things, has allowed Clinton to brag that he has reduced the federal payroll to the lowest level since John F. Kennedy was president. Gore claims it has also made agencies less bureaucratic and more "customer-friendly," but evaluations on those questions are mixed.

    Less publicized -- but perhaps more politically important -- is the responsibility Gore has been given to oversee the "empowerment zone" program that is the administration's main urban policy effort -- a combination of tax breaks and targeted federal grants the Democrats claim is superior to the "enterprise zone" alternative Kemp promoted when he ran the Housing and Urban Development Department in the Bush administration.

    Although HUD manages the "empowerment zone" operation, Gore nags other departments to aid the effort with their own grants. It has given him a closer working relationship than he ever previously enjoyed with big-city mayors; one of them, Atlanta's William Campbell, is one of Gore's nominators on Thursday.

    Political Roots Bonding with Campbell and other mayors is just one example of how Gore -- with Clinton's strong backing -- has used his present position to expand his political base. Gore's political roots are southern and centrist. He skipped Iowa and New Hampshire in his 1988 run for the nomination and based his hopes on the southern "Super Tuesday" primaries. Failure to win the hoped-for sweep there doomed his chances.

    When Clinton picked Gore as his running mate, he revived a career that appeared to have leveled off -- and perhaps had peaked. His future, of course, depends not only on the outcome in November but on how Clinton and his government stand with the public if they are in office in 1999. If the administration loses favor, Gore's stock will sink.

    Already, two administration policies have put Gore on the opposite side from House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.), his most likely rival, and key Democratic constituencies. Gephardt and most congressional Democrats took the side of organized labor and opposed NAFTA in 1993. Gore's prowess in defending the free trade agreement with Mexico in his televised NAFTA debate with Ross Perot impressed politicians, but as his aides acknowledge, it did not win cheers from the unions, which exercise great influence in Democratic nominating politics.

    More recently, Gore was standing at Clinton's side for the signing of the welfare bill, which was opposed by Gephardt and other congressional leaders and which has been denounced by many labor, African American and urban officials. Unlike on NAFTA, Gore has not been outspoken on welfare. One White House official noted that Gore did not join in the spirited debate among senior policy advisers when the president asked for advice on whether to sign the welfare bill, instead waiting for a "private moment with Clinton." Thus, Gore has not been mentioned in the criticism some Democratic leaders have directed toward Clinton.

    A senior Gore staff member said this week that "the industrial unions, the cities and the minorities offer a base from which someone is almost certain to challenge Gore in 2000. He and Dick Gephardt have improved their personal relationship since 1988, when it was pretty bad, but Dick Gephardt still has to be thinking about challenging him.

    "And if it's not Dick, it will be somebody."

    But Gore is doing everything possible to make that challenge look difficult. His travel for Clinton -- both political and official -- has taken him into almost 500 cities in the past four years. While there, he has met with local Democratic activists and with the ethnic and interest groups allied with the Democrats.

    He has raised millions for the Democratic Party and its candidates. With Clinton's approval, he has moved his longtime ally and fund-raiser, Washington lawyer Peter S. Knight, into the role of managing the Clinton-Gore campaign. Knight, who worked on Gore's congressional staff for 12 years and went through the 1988 campaign with him, insists that "I have no idea what the machinations were" that landed him in this post. "The president just asked me to to take it."

    But there is nothing naive about Gore's political operation. This will be his third national race. As Bill Carrick, the California political consultant who ran Gore's 1988 campaign, said, "He's a different guy now than he was in 1988. He's very comfortable and relaxed now."

    Gore has learned to mock his own reputation for being stiff and humorless so well that his deadpan impersonation of that robotic personality can bring guffaws.

    More than that, he has worked on his hard-to-convert constituencies. He has visited the AFL-CIO executive council at its meetings in Bal Harbour, Fla., usually "bringing a goody," as one union official put it, such as the administration's pledge to stop government contractors from hiring replacement workers if their employees go on strike. When Steve Rosenthal became the labor federation's top political operative last year, a handwritten note of congratulations from Gore arrived the next day.

    Today, he had the labor delegates stomping and cheering as he shouted out the message that if the Republicans "want to keep the unions down, they're gonna have to come over us."

    "You know," said one White House official who is openly hoping for a Gore succession, "the unions didn't really have a lot against him in 1988; they just felt it wasn't his year. But by 2000, they may figure -- like a lot of other Democrats -- his time has come." In a real sense, this convention is a Gore coming-out party. Until Clinton arrives on Wednesday night, he will be the center of attention among the thousands of party activists. He will give two prime-time TV speeches before his running mate gives one.

    But ask Gore if this week is more of a showcase for him than for the president, and he expresses horror that anyone would think such a thought.

    "From the beginning, I have defined my role in simple and crisp terms," he said. "I want to do everything I possibly can to help Bill Clinton be the best president he is capable of being."

    His success in that role -- attested by Kemp and almost every other politician in America -- shows the vice presidency does not have to be the frustrating experience so many others have found it.

    Staff researcher Barbara J. Saffir contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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