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For Vice President Gore, a Term of Transition

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 19 1997; Page E31

Following their reelection, President Clinton and Vice President Gore celebrate their victory.
Bill O'Leary, The Washington Post.
Vice President Gore likes to joke that last November's election landed him in an exclusive club whose members include such eminent Americans as John C. Calhoun, Daniel D. Tompkins, Thomas R. Marshall, John Nance Garner and even one fellow named George Clinton.

This group comprises every Democrat to serve two terms as vice president, but for Gore, none stands as a role model as he begins his own second term. The reason? None of them ever made it to the presidency.

Loyalty and Influence
Monday's inaugural ceremonies at the Capitol mark the opening of a new and important phase for the 45th vice president of the United States, one his friends and advisers hope will culminate four years from now with Gore back on the West Front taking the oath as President Clinton's successor.

Having earned a reputation over the past four years as the most influential vice president in American history, Gore now must look toward making the transition from loyal understudy to likely presidential candidate, and with that change will come scrutiny and attention far different from that he received in his first term.

Whatever plaudits Gore has legitimately earned the past four years, they have come largely as a result of powers derived from the president. Eventually the former Tennessee senator must prove his attractiveness not as a cheerleader for the president but as a political leader with his own constituency of support.

Sitting in his square, brown-walled office in the West Wing of the White House recently, Gore tried to brush aside any discussion of an impending presidential campaign. "My campaign is a lot like my Macarena," he said with the same deadpan look he exhibited from the podium at the Democratic National Convention last August in Chicago. "There's no visible movement."

But for now, "no visible movement" represents part of the strategy he and advisers have put into place to take him down the corridor to the Oval Office in four years. "We're not running a four-year campaign," one senior adviser to Gore said recently. "His greatest political asset is the job he's done as vice president. So our political strategy is not to run a political strategy, but to concentrate on being vice president."

Only 14 vice presidents have graduated to the presidency -- nine because the president died or resigned from office and two under an electoral system that no longer exists.

For Gore, history offers a mixed message about the next stage of his political career. George Bush was elected president after eight years as Ronald Reagan's vice president, but one has to look back more than a century -- to Martin Van Buren in 1836 -- to find another example of a sitting vice president who was elected president.

Among Gore's other recent predecessors, Hubert H. Humphrey tried and failed to win the presidency in 1968, and the man who defeated him that year, Richard M. Nixon, lost the race in 1960 when he was vice president.

In his first term as vice president, Gore built up an impressive file of news clippings highlighting his power and prominence within the Clinton administration. He is by most accounts the president's most important adviser and confidant (with the possible exception of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton) and a vice president with an impressive portfolio of responsibilities.

With the kind of self-deprecation that has to come naturally to anyone in his position, Gore dismissed the glowing articles by suggesting the phrase "influential vice president" may rank along with "jumbo shrimp" in a list of oxymorons.

"But don't get me wrong," he added. "I'm glad to read stories like that because my purpose is to help this president be the finest, most capable president he's capable of being, and that's my touchstone for every decision that I make."

From the day Clinton selected him in 1992, Gore set out to become the most loyal and effective vice president in history. "The loyalty he's shown has earned him a lot of respect all around the White House, but especially in the Oval Office," a senior administration official said. "He won't do anything to diminish his principal source of strength, which is loyalty to the president."

But loyalty and influence also come with a price, which is to say that Gore's future is inextricably linked to the success of Clinton in a second term. Scandal or recession could torpedo Gore's aspirations to succeed Clinton, no matter how well thought of the vice president is.

Craig Fuller, who served as Bush's chief of staff during his second term as Reagan's vice president, knows full well the double-edged nature of the situation in which Gore finds himself. "In many ways, Vice President Gore's greatest asset is also his greatest liability, and that is the White House," Fuller said. "It is a tremendous advantage when things are going well, but when things are going poorly, you cannot escape from it."

Gore's allies are keenly aware of that reality. "It's clear to him and his staff that his political prospects are enhanced if the president succeeds and limited if they don't succeed," said Roy Neel, a former chief of staff to Gore and now head of the U.S. Telephone Association. "That's the best way Al Gore can position himself to be president."

The vice presidency has changed dramatically in the second half of this century. The first important change came with the ratification of the 22nd Amendment, which limited presidents to two terms and put a new spotlight on vice presidents who served two-term presidents. Then, beginning in 1976, the role of the vice president underwent a renovation, with Walter F. Mondale carving out a significant role for himself as Jimmy Carter's No. 2.

Since then vice presidents have sought to model themselves on the Mondale example. But Gore has managed to take the Mondale model and reinvent it -- with considerable help from Clinton. "The thing Clinton and Gore seem to have done is give Gore something of a separate standing, to take steps that allow him to appear presidential in his own separate way," said Joel K. Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University who has written frequently about the vice presidency.

He cited Gore's prominence at the Democratic National Convention, where he commanded center stage for three days until the president arrived; the vice president's well-established relationship with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin; his lead role in "reinventing government"; and his prominence on issues such as the environment, technology and airline safety.

"Even vice presidents who I think did play a significant role, like Mondale and Bush, were never given these prerogatives to anything like the same extent Clinton has given them to Gore," Goldstein said. "Those things may be helpful to Gore in a presidential run."

The Clinton-Gore relationship has flourished in part because of their common roots, their generational identity and their deep interest in the details of policy. But the spice of friendly competition has added to the recipe.

Clinton has been overheard to complain, with exasperation and affection, that it's been easy for the vice president to muster all those puffy profiles, since the president has to take the heat on the front lines. "There's a little whiff of competition between the two," one senior administration official said. "It puts a little edge into the relationship and it's one of the elements of success."

'I Am Who I Am'
Inevitably, that relationship will begin to change in a second term. In some cases that can be mutually beneficial. Ten days ago, Gore flew to California and two other western states to survey the damage from recent floods. A few years ago, Clinton might have taken the trip, given his desire to court California voters; now Gore can serve the president and his political needs by making the trip.

Traditionally, vice presidents with an eye on the presidency seek to carve out a separate identity while not appearing to be disloyal. But Robert Teeter, who managed Bush's second presidential campaign, said discussion about vice presidents establishing a separate identity doesn't square with reality.

"When you're the vice president, you don't have a lot of choices," Teeter said. "You're the vice president. You work right down the hall."

One Gore adviser made a distinction between a separate identity and a clear identity, and argued that the vice president's portfolio of responsibilities had helped give him greater standing without having to distance himself from the president. "Gore's had a hand in designing what Clinton has done as president," the adviser said. "He's not going to run from it. He's in it. . . . He's not ever going to distance himself from [the president]."

Gore put it differently: "I don't feel the need to say here is a new version of who I am. I am who I am and I'm not trying to present myself in any other way."

Even if he attempts to operate in a second term largely as he has in the first, Gore will find himself presented with new challenges, according to old friend and adviser Neel. "What will be different will be the demands from the outside: more scrutiny from the press and more interest from political people all around the country," Neel said.

Already, Gore is coming under scrutiny for his role as a fund-raiser for the Democratic Party during the presidential campaign -- in particular his participation at a fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles.

The DNC has been forced to return at least $5,000 in questionable contributions raised at the event. Gore claims he never knew the event was a fund-raiser, a position that raises skepticism because of Gore's reputation for careful preparation before virtually all his public activities.

Choosing his words carefully, Gore said recently: "It was not a ticketed event and I did not see any money being collected at the event, nor did I hear any solicitation for money or any gratitude expressed for money having been contributed. In retrospect, whether the event was a fund-raiser or not, it was a mistake for the DNC to hold a finance-related event at a temple, and I take responsibility for my attendance at the event, especially since I was informed that this outreach event was sponsored by the Asian-American Leadership Council of the DNC, and participation in the council required a prior donation."

The president's apparent determination to govern from the center will create pressures on Gore, who knows that one key to winning the nomination in four years is to prevent a significant challenge from the left, with House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) considered the most likely rival.

Gore has worked on his political relationships with an eye on making it more difficult for anyone to consolidate the party's liberal base against him. He consults with Jesse L. Jackson, has strong ties to environmentalists and women's groups, told organized labor leaders they can reach out to him in the second-term White House, invited AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to accompany him to the funeral of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago two months ago, and pushed hard for Andrew M. Cuomo, the son of former New York governor Mario M. Cuomo, to become the new housing secretary in Clinton's Cabinet.

A Mutual Dependency
Vice President Gore during a debate with opponent Jack Kemp during the 1996 campaign. Photo by AP.
Gore's place in vice presidential history seems secure, given the success of his first four years, but that success remains largely derivative. His longer-term objective is to extend Clintonism into the next century by getting himself elected president, which will require skills he has not been forced to display in his current role.

Gore carries none of the president's personal baggage, but by the same token, he has never exhibited the kind of charisma and personal campaign skills that have made Clinton such a powerful candidate. That will be part of the test of his second term.

But if Gore's political future depends in large part on the success of Clinton's second term, the president's place in history may rest in part on Gore's future success as well. In that way, more than with other presidents and vice presidents, there is a mutual dependency perhaps unique in American history.

"You really feel that Clinton has a sincere obligation to Gore," said Robert Squier, the Democratic media consultant who has worked for Gore since his first Senate campaign and was in charge of Clinton's advertising in 1996. "The president knows he made a good decision [in selecting Gore]. It was his first big decision and Gore was his best choice. Gore's success is tied up in his own legacy."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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