Clinton and Gore Are Awkward Sidekicks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 1999; Page A2
EDINBURG, Tex., May 25 For the first time since he publicly acknowledged his private fears about Al Gore's bid to succeed him, President Clinton was on the same stage with his vice president today, and he used the occasion to try to make amends.
In an effusive introduction at a White House conference on "empowerment zones," Clinton said Gore--"more than any single person in the United States"--deserved the credit for reviving America's inner cities and depressed rural areas.
But the body language between the empathetic president and his ramrod stiff deputy suggested a curious awkwardness.
And Gore, the community conference's host, in a dense 40-minute address that left the audience fidgeting and Clinton wiping his brow, mentioned the president just once in an aside.
Although today's event was intended to generate support for Gore among key urban and minority voters and offer a showcase for him in rival George W. Bush's state, it may instead have shined a spotlight on the complex dynamics of the Clinton-Gore partnership as he sets out on his own White House bid.
Even before the president told the New York Times 12 days ago that he had offered Gore tips on connecting with voters, the mixed blessings of serving as Clinton's vice president had worried Gore allies. One recent poll showed that while Gore does not seem to enjoy the credit Clinton receives for the strong economy and other policy achievements, the vice president is tarnished in the eyes of many voters by his association with a series of administration scandals.
And often, as was the case today, Gore's stylistic weaknesses are magnified by Clinton's strengths.
"Of course it's inevitable he will be compared to the president," said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo, a Gore confidant who helps plot his campaign strategy. "The president is a master communicator of historic proportions."
But Cuomo added, "I think the vice president is a very effective communicator. Different style from the president, but every person has their own style. It doesn't matter if it's different. It's whether or not it's effective. And I think there's no question that he was effective today."
With the giant seals of their respective offices hanging on a blue curtain behind them, Clinton and Gore were a study in contrasts.
To the strains of "Hail to the Chief," Clinton strode on stage, waved to the crowd and draped his arm over the shoulders of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. Gore, meanwhile, stood erect on the other side of the stage briefly waving.
During Clinton's introduction, Gore studied his note cards and gazed out at the group of community leaders gathered at the University of Texas-Pan American. When it was Gore's time to speak, Clinton patted the vice president on the back; then, from his seat, waved and grinned at familiar faces in the gymnasium. About 30 minutes into Gore's address, Glickman fiddled with something in his pocket and Cuomo reached for a mint.
Some of Clinton's comments about Gore had the feel of a proud parent boasting about his offspring. "Every time the vice president leaves town and then comes home, he brings back more success stories of old problems being met with new solutions," Clinton said.
After squeezing in a plug for Gore's effort to wire schools and libraries to the Internet, Clinton let the vice president handle the minor news announcements of the conference. Gore said the administration was clarifying policies on legal immigrants to make clear that receiving benefits such as Medicaid and school lunches would not jeopardize their immigration status. He also lobbied for full funding--$1.8 billion over 10 years--for empowerment zones.
"I've watched a community development bank help start businesses in the Mississippi Delta and I've met families getting job training through the EZ (empowerment zones) in Boston," Gore said. "And along the way, I've heard stories that money can't buy."
This morning, Gore visited the border community of Sebastian to see a cotton gin and Head Start program developed with federal empowerment zone money. But it was Clinton's rhetoric that stood out.
"Because of his unparalleled combination of creativity and energy, experience and determination, I asked the vice president to take the lead in turning this vision we had into reality," he said. "It was a challenge, as all of you have seen, that he embraced passionately."
And then there was: "It is a challenge he embraced passionately. I am profoundly grateful to him for proving that this is an idea whose time had come."
As Clinton's motorcade whisked the president toward his vacation in Florida, Gore settled in for three more hours of meetings on empowerment zones.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company