Aides: Clinton's 'Damage Control' Irks Gore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 15, 1999; Page A15
A high-profile attempt by President Clinton to shore up Vice President Gore's presidential candidacy appeared to backfire yesterday as aides said Gore was angered by the president's call to a reporter in which Clinton acknowledged he had worried about the Gore campaign.
In an interview with the New York Times, Clinton acknowledged he has been concerned about the slow start of Gore's campaign but feels confident the vice president will succeed him. The Gore campaign "is in a lot better shape now than it was eight weeks ago," Clinton said, pointing to the hiring of Tony Coelho to lead the campaign and Gore's recent attempts at a more casual stump style.
Coelho said Clinton's unsolicited call to reporter Richard L. Berke was an attempt at "damage control," to neutralize a story the White House believed would portray the president as deeply worried about Gore.
But the unusual decision to have Clinton handle the public relations duties himself may have had the opposite effect, drawing further attention to the widely recognized weaknesses in the Gore operation and reviving the turmoil and infighting Coelho was brought in to eliminate.
"People today are not in a good mood," said one Gore loyalist, describing the vice president as angry. "He was furious," said a Gore political adviser. A congressional Democrat, after speaking to a Gore adviser, described the story and the stir it caused as a "disaster."
Clinton's phone call plunged the Gore team back into a public discussion of its failings just as strategists believed the vice president was beginning a new, accelerated phase of his campaign. On Sunday, Gore gives his first major policy address of the campaign -- on education. Coelho said a formal campaign announcement this summer, perhaps supplemented with advertising, will help Gore "paint a portrait of who he is and why he's running."
The call also underscores the mixed blessing for Gore in having a president take such personal interest in having his vice president succeed him. Although Clinton's popularity in Democratic circles and his keen political instincts are obvious assets, his visibility underscores Gore's junior partner role to a man renowned for his campaign skills.
Both Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had been voicing concerns to friends about Gore's public performances and the effectiveness of his campaign apparatus for some two months, shortly after Clinton survived his impeachment ordeal in February, sources said. The concerns have always been in a sympathetic context, with both Clintons eager for Gore to do well.
"I know the president's been worried," said one administration official who has spoken to Clinton about the Gore problems. "The worry has been that the vice president is micromanaging the campaign; that there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians; that he hasn't been connecting with voters, and, I would add, he doesn't take criticism well."
Still, there was debate among some White House officials and outside advisers about whether it was wise for the president to offer his friendly advice in such a public way, as though he were coaching a kid brother on hitting and urging him to loosen up on the bat. One outside Clinton adviser who is sympathetic to Gore said the comments had a somewhat patronizing air, and tend to undercut Gore's efforts to establish a public persona independent of Clinton's.
As the Times story was developing late Thursday, Clinton met with pollster Mark Penn, Gore chief of staff Ron Klain, and White House aides Doug Sosnik, John Podesta and Steve Richetti. "We called an audible," said one White House official.
Gore was traveling in North Carolina at the time and had no input in the decision. The impetus, according to two participants, came from Clinton, and no serious objections were raised.
"Ron was there and felt it was a good idea," said Coelho, who learned of the decision around 9:30 p.m. and informed Gore about an hour later, well after Clinton's interview had been advertised on television.
Faced with an impending negative story, White House officials said Clinton and the others decided it was better to candidly acknowledge some concerns but characterize them as minor problems about a candidacy that is fundamentally sound.
Coelho said he endorsed Clinton's decision, but he acknowledged Gore was unhappy: "No candidate likes to see anything negative about him printed any time."
After two conversations with the president yesterday, Coelho said he is confident Clinton will let the Gore team take the lead in Campaign 2000. Clinton "will do whatever we want him to do; he thinks Al would make a great president," said Coelho. "He also understands this race is about Al Gore and that Al Gore needs to communicate with the American public, and he doesn't want to interfere with that communication."
Clinton, who is eager to build his legacy around a Gore presidency, said he has offered the vice president tips, from dressing more casually to staying in private homes when he campaigns. He has urged Gore to leave the campaign details to others and boast more freely about the successes of the Clinton-Gore administration.
"I just want him to get out and have a good time, talk about what he would do in the next four years," Clinton told the Times.
In regular political meetings in the White House residence, Clinton finds ways to boost the Gore campaign, according to three participants. "The president sees himself as the Gore campaign manager," said one senior official who attends the strategy sessions. "A lot of discussion in those residence meetings is how do I [Clinton] help the vice president with my schedule and my appearances."
This person said Clinton's July tour of Indian reservations, Appalachia and other economically depressed regions, for example, is one way the president feels he can demonstrate that he and Gore are committed to extending the booming economy to all Americans. It should also assuage core Democratic constituencies, including minority leaders such as Jesse L. Jackson, who have grumbled that the centrist Gore has not focused on the needy.
Although Clinton did not explicitly plug Gore's candidacy at an appearance in Seattle yesterday, he highlighted issues Gore is identified with: the environment, "livability" and expanding Internet access to schools. Noting what he called the positive path the country is on, Clinton said, "It is terribly important to me that everyone in America understand that this on the one hand didn't happen by accident but on the other hand is not dependent upon any person alone, including the president."
Another way Clinton can help Gore and other Democrats is in raising money. He began a four-day fund-raising tour on the West Coast yesterday, with a luncheon speech in Seattle and a dinner in the San Francisco Bay area. After visiting his daughter, Chelsea, in Palo Alto, Calif., on Saturday, Clinton moves on to fund-raisers in Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas.
Coelho compared yesterday's controversy to a blister, better to "pop it and treat it, than cover it up," he said. And from now on, the new campaign chairman asserted, Gore will stay away from the tactical decisions and focus instead of his sales pitch to the American people. "He is going to stop being campaign manager."
Staff writers Dan Balz and Thomas B. Edsall in Washington and John F. Harris in Seattle contributed to this report.
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