Out of Clinton's Shadow, Vice President Finds Heat Withering
By Dan Balz
Vice President Gore discovered yesterday that it's far easier to play the part of loyal understudy to President Clinton than face the spotlight now that his own role in raising millions of dollars in political contributions is being called into question.
Gore was on the defensive over a report in Sunday's Washington Post that described him as the "solicitor-in-chief" for the Democratic National Committee in 1996. Admitting he made telephone calls to campaign contributors from his office in the West Wing of the White House, the vice president offered at best a shaky defense.
On several occasions, he ducked direct questions about the propriety of using a federal building for such purposes. His overall message may have sounded contradictory to the average person watching on television: I'm proud of what I did and I won't do it anymore.
Gore long has been called the Boy Scout of the Clinton administration, a politician of such integrity and personal probity that even Clinton has jokingly complained about the vice president's glowing press.
So it was unexpected that Gore would find himself on the griddle over the enveloping controversy about how the Democrats raised their money.
Given his reputation, this was hardly the subject a man with his eye on winning the White House in 2000 would have chosen for his first nationally televised news conference of his and Clinton's second term.
When he debated Jack Kemp in last fall's vice president debate, and when he demolished Ross Perot in their free trade debate in 1993, Gore showed the effectiveness of his ability to stick to his message relentlessly. Yesterday he demonstrated the drawbacks of that approach.
The vice president began his explanation with a declarative sentence: "Everything that I did, I understood to be lawful." He then asserted that a legal memo by the White House counsel's office describing what White House employees could and could not do in the 1996 campaign did not cover the president and vice president.
With those two caveats established, Gore spent the rest of the news conference ducking, deflecting or repeating.
Asked whether he was saying he never did any fund-raising from a government building, he deflected. "I never asked for a campaign contribution from anyone who was in a government office," he replied.
Asked again about long-standing prohibitions against raising money in a federal building, he ducked: "I'd never ask anyone in the White House for a campaign contribution," he replied.
Reporters tried a third time to force him to answer the question. "You sat in the White House, you called people and asked them for a contribution," one reporter said.
This time he repeated. "I stated the facts situation earlier," Gore said. "And I described it in some detail. I never have asked a federal employee for a contribution never would, never will."
Gore's discomfort with allegations about his role in questionable fund-raising practices has been apparent since the first revelations about his participation in an event at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles last year. He was slow to acknowledge his own mistakes in going to the event and finally acknowledged during an interview with The Post in early January that he should have been more vigilant.
During that same interview, Gore was asked how he and Clinton could continue to defend themselves by claiming that all the allegations of wrongdoing were aimed at the Democratic National Committee, not the Clinton-Gore campaign. The president, after all, appointed the chairman of the DNC, directed the committee to spend much of its funds on a massive television advertising campaign to boost his own reelection and even helped to write the text of those ads.
His answer was as follows, beginning with a four-second pause: "Uh, [four-second pause], well, [two-second pause] the DNC is a, uh, uh, different entity from the campaign, uh, and uh, [12-second pause] that, that's a fact."
Another seven-second pause followed, and then it was suggested to Gore that he attended more fund-raisers for the DNC than for the reelection committee. Another four-second pause followed before he responded again:
"They are separate entities," he added. "In saying that, I wouldn't want to imply that [four-second pause] the DNC wasn't, uh, [four-second pause] focused on among other things the success of, the campaign to reelect the president. But it was also focused on a lot of activities that our campaign was not, such as the governors' campaigns, state legislative campaigns, and so, uh [four-second pause] your basic point is [three-second pause] that these are the same entities and they're not."
Gore has been described as the most influential and effective vice president in history. But the one and only time he performed solo on the national stage, during his unsuccessful campaign for president in 1988, he was anything but an effective candidate.
Yesterday's news conference, seen as an exercise in damage control and political performance, may give potential rivals in 2000 hope. In the briefing room yesterday afternoon, the vice president seemed more an echo of that old Al Gore than the man many supporters believe is so well positioned to succeed Clinton in the Oval Office.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company