Is Mr. Clean Stronger Than Dirt?
By Roger Simon
When Bill Clinton selected Al Gore as his running mate in 1992, some thought Gore would not bring balance to the ticket. Like Clinton, Gore was a young, moderate Southerner. But Gore did bring balance: He had no bimbo eruptions, questionable land deals or draft evasions in his past.
Bill Clinton was going to be Commander in Chief while Al Gore was going to be Boy Scout in Chief.
And it worked. Until recently. When we learned that Gore had been sitting in the White House making phone calls and putting the arm on campaign contributors for large amounts of money.
Which, at the very least, is an image problem for Al Gore. Americans expect their Boy Scouts to help little old ladies across the street, not mug them for their spare change.
And while Bill Clinton admitted that "mistakes were made" when it came to raising funds for the Democratic Party, Al Gore would not go even that far. As regards his personal fund-raising, no mistakes were made whatsoever, Gore said. Though he promised not to make any more of them in the future.
That's the burden of being Mr. Clean: You cannot admit to being even a little bit dirty. Gore knows that the public can turn on you with the vengeance of a betrayed lover or a reformed smoker. Virtue is such a unique asset in Washington, it is not to be squandered. At least not without carefully thinking about it first.
Gore faced a group of reporters last Monday, holding one hand over his heart and gripping the lectern with the other. Which was a good move on his part: People want to see where both his hands are these days.
Gore was in a pickle. Because of this incident and his changing tale of what he did or did not know in advance about a fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple last year, his veracity and character have been called into question. So Monday he took the honorable way out: He blamed everything on his lawyer.
As if he were holding up a cross in front of vampires, Gore told reporters seven times that his lawyer had informed him that "no controlling legal authority" had said any of his telephone activities violated the law.
But Gore had learned the price of eating lunch with Bill Clinton once a week: You can get stuck doing the dirty dishes.
Clinton felt that calling up rich donors and asking them for money was beneath his dignity. But he did not feel it was beneath Al Gore's dignity. According to The Post's Bob Woodward, Clinton told campaign and party officials in 1995, "You guys are the fund-raisers. I'm not going to make calls to do your job."
Right. That's why God made vice presidents.
Not that Gore liked what he was doing. He must have hated punching all those credit card numbers into the phone (if a federal employee had entered the numbers for him, I assume that would have been a violation of the Hatch Act) and making his pitch. "I've been tasked with raising $2 million by the end of the week, and you're on my list," he would say.
Gore's associates claim he only made such calls with "bamboo under the fingernails." About 50 times. Which suggests something akin to masochism.
But the real torture was experienced by those on the receiving end of Gore's calls. The angriest people in the country today are not to be found in good-government groups or on congressional investigating committees or in editorial board rooms. The angriest people are Democratic contributors who are sick of being squeezed. (Which may be why so many of them are talking to reporters.) "It's not like you even get anything for $10,000 any more," one contributor complained to me a few months ago. "You just have to give it so you don't get screwed."
Regardless of whether Gore's phone calls were legal or not, they failed the smell test for a reason made perfectly clear by one of Gore's own staff members in an interview during the presidential campaign. "He can move markets with a few comments," the staffer told The Post, because Gore plays the key role in administration decisions on such things as technology and telecommunications.
Exactly. And if you were heading a company in one of those industries, for instance, and you picked up the phone and Al Gore was on the line saying "you're on my list," what would you do?
Why didn't Gore see his phone calls for the plain conflict of interest they were? Well, one must never forget the most popular rule in Washington, the Staszak Rule: Joe Staszak was a Baltimore tavern owner and state senator who assiduously sponsored legislation that would help the liquor business. When asked if one such bill constituted a conflict of interest, Staszak replied: "How does this conflict with my interest?"
Not that Gore was telephoning for personal gain. He felt he had a much better reason for shaking the money tree so hard. And Bill Clinton outlined it the day after Gore's rather rocky press conference: Gore raised the money in order to save America. "We were fighting a battle, not simply for our reelection, but over the entire direction of the country for years to come, the most historic philosophical battle we've had in America in quite a long time," Clinton said.
Which just goes to prove that a defense can be worse than the act it is defending. Clinton's reasoning could justify anything from phone solicitations to breaking into Republican party headquarters. After all, when "the entire direction of the country" is at stake, you can hardly be weak-kneed. And Clinton went on to say: "I don't regret the fact that we worked like crazy to raise enough money to keep from being rolled over by the biggest juggernaut this country had seen in a very long time."
And just what was this juggernaut?
I traveled a lot with Bob Dole in 1996 but I must have missed the juggernaut part of his campaign. When did Dole's efforts reach that status exactly? After he embraced assault weapons or after he said smoking might not be any worse than drinking milk?
Not since the Nixon White House tried to sabotage George McGovern has more time, energy and money been spent to combat a more hapless foe.
And what did Clinton/Gore '96 spend its money on? Virtually nothing of value. The greatest irony in all this relentless money grubbing is that millions were spent on not particularly good campaign commercials that did not alter the outcome of the race one whit. Dick Morris's claims aside, I've seen enough evidence to persuade me that television commercials almost never are a critical factor in presidential races.
Harold Ickes, Clinton's deputy chief of staff who was dumped after the election, was exactly right when he opposed spending for TV commercials, saying, "Nobody will remember them by Election Day."
Nobody did. The White House indulged in all sorts of questionable practices to create and air campaign commercials any sane person would channel-surf through.
The real power of the Clinton/Gore campaign was Clinton's uncanny ability to connect with voters that and a set of issues that made him appear moderate, caring and likable, especially to women. And Al Gore helped a great deal. Despite his self-adopted "stiff" image, he turned out to be a formidable stump speaker. Though there was overlap, Gore was in charge of holding onto the Democratic base of minorities and urban liberals, while Clinton addressed suburbanites, Reagan Democrats and white ethnics. Bill Clinton and Al Gore were a sharp, smart campaign team backed up by an almost maniacally energetic, imaginative and talented staff.
In other words, they didn't need all that dough. They didn't need to sell off the White House room by room, or rent out Air Force One, or dial for dollars from the West Wing. They would have won without it.
So what of Gore's future in the light of these revelations?
Well, however dark it looks for him now, two things should be kept in mind: Early scandals are far better than late scandals, and Gore has incredible powers of resilience when it comes to his public image.
Gore is, in fact, one of the great examples of political reconstructive surgery. He started out in 1987 being lampooned in Doonesbury as "Prince Albert," someone who grew up in what is now Washington's Ritz-Carlton Hotel but affected the folksy Southern mannerisms of Tennessee. An image mild compared to his next one: Mr. Mean. Gore was the meanest Democrat in the 1988 presidential primaries. It was Al Gore, not Lee Atwater, who first used Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis. And it was Al Gore who courted the Jewish vote during the New York primary by attacking Jesse Jackson for "his embrace of Arafat" and saying, "We're not choosing a preacher; we're choosing a president."
Gore's wooden dullness rarely surfaced in the profiles done on him in those days. That would come later. And it would come by Gore's choice. As Clinton's running mate in 1992, he needed a new image that would make people forget his reputation for meanness and his life of privilege. The image also had to be one that would not overshadow the top of the ticket. Thus Stiff Al was born.
At stop after stop, Gore would tell the same jokes: "How can you tell Al Gore from his Secret Service agents? He's the stiff one . . . . Al Gore is so boring his Secret Service code name is Al Gore."
It worked, which is why his macarena joke at the 1996 Democratic Convention was so funny. He had been setting it up for four years. In reality, though Gore's over-modulated speaking style can be maddening, he can also wow audiences when he wishes to. That he actually is not that stiff, not that dull, not that wonkish and not a bad speaker is his secret weapon for 2000.
"I have benefited from low expectations," he once told reporters. "Don't blow it for me."
His overriding image, however, the one he has retained through all his other transformations, has been that of Saint Al. "Gore's got a pretty thick shield in terms of integrity," his old friend Carter Eskew, a Democratic media consultant, told the Los Angeles Times in February. "People think he's an honest guy."
Reputations come and go, however. As have Gore's explanations for what he was doing at a fund-raiser at a Buddhist Temple last year. Gore first said he thought the event was one of "community outreach" and not a fund-raiser. This statement later proved to be inoperative. "He knew it was a finance-related event," said a Gore spokeswoman in January. "In retrospect if he had the opportunity now to not say 'community outreach' and to use a different term of art like 'political outreach' or something like that, which could not be juxtaposed to fund-raising, he probably would have done it."
Got that? And now come the phone calls which, Gore said at his Monday press conference, were made on a DNC credit card. Which by Tuesday had been transformed into a Clinton/Gore campaign credit card. And who knows what next week will bring? A gasoline credit card, perhaps.
Once asked why it took him so long after his sister's death from lung cancer to oppose tobacco, Gore said, "Sometimes you never fully face up to things that you ought to face up to."
It is now time for Al Gore to face up to his fund-raising behavior and reconsider whether no mistakes were made. Gore said Monday he was "very proud" of what he had done, even though dialing for dollars did make him "uncomfortable."
As a simple guide for future behavior, I would suggest to Gore that if those things that make you "very proud" also make you "uncomfortable," you ought not be doing them, ought not be proud of them, or both.
Roger Simon is a syndicated columnist whose book on the 1996 presidential campaign will be published by HarperCollins later this year.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company