After Bruising 'Lessons,' Gore Steps Carefully Into a New Role
By Dan Balz
There was no talk of 2000 as Vice President Gore jetted west last week, but really it wasn't necessary. The 38-hour journey across the country and back had the unmistakable feel of a campaign in the making.
From a Democratic dinner in Arkansas to a tour of the Boeing 777 aircraft assembly plant outside Seattle to a speech and private dinner with business executives hosted by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, the cross-country trip appeared designed as much to advance the vice president's interests as those of the administration.
This is a necessary but delicate transition for a politician who has shown himself well-suited to the role of loyal understudy. Gore is carefully attempting to emerge from President Clinton's shadow not by emphasizing differences but by projecting a clearer image of himself than he did in his first term.
Gore hopes to show that he is no mere imitation of Clinton but rather, as in the world of computer software, the newest upgrade that maintains the principles of the old but offers distinctly improved features.
Gore knew this phase would come eventually, but through his own missteps and a political community anxious to set up the next contest, it has come sooner than expected. "If I didn't [anticipate it], I certainly should have," Gore said in an interview. "There was a change after the election in the way some saw the context of what I do."
Earlier this year Gore went almost overnight from golden boy of the Clinton White House to the target of intense criticism over any mistake. Gore's role as a campaign fund-raiser last year, his news conference defending those activities in which he said "no controlling legal authority" covered the telephone calls he made from the White House, and a trip to China in which reporters were given conflicting accounts of Gore's conversations with Chinese officials put him on the defensive.
While Gore and his circle of advisers believed some of the criticism was unfair, they concluded they had to change the way he did business as he prepares to run for president in 2000.
"It's made him appreciate how important it is for him to get out in the country and articulate a message," said one Gore adviser. "It's made him realize that this [succeeding Clinton] is going to be a tough fight and a tough struggle. And I think it's made him realize he is under expectations to perform publicly at a higher level."
Gore called the bruises he bears from the fund-raising and China experiences "a blessing in disguise," and he remains philosophical, if not overly reflective, about how it has affected him and his operation. "It's been an interesting learning experience," he said in the interview, "and I've picked up a lot of experience and I've picked up a lot of inexpensive lessons."
What did he mean by "inexpensive"? "I don't know whether I should say that," he replied. "That's for others to judge."
Roy Neel, Gore's former chief of staff, said one lesson is clear: "No mistake, however minor or logistical or whatever, will go unnoticed and will in fact now be reported and analyzed ad nauseam." Another lesson, he said, is that Gore will be scrutinized constantly as a presidential candidate and he must "get used to it and plan accordingly."
Behind the scenes, Gore continues to promote both the administration's and his own interests. He worked, said friends, to assure a budget deal with congressional Republicans and to make the agreement as favorable to Democrats as possible. In doing so, he hoped to prevent defections among congressional Democrats and, not incidentally, make it more difficult for House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), his potential rival for the party's nomination in 2000, to get political traction by opposing the deal.
Gore also takes a vital interest in personnel matters and has made sure his allies are included in the appointments process. At the same time, he has helped people on his staff find new jobs on the White House staff, including Thurgood Marshall Jr., who was Gore's liaison to Congress, Karen Skelton, his political director, and Fred DuVal, his reelection campaign manager.
Gore's allies argue that these moves give him greater influence on second-term decision-making. But these and several other departures from his vice presidential team have come just as Gore finds himself under more intensive scrutiny, and some allies believe this contributed to some of the mistakes that plagued him earlier in the year. "It showed some weakness in his operation and his preparation," one adviser said.
That represents a view of those who admire the vice president. His critics wonder whether the problems reflect Gore's limitations under pressure.
The reality that he will now be treated as a presidential candidate even though he is far from assembling a campaign prompted Gore and his advisers to think more strategically about his public performance, and last week's trip to Arkansas and Seattle underscored the care with which the vice president now approaches even routine travel.
"He has to be able to go to a [Democratic] dinner and get those 1,000 people thinking, 'This guy can be the champion of our party, he'd be a good nominee,' " said one person close to the vice president. "And he's also got to be able to go to a broader audience, like Boeing and the CEOs [at the Microsoft conference], and show he's got a message for business leaders, working people and the middle class."
In Little Rock, Gore substituted for Clinton before the president's hometown friends, mixing humor and southern regionalisms (he described his next stop, Seattle, as "a fer piece" from Arkansas) with tub-thumping partisan rhetoric to pump up the Democratic crowd.
In Seattle, his visit to the Boeing plant included touches more common to campaign-style appearances than a traditional factory tour. When he was introduced, he emerged suddenly from the fuselage of an unfinished 777 jetliner sitting high above the floor and descended, accompanied by pulsing music, down a long staircase to speak to the workers.
His visit to Gates's CEO summit and a later dinner at the computer billionaire's spectacular and unfinished lakeside home gave Gore the opportunity to show off his expertise on technology and make a favorable impression before the kind of high-powered corporate audience Democrats now feel obliged to court.
None of this should be mistaken for outright campaigning. That will come later. But Gore and his advisers recognize they have entered a decidedly different phase in their methodical pursuit of the presidency.
"If you look at the coverage last year, it was a lot of inside baseball about his political strengths and constituencies lining up behind him," one friend said. "Now what he's seen is that inside strength needs to be matched by a strong message to the party faithful and the country as a whole."
Gore does not have the luxury of other would-be presidential candidates, who can refine their messages outside the limelight. He now knows that sub-par performances come at an increasingly costly price.
Gore learned from his news conference on fund-raising the price of not having all the facts at his command and of legalistic responses. That event and his China trip showed him that he is not always his own best advocate, despite his instinct to clean up his problems himself.
"You learn more from hard spots than you do from successes," Gore said. "It's sometimes hard to put the lessons into words, but you sure do absorb a lot. . . . I feel like I've learned a great deal from it."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company