Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 4 1997; Page A01
For all the years Bill Clinton and Al Gore have been together from their early days riding buses, through two heady inaugurations it has been the president who battled ethical questions and the vice president who relished his role as the boringly clean Number 2.
But with today's announcement by Attorney General Janet Reno that she is moving one step closer to an independent counsel investigation into Gore's fund-raising calls, the roles are reversed. Now the vice president is the one mapping a defense strategy and he's looking to Clinton's crisis management team for assistance.
Their advice is relatively straightforward: Keep Gore out in the public eye talking about popular issues while strictly rationing what he says about the fund-raising controversy.
"You don't want to be in denial but you don't want to go in the bunker," said one White House official. The plan: "Get back to work, and don't be derailed. It's a lot easier said than done; it takes a lot of discipline, but if there's one thing this man has in abundance, it's discipline."
So today, even as the ethics clouds were gathering back in Washington, Gore was in sunny Florida tossing a football with the red-hot Tampa Bay Buccaneers and brainstorming with youngsters at a local school about the dangers of tobacco.
"I'm going to continue doing the kinds of events I did here today," Gore told reporters after an hour-long session at the Roland Park Middle School. "I'm working on the issues I normally work on."
In fact, the Florida swing is replete with nuts-and-bolts politicking: $66 million in federal housing aid for Florida, a feel-good session with photogenic youngsters and a fund-raising dinner at the Florida Aquarium tonight that raised about $150,000. He gives the keynote address to the Democratic state convention here Saturday, and the response to that may offer an early indication of how much impact the Justice Department investigation is having on Gore's presidential aspirations.
But for a man who has experienced little criticism beyond jokes about his stiffness, today was a rare day of attention and tension. Although virtually every newspaper in America predicted the extension of the probe, Gore, a stickler for details, unintentionally drew out the suspense by refusing to discuss the inquiry until it was official.
Finally, at about 3:25 p.m., he huddled in the middle of the school gym with three aides as more than 500 youngsters screamed, clapped and pounded their feet.
"What's the decision?" Gore mouthed to one aide who was gripping a cellular phone to his ear. After confirming the news he began to walk in the direction of a cluster of TV cameras, thought better of it, signaled one minute with his finger and left the gym briefly. When he returned, the school principal tried to quiet the rowdy youngsters for Gore's carefully rehearsed response.
"When the first 30-day period was begun, many of the people who analyzed it and wrote about it said from the very beginning it was inevitable that it would go longer than 30 days because of all the papers they had to review and all the work that had to be done," he said. "Evidently that is what has happened. We will continue to cooperate fully and completely during this stage of the preliminary review and I remain confident everything I did was legal and correct."
At issue are 46 fund-raising calls Gore made from his White House office and whether those solicitation calls violated a 114-year-old law prohibiting fund-raising on government property. Gore said he was neither surprised by the 60-day extension nor particularly upset by it. "It was predicted from the very beginning," he said, reiterating assertions that his behavior was legal.
One of President Clinton's signal strengths as a politician is an ability to prosper even while under assault on ethics and character grounds. So far as the vice president has faced such questions for the first time in his career Gore has proven more brittle than resilient, as evidenced by the awkward "no controlling legal authority" news conference earlier this year.
Recognizing the peril, Gore created an informal damage control team that includes some of the men who helped Clinton survive a battery of controversies in the past. Among the Clintonites advising him are Douglas Sosnik and Paul E. Begala both veterans of the president's ethical contretemps and newcomer Sidney Blumenthal, who has offered advice on the culture of the news media and how to respond to what several aides have described as "press frenzy."
Although Clinton decided to set up a separate legal and press operation to "isolate" troubles ranging from Whitewater to the campaign money scandal, Gore has resisted that approach for fear it would look too defensive.
Some of his closest advisers say that Gore was initially badly flustered by challenges to his integrity but that he has since managed to distance himself a bit from his travails and is relying on his lawyers to clear up the mess.
His chief of staff, Ronald Klain, had been conducting daily conference calls with a group that includes Gore's attorneys; his media adviser, Robert Squier; former longtime aide Roy Neel; and kitchen cabinet advisers such as former representative Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.) and former White House counsel Jack Quinn.
The calls have become less frequent over the past couple of weeks, participants said, but Klain is prepared to start them up again as needed.
According to participants, much of the calls are taken up by deciding what Gore aides will tell reporters. This reflects a continuing belief that despite Reno's probe, the real threat to Gore is not legal but political, and that what he is enduring now is a kind of hazing process by the media and Republicans.
"The reality is that political guns are aimed at the vice president," said press secretary Ginny Terzano. "There have been selective leaks [from Congress], there has been misinformation."
However, Gore need not worry, Begala said, because Clinton's victories prove "the political marketplace does not reward this in the long run."
All this week, as the clock ticked toward today's announcement, Gore stuck to his script of a busy, noncontroversial public schedule.
On Monday, he was in Chicago for a round table on education standards and a Democratic Party fund-raiser; on Tuesday, gripping a remote control, he talked to parents and children about TV ratings; on Wednesday he was the showcased speaker at the White House, talking about global warming with TV weather reporters; and Thursday he appeared with Education Secretary Richard W. Riley to highlight a new study.
Today, joined by former surgeon general C. Everett Koop and former FDA chief David A. Kessler, Gore focused on one of the signature issues of the Clinton administration's second term. Standing near a sign that read: "Al Gore rules. We think it's cool you're at our school," he peppered the youngsters with questions about why children smoke and how they might prevent it.
Gore blamed Hollywood for glamorizing smoking and big tobacco companies for spending billions trying to find "new recruits." Still, he told the middle-schoolers, "Young people who smoke are suckers."
Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report from Washington.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company