Is Really Over
By William Booth
SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 27 If ever a man had a reason to extend his vacation, it is Vice President Gore, who returned today to public life on the mainland after his two-week Hawaiian holiday to face a renewed investigation into his fund-raising phone calls.
If that were not enough, Gore was also heading back tonight to a Washington political landscape forever changed by President Clinton's acknowledgment that he had an affair with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
Yet the transition back to reality was eased somewhat by Gore's appearance here today at Abraham Lincoln High School, where he led a town hall-style meeting about school violence. With his wife Tipper by his side, Gore appeared focused and relaxed by turns good-humored and serious as students, teachers, counselors and police officers discussed guns, gangs and youthful angst. The only sex the audience cared about was teenage pregnancies and the only fund raising they wanted to hear about was more money for after-school study sessions.
At the close of the morning session, to the beat of the Bee Gees' '70s hit, "Stayin' Alive," the two Gores were given a standing ovation by the participants, some of whom told reporters later that the subject of a meeting such as this is what they cared most about how to make children safer and smarter in schools and not the long-running soap opera back inside the Beltway.
At one point, Tipper Gore asked the assembled students how many of them had heard a friend contemplate suicide. Most of teens raised their hands and the audience literally sighed at the painful thought.
Afterward, one participant in the invited audience, Elizabeth Jackson, a school volunteer and parent, said, "Now isn't that what you all should be writing about," meaning the press. "We have a lot of serious problems to solve in this country and Monica Lewinsky is not one of them."
But as he left, Gore did stop to briefly speak with reporters, and was immediately asked about the new investigation of his fund-raising phone calls from the White House.
Gore repeated earlier statements that he is innocent. "I will continue to fully cooperate with the Justice Department during their preliminary inquiry," he said. "And I remain confident that, as I know, they will conclude that everything that I did was legal and proper."
Clinton issued a statement today in which he said he too is "confident that all the vice president's actions were legal and proper and that any review will conclude that."
As Clinton testified via video link last week to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury, and later that night on Aug. 17 admitted to the nation he had cheated on his wife, Gore was vacationing on the big island of Hawaii, about as far away as a vice president could be and still be in the United States.
But now Gore is back, and at fund-raisers Wednesday evening and today for California Democrats, he revealed how he plans to respond to the Lewinsky-Clinton controversy, by praising the "policies" of the administration and avoiding condemnation of Clinton's infidelity and previous denials.
Several of Gore's top advisers said they have heard the calls for the vice president to distance himself from Clinton for fear that he too will be tainted or seen as weak.
On Wednesday evening, in brief remarks before reporters at a fund-raiser for former staff aide Michela Alioto, who is running for California secretary of state, Gore stood firm, echoing what he said about the president on Aug. 18:
"Let me say that I am proud of the leadership that President Bill Clinton has brought to the United States of America. His policies are working and I am honored to serve with him and call him a friend and report to you what you know, his leadership and his policies and his agenda have brought unprecedented prosperity to the United States."
Gore is pursuing a delicate balancing act, remaining the loyal partner and understudy to the friend he has served for six years while attempting to avoid becoming stained by the scandal in his bid for the White House in 2000.
Gore's Boy Scout image is being tested by Attorney General Janet Reno's decision to launch a preliminary investigation on whether he lied to Justice Department officials looking into the campaign finance scandal, an inquiry that could lead to an independent counsel probe.
Gore's appearance here today highlights the emerging strategies of many Democratic contenders in the coming election. They are betting that enough voters will agree that what matters most are the issues and the agenda, and not the sex scandal.
They might be onto something. A statewide poll by the nonpartisan Field Institute released here Wednesday found that 62 percent of respondents said they approved of Clinton's job performance. Asked whether the president should complete his second term, 76 percent said yes.
Bob Mulholland, a strategist for the California Democratic Party, said of the numbers: "That's more votes than Clinton got in California in 1996." The president won the state against Republican Robert J. Dole with 51.1 percent of the ballots.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company