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The Vice President's Role

Tuesday, March 4,1997; Page A14

Vice President Gore turns out to have been not just an accidental tourist at the occasional Buddhist temple but a mighty fund-raiser for his party over the past two years who went so far as to work the phones and solicit individual donors for funds himself, directly. He and his supporters say that's no big deal. They rightly observe that it's not against the law for the vice president to solicit funds and that other officeholders – members of Congress, for example, including some who profess now to be offended by the vice president's behavior – do it all the time.

The White House adds to this its all-purpose gloss for just about everything that happened in the period, which is that the Clinton-Gore operation badly needed the money to get its message out. If you want to know why they served up the president afloat in all that coffee by day, or converted the place into a kind of hotel at night, or didn't bother to dig too deeply into the backgrounds of all the people who happened to give them large amounts of money, the answer is always the same. Rueful aides recall what a wipe-out the 1994 election was for the president and party, how it took them all of 1995 and early 1996 just to fight their way back into contention, and that the Republicans still out-raised them by many millions in the 1995-96 cycle. They add that vice presidents always have had a major role in fund-raising, touring the country to help shake the money tree. The difference between making a speech to a roomful of possible donors and making some telephone calls is said to be only a matter of degree.

But parties have been behind and in need of funds before and not gone this far. And there is a difference between making the speech and making the calls. In the aggregate, the behavior with regard to the raising of money in this last campaign was different not just in degree but in kind. Somewhere in the course of all they did, they crossed a line. We remember writing several years ago about the efforts of Sen. Bob Packwood, then the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and second-ranking on Senate Commerce, to raise money for his legal defense, and yes, of course, he needed to defend himself and had to raise it somewhere. But from the lobbyists for interest groups with business before his committees?

The money-raising seemed to us to fail a test, if not of law then of seemliness and egregiousness. It smelled. So here as well. We have no illusions about what the office of vice president demands of its holders; it has tended over the years to a less than majestic calling. But the vice president of the United States ought not be hustling donors over the phones. Someone else can do that. Mr. Gore said at a news conference yesterday that he did nothing either wrong or new in American politics and was proud of what he had done. But not so proud that he didn't also announce "a policy of not making such calls [from government buildings] ever again." Why? someone asked him. "If I had realized in advance that this would cause such concern, then I wouldn't have done it," he replied. It was not a reassuring answer.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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