Gore Tests Wings Above Scandal's Turbulent Air
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 1998; Page A01
Two Fridays ago, Al Gore was right where he wanted to be -- literally above the fray.
While back at the White House aides pored over the single largest "document dump" of President Clinton's sex scandal, the vice president was aboard Air Force Two, flying to Nevada and brainstorming with advisers. Colored markers in hand, Gore scribbled on two easels such phrases as "baby boomers," "elderly parents," "school kids" -- all elements of his political vision -- a vision he hopes will elect Democrats on Nov. 3 and him president in 2000.
As that split screen image illustrates, at every critical juncture in the nine-month saga engulfing the White House, the man touted as the most involved vice president in history has been far from the action. After operating for six years in a close orbit around Clinton, Gore is charting his own course, traveling a path that has distanced him physically and metaphorically from his beleaguered partner.
In his role of loyal No. 2, Gore always remembers to praise Clinton, saying daily he supports his friend and their policies. But the man who once attended divinity school and now clears his Saturday schedule to watch his son play football has also signaled he was not hired to clean up this kind of mess.
"I've defined my job in exactly the same way for six years now: to do everything that I possibly can to help him be the best possible president," Gore said in an interview Sunday night as he flew to Washington from a family barbecue in Shelbyville, Tenn. "That gives a clarity of focus to everything I do and serves to filter out a lot of the ups and downs. . . .
"Whether the news is good or bad, whether the roller coaster goes up or down, it means exactly the same thing for me," he continued, in carefully measured tones. "I do everything I possibly can to help him be the best possible president."
Yet in the interview aboard Air Force Two, as he sipped lemon tea and propped his black cowboy boots on a coffee table, Gore also acknowledged for the first time that he expects the president will be reprimanded by Congress. "They'll come up with some scenario for closure which is way short of impeachment," he said.
With less than three weeks to Election Day, Gore has become the Democratic Party's leading spokesman, frenetically traveling the country to salvage a campaign year that began with hopes of reclaiming the House but is ending with the prospect of losing seats. He is more optimistic today, in part because he believes Republicans have overplayed the Clinton sex scandal.
Two weeks ago, "we saw the bottom and we have been climbing slowly and steadily since then," Gore said. "There's now a distinct possibility you can see growing numbers of voters expressing deep disappointment in the judgment made by Republicans . . . to drag this thing out much longer than is necessary."
Still, some of the vice president's most loyal supporters fear the Clinton saga will be a drag on Gore. As one former Tennessean put it: "Of course this hurts. I don't see how it helps Vice President Gore as a political matter."
Others argue Clinton's problems present a rare opportunity for Gore to raise his profile, give his political machine a test drive and begin collecting the money and chits to intimidate potential primary challengers.
"The backdrop of the scandal has increased his ability to do good for his party and himself," said Elaine Kamarck, a former Gore aide who is helping punch up his stump speech. "He is the only person who can focus on the message; the one person who can remind people why they voted for Bill Clinton two times."
On a personal level, Gore seems remarkably disciplined when it comes to the topic dominating American politics today. "I don't let myself feel a downdraft," he said after a long pause, gazing at the aides and eldest daughter Karenna who listened in on the interview. "I just don't let myself feel it."
Gore's schedule resembles a national campaign in both pace and tactics, targeting not just key states but central players within those states. "He's had to rise to presidential level performance, pre-presidential campaign," said one aide who likens this fall to the equivalent of running two 10-K races in preparation for the 2000 marathon.
So far this year, he has attended 80 fund-raisers while his political action committee has distributed $1 million. By Election Day, Gore will have campaigned for 67 Democrats running for governor or Congress. This Friday, he campaigns with House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), part of an ongoing effort to keep friendly relations with a potential rival.
Yet the obvious risk in greater visibility is the accompanying scrutiny. For the second time in a year, Attorney General Janet Reno is considering naming an independent counsel to investigate Gore's fund-raising role in the 1996 campaign. He continues to deal with staff turnover and struggles to present a "more human, more approachable" persona, as one adviser put it.
Most significantly, the global economic crisis could exact a toll on the man who hopes to run on the economic successes of this administration. "The worst-case scenario is impeachment drags on, the economy sours and he has no record to run on," said one administration official close to Gore. "That would seduce Democratic primary challengers."
In the steamy student lounge of the Erie Community College last Wednesday, Al Gore was doing his best Oprah imitation, fielding questions on education. As the session wore on, one youngster stood, arm raised, patiently waiting.
"What's your question," Gore said, summoning Alexis Heidelberger to his side. As he bent down on one knee, the elementary school student said she worries about violence in her school.
"You know, Alexis, we're going to have a White House conference on just your question," he said. "Why don't you come?"
The child beamed, cameras clicked, people cheered! It was, in short, a Clintonesque moment, so perfect there was just one question: Could this be real?
For six years, Gore has so well executed what one ally dubs "the standing thing," that few people have any sense of the man beyond the wooden caricature. At every stop, Gore rolls out the stiff-guy jokes. But when asked how he got the reputation, he falls silent.
"I think that I do have a certain, uh, reserve," he said Sunday, searching the faces of his aides for a suitable term. "Formality? Yeah, I think I have a certain formality that I partly inherited from watching my father's style of politics when I was growing up. The older I get, the more I've been able to grow out of that."
And he acknowledges that he will never match Clinton's comfortable public manner. "His empathetic style is as good or better than any I've ever seen and I don't think anybody can match him on that," Gore said, then deadpanned: "I just muddle along as best I can."
With the help of media consultant Robert Squier, Gore is leaving the lectern behind for more intimate talk show-style sessions. The format, dubbed "politics in the round" by Squier, is all part of an attempt to show off Gore's intellect without appearing inaccessibly geeky. "I think of Clinton as the coach, not the competition," Squier said.
At a recent session with teens in California's rural Central Valley, Gore quoted Bob Dylan and mistily recalled his days in 4-H raising bulls. Yet, just as often, his performance clunks along in a deadly drone, coining the phrase "Ayn Randism" before a crowd of New Democrat Network members or recycling this gem he picked up in the Pacific Northwest: "The indicator species of a healthy city is the pedestrian."
For all the stagecraft, Gore remains at heart a man who in unscripted moments quotes the Federalist Papers and makes quips about the "Heisenberg theory" named after a German nuclear physicist.
Over a plate of french fries in a Boston diner called The Vic, Vice President Gore played peacemaker.
It was self-interest that brought Gore, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and gubernatorial nominee Scott Harshbarger to the table last Friday. For Harshbarger there was the publicity boost of finally appearing with the popular mayor. For Menino, a news event with Gore. And for Gore, two political IOUs plus a none-too-subtle message to potential rival Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) that he aims to lock up party heavyweights even on Kerry's home turf.
Cultivating key Democrats, refining his stump skills, "and proving we can raise money quickly are all important building blocks to being as strong as we can going into the primaries," said one Gore political aide.
The drill is the same everywhere he goes. In eight visits to California this year, a state that moved its primary up to March 7, Gore has hit every major constituency from high-tech CEOs in Silicon Valley to gay activists in Hollywood. And when he decided to attend the funeral of former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, the appearance was so important he instructed speechwriter Eli Attie to call more than 20 people in preparation for a eulogy that lasted just five minutes.
The sum total of all their work is a man well-positioned to win the Democratic nomination, Gore aides say.
He enters the 2000 contest as "a continuation of progressive centrist politics by a guy who has an admirable personal life," said Kamarck. "How can that lose since there's never been a repudiation of Clinton-Gore policy?"
When Clinton confessed Aug. 17 to an affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, Gore was vacationing in Hawaii. In those first critical days, the vice president spent hours on the telephone, calling some top aides up to 10 times a day, one said. He also made certain trusted allies such as Squier and fund-raiser Peter Knight were involved in the White House recovery plan.
By the time he returned to Washington on Aug. 28, Gore, who has a reputation for being demanding of his staff, had assumed the role of patriarch during a family crisis, one aide said. "He was incredibly nice, very reassuring, sturdy and sensitive to the fact we were all hurting."
Sunday night shortly before Air Force Two delivered him for a night in Washington before another full day on the road, Gore spoke about his role during these last months of crisis: "It's simple and the simplicity of the focus eliminates some of the angst that I understand some others have been feeling about this because I don't have to stop and calculate what this means for what I do tomorrow morning."
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