Al Gore returned home last week from a vacation in Hawaii with a fresh tan, some colorful shirts—and a big new problem. The vice-president has always labored under the burden of being considered unexciting, so it was only to be expected that even his troubles appear on the surface to be less than compelling. His boss, President Bill Clinton, may be embroiled in a juicy sex scandal, but Gore’s woes have to do with something more mundane—money. Investigators from the U.S. justice department are trying to find out this: did he break campaign laws by making fundraising phone calls from his office before the 1996 presidential election? Gore says he did not. But as Clinton’s ordeal at the hands of special prosecutors shows, even an inquiry into an issue as apparently trivial as phone calls can lead to a world of political pain.
Clinton’s troubles cut both ways for Gore. He has enjoyed a higher profile than almost any other modern vice-president, and has not flinched from backing his boss in his hour of need. As many senior Democrats
put distance between themselves and their tarnished President last week, Gore conspicuously did not. “I am honored to serve with him and call him a friend,” he said flatly. That, of course, is risky: if the public eventually turns against Clinton, Gore would inevitably suffer some damage. At the same time, though, the vice-president’s legendary personal rectitude—exemplified by his 28-year marriage to wife Tipper, his highschool sweetheart—could stand him in good stead if scandal-weary voters put a premium on “character” when they next select a president in 2000. That is why the fund-raising controversy could be so damaging. At issue is whether Gore broke the law when he made 45 calls from his White House office to raise money for Democrats in 1995 and 1996. A year ago —in the pre-Monica Lewinsky era of American politics—Gore’s fund-raising activities were big news. He was under fire for his links to Asian donors and a controversial visit to a Buddhist temple in California, which turned out to be a conduit for funnelling illegal Asian money into Democratic campaign coffers. But the issue seemed to have died late last year when Attorney General Janet Reno decided not to appoint an independent counsel to investigate. Last week, however, she ordered a new 90-day inquiry into whether a full-scale investigation is warranted. New evidence had turned up: a campaign memo
upon which a former Gore aide had scribbled the cryptic notation “65 per cent soft/ 35 per cent hard.” One possible interpretation is that Gore knew at the time that at least some of the money he was raising from his office would go to so-called hard money accounts—used to directly benefit Democratic candidates. Doing that on federal property is illegal under U.S. law.
The preliminary inquiry may well turn up nothing wrong, as Gore’s allies insist. “There was no wrongdoing here,” says Marla Romash, a former aide to the vicepresident who now works for his political action committee, Leadership ’98. “Any investigation, whether it’s two days or two years, will show that.” The problem is that even if that is true, an inquiry puts the famously upright Gore under a shadow. Voters in the past may have accepted fibs from Clinton as part of his roguish charm, but they have been much less willing to cut Gore any slack. That’s the trouble with being a boy scout; people expect you to stay clean. And if Reno does appoint an independent counsel, the controversy would drag on for many months—if not years. “Gore, at a minimum, would be under extreme suspicion for a very long time,” says presidential historian Allan Lichtman of American University in Washington. “Even if he’s innocent, it’s a disaster for him.”
The worst scenario for Gore is a combination of both factors—a continuation of Clinton’s sensational troubles and his own more humdrum ones. That would tempt senior Democrats to challenge him for the party’s presidential nomination in 2000. And history shows that an internal party fight is a sure recipe for defeat. “I don’t believe the Democrats can win if they brawl over the nomination, and Gore’s weakness makes that much more likely,” says Lichtman. That scenario becomes even more probable if the American economy finally sours.
omy finally sours. There were hints of it last week, as some Democrats took a couple of big steps away from Clinton—and by association, Gore. Missouri congressman Richard Gephardt, leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives and the man considered most likely to challenge Gore, mused openly that Clinton might be impeached for admitting that he lied about his sexual relationship with Lewinsky. “It was wrong and it was reprehensible,” Gephardt said. At the same time, the top Republican, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, went out of his way to stress that Clinton should not be ejected from office for a single personal failure— but only for a pattern of wrongdoing. Democrats, it became clear, are starting to look towards a time after Clinton, while the last thing Republicans want to see is a freshly installed President Al Gore stepping in to put a clean new face on his party. □
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