Gore's principal strength: There's no dirt on him



NEW YORK -- The rationales being offered for the choice of Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee for the Democratic vice presidential nomination demonstrate, once again, why politicians don't have a reputation for being notoriously candid.

Gore's prime value, we are being told, is that he has been through the process as a national candidate and, thus, is prepared for the intensity of the presidential campaign experience. The same, of course, could be said for several Democrats who ran against Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in the primaries this year but -- with the exception of Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska -- were never seriously considered for the ticket for a variety of reasons.

What the Democrats mean when they talk about Gore's XTC "experience" is something quite different: that is, that he has been thoroughly vetted and -- whew, what a relief! -- doesn't have any skeletons in his closet.

Ever since George McGovern discovered, a few days too late, that his choice in 1972, then-Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri, had received electric shock therapy for depression, Democrats have been spooked by the personal histories of their nominees.

Despite all the caution, however, 1984 nominee Walter F. Mondale chose then-Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro for vice president only to learn that she and her husband were involved in a variety of financial arrangements that were hard enough to explain to make them politically vulnerable.

In that case, the vetting was carried out -- but, the vetters later conceded, the right questions were never asked.

Memories of Gore as a campaigner seem to have been subtly altered over the past four years. The party seems to have blocked out of its collective memory the anger many liberals felt when the Tennessee Democrat seemed to be deliberately positioning himself as the hawk on national defense to cast his opponents in a harsh light.

During the fall of 1987 Gore depicted himself as the different Democrat by citing his support for the invasion of Grenada, the MX missile, the reflagging of Kuwaiti vessels in the Persian Gulf and humanitarian aid to the contras in Nicaragua -- a litany that particularly irked Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who quickly pointed out that Gore had cast 18 or 20 votes against humanitarian aid at one point or another.

The tension reached a high point when Gore, in a speech at the National Press Club, declared: "The politics of retreat, complacency and doubt may appeal to others, but it will not do for me or for my country."

The following day, at a debate at the Kennedy Center, Gore was the target of bitter recrimination from Gephardt, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois and former Gov. Bruce E. Babbitt of Arizona who complained that he was playing into the Republicans' hands by reinforcing the stereotype of the Democratic Party as soft on national defense.

Gore skipped the Iowa caucuses and made a less than full effort in New Hampshire, then made his major push in the Southern regional Super Tuesday primaries, winning Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina, Kentucky and Oklahoma. His success there wiped out Gephardt, but it also reinforced the picture of Gore as a regional candidate.

From that point, it was downhill for Gore, culminating in a loss in New York after he allowed New York Mayor Edward I. Koch to appear to speak for him as he tried to rally Jewish voters against the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. When it was over, Gore had 10 percent to 51 percent for Michael S. Dukakis and 37 percent for Jackson.

There was, however, one historically noteworthy moment in the campaign in New York. During a debate Gore chided Dukakis for a Massachusetts program of "weekend passes for convicted criminals" -- the first public use of what became the celebrated Willie Horton issue.

Despite that history in 1988, Gore has always had a reputation in his home state as a dynamite campaigner. And there is no reason to believe that the 44-year-old senator didn't learn some valuable lessons from the experience four years ago. It is almost axiomatic in presidential politics that candidates going around the track the second time are vastly better prepared for the peculiar pressures they encounter.

But it is also true that Gore's performance on the national stage never showed the star quality that the revisionists may be finding today. Al Gore's prime asset is that he is clean as a whistle.

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