Some wondering if Gore is playing promised role ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

March 16, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- For some reason, the unprecedented prominence of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as an out-front policy person in the Clinton administration has helped produce an outbreak of stories suggesting that her presence has somehow diminished the influence of Vice President Al Gore.

The apparent premise is that Gore would have President Clinton's ear to a greater extent, and a larger role in the Clinton administration, if the president's wife were not so actively and visibly involved in matters of public policy.

That premise in itself is a notable commentary on how the American people have come to accept something that only fairly recently has been the case -- that a vice president has such little stature and voice in an administration that he could be pushed aside by a politically influential First Lady.

Part of the reason for the present phenomenon is the fact that Clinton gave Gore such high visibility as his running mate during last fall's campaign, especially in stumping in tandem with him on their very popular and successful bus tours.

In the transition as well, Clinton took to discussing planning for his new administration in terms of "Al and I" doing this and that.

But when the time came to assigning what Clinton during the campaign repeatedly described as the one most important reform required to attack the federal deficit -- cost-effective national health care -- he turned not to Gore, but to his own wife. He gave Gore the job of overseeing reform of the federal bureaucracy, an oft-tried and much less visible task with the unfortunate potential of making eyes glaze over at its very mention.

The fact that Gore often appears in the guise of a spear-carrier at Clinton photo opportunities at which the president mentions one or another new policy initiative also has suggested to many that after all he is just that, for all the rhetoric about his special status in the administration.

Such observations, however, ignore the immense growth in the importance of the vice presidency, and its political potential, at least since Franklin D. Roosevelt's fateful selection of Harry S Truman to be his running mate in his fourth-term bid in 1944.

Truman no doubt would have been astonished to be included routinely in photographs with the president under whom he served, let alone been given a serious policy assignment, in his 82 days as vice president. The same was essentially true for Truman's vice president, Alben W. Barkley of Kentucky, who in his 70s occupied his time while presiding over the Senate writing love letters to a 37-year-old widow he subsequently married.

Barkley was too old to have further political ambitions but the next vice president, Richard Nixon, while ignored by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the extent he reportedly never was invited to the White House upstairs living quarters, demonstrated how essentially ceremonial foreign travels could be parlayed into a presidential candidacy.

Ever since then, the vice presidency has been a place where presidential candidacies have been hatched. In every subsequent election except the 1980 Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan race, one or both presidential nominees has at the time or earlier been a vice president.

This history confirms that Al Gore is sitting pretty in terms of his future presidential hopes regardless of the current suggestions that he is being overshadowed by Hillary Clinton.

Gore, to be sure, is still a long way from being assured the Democratic presidential nomination after the Clinton tenure. A lot can happen in four or eight years to derail him, such as a serious policy breach with Clinton -- not likely -- or some serious political misstep of his own -- also not likely as long as he hews to the traditional vice-presidential role of loyal implementer of the policies of his boss. Being upstaged in the eyes of some by the First Lady is not among the hazards he has to worry much about.

Like all vice presidents, Gore's chances to move up depend largely on the success of the man under whom he is serving. Just ask George Bush -- and Dan Quayle. And if Hillary Clinton helps to achieve the Clinton administration's goals, Al Gore stands to benefit as well.

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