So maybe Gore should have made his phone calls from Lafayette Park

March 05, 1997|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- During the 1992 presidential campaign the Clinton-Gore headquarters in California made a practice of faxing daily ''talking points'' to party leaders and officials around the state so they could reinforce the arguments the national candidates were making that day.

One official, then-Rep. Leon Panetta, refused to allow the talking points to be faxed to his office. Because the fax machine and paper were government property, the future White House chief of staff ruled, they couldn't be used for political purposes.

That seems to be the level of fastidiousness we are seeking from Vice President Gore. If he wants to call a contributor, he apparently is going to have to leave the White House and use the pay phone at the McDonald's over on 17th street or maybe take his cell phone into Lafayette Park and find a comfortable bench.

All this concern about the niceties of which phone is used for what call seems somewhat overdone. Mr. Gore is surely not the only office holder who made calls to contributors from his office last year. Nor is it likely that he is the first vice president to have done so, despite Dan Quayle's pious insistence that he never made such calls.

The vice president in any administration, as Mr. Gore pointed out somewhat defensively, carries a lot of responsibility for fund-raising. He is the one who shows up at the dinners and receptions at which the take is not likely to reach the exalted presidential level. If the take is supposed to be even lower, the contributors get a cabinet member.

Mr. Gore is now undergoing special scrutiny because he was part of the extraordinary money machine President Clinton put into motion early in 1995. He was the host, it turns out, at 23 of those coffees and, as he now concedes, made a few phone calls with a Democratic National Committee credit card.

But he was not the one with the White House overnight visits to offer. Nor was it he who set the goals for the campaign for ''soft money'' in 1995. Both decisions were made by the president. If there was wretched excess, Mr. Gore is hardly the guilty party.

The critical legal question is whether contributors got anything directly for their money in the way of changes in government policy or appointments to government boards or contracts for government work. If so, the law was broken. But the vice president enjoyed no authority to make such decisions. Again, that was up to the president.

How many coffees?

So we are left with more subjective questions. Were those 23 coffees Mr. Gore hosted too many or too few or just the right number? How aggressive was he in seeking big money for the campaign? Did the contributors feel they were being subjected to inordinate pressure to support the campaign?

It is clear that Mr. Gore has suffered some political damage, but how much is impossible to know yet. There has been some erosion in the perception of him as a squeaky-clean politician. That tarnish could be a burden for him in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary three years from now. It is not hard to imagine someone like former Sen. Bill Bradley presenting himself as the new broom sweeping clean in a Democratic Party badly scarred by the findings of the Justice Department, Congress or a special prosecutor.

Mr. Gore's more likely rivals, however, will come from Democrats in Congress -- people like House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and Sens. Bob Kerrey and John Kerry, among others. Their ability to use the political-cleanliness issue will depend largely on whether the various inquiries remain focused on the White House or are broadened to cover Congress.

The impact also will depend on whether voters give a hoot about the issue three years from now. So far, the evidence of the opinion polls is that they are mostly indifferent to the arguments over what may or may not have been illegal. It seems doubtful that they worry about whether Mr. Gore makes those calls from his office or from Lafayette Park.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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