Gore is staying with the partner who brought him to the dance

January 26, 1998|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- For Vice President Al Gore, the firestorm over President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky is a political minefield. On the one hand, the vice president has no alternative, even if he wanted one, to standing unwaveringly behind Mr. Clinton. And that is precisely what he did when he told a group of columnists, ''The president has denied the charges and I believe it.''

On the other, there is the obvious danger that a long-running scandal could destroy Mr. Gore's own prospects for succeeding Mr. Clinton by winning the 2000 presidential election.

There is some irony in all this. Mr. Gore's greatest strength as a potential candidate has been his remarkably close relationship with Mr. Clinton and his full involvement in the programs and policies of the administration. He has not been one of those vice presidents left to preside over the Senate and attend state funerals.

A haunting scenario

The other side of that coin, however, is that Mr. Gore inevitably will suffer some tarnish from the special closeness of that relationship if the president is politically discredited in the days ahead. It is easy to see the Republicans running against the scandals of the Clinton-Gore administration if the president is not able to put the matter to rest.

For Mr. Gore, the nightmare scenario would be a prolonged legal struggle that would extend into the early stages of the 2000 campaign, meaning into late next year, when the vice president will have to be competing in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

That sounds far-fetched now, but it should be remembered that the Watergate scandal took two full years to evolve. And Mr. Clinton has always been a tenacious politician who does not cave in easily, as he demonstrated by surviving as a candidate for the 1992 presidential nomination.

In this case, however, the question to be settled seems relatively straightforward and subject to relatively quick resolution. Did the president take any action to suborn perjury by Ms. Lewinsky or didn't he?

Watergate memories

In the frenzy of speculation here, the prime topic has been whether Mr. Clinton's behavior might be so outlandish that he could be impeached by the House of Representatives or, as finally happened with Richard M. Nixon in the Watergate affair, forced to resign as impeachment appeared inevitable.

Were this to happen, Mr. Gore would take office as Gerald R. Ford did in 1974. He might bear some of the burden of being part of the Clinton team, but he would not be part of the scandal himself. Mr. Gore's reputation for personal probity is well-established and has never been questioned, although he has taken some criticism for making those fund-raising telephone calls from the White House.

Some Democrats who are not fans of Mr. Gore are suggesting that the tarnish would be enough to compromise his own prospects for election in 2000. But Mr. Ford came to power in extraordinarily difficult times and might well have been elected if he had not chosen to pardon Nixon a month after taking office. And in the end, Mr. Ford was able to persuade Americans to look at him beyond the pardon. He lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter by only a single percentage point in 1976.

Despite all the speculation about impeachment and resignations, the conventional wisdom here is that this episode will end somewhat less dramatically and less definitively. The betting now is that special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr will fall short of making a criminal case against the president and that Mr. Clinton will serve out the rest of his term.

In that case, the imperative for Mr. Gore is to stick to the script he has been following. As he pointed out to the columnists, Mr. Clinton ''is not only the president of the country, he is my friend.''

Even in politics, loyalty is a virtue highly prized.

Being Bill Clinton's friend has been Al Gore's prime asset as a potential presidential candidate. Now he is discovering that there is a price tag.

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

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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