Gore's dilemma: Appear loyal, but avoid touch of scandal Vice president speaks up for Clinton, but keeps out of the thick of fight

January 30, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore stood before television cameras on Wednesday and forcefully defended President Clinton. "He is the president of the country; he is also my friend," Gore said in introducing the president at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. "And I want to ask you now, every single one of you, to join me in supporting him and standing by his side."

But yesterday, in an event at the Genentech protein laboratory in South San Francisco, Calif., the vice president stuck to the usual script and made no special effort to speak out -- or up -- for the beleaguered commander in chief.

Unquestionably, Gore and Clinton are devoted friends who look out for each other personally and politically.

Yet the contrast between the two days underscores the dilemma that confronts Gore. He cannot afford to appear anything but 100 percent loyal. But Gore's advisers acknowledge that they have made several calculations to make sure that the scandal does not spill onto the vice president: They have instructed aides to keep out of speeches the vice president's frequent laugh line about how, because of a glitch during Clinton's swearing-in ceremony last January, there was actually a "Gore administration" for five minutes.

Gore's advisers said they delayed the official start of a political action committee -- a vehicle to win support for his presidential hopes by helping other Democrats this year -- in part out of fear that it might leave an impression that he was moving too quickly.

"He was ready to crank out the PAC," said a leading Democrat who speaks with Gore regularly. "It's been put on hold. Everybody just stopped."

A White House official said, "They're slow-walking it."

And Gore aides, not wanting the vice president to be too prominent in Tuesday night's television coverage of the scandal and the president's State of the Union address, decided not to put him before the cameras after Clinton's speech. "There was just so much going on," one official said, adding that the decision was that "it wasn't worth it."

Even Gore's introductions of the president in Champaign, Ill., and La Crosse, Wis., on Wednesday were carefully calibrated. While Gore vigorously asked the audiences to stand by the president, he did not mention the scandal directly. By that

approach he sought to appear loyal without being drawn into the crisis.

The vice president has not added any new events to speak out on behalf of Clinton. But Gore has used previously scheduled stops -- like his appearances with the president Wednesday in the Midwest -- to lend his energetic support. But yesterday, it was back to his pre-planned schedule, with no special mentions of Clinton.

Robert Squier, Gore's longtime media consultant, said, "What he is trying to do under these tough circumstances is to keep his eyes straight ahead, doing the job the president assigned him and helping him through this any way he can."

Asked why the vice president did not appear on network television programs Sunday to defend the president, as White House aides did, Squier said it was inappropriate for Gore to discuss details of the allegations. "It just didn't seem appropriate that he's the best guy to do that," Squier said. "You don't have the vice president going out and basically doing Sunday shows on a story like that."

Behind the scenes

Despite his limited public role in dealing with the scandal, Gore has been active behind the scenes. He has told friends and advisers that while he does not know many details about Clinton's involvement with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, he believes the president is telling the truth. And in an already-scheduled private meeting with moderate House Democrats on Monday, Gore offered a feisty defense of the president.

Aides said Gore has also been advising Clinton on how to handle the scandal politically. They said that at their regular lunch last Thursday, both men spoke at length about the unfolding scandal. And late Tuesday night, at a post-State of the Union reception at the White House, the president and Gore were seen at length talking privately.

But the aides said the vice president has kept his advice to Clinton private, so they do not know specifically what he has told him.

On Jan. 21, the day the scandal broke, Gore was traveling in Tennessee but was on the phone frequently with Clinton. Douglas Sosnik, a senior Clinton adviser, said the president met with top aides in the Cabinet room last week to brief him before he was being interviewed on the scandal. Sosnik recalled that the president said: "I just had a conversation with the vice president. He really gave me good advice. I'm really glad I talk to Al."

But publicly, Gore maintained a game face -- as he did with the lawmaker who traveled with him to Tennessee on Jan. 21. Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., a Tennessee Democrat who accompanied Gore, said the vice president did not once mention the scandal, either in their conversations or in public appearances.

Gore's advisers said they were confident their approach is working, because opinion surveys have found that the vice president's popularity is rising even in the face of Clinton's troubles.

'A giant period'

One adviser even remarked that the scandal would help the vice president politically because it has overshadowed Gore's own campaign finance problems. "It put a giant period after the end of that particular sentence," the adviser said.

Housing Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo, who is close to Gore, insisted that Clinton and the vice president were so close that political calculations were not driving Gore's response to the scandal.

"This is an issue that is less about political strategy and more about character quality," Cuomo said. "It's a very simple issue for Al Gore -- it's all about loyalty."

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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