Ethical questions dog Gore campaign

Templegate: Fund-raising excesses deflect campaign focus from progress and prosperity.

June 27, 2000

WHY DIDN'T Vice President Al Gore just say, "Of course, I was raising money" when questions arose about his 1996 lunch at a Buddhist temple in California?

Fund-raising reformers have calculated that thousands of dollars must be raised every hour by candidates for the U.S. House or Senate and by presidential candidates who want to be competitive in our money-driven political system.

Mr. Gore may well have thought it looked smarmy even in that context to be dunning Buddhist nuns for money, so he went the ignorance route. Or maybe, given the rushed life of a vice president, he didn't immediately focus on the awkwardness of targeting nuns as if they were any old special interest. California, after all, is fund-raising heaven.

It turns out that Attorney General Janet Reno did Mr. Gore no favor when she decided against appointing a special counsel to investigate. She eventually overruled the head of the FBI, Louis Freeh, and top investigators who thought an investigation was warranted.

Ms. Reno looks dilatory and cravenly political. She was, to be sure, in a difficult position: President Clinton surely had no interest in yet another investigation of his administration, but her own professionals were urging her to appoint one. She did not.

Now, even if Mr. Gore did nothing illegal or even unethical, the perception is that he might have -- and then put up a lame defense. In a similar situation, when he acknowledged making fund-raising calls from the White House, he said it was OK because there was no "controlling legal authority."

The vice president seems pinned down by the barbs of criticism hurled by Republicans. He wants to talk about "progress and prosperity," but instead he's releasing transcripts of interviews with Justice Department inquisitors and holding press conferences on issues that might have been resolved two years ago.

Neither fund raising nor the concept of "Clinton fatigue" have seemed, by themselves, matters of great urgency to voters. But Mr. Gore must be concerned that together they will become a volatile brew.

His opponent, Texas Republican George W. Bush, can be expected to stir the pot with vigor. One recent poll shows Americans find the Texas governor more trustworthy than Mr. Gore, leading him 37 percent to 29 percent.

Mr. Gore prevails when the issues are Social Security, education and the economy. If only they were the controlling issues.

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