Gore hurt by Reno's timing on fund probe

June 28, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno has made much of her virtuous refusal to play politics with decisions on special investigations. But her clumsy handling of the case of Al Gore has caused a serious political problem for the embattled vice president.

Her failure to act earlier on the complaints about the 1996 fund raising of the Clinton-Gore campaign has left the issue alive at a time when it can become incendiary. And, once again, Ms. Reno has allowed an underling in her department to raise questions about the vice president by going public with his dissent from her decision against naming a special prosecutor.

In a reversal of his usual form, Mr. Gore has handled the politics of the situation with deftness. His quick release of the 150-page transcript of his interrogation by Justice Department lawyers in April makes it clear there is no smoking gun. And it projects an image of the vice president as a man with nothing to hide.

It would be a mistake, nonetheless, to believe that Mr. Gore has not taken a political hit. At the very least, this latest fiasco in the Justice Department has given Gov. George W. Bush, his Republican rival, ammunition for use later in the campaign. It is no trick to write the script for a 30-second television commercial about a candidate for president under a cloud. Tsk, tsk, what a pity!

More to the point, perhaps, the renewed debate over whether a special prosecutor is required is a reminder to the voters of something most of them apparently have wanted to put behind them -- an administration that has been the target of one investigation after another for most of the past four years.

Mr. Gore is, of course, vulnerable on the fund-raising issue. At President Clinton's behest, the 1996 campaign was guilty of egregious excesses in its use of the White House to raise obscene amounts of money. And if the vice president didn't know that infamous event at the Buddhist temple was a fund-raiser, as he insists is the case, then you have to wonder if it's safe for him to go out on the streets alone.

Nor does the transcript of the interrogation in itself necessarily absolve Mr. Gore of any culpability. It suggests only that the Justice Department has found no evidence on which to base accusations of criminal conduct.

But this is all ancient history. We have known for nearly four years now that the Clinton-Gore campaign went beyond the bounds of reason, let alone good taste, in the way they used the White House to raise money. And the vice president already has suffered the damage to his image as a straight arrow from both the Buddhist temple and his blundering handling of questions about calling contributors from the White House. He will never be allowed to forget "no controlling legal authority."

All of this already has been factored into Americans' view of Al Gore. It has contributed to his high negatives, just as the booming economy has contributed to his positives.

But the real hazard for Mr. Gore lies in any renewed discussion of special prosecutors that could put his candidacy in jeopardy at any point in the four months until the election. The voters don't want to think that they may be electing a president who is going to be fending off a latter-day Kenneth Starr for the next four years.

As a practical matter, Ms. Reno is not expected to appoint a special counsel. But for Mr. Gore's sake, she needs to say so out loud. And she needs to tell those department lawyers that the question is closed. It is not enough to talk prissily about how the process must go forward. A presidential election is too important to be decided by the bureaucrats and their processes.

Ms. Reno has always enjoyed a special immunity from criticism in her seven years-plus as attorney general because of the way she shouldered the blame for the Waco disaster shortly after taking office.

In this town, where everyone passes the buck, that qualifies as extraordinary. So the president has never felt free to replace her, even when the White House was outraged by the alacrity with which she chose special prosecutors in other cases. Now Al Gore is paying the price.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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