LOS ANGELES -- If this turns out to be the week that launches Al Gore's presidential campaign on a fresh and promising course, it will be no thanks to his friends the Clintons. On the contrary, both the president and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton have behaved for the past three days as if this were a celebration of them rather than of the vice president.
Once again, they have shown themselves to be quintessentially self-indulgent -- guided by a sense of entitlement that is staggering. On the face of it, there was nothing untoward about the retiring president addressing the convention. He is still the titular leader of the Democratic Party. And ordinarily there would be no reason to complain about the president being introduced by the first lady.
But the Clintons have gone far beyond good form. They have held fund-raisers for their own purposes -- Bill Clinton's presidential library and Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign in New York -- with little if any apparent concern about whether they were soaking up money that the presidential and congressional campaigns of their beloved Democratic Party might have used. And they have been ubiquitous on television and in the newspapers, apparently agreeing to interviews with anyone with a larger audience than a weekly in Idaho.
Apologists for the Clintons may argue, of course, that all these Hollywood fat cats showering them with money have been Clintonites for the entire eight years. But if that is the case, why couldn't the Clintons have waited to fund their libraries and Senate campaign when they wouldn't be diverting attention from the party's new national ticket just at the time Mr. Gore and Joe Lieberman should be able to claim the cameras and the headlines?
The answer clearly has been their own reluctance to surrender the center of the stage. Hillary Clinton, after all, is on a holy mission to save the citizens of New York from a senator who comes from New York. And the president is involved in an intensive, if understandable, campaign to define himself for history in kinder terms than the Monica Lewinsky episode might have suggested. Why else would he have agreed to indulge himself in such a confessional interview with those evangelical preachers?
Both lavished praise on the Democratic candidate, whom Hillary Clinton called "Bill's trusted partner in the White House." Mr. Clinton himself, obviously reveling in the applause of the convention, called Mr. Gore "a profoundly good man" and the "greatest champion of ordinary Americans" in his circle of advisers.
He spent almost 30 minutes describing in glowing detail the accomplishment of his administration in which, he said, Mr. Gore was "always there" for the tough decisions, then added: "The best is yet to come if we make the right choices in this election year."
But all the lavish praise didn't alter the fact that both Clintons used Mr. Gore's event for their own purposes and upstaged him when it was neither necessary nor defensible.
The president could have followed the example set in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan, who flew into New Orleans, delivered a speech and left without financing his presidential library or promoting a Senate campaign.
Mr. Gore, of course, is in no position to do anything but grin and bear it and let them get out of town. For the vice president, the first imperative is to establish his own identity as distinctively as possible in the remaining three days of this convention and in the 11 weeks remaining until the general election.
It would be farfetched to imagine that the Clintons' conduct here would be an important factor in whether Mr. Gore manages to achieve that goal.
The campaign has miles to go, and there will be dozens of turns in the road before it is over. In the end, how Mr. Gore handles himself in the televised debates in October will have far more influence on the election outcome than anything that happens here.
But the point is that Bill and Hillary Clinton and their advisers were well aware of Mr. Gore's first priority. They might have made it a little easier for him if they had been less concerned with their own priorities rather than the needs of their political allies. But that would have been a switch.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover generally write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.