Clinton book is no tell-all on Gore issue

July 05, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Plodding through former President Bill Clinton's new 957-page opus is akin to being locked in a room with him while he tells you everywhere he went, everything and everybody he saw and what he said to them, from the day he was born in August 1946 until he left the presidency.

But for political junkies, this enormous book tells you very little about one puzzling question: why he didn't campaign harder and more frequently for Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 election.

In postmortems of that election, in which Mr. Gore won 539,947 more popular votes than George W. Bush but lost in the Electoral College, much was made of why Mr. Gore didn't use Mr. Clinton more on the stump, especially in key states that the Clinton-Gore ticket had won in 1992 and 1996.

Mr. Clinton hardly touches on the subject in his massive book. "All vice presidents who run for president," he writes, "have two problems: Most people don't know what they've done and don't give them credit for the accomplishments of the administration, and they tend to get typecast as number two men."

Mr. Clinton observes that "I had done everything I could to help Al avoid those problems by giving him many high-profile assignments and making sure he received public recognition for his invaluable contribution to our successes. Yet even though he was indisputably the most active and influential vice president in history, there was still a gap between perception and reality.

"The biggest challenge Al faced was how to show independence while still getting the benefit for our record. He had already said he disagreed with my personal misconduct but was proud of what we had accomplished for the American people. Now I thought he should say that no matter who became the next president, change was inevitable; the question for the voters was whether we would keep changing the right way or make a U-turn to the failed policies of the past."

Mr. Clinton says that Mr. Gore properly framed the election as a contest of "the people vs. the powerful," but "the problem with the slogan was that it didn't give Al the full benefit of our record of economic and social progress or put into sharp relief Bush's explicit commitment to undo that progress. Also, the populist edge sounded to some swing voters as if Al, too, might change the economic direction of the country."

This is the same New Democrat complaint of waging "class warfare" voiced after the election by Mr. Gore's running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, in his exercise in biting the hand that had fed him.

But Mr. Clinton also indicates he wanted Mr. Gore to fight the battle that he fights ad nauseam in this book - against special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr:

"The campaign gave Al the chance to remind voters that I was leaving, but that the Republicans who had pursued impeachment and supported Starr were staying. America needed a president to stand up to them so that they couldn't abuse their power like that again. ... There was ample evidence, less than a year old, that if the voters saw the election as a choice for the future and were reminded of what the Republicans had done, the advantage would shift markedly to the Democrats."

But the last thing Mr. Gore needed in the campaign was a rehashing of the Clinton-Starr impeachment row. Mr. Clinton takes note of press speculation at the time "that I could cost Al the election," and recalls telling Mr. Gore on the phone that "I was interested only in his winning, and if I thought it would help, I would stand on the doorstep of The Washington Post's headquarters and let him lash me with a bullwhip."

To which his vice president "deadpanned," Mr. Clinton writes, "`Maybe we ought to poll that.'"

And Mr. Gore was supposed to have no sense of humor.

The former president makes it sound as if his participation in the campaign was a light-hearted matter between the two of them, which contradicts reports that the issue was the subject of a major rift.

Perhaps we'll have to wait for Mr. Gore's memoir to clear up the question for historians - or at least for political junkies.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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