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Gore's Turn To Squirm

The Veep's fund raising may not have been illegal. But it was definitely stupid

By Karen Tumulty/Washington

Time cover

(TIME, September 15) -- Al Gore looked last week like a man desperate to change the subject, not to mention the scenery. The Vice President announced more than $1 billion in welfare-to-work grants to states, stuffed four appearances into a day's swing through New Hampshire, and paid a call on his next-door neighbor, the British embassy, to sign its condolence book for Princess Diana. He also managed a hike in Montana's Glacier National Park to highlight a talk about global warming--or was that just the heat he was feeling as the yearlong Democratic campaign-finance scandal moved squarely to him?

It was bad enough that a Senate committee last week reprised the most embarrassing moment of Gore's political career, bringing forward three shaven-headed Buddhist nuns, wrapped in nutmeg-colored robes and blanket immunity, to recount how they were badgered into laundering campaign money when the Vice President visited their temple. More ominous are new revelations about the dialing-for-dollars effort that Gore mounted from his White House office in 1995 and 1996, which may turn out to be the misstep that lands the entire mess in the hands of an independent counsel. This would be the fifth to find work investigating various transgressions alleged against top Clinton Administration officials. The Justice Department last week began a formal, 30-day preliminary look to determine whether an outside prosecutor is warranted, threatening to make the campaign-finance scandal another wide-ranging, Whitewater-like saga.

But the most personal and lasting damage to Gore may come from the shifting, legalistic and often contradictory versions of events that he has offered in his own defense. Having built a Dudley Do-Right reputation for rectitude and fastidiousness, Gore now finds himself pleading ignorance, naivete and inattentiveness. The picture is so unflattering and inconsistent that it is difficult to tell which hurts his presidential hopes more: the prospect that his story doesn't hold up--or that it does.

Gore has had 16 months to get his facts straight but is still grasping for an acceptable explanation for his stumble into the Hsi Lai Temple in Southern California. First he understood the temple event to be "community outreach," and later he corrected his recollection to say he recognized it as having some in-reach too--calling it "finance related." Gore aides last week clumsily amended the official version yet again, saying Gore understood it to involve "donor maintenance," presumably the care and feeding of fat cats. Yet the aides also produced internal memos showing that many on the Vice President's staff believed it to be a fund raiser.

The Buddhist episode might have amounted to little more than a temple in a teapot were it not for the latest questions being raised about Gore's fund-raising phone calls. Newly unearthed records show that what he described in March as "a few occasions" actually totaled 10 phone-athons during which he reached 46 contributors and tried dozens more. Gore insists he did nothing illegal--although he'll never do it again--and until last week the Justice Department agreed.

What seemed to put him in the clear was a technicality that says more about the shortcomings of outdated election laws than about the propriety of Clinton-Gore campaign tactics. Because the funds that he was raising were initially said to be soft money--largely unregulated contributions to the Democratic Party--it was perfectly legal for him to make the calls while on government property. But it turns out that the Democratic National Committee deposited more than $120,000 from at least eight of the donors into hard-money accounts, earmarked for specific candidates, the Washington Post reported.

The bookkeeping may seem trivial when compared with the spectacle of Clinton's cash-addicted campaign offering donors everything from White House coffees to overnights in the Lincoln Bedroom. But even if it was a clerk's error, as D.N.C. officials claim, that one miscue is enough to reopen the question of an independent counsel.

This marks at least the fifth time that Attorney General Janet Reno has formally begun the preliminary investigation that could lead to the appointment of a special prosecutor in the fund-raising scandal. TIME has learned that three of the reviews are ongoing: besides the one on Gore's calls, there's another dealing with donor Johnny Chung's contention that the price of admission to a meeting with former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary was a $25,000 donation to her favorite charity, and a third based on a letter from House Judiciary Committee Republicans alleging, among other things, that the Administration sold favors for campaign cash.

The fact that Gore was apparently unaware of how the funds were being deposited does not automatically exonerate him, Justice officials say. The independent-counsel statute doesn't permit Reno to consider Gore's awareness or lack thereof unless she has rock-solid evidence that he was in the dark.

Gore's best argument may rest on an archaeological dig into legislative history: he claims that the Congress of Chester Arthur's day (1883), which wrote the reform-minded Pendleton Civil Service Act, since much amended, that still governs today's fund raising, was designed in part to keep politicians from shaking down government employees. Making the distinction tougher is the fact that there is precious little case law by which to navigate or, as Gore so maladroitly put it in a March press conference, "no controlling legal authority."

Gore says he is certain he will be exonerated, which may well be the case. But the temple to-do is disturbing to the Democrats in that it's the latest episode to expose Gore's inability, despite five years of apprenticeship, to master Clinton's magical method of slipping through criticism and scandal. Now potential rivals, particularly those within his own party, are reassessing whether the Vice President is as invincible as he once seemed.

Even without the campaign-finance scandal, this had promised to be a darkly hued fall for the Vice President. After spending the past two years trying to mend his relations with organized labor, Gore this week will join Clinton in reopening an old wound as the Administration launches its bid for new authority to negotiate trade deals as ambitious and divisive as 1993's North American Free Trade Agreement. December will find Gore in Japan grappling with a global-warming treaty that pits his long-standing environmentalist allies against labor and business.

If there is any consolation for Gore, it is that all this is happening in 1997 rather than 1999. George Bush, after all, survived much worse with the Iran-contra hearings grabbing the nation's attention only months before the New Hampshire primary. A senior Gore aide says this period will ultimately be remembered merely as "bumpy air." But if an independent counsel enters the picture, dragging out an investigation, the taint of scandal could endure for Gore right up to the 2000 primaries. Says an adviser to one of Gore's rivals: "The thought has occurred to us."

--With reporting by James Carney and Viveca Novak/Washington and J.F.O. McAllister with Gore in New Hampshire





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