Al's Turn For Good News?
By Eric Pooley
(TIME, February 9) -- On the road, Al Gore is used to being neglected. But last week in South San Francisco, a small tornado of reporters and techies was roiling through a biotechnology laboratory in hot pursuit of the Vice President, hoping he would replay for the cameras Wednesday's high- pitched defense of a President caught up in L'Affaire Lewinsky. "What's he saying?" a reporter hissed, with Gore just out of earshot.
What he was saying is this: "So differing density levels within the protein itself can affect the uniformity of the freezing process?" A Genentech scientist nodded agreement. California Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Tom Lantos smiled gamely. And Gore asked question after question: "Is this a process you patented? What software program do you use? Do you get stock options?" Soon he joined a roomful of scientists to deliver an ode to the job-creation benefits of the federal research-and-development tax credit.
When the Lewinsky mess began, says Robert Squier, Gore's veteran media adviser, "we expected the increased press attention. It was inevitable." And welcome? Squier won't admit to that one. But Gore and his advisers knew that as difficult as the scandal might get for Clinton, it was not going to be so bad for Gore. After all, the worst case for Clinton means the Oval Office for Gore. The Vice President's poll numbers are up, and his Air Force Two press compartment is full of reporters who have little choice but to report on Gore and his 21st century agenda: solar-energy tax credits. High-tech classrooms. Computerized police departments. And the "Digital Earth initiative," Gore's vision of tomorrow's science museum, a 3-D virtual globe connected via the Internet to all the scientific, political, geographic and cultural data under the sun. "You reporters want scandal," says a senior Gore adviser, "but you have to settle for high-tech heaven."
Maybe it's Gore's turn for good news. Of late, it seemed, whenever Clinton tripped, it was Gore who stubbed his toe. To make his bones in the Administration, for example, good- soldier Gore worked too hard at fund raising and ended up taking money from Buddhist monks and babbling about controlling legal authority. But tomcattery is one perceived Clintonian trait that hasn't rubbed off on Gore. "Clinton and Gore are friends, but not that kind of friends," says a senior Gore aide. "They're close colleagues who sometimes see each other away from work, but then usually as a foursome with their wives--not a boys' night out. I'm not trying to build any distance into their friendship, but it's not a locker- room thing. Gore doesn't golf ...or whatever."
The choirboy role comes naturally, and so does the job of loyal friend to an embattled President. What's tricky for Gore, however, is the question of ambition. He wants to succeed Clinton more than anything, but if the loyal lieutenant were suddenly to seem disloyal, Gore's image would instantly turn counterfeit. So Gore had his chief of staff, Ron Klain, spread the warning to his people: Talk about "transition," and you'll be out of a job.
Since anyone who gets into scandal management can expect a Ken Starr subpoena, Gore has never taken part in sessions "on Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate or any other gate," says a Gore adviser. Instead Gore and aides last week worked to line up congressional support for Clinton. On Monday he met with 33 members of the New Democrat Coalition, a moderate House group. When Indiana Representative Tim Roemer introduced Gore, he slipped and called him "Mr. President." The room erupted with laughter, but Gore was visibly uncomfortable. He wants that title, but not yet.