Can this marriage be saved?
One man's past is threatening the other man's future. But while
Gore tries to distance himself, Clinton is privately fuming
By Michael Duffy and Karen Tumulty
July 5, 1999
Web posted at: 11:15 a.m. EDT (1515 GMT)
Maybe it was just a little misunderstanding, a thing that
happens from time to time in every family. Maybe Al Gore really
had someplace better to be at the moment Bill Clinton arrived on
the South Lawn last Monday morning to announce that the gods had
bestowed an extra trillion--with a t--dollars on the U.S.
Treasury. Maybe Gore, a serious man who worries about serious
things, had to polish the speech he was making that afternoon in
Philadelphia on the war against cancer. Maybe the White House
had pressed him to try to make the event, and Gore had politely
stepped aside so Clinton could take all the credit. If the Vice
President really wanted to be part of it, a White House official
mused later, "he can come to any event he wants to."
Maybe. But maybe Al Gore can't compartmentalize as neatly as his
boss. How can he share in Clinton's public successes when he's
been busy denouncing the President's personal failings, staking
his claim as a family man and promising to protect the dignity
of the office? The stories about a Clinton-Gore feud have been
circulating for more than two weeks, to the point that the
President had to spend the better part of his press conference
last week denying them. To students of royal families, all the
signs of marital strain are there. The couple manage to make a
pretty picture when together in public, but they are together
less and less. Away from each other, they are unable to do
anything but complain about their mate. Whether they patch it
back together, and quickly, could go a long way toward
determining who will be the next President--or at least the
From the first moment stories leaked that Clinton was angry at
Gore for the way he was running his campaign, Washington has
tied itself in knots trying to figure out whether the feud is
real or imagined, manufactured to shove Gore out from Clinton's
shadow. "We have to talk about the future," a Gore aide says.
"The Vice President has to define himself, and he can't do it by
standing behind the President." Gore made the first move during
his announcement tour 2 1/2 weeks ago, when he seemed so
enthusiastic about calling Clinton's conduct in the Monica
Lewinsky scandal "inexcusable" to one interviewer after another.
The President, at dinners with friends, insisted he was not
upset by what Gore had said about the Monica matter, only a
little sore that he had said it so much.
But there is also a second, more private Clinton, who has been
uncorking a different riff late at night, between 11 and 2, when
he checks in with his closest friends, some of whom are dismayed
by Gore. "People wind him up," a Clinton aide says. In those
conversations the President starts feeling sorry for himself and
lets it rip, saying he brought Gore to the dance, plucked him
from certain obscurity and lifted him up. These are nasty
venting sessions, done and forgotten by the next day, but they
have occurred often enough so that they leaked to the New York
For his part, Clinton pleads a blackout. "I have been frankly
bewildered by those reports," he protested last week. "I
honestly do not know what the sources of those stories are, but
they are not in my heart or in my mind." But the denials don't
quite work, given all the other slings and arrows. No sooner had
Gore begun his cancer speech than Administration aides were
leaking their own big medical news--the boss's plans for
Medicare reform--thereby stepping on Gore's headlines. The
President is less cavalier about Hillary's priorities. He
rearranged his schedule so that a Capitol Hill Medicare event
would not distract from the First Lady's photo op at the
National Archives. He went to New York to start raising $125
million for his presidential library. Not much in that for Al,
especially at a time when Hillary was also scavenging around New
York, looking for $20 million that might otherwise go Gore's
way. Things have reached the point where Tipper Gore, asked by
Larry King whether she would be campaigning for Hillary in New
York, could do no more than be emphatically noncommittal.
Publicly, Clinton still seems to comment on the race as if he
were doing analysis for MSNBC. He can admiringly quote George W.
Bush's exact fund-raising totals by state--though he told USA
Today that he could have done better. Asked last week whether
Gore or Bill Bradley is more qualified to be President, the
current holder of the job parsed Gore's resume, not his
leadership abilities. As a bemused Bradley backer noted last
week, "It almost makes you wonder whether Clinton really wants
Gore to win."
Of course, ever since Adams and Jefferson, there has been a
tradition of father-son rivalry in the White House. Eisenhower
helpfully told reporters he couldn't think of a single idea
Nixon contributed during their eight-year tenure together.
Hubert Humphrey died politically in Lyndon Johnson's war. When
George Bush promised a "kinder, gentler nation" in 1988, he
meant kinder and gentler than Ronald Reagan's.
This history is what makes the current rift so different--and so
worrisome for Democrats. Gore and Clinton have scripted their
union as a buddy movie ever since they bonded back in the summer
of 1992. By joining the ticket, Gore, his wife Tipper and their
four sunny blond kids lent the Clintons, already a little grimy
after a long primary campaign about sex and drugs and draft
dodging, some good, clean karma. Clinton and Gore have worked as
closely as any team in memory. When the going got roughest last
winter, Gore stood faithfully by, and even suggested on the day
Clinton was impeached that he would be remembered as a great
President, an affirmation that is sure to turn up in more than
one Republican commercial next year. It would seem that Clinton
might think he owes Gore some loyalty in return.
But Clinton has a bottomless capacity for defining things from
sex to loyalty on his own terms, and the spat suggests he has
taken for granted Gore's steadfastness over the past seven
years. Gore was never as in step with Clinton as it seemed; in
private debates, he differed with Clinton on many of the early
economic questions, and he was aggressive in foreign policy
where Clinton was timid. But in public Gore never let on, and
the senior partner may have mistaken loyalty for acquiescence.
As a Clinton veteran put it, "So now that Gore, who was never as
much a yes-man as people think he was, actually goes public with
his first-ever dispute with Clinton, the President loses it.
That tells you more about Clinton than about Gore."
Some people close to the President suggest that he's not angry
so much as jealous. Clinton has never played a supporting role
in his whole political career, but now his two most trusted
allies, Gore and Hillary, are making plans that don't include
him. It's one thing to give up the White House and leave
Washington on a helicopter with your wife, your dog and a
retinue of aides who have memoirs in their eyes. But many in
Clinton's circle have already moved on, and others are looking
for the exit. If there is one person who doesn't know what he'll
be doing with the rest of his life, it's the President.
What makes Clinton scratch his head is that Gore seems to have
learned so little from the master. Clinton is all about
emotional connection, and he cringes at Gore's lack of feel for
the crowd, particularly when Clinton's legacy now hinges on
Gore's success. Both men have typically, sometimes foolishly,
been their own campaign manager, and as Gore launches his bid
for the job Clinton holds, the man with the title can't believe
his eyes. He has even, among friends, employed the ultimate
put-down, saying Gore is running like a Vice President, and a
first-term one at that.
Having created a third way that reclaimed the middle class for
the Democrats, Clinton has told people that Gore should run on
this theme: We fought for you and were able to succeed despite
unprecedented partisan assaults. Think what we can do if you
give us the chance to continue. Clinton sees Bush as a big
target, easy to hit on such issues as guns, abortion and the
environment, and yet Gore hangs back and won't pull the trigger.
Clinton, says an intimate, knows he could do this better. He
would take the fight to both Bradley and Bush quickly, and
destroy them both on politics and policy. Clinton practically
offers a how-to lesson in his speeches these days. As a onetime
senior staff member put it after a Clinton address, "You could
almost hear him saying, 'This is so easy! Why don't you get it,
It doesn't help that when Clinton is thinking like a candidate,
he wants to make war, but his pattern as President is to make
friends. Gore lives or dies by the fights the Administration
picks on things like Medicare, guns, the patient's bill of
rights. The Vice President needs Clinton to tailor his
final-year initiatives in ways that serve Gore politically. But
Clinton's prime interest is in serving his own legacy. This is
not a recipe for happiness. It is a recipe for mutual
frustration. The President's aching for achievement in his final
year suggests that once again he will arrive at his enemies'
door bearing flowers and chocolates and come away with a
compromise on Medicare and tax cuts. If Clinton finds common
ground with the G.O.P., it will probably be at the expense of
Gore and the Democrats.
Gore may not have inherited Clinton's talent, but he certainly
carries his baggage. The Vice President is aware that the public
is showing signs of fatigue with the Clinton era and wants to
move on, yet he needs the political machinery that Clinton
built. He needs credit for all the good things that have
happened while he promises to have a whole set of fresh ideas
for the future. The task for Gore is a lot like playing Twister
with yourself--hard to do, and no fun to boot. As a Gore adviser
put it, "The public's mood about Clinton makes this a very
complex problem for Gore."
The mood in private isn't much better. Gore's determination not
to be lured into another Buddhist temple has rendered his
fund-raising operation clumsy and skittish. The party's weary
financial foot soldiers, accustomed in Clinton's days to fancy
titles and cozy coffees in the Map Room, are being treated like
parolees, their every move scrutinized and second-guessed. Gore
requires those who are going to raise money for him, such as
lobbyists and business people, to attend briefings on the rules.
After that, they must send in for approval the list of people
they expect to solicit. "The vetting process," says a Clinton
ally, "has been a horror show."
The money grubbing, all the conflicting alliances, the strange
dysfunctions and sibling rivalry--all these, of course, increase
the public's desire to put the whole Clinton business, Gore
included, behind it. A few more rounds of soap-opera politics
won't do any of them any good, which is why Clinton is likely to
be very disciplined in his public comments in the months to come.
And in private, the rift can be mended. Clinton has plenty of
practice at making amends. All Al has to do is make Bill his
campaign manager and the marriage might be saved.
reporting by Viveca Novak/Washington
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Cover Date: July 12, 1999