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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

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)

TIME magazine

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 Democratic nominee.

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 Times.

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, Al?' "

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.

--With reporting by Viveca Novak/Washington


Cover Date: July 12, 1999

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