The Trouble With Al

FOR JANET RENO, THE NEWS ABOUT Al Gore was maddening. Reports that the Democratic National Committee had improperly used $120,000 of the money the vice president had raised from his White House telephone had caught her by surprise. She turned to the prosecutors on her ""Campaign Finance Task Force'' for answers. The Justice lawyers, it turns out, had known about Gore's solicitations for months but hadn't bothered to check where the cash ended up. Reno was furious with her team and weary of GOP attacks. So last Friday she nixed a long-planned trip to Florida and ordered her scheduler to cancel every appointment in her normally frenetic workday. Her agenda--which usually runs three pages--read, simply, ""a.m./p.m.: office time.'' She holed up behind closed doors the whole day, trying to figure out what to do. There is growing certainty among senior Justice officials that Reno will eventually appoint a special prosecutor. The question is not if, but when and how.

That's not good news for Gore. If Reno does put a special prosecutor on the scandal, he, not Clinton, will most likely be its most vulnerable political target. Until now the vice president's reputation as stiff but squeaky clean has rarely been called into question. The gifted son of a senator, Gore went from St. Albans to Harvard to Vietnam to the Senate without ever really suffering a serious political setback. But the steady drip of revelations about his possible role in raising tainted funds--from the Buddhist temple fiasco to dialing for dollars from his White House office--has thrust him into his first true political crisis. Clinton, a veteran of defeats and comebacks, has managed to float above the scandal; always the charming rogue, he has skillfully deflected criticism, and his approval ratings have never been higher. But Gore's own attempts at defending himself have been clumsy, and one recent poll put his favorability rating at only 34 percent. For Gore, the issue now is whether he can learn high-level damage control. If he doesn't, the vice president may end up paying the political bill for the Clinton scandals.

Gore never saw it coming. A year ago he was dutifully fulfilling the vice president's traditional job of bringing in campaign cash. And he was good at it. On his way to one February 1996 White House fund-raising meeting with Clinton, Gore read over a list of ""talking points'' his staff had prepared for him. ""I did three events this week which were projected to raise $650,000, and . . . actually raised $800,000,'' the memo boasts. ""Tipper and I were supposed to do $1.1 million, and it looks like we will be closer to $1.3 million.'' The document, now in the hands of Fred Thompson's Senate committee, is hardly a smoking gun. Nothing it describes is illegal, and at the meeting Gore ignored it. But the image of the vice president obsessed with keeping the dollars flowing is the last thing the beleaguered Gore wants on people's minds.

The vice president is getting a crash course in scandal management. Gore has hastily assembled a damage-control team, a group of his most trusted advisers and scandal pros on loan from the West Wing. ""We have just been overwhelmed,'' says one Gore aide. Each morning, vice presidential chief of staff Ron Klain meets with Clinton's political counselors Paul Begala and Doug Sosnik to sift through the day's likely attacks, leaks and bad news. Also weighing in are outsiders like Peter Knight, Gore's longtime adviser and fund raiser. Then Gore's communications director, Lorraine Voles, holds a conference call to brief Gore loyalists among Washington's political set-- media consultant Robert Squier and White House counsel turned pundit Jack Quinn--who will go on TV to defend the veep on a moment's notice. Throughout the day talking points are phoned to Democrats on Capitol Hill; meanwhile, the DNC churns out spin faxes to reporters around the country. Like Clinton, Gore has taken to meeting regularly at home with strategists and pollsters to closely monitor his fate.

They will be very busy in the months ahead. NEWSWEEK has learned that Reno was, in one official's words, so ""very, very, very angry'' over her team's bungling that she's considering bringing in new talent to restore her confidence in Justice's investigation. In the weeks ahead, Thompson and his Senate team will expand their probe to include Gore's tightknit political circle. In particular, the committee wants to know if Peter Knight helped a Massachusetts company called Molton Metals win $33 million in federal Energy Department contracts in exchange for contributions to the Democratic Party. The committee is also investigating whether political contributions helped another Knight client company, Fluor Daniel, secure a $5 billion Energy Department contract to dispose of nuclear waste. Knight's ""fingerprints are everywhere,'' says a Thompson committee source. Knight adamantly denies any wrongdoing--and Gore aides protest that the attention to Knight is really a plot to hurt Gore's presidential chances. At the moment, however, Gore doesn't seem to need much help in that department.

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