Caught In Clinton's Shadow

Why is Al so angry with me?" Bill Clinton would ask his aides from time to time during the spring of 1999. Clinton had been baffled, then upset, by the vice president's increasing chilliness. True, there had always been an edge of sibling rivalry between the two men. Gore, though a year younger than Clinton, had played the older brother, stiffening the president's backbone when he shied from difficult decisions, like intervening in the Balkans. In turn, Clinton had offered his veep a few tips on the art of winning votes. For the most part the two baby boomers, as well as their wives, had seemed to get along. But as Gore sagged in the early polls, the strains between them began to show. One flash point was an article in The New York Times in early May. Clinton couldn't understand why Gore was so mad about it. White House aides had told Clinton that Richard Berke, the Times's national political correspondent, was about to run a story anonymously quoting some of the president's friends and associates saying that the president was privately disparaging Gore's campaign. The president decided to set the record straight: he picked up the phone and called Berke. Yes, he said, Gore needed to loosen up. "It's true that I have urged him to go out there and enjoy this," Clinton acknowledged to the reporter. But he wasn't worried that Gore was down in the polls. "I think this thing will shake out," the president predicted. Clinton hadn't meant to sound condescending, but that's how Gore read it.

A month later it was Clinton's turn to be stung, when Gore told Diane Sawyer that "as a father" he was disappointed by Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. The president believed that he had been far more boon than burden to his veep, bequeathing him peace and prosperity, the usual keys to election. He had shown Gore ultimate respect by making him the most involved and responsible vice president in history. Still, as a student of politics Clinton was shrewd enough to see that every vice president needed to make his break and that some recent veeps, like Hubert Humphrey with LBJ and George Bush with Reagan, had struggled or waited too long to become their own men. Clinton, in his typical fashion, flared up and then forgot about Gore's remarks to Sawyer. He understood the political wisdom of signaling voters that the next Democratic administration would not be Clinton Three but rather Gore One. "Keep separating," the president told Gore's campaign boss, Tony Coelho. "I want him to win."

Gore wasn't really listening to the president in the early summer of 1999. He was paying more attention to a New Age guru named Naomi Wolf. The author of pop-culture books, including one about teenage sexual habits called "Promiscuities," Wolf, 38, was smart, beautiful and persuasive. She had advised Clinton's Svengali, Dick Morris, during the'96 campaign to cast Clinton as "the great white father." Wolf had been brought into the Gore campaign by the veep's daughter Karenna, a 27-year-old law grad and mother. The two young women were friends. Gore was mesmerized by Wolf. "It was kind of love at first sight," recalled a senior aide. "She was the single most important adviser."

Like many politicians, Gore had a tendency to blame others for whatever went wrong. Wolf played to Gore's self-pitying anger. She told him that he was the victim of a Faustian bargain made by the voters. Many Americans, she thought, were ashamed of themselves for liking Clinton. Perversely, they blamed Gore. Desperate for an excuse for his poor early showing, Gore lapped up Wolf's tenuous theories. He told his aides that he was paying the "psychic penalty" for Clinton's misdeeds with Monica Lewinsky.

Gore had been disgusted by President Clinton's affair with the White House intern--"upset to the core," said an aide--but he had placed a greater value on loyalty. "I'm very loyal to this guy," he had declared as he warned aides not to backstab the president in the press. (Bob Squier, the late media consultant, had told Clinton when he chose Gore as vice president, "Al Gore will never knife you in the back, even if you deserve it.") On the day of Clinton's impeachment in December 1998, Gore had stood up on the South Lawn of the White House with the First Lady and a cheering section and praised Clinton as "one of the greatest presidents." Gore knew the line would be thrown back at him. It wasn't something that had just popped out in the enthusiasm of the moment. He wanted to do "what's best for the country," he told aides.

Now, Gore believed, the nation was suffering from Clinton fatigue--but Al Gore was the one paying the price. Clinton was enjoying high approval ratings, the economy was booming, but the polls showed Gore trailing the presumptive GOP nominee, George W. Bush, by as much as 15 points. Clinton was portrayed in many press accounts as a raffish but engaging survivor, Gore as a bumbling pedant. To Gore it all seemed unfair, a poor reward for so many years of faithful service. It was bad enough that Hillary had to run for the Senate from New York, sucking up attention from the media and dollars from potential Democratic donors. Now Clinton was patronizing him in The New York Times. Most of Gore's advisers were appalled that he was listening to Naomi Wolf, whom they regarded as a female Rasputin and who, they learned, was being paid $15,000 a month. The problem was not Clinton fatigue, they believed. The problem was Al Gore. The vice president was flat and uninspiring. Tony Coelho tried to tell this to Gore when the former California congressman came aboard as campaign manager that May. "You're not going to win," he told the vice president. "Why?" replied Gore with evident alarm. "Because you're not a candidate," said Coelho. "You don't feel it in here."

Tipper Gore was sitting in on the meeting, and it was clear to Coelho that she, too, believed her husband needed to show more passion on the stump. "She was very rah-rah about what I was trying to say," recalled Coelho. The vice president insisted he was engaged in the campaign, but he acknowledged that "in public, I have a tendency not to be the person I am in private." He paused. "You know, I like to have fun"--and suddenly he was extolling the pleasures of shooting pool and water-skiing. Sensing that Gore was letting down his guard for a rare moment, Coelho asked, a little awkwardly, what Gore got out of his leisure time. He immediately hit a stone wall. Stiffening, Gore explained that because of his son Albert's accident (hit by a car at the age of 6), he was extremely protective of his family. Gore insisted that he wasn't going to exploit his wife and children for votes. Coelho detected a note of defensiveness; Gore had been criticized for emotionally describing his sister's death from cancer at the 1996 Democratic convention and his son's accident at the 1992 Democratic convention. Getting back to business, Gore said that if Coelho could give him a good "blueprint" for the 2000 campaign, he would be "disciplined" about following it.

It was not surprising that gore did not really open up to Coelho. They were former congressional colleagues, but hardly close. Coelho was not even Gore's first choice to run his campaign. The vice president had first tried, unsuccessfully, to enlist Commerce Secretary William Daley. Coelho himself had rejected Gore's offer, then reconsidered after reading a USA Today article describing Tipper Gore's struggle to overcome depression in the wake of her son's accident. Rejected for the priesthood because he suffered from epilepsy, Coelho was touched by stories about people who fight back against disabilities.

Gore had been forced to turn to an outsider because all the insiders had left or been driven away. Most successful politicians create a faithful retinue, a cadre of loyal advisers they can depend on. Gore had trouble holding on to his top staffers. Many wandered off to cash in as lawyers or lobbyists. Some just needed a break, worn out by his demands and his brand of dry and biting humor. Gore often fails to inspire personal loyalty because he is oddly without affect--neither likable nor unlikable--but untouchable behind his Dudley Do-Right mask. He is well known as a perfectionist, demanding and irritable when the results don't meet his standard. Believing that he can always do better than his minions, he is reluctant to delegate even the smallest tasks. Gore's former chief of staff Roy Neel recalled that as a young congressman, Gore tried to write every letter leaving his office. Congressmen are allowed to mail home, free, six newsletters a year. Gore sent maybe one during his six years in the House and none during his eight years in the Senate. The boss, a writer manque, was never satisfied with the wording.

Remarkably for a man who had held top jobs in Washington for the previous 24 years, Gore had no trusted right-hand man, no longtime chief of staff to make the campaign run smoothly or offer unwelcome but necessary advice. Gore's vice presidential chief of staff, Ron Klain, was purged from the inner circle when Gore learned that Klain had OK'd Clinton's phone call to Rick Berke. Klain thought he had been trying to help, to contain a negative story; Gore saw only disloyalty.

For a time, Gore's campaign had been managed by a virtual unknown: a quiet, unassuming political operative named Craig Smith, a onetime aide to Gov. Bill Clinton in Arkansas. Gore's advisers in the lobbyist-consultant world had recommended Smith, hoping that he could be rolled; Gore had accepted Smith because he wanted to be his own campaign manager. Unsurprisingly, Smith was unable to assert control. Headquarters, a lavish set of offices on K Street, Washington's lobbyist corridor, dripped with leaks. So Gore cast about for another helping hand, and finally settled on Coelho. The former California congressman was an odd choice in several ways. He had been out of politics for several years. He had made his name in the 1980s by persuading corporate lobbyists to give money to Democrats, a record that seemed only to highlight the vice president's own much-publicized money-raising exertions in 1996, including his famous trip to a Buddhist temple. Dark and intense, gloomy at times, Coelho had given up his House seat amid rumors of financial improprieties. He had enemies in both parties.

Coelho wanted and demanded total control over the campaign. But he was not unrealistic. He understood that Gore's closest advisers were members of his family. In terms of political savvy, the Gore family was a mixed bag. Tipper was bouncy and enthusiastic but also mercurial, ready to campaign all-out one day and not at all the next. Frank Hunger, who had been married to Gore's beloved late sister, Nancy, was a silent but important presence at campaign headquarters; the candidate would always look to him for a nod, yes or no. The most vocal and vigilant relative was daughter Karenna, a vivacious young mother who was analytic and fiercely competitive like her father. Her chief advice to Dad: just be yourself. That sometimes proved dangerous. It was Karenna who urged Gore to face reporters about the legality of his fund-raising techniques during the 1996 campaign. Gore had, in his usual ponderous way, lectured the press that there was "no controlling legal authority" to prohibit what he had done. Though he was wary of his official advisers, Gore was uncritical of his own kin. "At times, Al doesn't know when to separate advice from love," observed Coelho.

A few days after Labor Day 1999, campaign pollster Mark Penn decided it was time for a showdown. Penn thought Gore was stuck in a rut, suffering from "vice presidentialitis." He seemed unwilling to go outside the rope line and engage with voters. Gore appeared unnaturally attached to "the blue goose," as aides had dubbed the large, formal blue podium emblazoned with the vice presidential seal that accompanied Gore everywhere. Penn confronted Gore at a meeting with top advisers in the dining room of the vice president's mansion on Observatory Hill in Washington. Penn told the vice president that the problem facing the campaign was not Clinton fatigue, as Gore kept insisting; the president's ratings with the voters remained remarkably high. The real problem, said Penn, was that Gore was simply failing to connect with voters. Gore didn't want to hear it. He said that Clinton was working on building a legacy--and doing it at Gore's expense. "He wants to be on TV every day and every night for the rest of his presidency," Gore insisted, growing angry, his voice rising.

As soon as the meeting ended, Penn knew that he was "toast," he recalled. Another aide, Bill Knapp, half jokingly told him, "Mark, you just killed yourself there." Penn was already suspect because he was doubling as Hillary Clinton's pollster in her New York Senate race--and had refused to drop the First Lady as a client when Tony Coelho asked him to. Within a few weeks, Penn was gone, replaced by Harrison Hickman, another in what would be a long line of Gore pollsters. Penn was bitter and told friends that he felt the way Gore was headed, he'd either be president or the loneliest man on the face of the earth. None of the people who had worked for him mattered at all.

The period that ended in the fall of 1999 was a low point in the Gore campaign. Bill Knapp would later call this the "Blue Period," because everyone, including the candidate, seemed off his game. No one doubted the vice president's fanatical determination. But no one seemed to have any idea how to make him a winner. Gore's early forays into New Hampshire for the all-important first primary had been stilted affairs. The worst had been a photo-op canoe trip on the Connecticut River. Gore had sat rigidly erect, like Prince Albert on his royal barge. It later leaked to the press that millions of gallons of water had been pumped into the river to make sure Gore's craft wouldn't get stuck in shallow waters.

At these first rallies, a consultant studying Gore's speaking style watched with exasperation as Gore insisted on thanking everyone of any importance onstage or in the room, a tedious process that would consume the first five minutes of any speech. "It's the caution," he observed, "as if somebody not mentioned will cause problems." Gore's fastidious attention to detail made him a joyless campaigner. He was disciplined about staying on script but easily irked by small glitches. Skilled politicians like Clinton, the consultant said, "block everything out. Gore, you can see the veins rise on the back of his hand. He gets tight as a wire. If the bunting isn't straight in the back of the room, he'll get upset."

His advisers were just as jumpy. Headquarters on K Street, steeped in the pundit culture of Washington, had "rabbit ears," said Penn. "If there was a bad story in The Washington Post at 7 a.m., by 9:30 they've changed strategy." Gore provided no clear direction, no guiding vision. He had, at various times in his political career, been a neoliberal, tough on crime and communism; a New Agey environmentalist and techno-futurist, and an old-fashioned Bible-thumping populist. Gore's response to problems, said a longtime aide, was to consult five pollsters. "He thrashes around for solutions everywhere but inside," said the aide. A media consultant who helped draft Gore's announcement speech in June recalled a group grope. The drafting session started at 6 p.m. and dragged on past 11. There was so much to-ing and fro-ing that the scene was reminiscent of the old Bob Hope movie "The Paleface." The star, a greenhorn gunfighter, gets so much conflicting advice--move left; no, right; look to the sun; no, the shade--that when he finally gets to the showdown, he's totally confused. As it turned out, few TV viewers saw Gore deliver his announcement speech because waving campaign posters blocked the camera angles.

Gore was enraged by the poor advance work. Bob Squier, a media consultant who had worked for Gore on and off for two decades, took the fall and was pushed aside. Next in line as the campaign's chief image maker was Squier's onetime partner, later his bitter enemy, Carter Eskew. Eskew had drifted in and out of Gore's orbit for years, alienating Gore for a time because he had worked to improve the image of tobacco companies. Eskew in turn brought in Bob Shrum, one of the Democrats' most skilled wordsmiths--as well as one of their most combative attack artists. Shrum's fight-to-the-death instincts fit well with Gore's ferocious competitive edge. Shrum's arrival as the campaign entered the fall of 1999 proved to be a turning point.

Shrum took one look at the listless campaign and whipped off a memo to his new client. Gore's problem was not beating George W. Bush in November 2000, Shrum warned. It was avoiding humiliating defeat in the primaries. "You're not in a fight for the general election. You're now in a fight for the nomination," Shrum wrote. Gore was in danger of losing to Bill Bradley, the former New Jersey senator/Rhodes scholar/basketball star who in the early going had been running a low-key but initially effective insurgent's campaign in New Hampshire. Gore seemed relieved to get Shrum's memo. "Thank God," he told Shrum. He was tired of hearing "happy talk" from many of his advisers who thought he could coast to the nomination. "Fight" was Shrum's favorite word, and it would become Gore's.

Shrum's memo, along with a Boston Globe poll that showed Gore in a statistical tie with Bradley in New Hampshire after Labor Day, galvanized Gore's family to intervene. Tipper, in full-energy mode, offered to move to New Hampshire to campaign for her husband. Then she had a better idea: move the campaign headquarters to Tennessee, Gore's home state. It would be an excellent way to get rid of the thick layers of lawyers, lobbyists and hangers-on in the $60,000-a-month offices on K Street. Brother-in-law Frank Hunger, who had been keeping an eye on the fractious campaign staff, sardonically told Gore, "If we move to Nashville and nobody comes, it's fine with me." Overnight Gore made the decision to leave town. Scrambling to find cheap office space in Nashville, the campaign nearly rented an old mortuary. "Don't you think this will be a PR problem?" someone asked. Instead, they rented space formerly occupied by a medical-rehabilitation center called Sundance Rehab. Fitting, thought spokesman Chris Lehane. Gore's Secret Service code name is Sundance.

Gore elevated a veteran of Democratic primary wars, Donna Brazile, to campaign manager (Coelho's title was chairman) and let her clean house. Brazile, a large and boisterous African-American woman, calls herself a "hell-raiser"--she had helped run Jesse Jackson's wildly improvisational campaign in 1988. Privately describing Gore's Washington headquarters as "Patronage City," she began slashing the salaries of $35,000-a-month lawyers and $15,000-a-month accountants. Brazile noticed she had been gaining weight from eating too well while traveling. So travel budgets were whacked and staffers were ordered to double up on the road. Consultant Bob Shrum, accustomed to traveling first class, was required for the first time in his life to fly on no-frills Southwest Airlines. In a morale-boosting move, Naomi Wolf's cushy $15,000-a-month deal was cut by two thirds, and her influence waned. Wolf contributed to her own demise by strutting in front of reporters at the first New Hampshire primary debate. "She walked through the lobby of the Wayfarer Inn 58 times, and it wasn't even on the way to her room," said a top aide. Staffers happily leaked Wolf's inflated salary and the juicy tidbit that she had warned Gore not to be a "-beta male" to Clinton's "alpha male." The late-night comics hooted; Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote that Gore would soon be growling and challenging Clinton to arm-wrestle.

For all his stiffness and caution, Gore can discipline himself to be a vigorous campaigner, if not exactly a happy warrior, by sheer force of will. To his staff's relief, he stopped reading from notecards and memorized chunks of his stump speech, which he made more personal with short riffs on his early disillusionment with politics when he came back from Vietnam in 1971. He shed his trademark blue suits for earth tones. More important, he began hammering at his opponent. In the preprimary season of 1999, Al Gore found his groove as a relentless attacker.

The onslaught began at a Jefferson-Jackson Day political dinner in Iowa in early October. Gore implied that Bradley was a quitter for leaving the U.S. Senate during the dark days of the Newt Gingrich ascendancy in the mid-'90s. He attacked Bradley's centerpiece plan to reform health care in the United States as "risky" because it would replace Medicaid with "vouchers" to pay for private insurance. Gore made the vouchers--a loaded word to liberals, who oppose private-school vouchers in public education--sound like chump change. The strong implication was that Bradley, who had a long history of activism on civil rights, was heartless to poor black people.

As the campaign gathered steam, Bradley listened impassively to these assaults on his intelligence and character. "He has his experts, I have mine," he would lamely retort when Gore started slashing his health plan. As his aides despairingly held their heads in their hands, Bradley would launch into an incomprehensible discussion of "weighted averages." The basketball star turned senator turned deep thinker had developed a Zen-like approach to politics, casting himself as a kind of antihero who never stoops to conquer. In a series of lectures at Stanford University, where Bradley had taken refuge for a time in the late '90s to contemplate his future, he lamented that the American presidency had been hobbled by a "heroic myth." The public and especially the press seem compelled to build up the nation's leaders--only to tear them down when they prove to be less than godlike. He called vaguely for "a new kind of leadership" and "a new kind of governance," less ego-driven and celebrity-oriented. The problem with Bradley's formulation was that many voters, remembering his basketball exploits and golden-boy aura, wanted to see Bradley as their hero. Waving his giant hands in a downward motion to deaden applause, droning on humorlessly, Bradley dared to be dull. New Hampshire's independent-minded voters were intrigued, for a while. But the press was turned off by Bradley's disdain for politics (and for political reporters). A style that had been called "authentic" was now described as "self-righteous."

The Gore camp was amazed by Bradley's refusal to hit back. It seemed that they could say anything or do anything and Bradley would just sit there. At a candidates' forum before the Iowa caucuses in January, the Gore campaign planted a farmer in the audience to ask why, as a U.S. senator, Bill Bradley had voted against flood relief for farmers after a series of floods had devastated Iowa. The question was a cheap shot: Bradley had voted for $4.8 billion in flood relief; he balked only at an additional $900 million. But Bradley, trying to stay on the high road, mumbled something about the challenge of the future. Watching TV back at Bradley's headquarters in New Jersey, a demoralized staffer waved a white handkerchief and cried out, "Please, leave us alone!"

Bradley's friend and campaign adviser Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska urged a counterstrike. In a TV ad, Vietnam hero Kerrey was supposed to say, "Unfortunately, the vice president's campaign is distorting Bill Bradley's record on flood relief for farmers. They're wrong. He voted for flood relief. I was there." But Bradley rewrote the ad, cutting any mention of Gore's low blow and airily declaring instead, "All politicians aren't the same. Bill Bradley is different."

Bradley was painfully slow to understand what Gore was doing to him. After Gore trounced Bradley in Iowa, Gore actually declared that Bradley had defeated himself with negative campaigning. Bradley was baffled. "I don't understand," he said to a top aide. "When did we go negative?" The aide just looked at him and said, "Bill, he's lying." Bradley's staff--for the most part, true believers and political neophytes--told themselves that voters would see through Gore's low-road attacks and recognize Bradley's inner worth. They misread all the signs. There was, for instance, the matter of Al Gore's sweating. Gore is a prodigious perspirer. A friend recalls him at a party on a hot summer day, sitting upstairs in front of a blasting air conditioner to keep from melting. When Gore would start to sweat at debates, Bradley's staff would watch the trickle and the spreading stain and think that the veep was beginning to crack. "Flop sweat!" they'd call out. They couldn't see this was just the visible evidence that Gore was doggedly outworking their man.

The night before the New Hampshire primary, Gore stood erect in a hot ballroom for three and a half hours, until he had shaken literally every hand. The first exit polls the next day showed him a few points behind. The campaign quickly scrambled up workers to go door to door turning out the vote. Michael Whouley, Gore's resourceful on-the-ground organizer, joked that if necessary he would arrange to have a tractor-trailer overturned on I-93 to keep Bradley voters from returning home to New Hampshire from their high-tech jobs across the border in Massachusetts. "No deaths, of course," he assured the candidate. Drastic measures were not called for: at about 8 p.m., the networks called New Hampshire for Gore. Tipper leaped up and touched the hotel-room ceiling. Later that night Bradley huffily walked away from the cameras when technical problems delayed an interview with ABC's "Nightline." A producer had to run and tell Bradley he was turning his back on a show seen by 5 million people. Grudgingly, Bradley returned, but he told his aides he wanted to forget about the interviews with CNN and Fox that had been scheduled next.

Gore, on the other hand, spoke to every camera in sight. Sweat dribbled down his face in rivulets. His cobalt blue TV shirt began to darken, but still he stood ramrod straight, wiping away the moisture between takes. First an aide handed him some tissues, then a pink hotel banquet napkin. Finally someone showed up with a whole stack of towels. The vice president kept wiping and repeating the same sound bites, over and over, until no one was left to listen.

Caught In Clinton's Shadow | News