Friends For Now

RELATIONS BETWEEN Presidents and vice presidents are famously chilly; between their wives, catty or worse. Jackie Kennedy used to refer to Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird as "Uncle Cornpone and his Little Porkchop," and in eight years the Reagans never once invited the Bushes to dine in the White House residence. The Clintons and Gores have been exceptions to the rule. Al Gore's clout with Bill Clinton is by now well established. "The president doesn't make a decision without consulting Gore. He just doesn't," says a presidential adviser. White House spinners start to gush when they match up the two couples. They listen to country music, dance together, go to church together, jog together. Their children are all attractive. They even psychobabble together: "We achieved what I call gestalt," says Gore.

The reality, according to people who have spent time with both couples, is more complicated and more interesting. There is genuine affection between the Clintons and the Gores, but also calculation. For now, each has what the other needs. The question for the second term is what will happen if their interests diverge--and whether the forces that now bind them together would then drive them apart.

The inaugural tableaux will be all warm togetherness, but a hint of future trouble has already turned up in a little-noticed report that appeared to catch the vice president in a lie. During the campaign, Gore attended a lunch in a Buddhist temple that raised $140,000 for the Democrats. When the lunch became controversial--what were Buddhist monks doing handing over $5,000 checks?--Gore said he had been unaware that the event was a fund-raiser; he claimed he had thought the meeting was just "community outreach." But last week The Boston Globe dug up a campaign memo making perfectly clear that Gore knew that fund raising was the object of the lunch. A spokesman admitted Gore's denial had been a poor choice of words. As Gore begins his own campaign for 2000, he cannot afford to get entangled in the Clinton scandals of 1996.

Until now, Gore has never had to distance himself from Clinton. The vice president's former chief of staff, Roy Neel, would tell his troops that protecting "The Relationship" was the most important goal. "The reason The Relationship works is that the Gores defer to the Clintons a lot," says an aide. "They're extremely careful." The personal bonds are real enough. Tipper Gore, who is a free spirit, likes to flirt with Clinton, while Hillary and Al can outbore any two policy nerds. (At one campaign appearance last fall, Hillary self-mockingly vowed that she and the veep would loosen up: "I'm here to tell you that in the second term Al and I are breakin' out.") Still, it's possible to overstate the coziness of the relationship. The Gores and Clintons dine together no more than a couple of times a year: free time for both couples is usually reserved for their families.

Longtime Clinton watchers sense that both Bill and Hillary harbor an undercurrent of resentment about the Gores. The Clintons have a wounded sense of outsiderness in Washington: they believe that the media elite is conspiring to expose them as rubes. The Gores, by contrast, are at ease with reporters. On New Year's Eve, while the Clintons were policy-wonking with the strivers at Renaissance Weekend at Hilton Head, S.C., the Gores were sipping champagne in Georgetown at an annual bash for the permanent establishment hosted by Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Washington Post. The Gores understand the Clintons' insecurities and are very careful not to put on airs around them. Tipper, in particular, offers sympathetic support to the First Lady when the press writes harshly about the Clintons.

The generational bonds mask some basic differences between the two couples. The demands of politics have tested the Gores' marriage, but there have been no allegations of infidelity. Staffers have teased the Gores about necking in public, something the Clintons would never be caught doing. Some thought that Hillary, of Yale Law School, might condescend to Tipper, who has a master's in psychology from Peabody in Nashville and can be giddy in public. But Tipper has worked closely with the First Lady on mental-health issues, leading the push for better funding. In fact, with her earthy common sense, Tipper "has had a far greater policy impact than anything Hillary has done," says a top administration official.

For their part, Clinton and Gore value each other more for their professional skills than their Yuppie kinship. Ever the good student, Gore has tried to learn from Clinton's instinctive crowd-pleasing empathy, making sure he shakes every hand in the room. The president values Gore for his Washington insiderdom: his feel for the way government actually works, especially in foreign policy. In the beginning, the two men made policy speeches at each other. Now, in meetings, Clinton will just peer over his reading glasses. "It's like a husband looking at his wife," says an adviser. "[He seems to be asking] "Honey, did I forget something?' "

Still, their shared needs and mutual admiration cover an essential difference between the two men. Both think deep thoughts about saving the world, but they approach the task quite differently. Clinton is often roundabout, if not waffling. Gore is a plunger who thinks and acts in a straight line. Because Gore has been a reserved politician, his sometimes messianic zeal has been overlooked. The vice president has written that his call to save the environment began with the shock of a near-fatal car accident to his son, Albert III. Characteristically, Gore felt it wasn't enough to save one child; he wanted to save all the world's children. By the same token, he has said privately that his absorption with arms control in the 1980s began with dreams that he could not rescue his family from nuclear war.

Gore must soon begin establishing his own persona. But it may be hard for him to reconcile his two conflicting sides. Far from the earnestness he projects, Gore in fact has a deep sense of the absurd. He can party hard, dancing across a living room crooning, "All my exes live in Texas/That's why I hang my hat in Tennessee!" And he can puncture tense moments with deadpan humor. When Dick Morris was caught with a prostitute and forced to resign, pollster Mark Penn somewhat anxiously insisted that Clinton's poll numbers had actually gone up after the incident. Gore peered mischievously at the remaining consultants and said, "If we get in trouble, we may be calling on one of you gentlemen."

Gore understands that such irony could be dangerous in public. He is stiff in part because he is working so hard to contain his rawer side. The vice president has been practicing since childhood, when he strove to please his senator father and demanding mother. Gore is perfectly self-aware, in a '90s sort of way: a few years ago he handed friends copies of a book, "The Drama of the Gifted Child," about the burden of growing up under the weight of great expectations.

To be aware, of course, does not always mean to be free. Gore has wanted to be president since his prep-school classmates dubbed him "Prince Al." He had to swallow his envy when Clinton moved ahead of him in 1992 to become the first baby-boomer president--a Southern moderate to boot. Gore has been able to remain the loyal No. 2 as long as the two men were moving ahead. But what if Indogate or Whitewater consumes the White House? Gore has always been a fascinating high-wire act, profound yearnings balanced by immense self-control. Working without complaint for a man he envies and likes but does not always respect has been hard enough. It will get even harder if the Clintons begin to wobble, and threaten to pull the Gores off the wire.