A New Bump In Al's Road

April 29, 1996, was another marathon day on the campaign trail for Al Gore. He left his Naval Observatory residence at 6:30 a.m. to board Air Force Two for a flight to Los Angeles and would not return until 5 the next morning. After a speech to the National Cable Television Association, he settled into the back of his limousine and caught his breath. "I took out my notebook and flipped to the next event," he told Justice Department investigators earlier this spring. "And my immediate impression was, good... they were able to work out this visit to the Hsi Lai Temple; this ought to be interesting. Little did I know."

At least one senior Justice official still thinks Gore may know more than he's ever told. Word leaked last week that Robert Conrad, chief of Justice's Campaign Financing Task Force, had recommended that Attorney General Janet Reno appoint a special counsel to investigate whether Gore lied to investigators about the temple luncheon and his other 1996 fund-raising. Trying to quash speculation about new and possibly damaging evidence, an angry Gore released the transcript of his four-hour session with Conrad and FBI agents last April. There was little new in the 123-page interview, but it was another painful distraction for Gore's wobbling campaign. Instead of explaining why he should be president, Gore was once again forced to defend his integrity. "I think the truth is my friend in this," he said.

The session with Conrad does not paint a flattering picture. Indignant and defensive at points, Gore insisted he knew nothing about money changing hands at the temple, despite briefing papers alerting him that the luncheon was a fund-raiser. "I sure as hell did not have any conversations with anyone saying, this is a fund-raising event," he said. It turned out that more than $140,000 was collected there, some from "straw" donors illegally reimbursed for their donations. Last March longtime Gore associate Maria Hsia was convicted of election-law violations in connection with the temple event.

Gore said he had only a hazy memory of numerous White House "coffees" for deep-pocket contributors. He told Conrad he had no reason to believe they were fund-raising vehicles despite memos from Clinton aide Harold Ickes that showed dollar amounts penciled in next to the names of guests. (At one point, Conrad referred the veep to a passage in "Inventing Al Gore," a biography by Bill Turque, the coauthor of this article. The passage reported that Gore had attended 23 coffees, but "that seems inaccurate to me," Gore said.) Two days after the interview, Gore's lawyer James Neal wrote Conrad, saying Gore thought the questions were about coffees hosted by Clinton. In fact, Gore hosted nearly two dozen of his own in the Old Executive Office Building.

Gore aides smelled a politically motivated contract hit. "These are Ken Starr tactics," said one top campaign aide. The Gore camp suspected FBI Director Louis Freeh, who has long wanted Reno to put a special counsel on Gore's trail, of leaking the news to Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter. Freeh had recently been dropping hints of new "sensitive" developments in meetings with top congressional Republicans.

The episode may reveal more about intramural disputes at Justice than about Gore's probity. Senior officials were bewildered when Conrad, a veteran prosecutor appointed by Reno two months ago, circulated a memo recommending a special counsel. Reno had twice rejected the idea, based on essentially the same arguments Conrad was using. Conrad conceded that there is currently not enough evidence to make a prosecutable case against Gore. But like his predecessor, Charles LaBella, he insisted that only a special counsel--not Justice, with its inherent conflict of interest--could make that call. Almost no one at Justice expects Reno to follow his recommendation.

For Gore, the damage is already done. The latest legal skirmish could be one more suggestion to voters that he is not a fresh start but an extension of Clinton-era scandal and sleaze. "The country collectively wanted to take a shower before this," said one senior Bush operative. "This just reinforces that." And just a week after embattled campaign chairman Tony Coelho's abrupt exit (he disclosed last week that he has a cyst on his brain), bad press once again hijacked Gore's "Progress and Prosperity" tour.

Gore's continued legal problems were only part of the bad news last week. Rising gas prices have Democratic strategists worried about his ability to win critically important Midwestern states. Ralph Nader's unexpectedly strong candidacy is forcing him to work harder at securing support from labor and other groups in the Democratic base. And while a new NEWSWEEK Poll shows Gore in a virtual dead heat--with Bush ahead 42-40--other surveys have him lagging by as much as 12 points. They also find signs of persistent voter doubts about Gore's honesty. In the bipartisan Battleground 2000 poll, only 35 percent of those questioned said he represented "trustworthiness." More headlines about his 1996 fund-raising aren't likely to fatten that number any time soon.