Is This What We Expect?
After Clinton, Americans may be ready for a different kind of President--a straight shooter. Can Gore fit the profile?
By Eric Pooley
(TIME, August 31) -- No matter how ugly things get for Bill Clinton, it seems, he can always count on Al Gore. "I am proud of him," Gore said from Hawaii on Monday, even as other Democratic politicians were diving for cover or parading their carefully worded disappointment in the President. Gore is feeling good about Clinton "not only because he is a friend but because he is a person who has had the courage to acknowledge mistakes. I am honored to work with this great President."
Scout's honor. The Vice President is nothing if not loyal (not to mention helpful, friendly, courteous, kind and obedient), but loyalty gets you only so far. At some point every Vice President with an eye on the top job must find a way to excise his boss without looking like a Brutus. For Gore, the trick will be to put some breathing room between himself and Clinton's character issues and to do it soon--but not so soon that he appears disloyal. "The question is when and how Gore can resurface," says Hank Sheinkopf, a New York City-based political consultant who worked on the Clinton-Gore media campaign in 1996. "He's done a brilliant job of staying out of view during the scandal, but at some point he's got to find the right time to jump up and remind people that he's not Clinton."
Not Clinton: it's a tough role for a man who has been running a three-legged race with the President for most of this decade. But it may be the key to Gore's success in 2000, because Americans are likely to want a very different kind of President next time around--not simply one who has control over his personal life (Gore's got no apparent troubles there) but one who levels with the people in all matters, who says it straight and doesn't dissemble. "The reaction now will be to look for just the opposite [of Clinton]," says G.O.P. media consultant Alex Castellanos, "someone who can look you in the eye and tell you hard truths about big things and serious things." Even Democrats like Sheinkopf agree. "This scandal will redefine our politics," he says, "and take it back to basics. The candidate who succeeds will be plainspoken, honorable, not a lot of fluff. People want a President with fewer complications."
After six years in Clinton's White House, Gore has acquired complications galore. TIME has confirmed that Attorney General Janet Reno is reconsidering whether to seek the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the Clinton-Gore fund-raising operation in 1996, including whether Gore made illegal telephone solicitations from the White House. Last December, Reno shut down a probe of about 45 Gore fund-raising calls on grounds that he had sought only so-called soft money--party-building funds--for the Democratic National Committee. After the cash came in, DNC officials funneled some of it into "hard-money" accounts (which paid for candidates' television advertising and the like), pushing many donors over their legal limits for hard-money contributions. Reno said she made her decision because there was no evidence Gore knew of the diversion. But last March, a Senate governmental-affairs committee report asserted that Gore "continued to make telephone solicitations even after being advised [of the diversion] by a DNC memorandum in February 1996." Justice Department sources confirm that Gore's possible knowledge of the transactions is one of the issues before Reno now. The Attorney General, who faces a contempt-of-Congress citation for what the House G.O.P. sees as her recalcitrance in the matter, is expected to reach a decision by the end of this month.
Even without a special prosecutor, Republican strategists believe they have plenty of ammunition to use against Gore. One television spot in 2000 might begin with a clip of Clinton from this week, insisting that his denial of an affair with Monica Lewinsky had been "legally accurate," then cut to Gore squirming like an eel in March 1997, saying there was "no controlling legal authority" barring him from making those fund-raising calls. The kicker: DO YOU REALLY WANT FOUR MORE YEARS OF DOUBLE TALK?
"Someone's going to make that spot," says Republican consultant Stuart Stevens, who worked on the Dole campaign in 1996. "Obviously there's a qualitative difference between what Gore did and what Clinton did, but there's also a unifying thread: anyone from third grade on knows they weren't being honest, and people are sick of politicians who parse the truth." What's more, says Stevens, if Gore doesn't find a way to express his discomfort over Clinton's dalliance with an intern, "his lack of outrage will start to define him. At what point does his loyalty to Clinton end and his own set of values begin?"
That may be wishful Republican thinking, but Gore still faces a conundrum: as long as a plurality of Americans remain willing to forgive Clinton, any Gore move to break ranks would appear cold--and out of character. But if he waits and Clinton's support evaporates, any attempt to distance himself might then seem craven and poll-driven--two labels Gore has already been hit with a time or two. It's enough to make a grown Scout cry.
While Gore tries to navigate these uncharted waters, other presidential hopefuls may find that the post-Lewinsky politic blows fresh wind into their sails--and not just conservatives like Dan Quayle and Senator John Ashcroft, who spent the week calling for Clinton's resignation and trumpeting their own family-values bona fides. Strategists in both parties say that politicians who have consistently and (gasp!) genuinely spoken from the heart on crucial issues--people like Republicans John Kasich and John McCain or Democrat Bob Kerrey--may take on added luster if only because no one ever has to wonder if they mean what they say.
Less original politicians will no doubt adopt the natural look too. "Candidates are going to appear to be straight-shooting," says Sheinkopf, "but they'll be more scripted than ever. They'll be programmed to seem spontaneous."
If a Gary Cooperish gift for plain talk does become the new standard, some impeccable people will find themselves hard-pressed to compete. Former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, who has been weighing a long-shot run for the Democratic nomination, generally says what he means--but he does so in a manner that may be too nuanced for the new model, given his affinity for ponderous, three-part answers.
Other politicians are better positioned for the new era. Texas Governor George W. Bush, a highly touted early horse for the G.O.P. nomination, is field-testing his pitch in a shoo-in re-election campaign this year. In a new television commercial, the Governor tells the camera, "I believe in accountability and responsibility. For too long we've encouraged a culture that says, 'If it feels good, do it, and blame somebody else if you've got a problem.'" Bush strategist Karl Rove says the spot was written before Clinton's television address blaming Ken Starr for his problems. But it is the kind of straight-talkin' ad Americans will probably be watching for years to come. American politicians aren't all going to turn into Jimmy Stewarts. But they'll happily play him on TV.
Some of the apparently genuine, plain-spoken politicians now being hyped for 2000 happen to have complicated pasts, and might fail a litmus test that requires candidates to be free of all past extramarital affairs. Although the public seems to be holding to the idea that politicians deserve a zone of privacy shielded from public view--66% of those questioned in a new TIME/CNN poll said they would vote for a candidate in 2000 even if he or she had been unfaithful--there's no sign the media are ready to give up their preoccupation with sexual conduct. "The press is going to inspect every candidate's private life intensely the next time around," says Herb Weisberg, a professor of political science at Ohio State University. "I would assume that several potential candidates will decide they don't want to put themselves through that." New York University professor Todd Gitlin predicts that the issue will arise long before the primaries, when protocandidates are trying to make themselves look viable. "If the pundits can make merry with comparisons to Clinton," Gitlin says, "this is probably very bad news for a potential candidate."
Can the media find their way back to a more restrained standard for when private conduct matters? For years the working notion has been that while an affair isn't news, a pattern of affairs and evasions may point to a recklessness that is important enough to report. If time passes and a majority of Americans continue to support the notion that Clinton's Oval Office liaisons are "nobody's business," however, it will be a clear invitation for the media to back off. But in the hypercompetitive news business, no one's handing out merit badges for restraint.
--With reporting by Andrea Sachs/New York and Elaine Shannon/Washington