The Al and Dick show
Once archrivals, Gore and Gephardt are on the verge of becoming close allies
By James Carney and Karen Tumulty
By all appearances, it was a relaxing evening, a cozy dinner for four. The hosts served filet of sole and good white wine. They gave the guests a tour of the house, a Victorian mansion on a hill, then sat them down in the living room, where they all swapped child-rearing stories and cooed over wedding albums.
But this was no ordinary dinner, no ordinary time. The date was Jan. 24, 1998, three days after an atom bomb named Monica was dropped on the capital. The hosts were Al and Tipper Gore; house Democratic leader Dick Gephardt and his wife Jane were their guests. Washington was radioactive -- the press was on a round-the-clock Clinton death watch -- and there was private tension as well. A month before, Gephardt had delivered a scathing speech at Harvard, attacking Democrats who practice "the politics of small ideas" and replace compassion with "momentary calculation." Everyone knew whom he was talking about -- and now the subject of his speech had invited the Gephardts to dinner.
Gore and Gephardt had been rivals at least since their brutal sparring as also-rans in the 1988 presidential primaries and probably since the day in 1977 when they arrived in Congress as the smartest boys in a class in which all the members considered themselves most likely to succeed. Now, in challenging Gore for the 2000 nomination, Gephardt was prepared to wage nothing less than a struggle for their party's soul. All of which might have given the two plenty to talk about at dinner, except they didn't talk about any of it. Gore never brought up the Harvard speech, and no one mentioned the White House intern. The evening, Gephardt later remarked privately, "could not have been more surreal."
That's what he thought at the time. But a year later, Gore and Gephardt are on the verge of becoming the closest of allies, linking their destinies in a pact of mutually assured ambition. This week, as Gore's team quietly installs the phones and sets up desks in his new presidential campaign headquarters, nine blocks from the White House, Gephardt is expected to make a splashy announcement about his own bid -- for speaker of the House. All indications are that having set aside the dream of becoming president, the 58-year-old congressman from St. Louis, Mo., will announce his intention to stay put and pour his energies into winning the six seats needed to retake the House from the Republicans in 2000. Such is the transformational power of the Lewinsky scandal. Says a top presidential aide: "Republicans pushed Democrats into each other's arms, whether we liked it or not."
Gore has found the silver lining in Bill Clinton's scandal. Gephardt was the most threatening of half a dozen Democrats preparing to run against him, but the field has evaporated. Only Bill Bradley has announced; Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, another long shot, may join him. Other contenders -- Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska -- bowed out before getting in. Though each offers different reasons for not running, all fell victim to the same untamable force.
Call it the Monica effect. For a year, the Lewinsky imbroglio has frozen the Democratic party in place, making it impossible for any would-be candidate to position himself for the presidential campaign. "You can't pursue your long-term goals," says a Gephardt associate, "when you're smack in the middle of a 24-hour-a-day effort to keep the president and the party from going down the toilet." Never was Gephardt needed so badly as on Clinton's worst day, when the House debated the articles of impeachment and the Democratic leader implored his colleagues to "step back from the abyss." Only five Democrats defected. Later, at the White House, Gore stood up to say what many lawmakers thought: "I don't believe I have heard a finer speech on the floor of the House."
By then, their rivalry was turning into a partnership. They followed up their January 1998 dinner with private lunches in the vice president's office. The meetings were kept so far below radar that one day last summer, Clinton's chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, sent out an urgent page to the president's senior advisers: why is Gephardt at the White House? Where their staffs once fed the rivalry, the principals have begun to rely upon -- and even trust -- some of the same allies, notably Democratic uber-fund raiser Terry McAuliffe and current White House chief of staff John Podesta. It helped their new rapport that both had so much to lose in last November's midterm election. In late August, Gephardt conspicuously declared his support for Gore against renewed questions involving the vice president's 1996 fund-raising activities. At a joint campaign event in St. Louis last October, the two heaped praise on each other -- and Gore's senior aides were so solicitous that they carried the luggage for Gephardt's top people.
It was hard to miss the significance of Gore's constant declarations on the stump: "No one wants Dick Gephardt to be speaker more than I do." And no one -- with the possible exception of Gephardt -- had logged more miles, raised more money or delivered more speeches than Gore. Though Gore was never particularly popular with his colleagues when he served on Capitol Hill, he now enjoys a substantial reservoir of goodwill and gratitude. And for the first time, when Clinton saluted Gore's "visionary leadership" during last month's state of the union speech, Democrats actually cheered.
Today Gore finds himself with an almost insurmountable lead at a time when being front-runner is more important than ever. With California moving its primary to early March, New York expected to do the same, and a host of southern and western states scheduling theirs in the weeks that follow, both parties are likely to have chosen their nominees by mid-March. That means that by the Iowa caucuses in February, any credible candidate will probably need to be running field operations in 25 states and television ads in eight or 10.
Gore and Gephardt, of course, are not the only people with an interest in their mutual success. Bill and Hillary Clinton believe Gore's election is crucial to validating Clinton's presidency, especially if they also get the House back -- thus undoing the humiliating G.O.P. sweep of 1994. Clinton, an adviser says, "wants to be Gore's campaign manager, and he may have to fight Hillary for the job."
Clinton's State of the Union speech was less a blueprint for governing than a manifesto for Gore 2000, laying out differences between the parties on education standards, health care, gun control and tobacco. If there was any doubt about the imprint that Clinton will have on Gore's candidacy, it was erased when the vice president went outside his own inner circle in early December and picked as his campaign manager White Wouse political director Craig Smith, whose work on Clinton's campaigns goes back to the mid-1980s.
Clinton's influence is showing elsewhere as well. A few months ago, the president privately complained to advisers that Gore had not yet found his own voice outside his trademark issues, technology and the environment. Gore is trying to expand his reach by delving into new areas such as education and health care -- issues with which Clinton has so successfully connected with the public -- and by repackaging the causes that have long been his passion. "You go to Al Gore's strengths and talk about them in a new way, a way that's much more about bread-and-butter concerns," says a Gore adviser.
Thus Gore's environmentalism and his urban policy come together as a concern for making sprawling suburbs more livable. Since the high-tech economy that has long fascinated him is an abstract and even scary concept to most Americans, especially those who fear it will leave them behind, he talks less about "digital earth" and more about technology's potential for assisting lifelong learning, a concept he promoted at a conference in New Hampshire last fall even before he held one at the White House in January.
Whether it's the anti-Republican backlash from the scandal or a new public appreciation for Gore, something has turned his poll numbers rosier. Last fall he was trailing G.O.P. leader George W. Bush by almost 20 points in some polls; currently most polls show the vice president roughly even with the Texas governor. It can only help that while Bush and other G.O.P. contenders will spend the next 13 months in a fierce battle over the direction of their party, Gore -- thanks to Gephardt -- seems headed for a less bruising struggle.
As with any other couple, it is certain the two will again have their fights. Beneath their Monica-forged unity lie unreconciled differences over key democratic issues such as trade and welfare. But last week, as the economy posted the kind of heavenly numbers that can make their union endure, Gore and Gephardt and their wives were together again, this time in St. Louis to see off pope John Paul II. It was almost a year to the day since their first communion at the vice president's mansion. Sometimes it takes a difficult courtship to make a strong marriage.
--With reporting by Jay Branegan/Washington
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Cover Date: February 8, 1998
Fasten your seat belts
Older and wiser, Monica returns
Driven to distraction
The year of living foolishly