The Tipper effect
The Vice President's wife has lent his campaign a human touch and fiddled a bit under the hood
By Michael Duffy/Washington
Washington is a town that loves a whodunit, and last week's mystery had it all--whispers, desperation, even reincarnation. Just who was it that prodded the starchy and straight-laced Al Gore to pluck, of all people, Tony Coelho, an affable and genuinely scandalous party veteran, to seize control of the shaky Gore presidential campaign? Was it Bill Clinton, as restless as a sidelined Michael Jordan during play-off season, who had been muttering quietly to just about everyone for weeks that his buddy Al's campaign was a mess? Was it the President's killer fund raiser and old Coelho protege, Terry McAuliffe, who fretted daily into his cell phone about the way things were going? Or, wait--maybe it was Dick Gephardt, another Coelho friend, with whom Gore has suddenly become comrades-in-arms again after a nasty Ten Years War? Surely the Speaker-in-waiting knew that Gore needed a shove, and fast--right?
The choices were almost too rich to pick from, and if you believe the Gore folks, all were off target. While each man played some part in getting the Vice President to bring Coelho aboard, Gore aides say the pivotal role belonged to the one person no one suspected--Gore's wife Tipper. Several campaign aides described Tipper as the godmother of the shuffle, the biggest fan of the deal. One added that Tipper, far more than the half-dozen bickering guys in Gore's inner circle, "knew there had to be some help in here. Somebody was needed to knock some heads."
Could this be true? Tipper Gore, fun-loving Tipper Gore, is really the secret mastermind at Gore headquarters? It was a bit hard to believe, but it at least had the virtue of being consistent with recent history. Like Hillary Clinton, who worked quietly behind the scenes to bring Dick Morris back from exile so he could rescue her struggling husband in 1994, Tipper hasn't been shy about telling her husband to snap out of it. And Tipper has been doing more than fixing things inside the Gore operation; she's also been fixing things on the outside. Just when Gore seemed to be running out of steam on the stump, Tipper has been pretty much everywhere, talking about Littleton on Larry King Live, acknowledging to USA Today and the Wall Street Journal that she has suffered from depression, traveling around the country to push mental-health reform. If it didn't have the look and feel of a campaign rollout, it certainly had the desired effect. Her depression admission--and the simple fact that she talks like a mom and not like a pol--added a human dimension to a campaign that often doesn't seem to have any.
Of course, just having something warm running through her veins may be one reason Tipper, and not Al, had to be the one tagged with bringing the cold-blooded Coelho aboard. Coelho, after all, is a ferocious partisan, who took no prisoners in the Reagan years and resigned from Congress in 1989 rather than face questions about how he came to purchase on favorable terms a $100,000 junk bond from a Democratic donor. Gore is stalked by campaign-finance ghosts of his own, and so it will look a bit better if Coelho turns out to be Tipper's idea and not his.
Al's first choice for the job was not Coelho, but the totally unobjectionable Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, who turned it down. When the story of the Coelho pick emerged, it came with its own Lifetime Television Network plot line: Coelho, who suffers from epilepsy and chairs the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, said he was so moved by Tipper's admission of depression that he decided to take the job. In any case, the deal was sealed when Gore, his wife and Coelho all met for two hours last Saturday at the Vice President's house. At that session, Tipper had one thing on her mind. She wanted to make sure that Coelho would really throw himself into the job so Al could concentrate on connecting with voters.
That will be a challenge, because until now, Gore seems to have been concentrating on practically everything else. Just when Bill Bradley, his only rival for the Democratic nomination, began gaining on him in the polls, the Veep became obsessed with bugs in his online- campaign Web page, www.AlGore2000.com. It took advisers a while to get him to move on to something else. But even then, he insisted on a controlling interest in a half-dozen other parts of the campaign operation, and the overall effect approached what several described as gridlock. Coelho is supposed to fix that.
How will we know if he does? That's where Clinton comes in. After carping so loudly about the Gore campaign that it became a story itself, Clinton called the New York Times last week to admit his fears had passed. "I have told him to go out and have a good time," Clinton said, as if anyone needed to be reminded that the Vice President has trouble relaxing in public.
Gore's team is at least complete. He now has Coelho to make the trains run on time and Clinton to handle the press.
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Cover Date: May 24, 1999
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