Mr Clean mucks up

US Vice President Al Gore was seen as dull but decent - until revelations about fundraising methods shattered his carefully cultivated image
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The Independent Online
There wasn't a dry Kleenex in the house after Al Gore's speech to the Democratic National Convention at the Chicago Bulls' basketball stadium last August. The Vice President, who was making an undeclared pitch for the party's presidential nomination in the year 2000, had narrated in excruciating detail the tragedy of his older sister, Nancy.

Nancy began smoking at the age of 13 and died of lung cancer 30 years later. Her family, at her bedside to the last, tried to persuade her to quit but she just couldn't. "Until I draw my last breath," thundered Al Gore, "I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking."

Among the delegates the consensus was clear. Mr Gore's heart-wrenching homily had shattered the conventional view that he was dull and lifeless, unable to reach out and feel others' pain. He had established his credentials as the "good father" figure Americans tell pollsters they like their commander- in-chief to cut.

To a few of us in Chicago there were, however, a couple of ironies. First, the Chicago convention was generously sponsored by Philip Morris, the tobacco conglomerate. Challenged by reporters to explain the apparent contradiction, Mr Gore replied, with a wave of the hand: "I think that ought to be reviewed."

The second irony was the apparently gross hypocrisy of a statement he had made to tobacco farmers in North Carolina in 1988, four years after his sister's death, while seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. "Throughout most of my life, I raised tobacco," he boasted. "I've hoed it. I've chopped it. I've shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and sold it."

So we asked: what was that all about, Mr Vice President? "It takes time to fully absorb the most important lessons in life," he soothed. "Sometimes a new awareness, a new way of thinking, begins slowly and you grow into it."

AN AWARENESS is now beginning that Mr Gore is not the nice guy the voters thought he was. He has portrayed himself successfully as Mr Clean, untainted by the dubious land deals, "bimbo eruptions" and election campaign money- grubbing of his boss. Tall and handsome in a Clark Kentish sort of way, he is blessed with an attractive wife, Tipper, free of the hard intelligence and ambitious single-mindedness that American men find so threatening in Hillary Clinton. No doubt about it: Mr Gore was a thoughtful, decent man whose only deviation from the centrist norm was a passion for the environment expressed most vividly by his concern for the survival of the spotted owl.

He seemed to have only one failing, and that was his robotic demeanour. But he had been learning to overcome nature's deficiencies by following the self-deprecating example of the master illusionist Ronald Reagan. President Reagan told jokes about his age; Mr Gore tells jokes about his reputation for dullness. Here's one of his favourite ice-breakers from last year's election campaign: "How can you tell Al Gore from his Secret Service agents? Gore's the stiff one."

Until this month, the stiffs also included those Democrats who secretly entertained notions of defeating Gore in the party's presidential primaries three years from now. The man who changed all that was Bob Woodward, the celebrated Washington Post reporter who broke the Watergate scandal. After four months of investigation and more than 100 interviews, Woodward discovered that Mr Gore was playing the role of Mr Clinton's bully boy in the contest that goes on in the shadow of every American election: which candidate can raise the most money to spend on TV commercials, polls, focus groups, top-notch strategists? The president refused to stoop to directly requesting campaign contributions, but Gore proved a zealous understudy.

The Vice President worked the phones like a man possessed, touching wealthy donors for large amounts of money. He worked from Democratic Party headquarters and the White House. That is controversial, for it is illegal to seek party political funds inside federal government buildings. Democratic Party officials described him as the administration's "solicitor in chief". Donors whom he pumped for cash variously described the experience as "awkward", "revolting" and "a shakedown".

Too embarrassed and overawed to say no to the Vice President, they experienced the added anxiety of suspecting that a refusal might have a detrimental effect on businesses relying on the co-operation of the federal government.

Sometimes Mr Gore tried a subtle approach. He might, for example, phone a donor to thank him for a contribution, while leaving hanging in the air the possibility that he might wish to contribute more. In 1995 DSC, a Texas-based telecommunications company, was engaged in a three-way bidding battle against foreign competitors for a $36m (pounds 23m) contract to supply Mexico's national telephone company. One of Mr Gore's assistant fundraisers persuaded the federal government to apply pressure in Mexico to give the contract to DSC. The quid pro quo was a "thank you" gesture from DSC of $125,000 to the Democratic Party. Gore then called the chairman of DSC to express his thanks on behalf of the party.

These revelations seemed to pose such a threat to his presidential ambitions that Gore called a press conference at the White House. If damage control was the idea, it backfired badly. Right hand on heart, left on the lectern, he said that, yes, he used a White House phone to solicit donations, but he had scrupulously charged his calls to a non-White House credit card. His lawyer had assured him that he had not violated the law. What was more, he was proud of what he had done, for he had played his part manfully in keeping Americans safe for another four years from Republican rule. None the less, he promised never to do it again.

Had he known that he would be caught, he might also have chosen his friends more carefully. According to the latest revelations, one of his oldest political associates, a professional fundraiser named Nathan Landow, had tried to fleece a tribe of impoverished Indians as well as the usual corporate targets.

The Cheyenne-Arapaho tribe, based in Oklahoma, have a fund which is normally used to help tribal members who have difficulty paying hospital and utility bills. But last year the tribal elders dug deep into these savings to contribute $107,000 dollars to the Democratic cause. They were led to believe they were making an investment: in exchange for the donation, they would enlist the government's support for a long-standing claim to 7,500 acres of ancestral tribal land.

What they got instead was lunch with President Clinton at the White House. When a tribal leader complained to an associate of Mr Gore's that he had expected the Vice President to deliver a speech in Oklahoma, he was told no problem ... for the going rate of $250,000.

Last month Mr Landow made a pitch to become the Cheyenne-Arapaho's Washington lobbyist. Boasting of his White House connection, Landow told tribal leaders that if they did not give him the contract he would use his influence to ensure they never got their land back. His price was a $100,000 down- payment, a retainer of $10,000 a month and 10 per cent of income derived from the tribal land - possibly including mineral extractions - over the next 20 years. As an added incentive, Mr Landow said he would give a cut of the action to a lobbying firm run by Peter Knight, the manager of the 1996 Clinton-Gore election campaign. Such is the tribe's desperation, that, having already spent $107,000, it is contemplating accepting Mr Landow's offer.

WHILE these sordid tales are routine on Capitol Hill among Republicans and Democrats alike, they mean that Mr Gore's boy scout image has been extinguished for ever. Now he is just another hard-nosed Washington politician. He may not have broken the law but he is no longer the righteous White House figure who can be trusted to do the right thing.

That will not prevent him from making his run for the presidency in the year 2000. He has bided his time too long to pull up at the final hurdle. But his rivals will be far better armed to question his moral authority than they were only a month ago. Gore will seek to draw their sting by joining the President in an expedient clamour for reform of the campaign finance laws. He says the absence of such laws left him with no option but to join the race for the dirty money.

He can also say that no Washington politician is without sin. Despite the recent accumulation of scandal the majority leader in the Senate, Trent Lott, is firmly against the campaign finance reform bill now in Congress. Its explicit purpose is to revive American democracy by curtailing the political influence of wealthy donors. Trent Lott is being touted as the next Republican presidential candidate.

Most Republicans agree with Mr Lott. To do otherwise would be to violate the sacred right to free speech entrenched in the First Amendment, not to mention the duty of US citizens to worship at the altar of the free market. As Mr Lott explained to Republican loyalists at a fundraiser in Florida recently, making $100,000 contributions to politicians is "the American way".

Al Gore would have to say amen to that. He may know in his heart he ought to stop grubbing for money, but, like his poor sister, he just can't quit.