The Starr Report: Gore sees the presidency in his grasp

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The Independent Online
THE MIND goes back to a hot July day in 1992 on the lawn of the Governor's mansion in Little Rock. Bill Clinton was presenting his dream ticket, unveiling as his running mate the Tennessee Senator Al Gore. The promise seemed boundless: two of the south's brightest sons, linking their destinies to lead America into the millennium. Today, for Bill Clinton, the dream is almost dead. But, for Al Gore the office which has been his goal for two decades is almost within his grasp.

By the anti-monarchic standards of America, Al Gore was born to the purple. His pedigree was as distinguished as Bill Clinton's was not. His father had been a senator before him. The son was raised not on the family farm but in Washington DC, where he attended the elite St Alban's school before entering Harvard. He was a congressman at 28, a senator at 36, and a presidential candidate already in 1988, when he was only 39. Had he won he would have been the youngest president in history.

In stark contrast to Clinton, his image was - and despite his involvement in a fund-raising scandal, remains - purer than the driven snow. Clinton came into that year's New York convention amid allegations of infidelity and draft-dodging. In that sense, if not the geographical one, Gore was the perfect ticket balancer. He brought with him the perfect all-American family: a happy-go-lucky, effervescent wife, Tipper, and four handsome children. Indeed, it was a car accident which almost killed his son, Albert Jr, that persuaded Gore not to run in 1992.

Like Clinton he opposed the war in Vietnam. Unlike him however, he elected to serve as a reporter for the army engineering corps. Best of all, in contrast to so many presidential and vice-presidential pairings, he and Clinton hit it off from the word go.

What linked them then, and links them now, is a fascination with issues. Gore, famously, is stolid and impassive. "My, he looks so lifelike," runs the old joke about the voter first encountering him in the flesh. Where Clinton throbs with life and movement, he comes across as wooden and slow spoken. But the heavy style masks deep knowledge and burning commitment, and a political brain as sharp as Clinton's. He has tailored his causes to the times: arms control in the 1980s, then the environment, and now information technology.

The vice-presidency, famously is a thankless task, "not worth a bucket of warm spit'', in the words of one unhappy incumbent. But among the breed, Gore has exerted rare power. The influence shows not in the committees he chairs or the speeches he gives - but in his close personal relationship with the President. To Bill Clinton he has delivered utter personal loyalty.

The throne has wobbled several times in the past few years, but from Gore the support has never wavered.

In return, he is listened to. No important White House policy decision has been taken without Gore's approval. In the foreign policy field especially, he has made his presence felt.

Of late however his prestige has been sapped. Environmentalists have been upset by his refusal, or inability, to get tough with big business over emission standards. Clinton's own troubles have cast a cloud over what seemed an effortless glide to the party's nomination in 2000.

Gore has been embroiled in a fundraising scandal dating back to 1996, in which he was said to have illegally solicited donors from his White House office. The law is an anachronism, dating back to the 1880s, before phones existed. But in handling the trouble last year, he displayed himself at his worst: pedantic, humourless and evasive. There was, he repeatedly told a press conference, "no controlling legal authority" banning what he was supposed to have done. Even that master hair-splitter "Slick Willie" himself might have winced at that one.

The affair is anything but over, and just possibly a president who resigns or is impeached could be succeeded by one who quickly finds himself at the receiving end of a special prosecutor's attentions.

But Al Gore's very over-zealousness as a fundraiser is a token of his determination. Quietly but unmistakably, he is as ambitious than Bill Clinton. If something has to be done, Gore will do it - especially if that something helps nail down the prize for 2000.

In private, there is a wonderful deadpan humour, and parties at the vice presidential mansion up Massachusetts Avenue are said to be a riot.

But before a larger public audience, Gore visibly labours. He is a strong debater but a lousy communicator. He lacks the current president's unparalleled gift of catching a mood. At best, a Gore speech has a certain plodding authority, but attempts at emotion usually end in mawkishness - witness the gruesome sentimentality of his address to the 1996 convention in Chicago, using his sister's death from lung cancer to berate the tobacco industry.

But in many respects, Gore is the more instinctively presidential of the two. He is for one thing disciplined. His brainstorming sessions will end sharp at 11pm, in contrast to those rambling discussions beloved of Bill Clinton, stretching into small hours.

Of late, Clinton has become a better administrator. But in his first term, it was Gore who tended to bring meetings to a close, and to insist that decisions must be taken.

If anything too, he is more hawkish. On Bosnia in particular he favoured much tougher, and much earlier, Western action against the Bosnian Serbs. He was one of the few Democrats in Congress who supported the use of force to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

Vice-presidents who become presidents can be pleasant surprises. Muffled under Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson became one of the great domestic presidents - at least until Vietnam. Harry Truman, once regarded as a second rate machine politician from Missouri, is hailed universally for his part in shaping the post-war world.

Al Gore, southern centrist by instinct, internationalist by conviction, has the potential to reach these standards. For the world, in short, he should be a known and reassuring quantity. But there will be surprises too. Maybe he'll even get off a good joke in public.