Out of the West: Loyal trooper stands ready to take the lead

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WASHINGTON - With his ramrod Guards Officer stance and that maddeningly inscrutable gaze, it's always hard to tell with the junior Senator from Tennessee. But watch him closely these days, and every so often a smirk of satisfaction seems to flicker across those impassive features. Maybe it's one's imagination - then again, maybe not. Al Gore already seems to know he'll be a Vice-President with a difference.

Much is intriguing about the emerging Democratic administration. Bill Clinton promised it would 'look like America' and, with about half the top appointments made, a Census Bureau population model would be pressed to come up with a better cross-section: seven men, one of them black, and four women. In the days ahead, no one doubts there will be more women, perhaps another black and certainly one Hispanic. Their backgrounds too are a classic mix of Friends of Bill, of liberals and moderates and 'new thinkers'; a calculated pot-pourri of Washington, Wall Street and university campus - not to mention down-home Arkansas, in the person of Mack McLarty, Clinton's friend since kindergarten days, and from January next his White House Chief of Staff. Then of course there is Hillary, whose future role has kept the columnists in speculative clover for weeks.

But nothing fascinates more than the part Al Gore will play in proceedings. 'Team spirit' is the watchword of the hour in Little Rock. But as sure as night follows day the Clinton team, like its every predecessor, will have its feuds, personality clashes and turf battles. The vice-presidency is notoriously the most awkward job in town. Even good relations with the boss do not guarantee happiness. 'That damned White House staff cut me off at the knees,' Nelson Rockefeller once complained of his efforts to help Gerald Ford.

Four decades before, John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt's first vice-president, had famously described his activities as 'not worth a bucket of warm spit'. Now, of course, the attractions have grown. Of the last nine vice-presidents, four made it to the top. Two more were unsuccessful candidates for the White House. But with the arguable exception of Walter Mondale under Jimmy Carter, almost every one had patiently to till his patch in the shadows. With Al Gore, the office could be reshaped.

Already, no vice-president-to- be has been granted such prominence. Ever since that hugely successful bus tour immediately after last summer's convention in New York, Mr Gore has been at Mr Clinton's shoulder. Not once, if I remember rightly, did George Bush campaign with Dan Quayle; for the Democrats, the double- act was a constant winner. Since 3 November, Al Gore has hardly strayed from the action in Little Rock. Both he and his senior aide, Roy Neel, are in the six- man group which has been picking the future cabinet. 'Senator Gore and I . . .' is Bill Clinton's standard opening phrase at each announcement; and on each occasion the good Senator makes a statement of his own. At this week's economic talk-in, he was quizzing speakers scarcely less forcefully than his boss. In short, Al Gore is seen, heard and listened to - so much so indeed that he was obliged to deny last weekend he had the right of veto over every cabinet nominee. Imagine Dan Quayle doing that.

True, appearances can be nowhere more deceptive than at the apex of power in Washington. The constitution defines neither the powers nor the duties of the vice-president. Apart from a regular weekly lunch at the White House, those quadrennial promises from a president-elect of 'partnership' with their running- mates tend to be mostly honoured in the breach. Not long ago a vice-president might expect some modest spoils of victory: in the case of George Bush under Ronald Reagan, a free hand over Commerce Department nominations, but little more. Not this time, however. Bill Clinton will be in charge, but the phrase 'Clinton-Gore administration' looks as if it will mean just that.

And thereafter? The most striking recent pointers come from where you would least expect it. Bill Clinton may have won the election by blaming all America's ills on Ronald Reagan, and the excesses of the 1980s over which he indolently presided. Barely had he been elected however and he was knocking on Reagan's office door in Los Angeles to seek advice. The collegial style of government to which he aspires, and the focus on a few priority goals for those early months when a president's authority is greatest, are quintessential Reagan. And Al Gore too can draw encouragement from the precedent.

Throughout most of the 1980s, it was George Bush who loyally served out his time, waiting for his own chance. Guards Officer Gore may be a loyal trooper, but he can also do his sums. Two successful Clinton terms, and come the year 2000 the understudy will be perfectly placed to take over the lead.