The Veep who became a very VIP: US vice-presidents play second fiddle - but not Al Gore. Foreign policy is Clinton's weak spot - but not Al Gore's

THE second most powerful position in the land - or, as one former incumbent bitterly described it, a 'pitcher of warm piss'? The vice-presidency of the United States is not a job necessarily replete with political reward. (Ask Dan Quayle.) But, for Al Gore, the position is proving surprisingly sweet.

From the start of this administration, it was obvious that Gore, as number two, was going to play more than a ceremonial role. Now his status as the most influential Veep in modern American history has been reaffirmed. Without bally-hoo or formal announcement he has been drafted to help in an area where the President is at his most vulnerable: foreign affairs.

Suddenly, Gore is everywhere. Last week, he was seen announcing a private sector development programme for the West Bank, consulting with seven Central American presidents and travelling to Mexico City to announce, after talks with President Salinas, the convening next year of a pan- American summit. At the end of this week he departs for Moscow. And all this when he is already deeply engaged in the President's domestic agenda. The Russian trip is drawing particular attention. Although arranged several weeks ago to pin down plans for co-operation in space, Gore's arrival in Moscow, just as the results come in from next weekend's elections, will inevitably be seen as a gesture of support for Boris Yeltsin. The visit could have been postponed until less politically sensitive times.

'If he was going to Moscow and Mexico for funerals then he would be acting as the traditional vice-president,' says Mark Siegel, a Washington Democratic consultant who helped Gore in his first Senate election. 'But he is going to those places to make policy, and that is very different.'

The propulsion of Gore to the front bench of foreign affairs is noteworthy on several fronts. It is an acknowledgement that the existing team - Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Tony Lake and Defense Secretary Les Aspin - has not been serving the President well (some would put it less politely). It underscores the growing stature of Gore, already a certainty for a future presidential candidacy. And it tells much about the quality of his relationship with Clinton.

This is not the same Gore who flunked his 1988 attempt at the Democratic nomination and earned a reputation as a wooden, over-earnest bore. His evolution, political and personal, can be traced to that failure, but also to the near-death of his six-year-old son, Albert III, after being hit by a car in Baltimore in 1989. He has admitted that the experience - his son has since recovered - enabled him to put his public persona into a less obsessive context. 'It changed my life,' he said in a US News and World Report profile, tellingly entitled 'The New Age of Al Gore'.

Some of the swottiness does persist. His authorship of a book appealing for global environmental responsibility, Earth in the Balance, published last year, has earned him the nickname Ozone Man. And he still projects that tailor's-dummy quality when he appears in public with the President, always hanging two steps behind and wearing a ham-actor look of seriousness and deference.

But in his partnership with Clinton, there is a sense of a Gore liberated. He tried to prove the point with an appearance on the late-night David Letterman show in September to coincide with the launch of his own campaign to streamline - or 'reinvent' - American government.

To demonstrate the government's required method of safety-testing an ashtray, or 'ash receiver, tobacco (desk type)', he smashed one with a hammer. He also offered his top ten favourite things about being Vice-President, including 'getting to eat all the french fries the President can't eat'.

By all accounts, Gore's relationship with the President is exceptional. The clash of egos that might have been expected seems to have been avoided so far. It helps that the two are peers in intellect and age (Gore is 45, Clinton 47). According to White House insiders, he alone is able to tease the President to defuse moments of tension.

This easy camaraderie apparently extends to the pair's respective staffs. In White Houses past, those under the vice-president have definitely been second-class citizens; but no such demarcation exists in this one. One observer was amazed at a recent event in Virginia, attended by Clinton and Gore, to witness officials on the Vice-President's staff actually telling Clinton's people what to do - something unheard of in all previous administrations.

Most significant of all is the degree to which the President is said to rely on Gore's judgement on almost any political call. 'Increasingly other people, at the White House and in the State Department, say he will always ask, 'What does Al think?' before making a decision,' one insider reports.

To the President, a Washington neophyte, Gore's particular value has been his 16 years on Capitol Hill as a representative and later a senator of his home state, Tennessee.

Gore's standing was boosted most dramatically three weeks ago when he took on Ross Perot in a live television debate about the virtues of Nafta, the North American Free Trade Agreement, linking the US, Canada and Mexico. The consensus was that Gore trounced Perot; then he won a large slice of the credit for the subsequent passage of the treaty in Congress. It was at that time that the option of Gore becoming more deeply involved in foreign affairs was mooted.

The change is part of a wider attempt by the administration to improve foreign affairs management without actually conceding, amid widespread criticism, that its record has been, at best, uneven.

The criticism focuses especially on the stop-go approaches to Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti. There is also an impression that Clinton finds international relations vaguely tiresome. Other tinkerings include designation of a single official to co-ordinate responses to each crisis as it emerges, and an agreement by Clinton that he will spend one hour a week - one hour - discussing world affairs with his foreign policy circle (a commitment he is already failing to honour).

So far there has been only one victim of the review: Christopher's deputy, Clifton Wharton, who resigned after being asked to take a lesser role.

Anxious to pre-empt any notion that Gore's elevation implies a shake-up either of staff - it was apparently made with Christopher's full acquiescence - or of policy, a White House official insisted: 'There is no re-evaluation of foreign policy priorities.' But he went on: 'There is an admission that things could be handled better in policy execution and communication as they unfold.'

Gore's key role, therefore, will be to act as Clinton's front man on foreign affairs, especially when crises arise. He has ample foreign policy experience, gained particularly during eight years in the Senate, and has always been involved to some degree in the administration's international agenda, especially on Bosnia. (His foreign policy adviser, Leon Fuerth, has a seat on the National Security Council, unprecedented in a White House hierarchy.)

Above all, Gore is considered the only personal available to fight the President's foreign policy corner on television. Lake has no taste for public table-thumping, and Christopher is little more riveting on television than a test card.

In a town where power is defined by the proximity of a person to the President, Gore is emerging as a formidable figure indeed. Though he may still run third in the White House, behind Hillary Rodham Clinton, her range of policy interests is much more narrow.

Few can doubt that the Vice-President will be a contender for the Democratic mantle in 2000, whether or not Clinton wins a second term. But then, nothing can be taken for granted. Walter Mondale was an influential vice-president, too, under Jimmy Carter. And his eventual reward? To be Clinton's envoy in Japan almost a decade and a half later.

(Photograph omitted)

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