Vice President Al Gore has said that he's treating his recent missteps and bad press as lessons learned early enough to help him before 2000.
The same is true for members of his staff, who have been forced to learn the hard way that small mistakes are magnified many times when the political stakes are high. Although some Gore staffers were jolted to find Campaign 2000 thrust upon them so early, they are fine-tuning their performance.
"People have to be more aware now of the arena we're in. Right or wrong, this is it," said Lorraine Voles, Gore's communications director. "Now the whole staff seems to be more cautious."
Although Gore has not blamed his bruised reputation on anyone but himself, members of his staff alternate between mea culpas and fiery defenses. They know they have contributed to his stumbles, but resent the fact that the national media are already focused on a presidential election that is more than two years away. Even so, they are making changes to ensure the Vice President doesn't lose his political footing.
According to Gore's closest allies, the flaps over fund raising and his recent performance in China are exceptions in a nearly unblemished tenure as Vice President. But the miscues raise questions about Gore's political instincts and suggest weaknesses in his operations, experts said.
"Some of Gore's problems come from being Vice President, and some come from being Al Gore," said Michael Nelson, a political science professor at Rhodes College in Memphis and an authority on the vice presidency. "A more skillful politician might have paid a smaller price than Al Gore."
Some Gore aides want him to set a blistering early pace for 2000. "He has a larger lead over his potential Democratic Party rivals than any person at this stage of the process in modern history," boasts Ronald A. Klain, Gore's chief of staff. "He is, for better or worse, the acknowledged front-runner, the incumbent Vice President, and that means there's going to be a lot of focus on him."
Other aides want to keep Gore in the vice presidential cocoon a little bit longer. "We're just trying [with the media] to go back to the spot where we always thought he should be, which is someone who has not made a decision about 2000, [who] may have challengers in 2000 if he decides he's going to run as well, but nothing's inevitable," Gore's press secretary Ginny Terzano said.
Gore's critics charge that his image began to fray when he used his sister's cancer death to deliver an anti-tobacco message at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. He and his advisers later came to regret their decision to drop an admission that Gore had continued to profit from tobacco grown on the family farm for years after his sister's 1984 death.
The controversy caused by Gore's appearance as the featured speaker at the April 1996 fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles came as a surprise to the staff. The Vice President, current and former Gore aides argue, had no prior knowledge that it was an event at which Democratic Party funds were to be raised, even though White House documents now show that members of Gore's national security staff were cautioned about attending the gathering by the National Security Council. The Administration paper trail identified Gore's longtime national security adviser, Leon Fuerth, and John Norris, a Pentagon detailee to the staff, as the aides who vetted the event beforehand.
When asked by reporters last fall whether the temple event was a fund-raiser, Gore sought clarification from his staff. Deputy chief of staff David M. Strauss, who is expected to leave Gore's office for another government post, described the gathering as a "community event" and not a fund-raiser. Gore, in increments, has retreated from this explanation. The errors resulted from "staff confusion," according to aides. Gore relied on his aides' information, Voles said, which made it look like he was skirting the truth. "It was a pretty innocent answer, and it turned into a huge blast because it wasn't the most correct answer you could give," she said.
Earlier this spring, reporters confronted the Vice President with additional questions about fund-raising calls he made from his office to prospective donors of "soft money." Some experts have questioned why nobody on Gore's staff warned him about the impropriety of conducting telephone solicitations from his office. But Gore's defenders point out that none of the brightest minds working for President Clinton appeared to question the practice either.
Gore's troubles worsened after he decided March 3--following an intense day of behind-the-scenes consultations--to defend himself with a hastily organized news conference in the White House briefing room. Many of his aides advised against the news conference, arguing that there were higher-percentage, lower-risk ways to communicate his defense.
"Quite frankly, a lot of us wanted a much more cautious approach, but he felt very strongly that he wanted to get his side of the story out," Voles recalls. Gore, unused to the ethics hot seat and certain he had done nothing wrong, came across as defensive and unrepentant.
"I was worried when the press conference hit, because I wasn't sure he was willing or able to deal with the consequences of people questioning his integrity, and you have to be, because it's going to happen," said Raymond D. Strother, a Democratic media consultant who has worked for Gore.
Before he decided to defend himself in public, aides said, Gore first talked with the President. Gore also consulted with Klain (who was ill at home); Voles and Terzano; Charles Burson, counsel to the Vice President; Democratic media consultant Robert D. Squier, who is a close friend; Rahm Emanuel, a senior adviser to the President; deputy White House chief of staff John D. Podesta; and White House press secretary Michael D. McCurry. The result was Gore's awkward insistence--noted not once, but seven times in 24 minutes--that there was "no controlling legal authority" that ruled his solicitations from the White House illegal.
The Vice President and his staff, monitoring early news accounts, initially contended that he had made the best of a difficult situation. But their spirits sank within a day or two as political pundits weighed in with negative verdicts.
Clinton had seemed pleased with Gore's performance, according to a senior White House official who saw the President put his arm around Gore as he left the briefing room. "The President came out of the Oval Office and said, `I watched it and you did great; it was the right thing to do,'" the official remembers. Although Gore's poll ratings initially fell, a survey in early May by the Associated Press found only a minority of Americans believed Gore had illegally sought campaign money.
Stung at home, Gore set off in March for Beijing, a trip his staff envisioned would showcase the Administration's economic and environmental policies and enhance Gore's political prospects. With the clarity of hindsight, his aides now concede that they did not do enough to prepare for the political and public relations dimensions of a trip that was marked by Gore's reluctant--and unplanned--champagne toast with Li Peng, the architect of the Tiananmen Square student massacre. Terzano and Fuerth, who traveled to China with Gore, said the policy elements of the trip were largely ignored by a politically fixated U.S. press corps.
Fuerth has worked for Gore for 15 years and is considered by current and former colleagues to be an experienced manager of the Vice President's foreign policy portfolio. He has prepped Gore for the 26 foreign trips they have made since 1993. But Fuerth readily concedes he is press-shy and perhaps politically naive. He is trying to recover from the China drubbing (and scathing commentary mentioning him by name in The New York Times and The Washington Post) by reaching out to reporters and seeking advice from his more media-savvy colleagues. "It's not that I rejected the press, it's that I had a philosophy about whether or not it was my place to be in the press, and my view was that I shouldn't be," Fuerth said.
While Fuerth tries to step out of the shadows, and Klain contemplates getting a new deputy, Voles said Gore's staff is trying to be more vigilant.
"There have been some new procedures put in place so we vet things more carefully--people he meets with, events he goes to and how business is conducted," she added. "We're just trying to be more aware." And for the communications shop, that means reporters are not getting answers until Gore's staffers are certain they are right, even if a delay is the result. It hasn't helped that Voles has been on maternity leave for two months and will not be back full-time until the end of June.
One of the criticisms of the Vice President's staff, both inside and outside the White House, is that Gore has some real stars on his team, but not enough of them. "They may be a little thin, trying to do as much as they're trying to do," a top Clinton aide said. "No matter how good anybody is, usually you need a few people who will knock things off. If you have five smart people together talking, they kind of cancel out their weak parts."
Klain and other top Gore advisers have tried to expand a vice presidential staff voluntarily capped at 21 people by moving Gore loyalists into jobs on the President's ledger whenever possible. They see this as broadening the Gore network, even if the temporary downside is staff turnover.
For instance, the Vice President just reorganized his scheduling and advance team and announced the arrival of Maurice Daniel, former chief of staff to Rep. Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., as his new political director. Karen Skelton, who formerly held that job, is deputy director for political affairs for Clinton. Thurgood Marshall Jr., former head of legislative affairs for Gore, is now the President's Cabinet secretary. Frederick P. DuVal, former campaign director for Gore, is now a deputy for intergovernmental affairs for Clinton while also protecting the Vice President's interests among mayors and others. Gore friend and former Democratic National Committee vice chairwoman Lynn Cutler also joined the West Wing as a deputy for intergovernmental affairs with a focus on state and local officials.
Gore's network also includes longtime staffers who have returned to the private sector, such as John M. (Jack) Quinn, who became counsel to the President after moving from the Vice President's office; Roy M. Neel, a former Gore chief of staff who is president and chairman of the U.S. Telephone Association; Washington lobbyist Peter S. Knight, a former Senate aide who managed the Clinton-Gore '96 campaign; Marla E. Romash, a former Gore communications director who started her own public relations firm; and Greg Simon, Gore's former chief domestic policy adviser, who now has his own business consulting shop.
In July, Gore will lose senior policy adviser Elaine C. Kamarck--coordinator of his high-profile reinventing government efforts--to Harvard University.
The churning of Gore staffers has probably contributed to some stumbles, his senior aides concede, but new talent and fresh energy are offsetting benefits. Their hope is that Gore and the staff have put their mistakes behind them. "In this town, a week is a lifetime," Voles said. "We've just absorbed it, learned from it, and we're moving on."