Testing times facing the enigma that is Al Gore
The vice-president faces a probe over campaign contributions . . . and a political watershed, writes BRUCE CLARK
The vice-president stands out among US officeholders as a deep, almost tortured, thinker with an eye for problems so fundamental that no quick fix could ever address them.
But as he knows all too well, this quality will not be enough to guide him through the travail he may soon face: a tortuous, nit-picking probe into his record as a zealous, and possibly over-zealous, collector of political donations during the 1996 election campaign.
On Friday Gore named two private lawyers to represent him - fuelling the belief that he is preparing for the long, hard wrangle that will ensue if Attorney-General Janet Reno follows up her current, preliminary probe with the appointment of an independent counsel.
It emerged over the weekend that Reno had also begun a 30-day review of fund-raising activities by Bill Clinton, raising the prospect that the president and his deputy could find themselves under long-term investigation by a special prosecutor.
The main activity under investigation - allegedly telephoning donors from federal property - hardly rates as a mortal sin, and the public has shown little interest in the issue.
But precisely because of his serious-minded, upright image, voters seem more inclined to censure Gore than they are to blame the president, who thrives on his reputation as a political Houdini.
So intellectual prowess alone will not ensure Gore the prize that until recently seemed firmly in his grasp: victory in the race to lead the US into the new millennium. In the real world of hardball politics, the 49-year-old philosopher-politician will only prevail by using the very psychological techniques that he so eloquently deplores.
That is one of the many paradoxical things about Albert Gore Junior, who shares the president's origins as a southern, centrist Democrat of the baby-boomer generation - and differs from him in important ways.
The son of a Tennessee senator, who paid a heavy political price for opposing the Vietnam war, Gore spent his childhood in Washington hotels - and inherited an old-fashioned sense of public service.
But even as he denounces mind-numbing techno-culture, he is fascinated by the liberating potential of telecommunications.
These lofty sentiments, both modern and anti-modern, co-exist with views on the touchstone questions of US politics that coincide comfortably with the demands of expediency. Gore has a record of supporting the death penalty; approving abortion in some circumstances but opposing federal funding for it; and strongly backing Israel.
Still, the vice-president is generally viewed as an conscientious figure who wrestles hard with every issue he makes his own: from a cold war hawk on defence to the environment, a cause he embraced passionately as a senator.
Unlike Clinton, Gore served in Vietnam as a reporter for an army newspaper. He broke ranks with most Democrats to make a thoughtful, memorable speech in favour of waging the Gulf war in 1991.
On the campaign trail, he displays an unlikely talent as a tub-thumper, not embarrassed about leading a crowd in chants of "No! No! No!" when the occasion demands. And although his wooden manner is often contrasted with Clinton's easy, intoxicating charm, the vice-president has a slapstick, schoolboy sense of humour that can surface unexpectedly, often at his own expense. "They opened up my leg . . . and found termites," is characteristic.
"Al Gore is what the French call an homme serieux," says Richard Holbrooke, the banker-diplomat who brokered Bosnia's peace accord and one of a close network of friends.
Unusually for a public figure, Gore prefers to "master the substance of an issue before the politics of an issue" by listening carefully to a broad range of experts, says Holbrooke. But in lighter moments, "Gore can do a mean imitation of the country singer Conway Twitty".
Gore's most important political relationship is with the president. So while Clinton poses for photo opportunities with Boris Yeltsin, the nitty-gritty of US-Russian relations has been left to Gore and Victor Chernomyrdin, the Russian prime minister and another serious-minded technocrat. And while the president proclaims that "the era of big government is over", Gore's staff have looked in detail at how private sector methods can be used in public administration.
So far, the president has fully returned his deputy's loyalty, treating Gore as his heir apparent. But the vice-president will have to move deftly if he is not to be cast, deliberately or by accident, in a less happy role: that of fall guy in a mounting campaign finance controversy.
Elaine Kamarck, until recently a senior policy adviser, argues that Gore the brooding intellectual and Gore the political tactician are perfectly compatible. Precisely because of his historical perspective, she says, Gore has a "very good sense of the possible . . . an understanding that some things have to wait for their proper time". As the 2000 presidential race draws closer, these qualities will face their hardest test. - Financial Times. Top of page