Two Men on a (Vice) Presidential Mission
Gore Is Right-Hand Man - and Then Some
In a scrapbook from Vice President Al Gore's first term, there would certainly be mementos from the frivolous moments that have defined a job once called as important as a "bucket of spit."
But unlike vice presidents such as William R. King - who was so nonessential to President Franklin Pierce that he remained outside the country trying to recuperate from an illness during his entire tenure - Mr. Gore has chalked up a list of accomplishments that in the past were completely outside the realm of a vice president.
As the country's second-in-command, Gore has led a high-profile effort to slash government jobs. He has been one of the administration's chief architects of environmental policy, and he has promoted construction of the information superhighway from coast to coast.
These and other duties underscore what may be Gore's most lasting legacy while in office: His expansion of the vice presidency.
"Al Gore has redefined the role of a vice president," says Carol Browner, Environmental Protection Agency administrator and long-time Gore colleague. "I believe that every vice president in the future will be held to a higher standard because of what he's done."
Al Gore is widely thought to be the most powerful vice president in history. He is said to be Clinton's No. 1 adviser on all issues - from technology and the environment to welfare and foreign policy - and heads up some of the administration's top-priority initiatives. Gore's influence in the White House is seen in the dozens of administration officials he has hand-picked or has ties to, from Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt.
"Clinton has allowed Gore to be a full partner in ways that have not been truly apparent in other presidencies," says Peter Knight, manager of the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign and Congressman Gore's first chief of staff.
Until the Carter-Mondale administration set a precedent for a strong role for the vice president, the position was often viewed as insignificant. The ruling philosophy had long been that vice presidents are chosen to help balance a ticket and improve chances for getting elected. But because vice presidents often had ideologies and temperaments so different from the presidents', they were usually relegated to near obscurity while in office.
Bill Clinton's break with that philosophy in 1992 - when he settled on a fellow Southern moderate - signaled a new approach. "It was clear from the beginning that this was going to be a different kind of ticket," says Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council, which represents the Democratic Party's moderate wing.
Mr. Clinton's vision of the presidency as a partnership - and the kinship that formed between the two politicians - is what has allowed the vice president to expand his office, observers say. But Gore's standing within the administration is also the result of his own abilities, including decisiveness, discipline, and 20 years' worth of expertise and contacts gained while serving on Capitol Hill.
Gore's desire to be a politician seemed almost set at birth. He was raised in the shadow of Congress and, as a child, was fed a steady diet of power and public service. His father, Al Gore Sr., carried considerable weight as a populist Southern legislator and regularly hobnobbed with the likes of William Fulbright and John F. Kennedy. His son was literally at home in one of Washington's finest hotels and was educated in the city's prep schools.
"It's an ingrained family tradition that people who have had as many blessings as he has give something back," says James Gilliland, friend of the family and general counsel for the US Agriculture Department. "[Gore's] known that his future was as a public servant for a long time."
After a stint as an Army reporter in Vietnam, Al Gore Jr. settled in the state his father represented - Tennessee - and began work as an investigative journalist. But the call to politics was strong. In 1976, he won his father's old US House seat and again went to Washington. After three terms, he ran for and won a seat in the US Senate. Before even completing his first term, Gore ran for president in the Democratic primary.
According to friends, that loss was difficult for a man who's so sure he will sit in the Oval Office that his parents have a vacant wall in their home where they intend to hang his presidential pictures.
Those who work closely with Gore say he is a natural leader. He is also deeply committed to certain issues - and adheres to them more than to any political ideology. "The vice president's career has been marked by the immersion into issues important to him and the total mastery of those issues," says Mr. Knight.
Still, Gore has had to prove himself to many in the administration. Some observers say it took the election of 1994, when Congress fell to the Republicans, for Gore to be used to his full potential.
"The relationship between the two of them, it's almost a visceral thing now," says Nancy-Ann Min, associate director for health at the Office of Management and Budget, who has known Gore from his days as a legislator. In daily meetings, whatever the issue, Clinton hears proposals and immediately "looks to [Gore] to see what his reaction is," she says. "He's almost always the first one to speak. That's something you'd certainly expect on environmental issues, but an issue like health care is sort of the president's thing."
If Clinton and Gore win a second term, those close to the administration expect more of the same tight-knit working relationship. Some say Gore's role could even grow as Clinton begins to think of his legacy - and Gore starts to look at 2000.