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WASHINGTON The vice president of the United States is leaning into his desk aboard Air Force Two, licking the sticky red chicken-wing sauce off his fingertips, one digit at a time. Just like a regular guy.
In this unguarded moment, he does not look like a man who, for the past eight years, has been in charge of U.S. policy on a number of fronts. But he was.
When it came to science, technology and, most of all, the environment, Gore was much more than the man behind The Man. He was dominant.
He was all but invisible to the public a vice president's lot as he toiled behind the scenes to push an agenda that would bear his imprint, but not his name.
"You can get more done that way," Gore says matter-of-factly, between licks.
That simple remark illuminates how Gore has performed as vice president, and how he likely would behave as president.
In the areas where President Clinton gave Gore the lead, the vice president was not always a neutral broker who weighed competing alternatives and crafted deals.
He often was a leader who had an agenda and worked tirelessly behind the scenes to implement it.
A Gore White House would have at its core an intensely studious and driven man who makes decisions methodically and with little angst, but one so assured of his convictions that he sometimes strikes opponents as arrogant, self-righteous and even closed-minded.
He strives to be fair, examining all sides of an argument, but once he makes up his mind, he has little patience with dissent.
His decisions are firm and final, and when he deems it important, Gore is willing to stick his neck out in a way few politicians do. He does not back down.
"He does want to understand every facet of an issue, but when he comes down, it's much harder to change his view," said Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff under President Clinton.
"The president always keeps the door open to reconsideration, which can be good or bad. The president can wonder whether a right decision was made. The vice president generally sticks with it."
Gore, however, was so discreet in his role as presidential adviser that even environmentalists a normally supportive constituency fumed at his apparent silence three years ago when well-financed business coalitions tried to gut proposed clean-air rules that environmentalists considered life-saving and industrialists thought excessive and unjustifiable.
Dismayed by Gore's silence, the Greens thought they had lost their voice in the White House and, with it, their best chance in decades for tougher anti-pollution laws.
Now they know better.
"He used his influence in the White House to get something through that nobody thought would get done," said Daniel Weiss, the political director of the Sierra Club.
New anti-pollution rules "would not have happened without the vice president. "
"When push came to shove, there were a lot of alternatives and different members of (Clinton's) Cabinet were pushing him in different directions, and economic advisers said it would destroy the economy," said Gregory Wetstone, director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group and Gore ally.
Gore, he said, "pushed the president to go forward with the toughest of measures."
The vice president got what he wanted. But even still, one trait emerged that could cause problems in a Gore presidency.
Gore was more reluctant than Clinton to spend time with people with whom he disagreed, including members of Congress.
"The question he will have to confront is the ability to sit down sometimes with people that you don't like and hear their views as well," said Panetta, a former House member from California.
"The president was willing to talk with (Republican leaders) Newt Gingrich or Trent Lott or Jesse Helms. The vice president kind of had a little more resistance to that because he thought their basic position was wrong."
Some leaders of industry, whose power plants and factories have been targets of Gore's efforts to clean the air, felt that frosty approach.
Although the vice president says he has tried to reach out to business leaders and to balance their interests with environmental goals, some advocates of industry remain hostile to him.
"I think he's just dogmatic. He's got his view of the world, and he's not going to be persuaded by the facts," said Bill Kovacs, vice president of environmental and regulatory affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
If Gore wins, he said, "It could be a very interesting four years."
When Clinton tapped Gore to be his running mate in 1992, it was with the idea that the senator from Tennessee could fill in some gaps in Clinton's experience as governor of Arkansas.
More than any previous vice president, Gore took a leading role on the issues he knew best: science and technology, communications, community empowerment, reducing the size of government, and foreign policy.
So central was Gore to White House decisions that he "had an agreement with the president that he would get a copy of every paper the president got," said George Frampton, the head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Gore's lawyer during the 1996 campaign fund-raising scandal.
There was no subject closer to Gore's heart or more ingrained in his mind than the environment. His 1992 book, "Earth in the Balance," was one of the things that led Clinton to select him as a running mate.
"Gore impressed Clinton when they met with his argument that we don't have to trade jobs for a clean environment," said Paul Begala, who helped run Clinton's 1992 campaign and later advised him in the White House.
"And so, when they took office, there was a broad understanding that on environmental issues, the vice president would take the lead."
Clinton's top economic adviser, Gene Sperling, described Gore as no less than a "co-president" on environmental issues. "Not that it ultimately wasn't the president's call," Sperling said. "But he's so knowledgeable on this stuff that the president would often be deferential to him."
Frequently, the two leaders spoke at one-on-one lunches in the private dining room linked by a back hallway to the Oval Office. The vice president said he was not tutoring, as several of his aides suggested. "More like proselytizing," he said.
"Usually, on environmental issues, (the president) would turn to me for the last word before he signed off on it," Gore said.
Even Gore's opponents credit or blame him for setting the administration's course on such issues as air and water pollution, global warming, protecting the Everglades and preserving national parks.
"I've surely been in the trenches against him," said Fred Palmer, the head of the Western Fuels Association and the Greening Earth Society, an industry coalition that questions global warming.
"I think it's accurate to say that on environmental issues, that he has essentially been in charge of policy for the last eight years. I don't think there's any doubt of that."
Carol Browner, a longtime Gore aide whom he installed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, summed up her mentor's internal influence this
way: "He is the environment in this administration."
There is no clearer example of Gore's influence than the drama that played out beginning in late 1996, when the administration entered one of the most hotly contentious debates of Clinton's two terms.
Browner, while conducting a periodic reassessment of the 1970 Clean Air Act, found scientific evidence of health problems that she thought demonstrated the need for more stringent soot and smog regulations.
Business lobbies mobilized against her proposed rules with a multimillion-dollar campaign spearheaded by C. Boyden Gray, who had been former President Bush's White House counsel.
"A lot of money was spent. A big effort was made. This was a big deal. The opposition, especially in the House, was bipartisan," said Gray, who also was president of Citizens for a Sound Economy, a conservative research and advocacy group.
Business advocates argued that the costs of meeting the proposed standards outweighed the health benefits, and that the EPA did not have the authority to make the changes.
They "launched one of the most fierce corporate lobbying attacks I've ever seen," said Frank O'Donnell, the executive director of the Clean Air Trust, an environmental group.
Clinton's own economic advisers shared the business world's concerns they were fearful that Browner's plan would cost industry so much that it would endanger the nation's economic boom.
Clinton's political advisers joined forces with the economic team to modify or kill Browner's plan.
"Our sense was that this was an extraordinarily significant decision and would have implications for the economy, so we wanted to structure it, if possible, in a way that would minimize whatever adverse effect there would be on the economy," said Sally Katzen, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
At the time, she headed the OMB office that reviewed all proposed rules.
Gore and Clinton did not participate in most of the meetings with Cabinet members and White House aides. But Katzen and other staffers said they never had to ask where the vice president stood.
Outside public view, Gore directed economic adviser Sperling and Katie McGinty, then head of the Council on Environmental Quality, to find a way for the president to adopt the stiffer standards without unduly burdening industry by, for instance, providing businesses more time to reduce pollution.
He sought tactical compromises, but he did not moderate his goal: adoption of rules that would clean the air to EPA's standard.
Gore challenged the economists' fears.
And he confronted environmentalists resistant to a more flexible approach. "He was both willing and had the intellectual firepower" to challenge both sides, Sperling said.
Finally, in spring 1997, decision time arrived. Sitting side-by-side in armchairs in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House living quarters, Clinton and Gore peppered Sperling and environmental advocate McGinty with questions in a 30-minute meeting.
Neither the president, with his Diet Coke, nor Gore, sipping hot tea, signaled what their conclusion would be.
Afterward, Clinton and Gore huddled privately.
Gore recommended that Clinton adopt Browner's proposal with modest changes giving cities and regions more leeway to determine how best to meet the standards.
The vice president also suggested allowing industries to trade "credits" that would permit them to pollute more in one sector and less in another, so long as the overall standards were met.
On July 25, the president announced that he would do exactly that.
Congressional critics in both parties tried to kill the rules, but failed. But the struggle is not over.
Nearly two years after Clinton announced the rules, two members of a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia blocked their enforcement, saying Congress had given the EPA too much authority.
This month, faced with heavy industry lobbying, the White House agreed with Congress to postpone until June the publication of a list of communities that have not met the new, unenforceable smog standards.
The Supreme Court has agreed to review the case, and has scheduled oral arguments for Nov. 7 the same day Gore hopes to be elected president.
Less than five months after the clean air decision, Gore did something that took even high-ranking White House aides by surprise.
As negotiations for an international treaty intended to reduce global warming stood on the brink of collapse during a conference in Kyoto, Japan, the vice president hopped on a plane to revive them.
Taking such a risk was unheard of in a White House in which most foreign appearances are carefully staged.
"Presidents and vice presidents don't show up at events unless they're completely pre-cooked," Begala said. "Usually, you don't bring in the big guns until everything is settled."
In fact, virtually all his political and economic advisers warned Gore not to go. If he came away empty-handed, they said, he might be committing political suicide.
"Pretty much everybody told him that and he said, Yeah, yeah, I'm goin'.' I think he feels that it's a core issue for him," Sperling said.
Better known for caution, Gore was so convinced of the threat of global warming and so fervent about reducing it that he was willing to risk his political future.
"One of my first lunches (with Clinton), I used a flip-up chart on global warming," Gore said in the Air Force Two interview. "Of course, you know I have a passion for communicating the gravity of that issue and trying to solve it."
Growing more and more animated as he spoke, Gore described in intricate, scientific detail a chart that traces the Earth's temperature back 260,000 years.
It is based on analysis of oxygen isotopes obtained from boring into Antarctica's crust. It presents strong evidence, he said, that the Earth's temperature is rising because of air pollution from industrial civilization.
"Almost, I would say, 95 percent of the weekly lunches I had with him over eight years included some presentation on the environment," Gore said.
Gore gave one of the most important talks of his life at Kyoto, delivering a speech he wrote during the 6,932-mile flight to Japan.
He convinced global leaders that the United States was committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In no small part because of Gore's forceful presentation, the special United Nations conference adopted a draft treaty.
But the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate had signaled that it would not ratify it, voting 95-0 in July for a non-binding resolution opposing the draft treaty because it places restrictions on industrial countries but lets big developing polluters, including India and China, delay cleanup commitments indefinitely.
Facing certain defeat on Capitol Hill, the Clinton-Gore administration has chosen not to press the issue, leaving the treaty in limbo for three years.
In response, even some environmentalists have turned on Gore.
"On global warming, Gore has been an eloquent spokesman for the problem that we have, and the need to take action," said John Passacantando, executive director of the militant environmental group Greenpeace.
"When it comes to what the Clinton-Gore administration is actually doing on global warming, it's not an exaggeration to call it abysmal."
Gore pledges to reach out to Republicans.
"I was known in my years in the House and Senate as someone who crossed the lines to build bipartisan majorities," he says.
"And the role of vice president is by nature a little more partisan because it so often turns into a good cop, bad cop routine. I want to shift back to the bipartisan approach that I prefer."
He also hopes to seek trade agreements that include environmental rules.
And he wants to place a satellite in space to take constant pictures of the Earth.
Nothing is more important to Gore than his vow to seek Senate ratification of the Kyoto treaty on global warming.
"It's a matter of priorities," he says. "Here you have a chance to help get the world on the right road to addressing the most serious environmental challenge of our lifetimes, and our children's and grandchildren's lifetimes.
"And, you know, you're not going to pass that up for some political reason. I mean, politics is a means to an end. And the end is making the world a better place.
"It's not," he says with a shake of the head, "the other way around."