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WASHINGTON - One day last September, Vice President Al Gore met privately with President Clinton to deliver an urgent message. Republicans on Capitol Hill, Gore said, were taking aim at the most important weapon in the war against global warming.
Gore was livid.
This was his issue, his passion, not to mention the centerpiece of his 1992 book, "Earth in the Balance." To realize his pledge to help decrease global warming, Gore was counting on huge improvements in auto and truck gas mileage. But Republicans had amended an important transportation bill to block even a study of the idea.
Veto the bill, Gore urged Clinton.
Find the votes to sustain a veto, Clinton replied. Gore tried - and failed. Most Democrats told Gore they wouldn't back him, and the president wasn't about to veto the bill just to show solidarity with Gore. And so, the Clinton-Gore legacy on global warming is something of an embarrassment: Greenhouse gases have increased significantly, among other things. And the subject has gone from being one of Gore's favorites to one that puts him on the defensive.
The global warming defeat doesn't exactly typify Gore's years at Clinton's side. He has many accomplishments he can point to, more, in fact, than most who have confronted the paradox of the vice presidency: its exalted constitutional status, yet its scant duties.
The episode does underscore the evolution of Gore, in his vice presidential years, from the idealist of "Earth in the Balance" to the "Budget in Balance" pragmatist who learned to promote achievable goals that might pass a Republican Congress.
A review of Gore's seven years and seven months as vice president shows how he has been molded by the experience, and suggests the president he might become.
Clinton has described Gore's tenure grandly, saying he is the most influential vice president in history. The reality, as described by many Gore associates, is not so simply summed up. The vice president was frequently at war within the White House, battling with young aides, and sometimes Clinton himself, until he managed to install his own choice as White House chief of staff. And failing to win the policy portfolio he wanted, Gore made do with the one he was given - leading the "Reinventing Government" effort to shrink the federal establishment - a thankless job whose benefits to taxpayers Gore seems prone to exaggerate.
Clinton also likes to say that Gore was involved in every major decision of his presidency. But this happened only after Gore tempered his intellectual pride, found middle ground, listened.
"Al Gore was not a good listener early on," said a close Gore friend, Leon E. Panetta, the longtime California congressman who served as White House budget director in 1993 and 1994 and then as chief of staff from 1994 to 1997. "It is hard to change his mind," Panetta said. "I think he learned from Clinton that no matter how deeply you feel about something, you've got to speak to those who oppose you. Bill Clinton is a damned good listener."
Gore eventually became a listener, too, but only after some painful lessons and bruising defeats. It is an essential evolution for any leader, Panetta said. "Otherwise, you are an idealist walking off a cliff."
Tamed, perhaps, by the lessons of his vice presidency, Gore has chosen to run for the White House as what he calls a "practical idealist," in the hope that the public wants a steady steward of the thriving economy and not a politician whose briefcase is bulging with idealism and dreams. Hard lessons early
Weeks after Clinton and Gore won the election of November 1992, Al Gore laid out his vision for their partnership. Meeting with the president-elect, Gore opened with an extraordinary request. He wanted to see every piece of paper that crossed Clinton's desk: every briefing paper, memo, classified report. No vice president had ever had such access, Gore believed.
Clinton, who had publicly assured Gore a full partnership, eventually agreed. He assigned John Podesta, then White House staff secretary and now chief of staff, to put two boxes in Gore's office, one each for classified and unclassified material. "He saw everything," Podesta said of Gore.
But Gore learned a hard lesson: Knowledge isn't always enough. He might have dreamed of being a virtual co-president, but the reality was that the job was already filled - by Hillary Clinton. Her emphasis on universal health care, which ended in failure, consumed much political oxygen in the White House, making it difficult for Gore to win early attention for his favorite cause, which was no less than saving the earth.
While Hillary Clinton was taking the stage on health care, Gore was suffering his first major defeat. He asked Clinton to assign him the task of revamping the welfare system. To Gore, the project was intellectually stimulating and would affect millions of families. It would also help solidify his credentials as a moderate "New Democrat."
Clinton rebuffed him.
"The president wanted welfare reform for himself," a former senior White House official said.
Gore, in a recent interview with the Globe, was more circumspect. "I argued that we should do welfare reform on a fast track and put health care reform on a four-year cycle instead of a two-year cycle because I felt we had to build a constituency for it. I'm not saying they made a wrong decision on that."
Far from gaining a leading role on a policy issue, Gore found himself fighting a war inside the White House against much of the senior staff. A cadre of young, liberal, and influential Clinton aides, led by George Stephanopoulos, were often at odds with Gore, finding him too moderate on issues ranging from the budget to welfare.
"In all those fights, George was on one side, Gore was on the other," said Bruce Reed, Clinton's domestic policy adviser, who participated in many policy brawls.
From Day One, Gore was concerned that he would be left out of important policy discussions. So he attended countless meetings, and plowed through those boxes of presidential paper.
"I wanted to be an adviser without portfolio on every issue" that Clinton faced, Gore said. "And that gave me the opportunity to sit in on every private meeting that I wished to, to have his complete confidence and trust."
Eventually Gore would understand that he needed more. When Clinton was looking for a new chief of staff in 1994, Gore saw an opportunity to push for an ally to help take on the young Turks. So the vice president called on his old friend Panetta.
Gore asked: Would Panetta be interested in becoming White House chief of staff? Panetta agreed, taking over the office in June 1994. If there is a watershed date in Gore's vice presidency, that might be it.
By that time, Gore had realized that he wasn't going to be able to meet his environmental goals. That view was solidified by Republican takeover of the House in November 1994.
Instead, Gore elected to adopt Panetta's top cause: Balance the budget. Though few saw it that way at the time, the forging of the Gore-Panetta partnership marked a turning point in the White House.
Gore became adamant that the administration could balance the budget. The view was shared by few top officials, and among the doubters was the president.
Asked how much credit he deserved for the surplus, Gore, the Internet maven, offered a joke: "One hundred percent, of course. I invented the surplus!"
More seriously, he said: "My role was behind the scenes. The truth is, I worked as a team player to use my influence as I could, which often meant quietly, which meant the internal consensus toward the necessity of balancing the budget."
Panetta was thrilled that Gore had become a convert. To the former California congressman, the vice president's lobbying of the president was a perfect way to perform an end-run on the young Turks who had been frustrating him for nearly two years. Deficit reticence
'There were times when the president was questioning whether deficit reduction was the right thing to do, whether he would pay a huge price politically for doing it," Panetta said. "The vice president, at one point, said, 'Look, this really is a moment where you have to be bold in what you do with the budget. If you fail to take this one on, ultimately you will never have the resources for the initiatives that you care about.' "
Other associates say it is difficult to decide how much credit Gore should be given for balancing the budget and reviving the economy. For example, the former Treasury secretary, Robert E. Rubin, asked whether Gore had steered the policy in a direction it might not have gone otherwise, said the question had no answer.
"There is nobody in the world who could tell you why the decision came out the way it did," Rubin said. "I don't imagine even the president could tell you. There is no way anybody could ever know how much effect each person's input had on a decision. What you can say is who was there, what role they played.
"I know he was very deeply involved," Rubin said of Gore.
In any case, in a surprise to most analysts and a boon to Gore, the government is now running a huge surplus. Emboldened by that success, Gore is running for president on a platform of eliminating the publicly held debt of $3.5 trillion, a commitment that George W. Bush has not tried to match.
It was 1993, Clinton's first spring in the White House, and he was mightily irked with Al Gore.
The vice president, he complained, was urging him to raise taxes again - specifically, an energy tax to help the environment.
Clinton was sympathetic with the goal. Gore, after all, had spent many of his weekly lunches with the president arguing that global warming must be stopped. "This is real," Gore would say, and the president believed it.
Gore became concerned about global warming as a student at Harvard University, and he eventually held hearings on the issue as a senator. By the time Clinton picked him as a running mate in 1992, it was Gore's signature issue. He proposed that by 2000, global warming gases be cut to 1990 levels.
To reach that goal, Gore called for a tax increase, variously suggesting a 50-cent-per-gallon rise or a tax on energy sources such as coal and gas. The idea was that a tax would reduce energy use and thus decrease global warming. The money raised by the tax might be spent partly on environmental initiatives.
The idea split the White House. One group, led by Stephanopoulos, was convinced that the measure would be hugely unpopular with the auto-driving public and anyone else who depends on energy. Clinton, while outwardly sympathetic to Gore, complained about the proposal in private, according to his aides.
"Throughout the spring of 1993, Clinton would vent privately that Gore was pushing him to raise taxes too much," Stephanopoulos wrote in his White House memoir, "All Too Human." (Stephanopoulos declined to speak for the record about Gore; he said he stood by his book. Eventually, the Gore energy tax was replaced with a 4.3-cents-per-gallon gas levy that, with Gore's assent, was initially used for deficit reduction. (Today, to the dismay of some environmentalists, the gas-tax revenue goes for road-building. And what of Gore's great cause, global warming? The level of greenhouse gases is about 9 percent above 1990 levels, and environmental activists worry that the administration has no concrete plan to meet Gore's goal. It is clearly Gore's great embarrassment as vice president: He went to Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 to persuade dozens of nations to agree to reduce global warming, but he failed to meet his own goal at home.
Gore now says he will make the coming 10 years the "environmental decade." And he has proposed a $200 billion program to tackle global warming. That will require a dramatic reduction in emissions from cars and trucks, and from coal-fired power plants. But Gore doesn't talk of new taxes anymore.
Gore now predicts he can meet his goal of reducing the gases to 1990 levels by 2008. But the fight could hurt him in the campaign. His effort to increase auto mileage is unpopular in the vital state of Michigan, and his pledge to crack down on coal-fired power plants could hurt him in the many coal-producing states.
Still, Gore said, if elected president, "I will do this. If folks don't want a president who is committed heart and soul to moving heaven and earth to solve this problem, then they ought to look somewhere else. But if that is what you want, that is what I want to do - and strengthen the economy at the same time." 'Reinventing government'
It was a made-for-the-cameras scene. On the White House lawn, forklift trucks were weighed down with tons of government documents. Cue to the vice president, who appeared before the media to announce to the president and the country that he would eliminate needless regulations and cut the bureaucracy.
At the time, few knew that Gore had accepted this assignment only after Clinton would not let him take on welfare reform. And even fewer knew that some of Gore's closest advisers thought he had exaggerated the potential savings of "reinventing government," also known as REGO. (Some White House aides called it "MEGO," for "My Eyes Glaze Over." One White House faction, which included Stephanopoulos, worried that Gore would use REGO to eliminate many government programs prized by liberals.
Another group doubted that Gore could come close to the promised $130 billion in savings. Panetta privately put the estimate at $30 billion.
"We had known each other for a long time and I said, 'Look, there is no way you can justify this,' " Panetta recalled telling Gore.
But Gore won out with the higher estimate, which he now says was justified.
To hear Gore tell it, REGO has been a smashing success. He says that the program has saved $136 billion. The government, Gore says, is the smallest it has been in 40 years, with 377,000 fewer employees than in 1993.
But those savings owe more to the end of the Cold War than to Gore's effort. Nearly 70 percent of the government's work-force reduction is attributable to the post-Cold War shrinkage in civilian employment at the Pentagon, according to a Brookings Institution analysis. Perhaps half of the monetary savings are the result of defense budget cuts.
"We always had a good cushion to start with," Panetta said of the defense cuts. "It is probably a mixed record."
Scott A. Hodge, director of tax and budget policy for Citizens for a Sound
Economy, a conservative group, said Gore's claims for REGO results are misleading because federal spending has gone up $390 billion, or 28 percent, since 1993.
Moreover, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found in a 1999 report that two-thirds of the savings claimed by Gore could not be verified, and that some of the savings were double-counted.
Today, REGO, now known as the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, is housed in a fancy suite of offices a block from the White House. The place is pure Gore, with high-tech designer desks and chairs, aphorisms from Gandhi on the wall ("We must be the change we want to see in the world") and a conference area that has been renamed the "creativity room." There is only one full-time employee, the director, Morley Winograd, with 40 workers on loan from various agencies, who focus on projects such as making government customer-friendly. The emphasis is on putting as much government activity as possible on the Internet.
Gore rejects the criticism of his REGO effort, saying that he reduced the bureaucracy in many ways that otherwise would not have been possible. "We have a lot of success stories," Gore said. "We have changed the culture, and I'm very excited about it." Taking a stand on Bosnia
In July 1995, the Clinton administration was being criticized for not stopping the carnage in Bosnia. Hundreds of Bosnians were being killed, Sarajevo was under siege, and the administration's strategy was being pummeled in the press.
Gore was among the critics, and he took his case to Clinton.
At a meeting with the president and national security aides, Gore made his case in a way that would come to define Gore's foreign policy role in the White House. He said that his daughter had seen a picture of a woman hanging from a tree in Bosnia. Gore said his daughter had asked him why the administration was not doing something to help the Bosnians.
"I've been asking myself the same question," Gore said.
It was the only time during the Clinton administration that aides remember Gore directly challenging the president.
"It was a direct challenge to US policy and hence the president's policy," said Ivo H. Daadler, who was director of European Affairs at the National Security Council at the time. "It was the only time I remember hearing about Gore challenging the president in the presence of others. That is not normally how he operates. Normally, he would do it in private."
Gore, asked about his dramatic statement, said: "In many ways, that was the same approach that I had on the balanced budget; I just tried behind the scenes to nudge and noodge the consensus. I think that it would be wrong for me to give you the impression that my family was the only family represented at that meeting that was heartsick about the moral consequences."
Indeed, when Gore made his statement, it was becoming clear that US policy would change. A White House official who participated in the meeting said that Gore's comment had "crystallized" the view that force would be used, but that the view had already been in formation.
"It would be easier, and maybe at this time in the vice president's interest, to say it was he who was behind the scenes who motivated the president in periods of indecision," said a White House official who attended national security meetings. "But that isn't the way I sensed it. I thought the entire group of us was coming to an edge of a decision. I always felt that the vice president at those moments was someone whose voice was being listened to very carefully, because if he had raised doubts about where we were heading, I think we might have headed someplace else."
To Gore, it was important to show the world that the United States was unafraid to use its power. Gore, after all, had been one of only 10 Democratic senators to vote for using force in the Gulf War, a crucial voice in that 52-47 vote in 1990. (Another was Gore's running mate, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut - a point noted by Gore last week in explaining his pick. In contrast to his outspokenness about Bosnia, Gore remained in the background in the discussion three years later about whether to use force in Kosovo, where Serbs were killing or expelling ethnic Albanians.
"I have found no evidence of any role by Gore, positive or negative, on Kosovo," said Daadler, who held his office at the National Security Council from 1995 to 1996 and has written a book about the administration's Kosovo policy called "Winning Ugly."
But once the war began, Gore worked behind the scenes to try to end it. On May 4, 1998, as US planes were bombing Kosovo, a visitor came to Gore's residence on the grounds of the US Naval Observatory. It was Victor I. Chernomyrdin, the former prime minister of Russia.
Through Gore's vice presidency, Gore had maintained a close relationship with Chernomyrdin, cochairing a commission on US-Russian interests that was often used as the White House's back channel to Boris N. Yeltsin, who resigned last year as Russian president. The New York Times has reported that CIA officers sent a warning to Gore that Chernomyrdin was allegedly involved with the Russian Mafia. The message from the top-secret intelligence document was clear: Keep your distance. Gore reportedly wrote a one-word expletive across the CIA dossier.
Gore, asked about this last month on NBC's "Meet The Press," called the story "utter nonsense."
"Never happened?" asked the moderator, Tim Russert.
"Never happened," Gore responded. "You know, I don't think I ever wrote a message of that kind on any CIA report."
Gore's response was revealing - and somewhat misleading. In the Globe interview, Gore said he probably uttered the epithet to the CIA briefer and said an aide may have written the word on the report.
"The sentiment ascribed to me was a fairly accurate description of what I thought of that particular document," Gore said. Asked whether he made the comment verbally, Gore said: "Yeah, yeah, and somebody may have written it on my behalf."
In any case, it was telling that Gore believed he knew more about Russia, and about Chernomyrdin, than the analysts at the George Bush Center for Intelligence at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., which is named in honor of Governor Bush's father, the former CIA director and president. Gore met Chernomyrdin twice on that May day, sealing a tentative deal in which the president of Finland agreed to act as intermediary to persuade the Serb leader, Slobodan Milosevic, to withdraw from Kosovo.
The Gore-Chernomyrdin dealings were pure Gore, a behind-the-scenes move that played a role in ending the war. But he is reluctant to take much credit.
"A vice president trying to garner credit behind the scenes is not a game that has a clear winner," Gore said. "I'll let others describe the importance."
SIDEBAR: A heartbeat away / Al Gore's record as vice president While Gore shares credit for the Clinton administration's enviable record managing the booming US economy, he has had to compromise on some of his pet issues during his two terms. PLEASE REFER TO MICROFILM FOR CHART DATA. GLOBE STAFF GRAPHIC / DAVID BUTLER
GRAPHIC: PHOTO GRAPH, 1. During his vice presidential tenure, Al Gore learned to become a listener. / AP FILE PHOTO 2. Vice President Al Gore, environmentalist, canoeing on the Connecticut River with Governor Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. / AP FILE PHOTO 3. Early on, Al Gore (right) was frequently at war within the White House on the environment, sometimes even disagreeing with President Clinton. / AFP FILE PHOTO