Despite the jokes about his stiff, usually silent public appearances with President Clinton and talk of "the incredible shrinking vice presidency," former Sen. Al Gore's vice presidency could be shaping up as the most influential in modern history.
Publicly, Gore plays the self-effacing role assigned to all vice presidents. Clinton has leaned heavily on him, however, for advice on the Administration's economic program and almost every other crucial issue, has given him primary responsibility for environmental and technology issues and has made it clear to department heads that he considers the vice president his alter ego within the White House.
At a Cabinet meeting, the President said Gore would have responsibility for general oversight of the Administration's operations and added: "Whenever you get a call from the vice president, I want you to treat it as a call from me."
The late-night television jokes have continued, however, and Gore has gotten so used to them that he frequently begins a speech with one himself. "How do you tell the difference between Al Gore and his Secret Service agents?" the vice president asked during one speech as several grim-faced agents stood nearby. "Al Gore is the stiff one."
In addition to the jokes, several news reports have suggested that Gore's role has been diminished because he toils in relative anonymity, while Clinton's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, plays a highly publicized role as presidential adviser and head of the Administration's health care task force.
The "Hillary factor" became a hot topic on the Washington cocktail circuit after Gore visited a Tampa, Fla., housing project where a woman asked her little girl whether she knew who Gore's boss was. Without hesitation, the girl replied: "Hillary."
The jokes and some news reports aside, Gore has become a major adviser on domestic and foreign policy. He meets frequently and regularly with the President and is one of only a handful of advisers with direct access to the Oval Office. Others, in addition to the the First Lady, include White House Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty, Communications Director George Stephanopoulos, Personnel Director Bruce Lindsey and Anthony Lake, national security adviser.
Clinton's message to the Cabinet members was clear: He expects them to consult with Gore on major issues, and by doing so they can be sure the message will reach the Oval Office.
Most of the department heads, if they want a personal meeting with the President, must arrange an appointment, a privilege Cabinet members usually are hesitant to exercise unless they feel a major issue demands the President's personal attention.
Gore goes in and out of the Oval Office at will. "The vice president goes to almost every meeting the President has and is free to go to any meeting he desires," Stephanopoulos said. "And before any big decision is made, the President always wants to know: 'What does Al think?' "
Walter Mondale, who became one of the most influential of all vice presidents after President Jimmy Carter made him a trusted adviser and gave him blanket Oval Office access, said: "That's the key, relying on the vice president's advice on major issues. And if the President likes him and wants him around, that's 90% of the battle."
During his vice presidency, Mondale also was the subject of several news stories suggesting his role was not as influential as Carter had promised.
After learning that The Times was working on a story, Carter telephoned a Times reporter and assured him that Mondale had been a crucial adviser on everything from civil rights to arms control to Mideast policy and cited specific examples of his advice and influence. Carter contended that he spent more time with Mondale than with all members of the White House staff combined.
Although Carter and Mondale had a good working relationship, they never had the kind of close personal and political relationship that Clinton and Gore developed during their unprecedented joint campaigning last year.
Gore, as well as associates of both men, say the relationship has grown even closer since they took office, further strengthened by the friendship that developed between Hillary Clinton and Gore's wife, Tipper. In fact, the Clintons and Gores have become social friends, dining together and recently taking in a show at a bluegrass-music club.
Some observers have suggested that the vice president has become so distraught over stories that his role has diminished that he frequently has arranged to be in photographs with Clinton to demonstrate his closeness to the President.
Gore scoffs at such reports, declares that he is satisfied with his role and insists that the stories don't bother him.
Marla Romash, his press secretary, says Gore and Clinton "are good friends and the photos you see of them together is a reflection of that relationship and the fact they're meeting all the time. They're not 'photo ops' as some people have reported."
In addition to Gore's other duties, the President recently named him head of a task force to examine federal agencies in a "total quality management" effort to achieve greater government efficiency.
Gore says the task force is absorbing much of his time now and will be for the next five or six months. "We've set a deadline for Sept. 7 for completing its work and making recommendations to the President," he said in an interview. "A great many of its recommendations will require congressional action, but some can be carried out with a stroke of the pen."
White House officials say Gore has been a major force behind several Administration measures, including about $1 billion in new-technology initiatives inserted into Clinton's economic-stimulus program.
To accomplish that Gore won out over strong deficit-reduction arguments by Budget Director Leon E. Panetta and Alice Rivlin, his deputy.
Gore also helped shape Clinton's proposed national service program, which would allow youths to work off college loans by participating in such programs as an environmental corps to clean river banks, fix urban parks and perform other tasks. And he was a leader in pressing for an energy tax in the form of a levy on the heat content of different forms of energy.
Officials say he also has played a leading role on foreign policy issues, including the decision to airlift supplies to war-ravaged Bosnia.
Like most vice presidents, Gore hesitates to tout his own role, although he's more forthcoming than former Vice President George Bush, who shunned discussing his relationship with then-President Ronald Reagan lest he upset his boss's supporters.
Once, after interviewing him with a tape recorder for 30 minutes, a reporter told Bush: "Mr. Vice President, you didn't tell me anything newsworthy. I can't even write a story."
"I didn't intend to," Bush replied.
Several years later, during an Oval Office interview, the reporter reminded President Bush of the incident. "Yeah," said Bush, smiling broadly, "and look where I am now."
Gore describes himself as a general adviser and trouble-shooter for Clinton. Of their working relationship, he said: "Without sounding too corny, closeness often comes with people moving toward the same objectives and sharing the goals and dreams for the country."
He called Hillary Clinton "a source of extremely good advice on a full range of issues" and said he "absolutely" supports her role as a major presidential adviser.
Although some critics have questioned the wisdom of placing the First Lady in a major policy-making position, Gore said: "It's natural for a President today to have a strong adviser in his spouse." He and his wife and the Clintons, he said, have matured during a period when rules for women have changed and there are "fewer restraints that once held them back."
Despite reports to the contrary, Gore's duties also have included working behind the scenes as a White House lobbyist, helping Clinton win congressional support for Administration proposals. Gore told a friend: "As priorities mature on the Hill, the two of us get on the telephone. I serve as a scout to find where the weak spots are and who needs to be shored up. And then he delivers the coup de grace. "
After Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, signaled that he planned a speech attacking any further Clinton proposals for defense cuts, Gore spent a lot of time with Nunn discussing the defense budget. Clinton later credited Gore with persuading Nunn to moderate his speech and his approach to the defense budget.
Clinton, following the Carter-Mondale example, has integrated the vice president's staff with his own, a move that facilitates teamwork and guards against the kind of rivalries that have caused problems in some previous White House operations. Gore contends that in integrating the staffs, they were able to "identify possible areas of friction to head off trouble."
Roy Neel, Gore's chief of staff, attends the regular morning meeting of the White House senior staff, a practice that was initiated during the Carter presidency when Richard Moe, Mondale's chief of staff, attended those meetings.
McLarty, who frequently uses Gore's staffers as though they are his own, singled out press aide Romash and Gore's economics adviser, Greg Simon, as especially helpful to him on presidential assignments.
Leon Fuerth, Gore's chief foreign policy adviser, also is a member of the White House Deputies Committee, an interagency group that manages foreign policy issues. By contrast, former Vice President Dan Quayle's national security staff operated separately from the Bush White House national security apparatus.
"One thing I insist on is teamwork," said McLarty, a former natural-gas company executive and a friend of Clinton's since childhood.
Unlike previous White House chiefs of staff, McLarty sees his role as serving the vice president as well as Clinton. "I'm clearly here to serve the President," he said, "but I view that as consistent with serving the vice president's needs."