In his presidential campaign, Al Gore has been distancing himself from Bill Clinton, methodically crafting his own policy agenda. Now the vice president is separating himself from the very office he has held since 1993, declaring that his candidacy has become more important to him than his official duties.
“It’s a breaking-away process; that’s exactly right,” Gore said in an interview on Air Force Two after a week of campaigning in Chicago, New Hampshire and Iowa.
Asked whether his newfound outlook might pose a conflict in the remaining 14 months of his tenure, the vice president responded: “I hope not. But if it does, then so be it. I hope not. But that’s not particularly important compared to making sure my line of communication with the American people is strong and clear.”
Asked further whether it’s a tough balancing act, Gore said emphatically: “Not anymore.”
The vice president delivered that last answer as his jet landed at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland.
As aides bustled about, Gore made sure his terse reply wasn’t lost in the commotion. Leaning forward, he asked: “Did you hear my answer?”
Gore’s comments, highly unusual for a vice president, are noteworthy because he has not previously revealed how he would resolve the growing tensions between his dual roles.
By decisively elevating his candidacy above the vice presidency, Gore is all but casting aside a role that he and President Clinton have carved out for him over the last seven years as the most influential vice president in U.S. history.
But their close relationship began to fray after Gore publicly criticized Clinton’s behavior in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal. Clinton then heightened those tensions by critiquing Gore’s much-mocked stiff demeanor. More recently, Gore mused about whether to ask Clinton to refrain from campaigning for him.
The vice president’s latest remarks now may instigate yet another source of strain between the two men--and their staffs.
The White House had no official response to Gore’s comments, but a senior administration official said the vice president’s remarks were no surprise and that the Gore camp had signaled about two to three weeks ago that Gore would pursue this new strategy.
Gore’s new mind-set--and the startlingly liberating effect it has had on him--was evident throughout a six-day campaign jaunt that ended conveniently in time to allow him to attend his son’s high school football game Friday night.
“It has been fun, hasn’t it?” an exuberant Gore said at the end of a trip that included a nationally televised town hall meeting at Dartmouth College with his rival for the Democratic nomination, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.
“I’ve finally figured out to let go of the vice presidential trappings . . . and to let go of some of the campaign approaches that seemed right for a vice president campaigning on behalf of a president’s policies--but really didn’t suit me campaigning for myself,” Gore said.
In Chicago last Sunday for a fund-raiser, he uncharacteristically told two ethnic jokes.
The first concerned the inauguration of the nation’s first Jewish president, in January 2009--presumably after a two-term Gore presidency. During the oath of office, the new president’s mother boasts: “His brother is a doctor.” Gore’s second joke played on the notion of Jewish parents inflicting guilt upon their children, with Gore belting out a twist on a country tune: “Mamas, don’t let your ungrateful sons grow up to be cowboys.”
Both jokes brought down the house.
On the hustings, Gore often convenes what has become a signature event of his campaign: the free-wheeling town hall meeting where he wears a wireless body microphone that enables him to stroll around the audience.
Gore uses such sessions to tell his life story as well as to tout his proposals on issues such as health care reform, handgun control and “the next generation” of welfare reform--all of which go beyond Clinton’s initiatives in scope.
But Gore often swaps quips with people young and old, and is quick with the self-effacing remark, which many seem to find endearing. When a Nashua, N.H., high school student body president beat another student to the punch by inviting the vice president to their school, Gore seized the moment.
“I know the feeling!” he playfully told the upstaged student. “You do all the work. You get it all lined up. And the president beats you to it!”
In another exchange, Gore asked a youth what grade he was in. After replying, the smart-alecky teenager turned the question on Gore--who replied without missing a beat: “I’m in the seventh year of my vice presidency. And I’m ready to graduate!”
If the vice president seems at ease in town hall meetings, there’s a reason: He conducted them throughout Tennessee during his 16-year congressional career.
“It’s really just getting back to what I enjoy doing most . . . back to a forum I always enjoyed in the past,” Gore said. “It’s true that as vice president I haven’t been able to do them in the same way. Now I remember what I was missing. . . . It’s almost like coming home.”
At all but the biggest campaign events now, the vice president also lingers to shake every last hand, a la Bill Clinton.
When he chanced upon a roomful of French Canadians at a Concord, N.H., diner the other day, Gore burst into French, identifying himself and informing them of his quest. The tourists applauded.
While knocking on doors in a Nashua neighborhood, Gore met a deaf woman, Iris Mulligan, and told her “thank you” in sign language.
At a meeting with Latino activists in Davenport, Iowa, Gore told the group that he recently became a grandfather--on July 4--and then said in Spanish that he hopes his next grandchild will be born on Cinco de Mayo. But even more striking than Gore’s more relaxed style is his readiness to speak his mind.
“For seven years, I paused a split second to ask myself: ‘OK, how’s this going to help the administration? How’s this going to help the president? What’s the administration’s policy? And how can I make sure that it’s reconciled with what I think about this?’
“Now, it’s much simpler: What do I think about this? Is it going to work for the country? Is it right for the American people? And that’s a simpler process by far, and it’s a lot more fun.”