Al Gore's future and the future of the nation.
By Daniel Casse
FEBRUARY 9, 1998: Let's start by being brutally honest. Just between you and me. In the weeks since the Monica Lewinsky story thrust itself upon the national consciousness, I bet ou have found yourself, on more than one occasion, sitting in your tiny West Wing office, just down the hall from the Oval, daydreaming about what it all could mean.
You know what I'm referring to: the scandal continuing to spiral out of control. More deceptions, more tidbits from the Tripp tapes. Lewinsky cuts a deal with Starr. The full story spills out--the presents, the dress, the late-night visits to the president's study, the message he may have foolishly left on Lewinsky's answering machine. A chastened and beleaguered Clinton sees no alternative. A nighttime address to the American people is hastily organized. An emotional mea culpa. A resignation. Noon tomorrow. And then, the next morning, a tearful farewell to the staff in the East Room, a walk across the South Lawn. He boards Marine One, a defiant wave good-bye. Then you walk solemnly back to the White House. The chief justice is there. Tipper is holding a Bible. Your moment in history has arrived....
Wake up from your reveries, Mr. Vice President! Bill Clinton is not about to give you a free pass to the nation's highest office while he slinks off to eternal ignominy. And you think Hillary is going to leave voluntarily? You are going to have to scratch and dig for the presidency, just like he did. Endless trips to Iowa, sucking up to local Democratic pols you despise, feverish fund-raising, spending 50 percent of your time in California shopping malls.
The truth is, Clinton's ability to hang tough is a blessing. You don't want to step into the No. 1 spot to clean up the mess he'd be leaving behind. With just a two-year stint as commander in chief, you'd spend all your time figuring out how to get rid of those leftovers from his administration, who'd be treating you like an illegitimate usurper. Then you would have to deal with the pardon issue--what a tar baby that would be. And you would never have the excitement of a national campaign that would reintroduce you to the American people. It would be the same old Al Gore moving up to a better class of airplane. The Leno and Letterman joke writers wouldn't have to skip a beat. And the press! Before long, they would be describing your truncated term as "the Ford presidency without the sparkle." No, you must put aside any thoughts that Monica Lewinsky is your meal ticket.
You must begin thinking about the long route to the presidency that really began on Jan. 1 of this year. Many of your consultants will tell you that you must solidify your leadership of the Democratic Party in 1999, the year before the election. But you know better. This year, 1998, is the critical year. After the November elections, you will be in round-the-clock campaign mode. Do you think George Bush was writing all those personal notes and thank-you cards in 1996 because he was polite?
So here is my strategy memo for you for the next 10 months. I'm sure you are receiving plenty, but mine is different. I am a Republican. I have no intention of voting for you. Ever. Unlike the sycophantic pollsters and advertisers hoping to get business during the presidential cycle, I have no interest in a job in your campaign or in some future Gore administration. My intention is not to curry favor but to give you a disinterested assessment of what lies ahead and what you can do about it. Trust me, Al. I speak the truth. I know your weaknesses. Consider the following:
You must view the president's current troubles as an opportunity, not a headache. Whatever happens in the independent counsel's investigation, voters (particularly women voters) are repelled by the boss's gargantuan extramarital appetites. What good fortune that you are such a dull family man! You should start listening to your right-wing critics and steal some of their language about the centrality of the family. Tony Blair in Britain does this shamelessly, and to great effect. (His pollster is Stan Greenberg, Clinton's numbers man in '92. He was replaced by the reckless Dick Morris. Maybe you should give Stan a call.) Above all, bring Tipper with you on every trip. Keep talking about "my wife." Find ways to be photographed with your beautiful daughters.
One of the president's advertising men told me that during the 1996 campaign, Dick Morris' standing orders were that the president was always to be filmed in the company of old people or children. Start thinking the same way. Always be filmed in the company of intact, photogenic, non-dysfunctional families.
Since November, you have been unburdening yourself before half the media establishment. You drew diagrams of missile defense strategy for Joe Klein in The New Yorker. You reflected on the influence of your father for Vanity Fair. You got into the whole Love Story flap with the editors of Time. You trotted out your journalist experience at The Tennessean for The Washington Post.
Enough already. At this point, Americans aren't all that interested in you, and journalists are rapidly becoming bored. If you continue this level of exposure throughout '98, there will be nothing left to write about in '99--except bad news, scandals, and detailed histories of all your policy flip-flops. My advice is to keep a low profile. When you emerge from a self-imposed press hiatus in November, you'll be treated as something "new"--and that's still the most potent concept in politics.
You know about this wonkish group of upstart, centrist Democrats. Clinton, Sam Nunn, and a bunch of moderate Democrats founded the group in the late '80s when they were scared Jesse Jackson and the liberals were taking over the party. For a brief moment, they quietly backed you as a presidential candidate in 1988. It is time to get reacquainted. The press loves writing about the "sensible center," and the DLC gives you a bit of intellectual gloss that highbrow pundits adore. Plan to give a major speech at their fall meeting, laying out the next stage of Democratic thinking. Praise welfare reform. Talk sternly about out-of-control entitlements. Mention adoption. Quietly signal your dissatisfaction with the progress of the current administration. They'll lap it up.
This is the year, before the presidential cycle begins to taint all your relationships, when you must create some key alliances with important Democrats. You went to Kyoto with Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat. He has made a real splash attacking gangsta rap and daytime talk shows. Invite Dianne Feinstein to lunch. She's the straight-talking California senator who knows how to deliver votes. (Gore-Feinstein?) Spend some time strategizing with Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey. He is head of the Democratic Senatorial Committee this year and a persistent troublemaker. He will make your life miserable in 2000, but a friendship struck now could minimize the damage. Howard Dean of Vermont is still the smartest Democratic governor. Too bad he is from such an insignificant state.
You might even look for a Republican or two to work with. Nobody in the Republican Party actually listens to has-been Commerce Secretary Pete Peterson. But his tough talk on Social Security reform gives you an opportunity to "reach out" to Republicans on new ideas. And he is on television all the time. Journalists love that bipartisan bonding in the interest of big ideas. And see if you can find some common ground with Republican Bill Paxon. He's Susan Molinari's husband, even if he has none of her charisma. He was booted out of the leadership by Newt after leading the failed coup last year. He'll never be a longtime friend, but he could be a source of ideas and a nice back-channel route for messing with Gephardt in the House.
Every Democratic candidate is going to want you to stump for him or her in the fall. Be prudent. There is a lot of Democratic dead wood up for re-election--Fritz Hollings in South Carolina, Pat Leahy in Vermont, Ron Wyden in Oregon. You'd be wise to avoid them. Instead, work like crazy for candidates whose payback will matter in 2000. Bob Graham is up for election in Florida. He'll be an important ally in a state where Jeb Bush, George's son, is threatening to become governor. Chuck Schumer will probably beat Geraldine Ferraro in the New York state Democratic primary. Try to do something quietly for him early.
You'll love standing beside him, attacking Al D'Amato in October. Your most important friend for the next few months will be Leon Panetta, Clinton's old chief-of-staff. He is back in California, planning his run for governor in November. Expect to be living with him in October. (Gore-Panetta?)
No one remembers all the efficiency and streamlining you brought to government back in 1993. But some smart reporter will soon be snooping around to see what the follow-up was. Get your staff on it. The story that should emerge next year is that "Reinventing Government" was a runaway but little-noticed success. Get a photo of all the pages of regulations that were trashed. In your speeches, mention some of the unintentionally funny names of useless federal programs that were phased out. ("On the brink of the 21st century, taxpayers shouldn't be footing the bill for the National Office of Tea Tasters....")
Your credentials as a friend of the environment are unimpeachable. But I'm worried that your opponents--Republican and Democrat--will paint you as a New Age tree-hugger who wants to take every car and truck off the road. Your 1992 book, The Earth in Balance, has been tabbed, indexed, and cross-referenced by every opposition research dweeb working at the Republican National Committee.
They will hit you hard on your musings about a "global civil war" and the $100-billion-a-year "Global Marshall Plan" that you proposed. Right-wing radio talk shows have gleefully been reading passages from your book alongside excerpts from the Unabomber's manifesto, then inviting listeners to guess which is which.
Instead of playing the role of hero to the EPA bureaucrats, you should get back to basics and become the defender of parks, birds, and large mammals. Stop talking about "particulate matter" and start fighting for national parks and clean drinking water. Republicans still don't know how to talk about these issues. By moving a few steps toward the center, you will still back them against the wall without losing the support of the Sierra Club.
The press corps knows that you actually grew up in an apartment in Washington's Fairfax Hotel. But the public will always love your Tennessee roots. The problem is that all the major national political figures in Tennessee are Republicans. I don't think you can trust Fred Thompson to spin colorful yarns about you growing up in Carthage. You need to shift the focus back to Albert Gore Sr. The more stories about growing up in the shadow of your father's senatorial career, the better. We may not have a monarchy in this country, but voters love anything that smacks of a political dynasty. Equally important, they like to reward the son of the father they unceremoniously rejected from office. Just ask the governor of Texas.
The single, shining moment of your vice-presidential career came when you kicked Ross Perot's butt on Larry King during the debate over free trade. Free trade is completely dead as an issue. But Perot is still prowling around, recently showing up at the National Press Club. Find an opportunity to squash him like a bug. Don't listen to pollsters who tell you how important the Texarkana Tyrant is to "swing voters." Your support goes way up when you challenge Perot on the facts and make him squirm.
Have one of your press aides collect clippings on him and wait for him to shoot his mouth off. That will be your opportunity.
Don't listen to all the yes-men who tell you how great your speech at the last convention was. The podium pounding doesn't disguise the fact that you have nothing to say. Try working on the content as well as the visuals. Start scooping up the top Democratic speechwriters.
Call former U.S. News reporter Don Baer, who seemed to master the Clinton/Morris rhetoric during his stint in the first term. Also, give Marty Peretz at The New Republic a call and ask him who the best young writers are. Peretz will then duly write another glowing tribute to "my former student Al Gore" in his "Cambridge Diarist" column in his magazine.
Although the public has gotten used to your quirks, the routine is beginning to wear thin. Call Harry Thomason, fly to L.A., and spend a weekend smoothing some of your rough edges. You know what I'm talking about: the geek-style clapping, the slow syntax, the wooden-Indian gaze whenever you are standing on a stage. Your recent efforts to scream like a Baptist preacher into the microphone haven't conveyed a sense of cool confidence either. Yes, you've done your best to poke fun at yourself. But at some point, all these weird idiosyncrasies will be seen as evidence of a man uncomfortable in his own skin. At the very least, learn from the president and simply steal presidential gestures right out of old JFK newsreels.
Put the word out that you have started to surround yourself with some of the most impressive minds in government. When asked about it, tell the reporter (off-the-record, natch) that you are trying to envision who has the right "fit" for a Gore Cabinet. You might signal to FBI director Louis Freeh that you want him to stick around, even if the president hates his guts. Start to pal around with Daniel Goldin, the rocket scientist who is the head of NASA. Have lunch with Pat Moynihan and reminisce about Harvard. (Gore-Moynihan?) Ask that spicy former Texas Gov. Ann Richards to travel with you for a week. (Gore-Richards?) Here's how you want the Sunday Times magazine to write it up: "Although often in the shadow of President Clinton's intellectual prowess, Al Gore is constantly proving that he is most at home with fiercely independent minds who constantly challenge him...."
As already mentioned, the press loves nothing more than a Democrat and a Republican putting aside partisanship in the name of the country. On that theme, why don't you have a "secret" meeting with former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld? His political career was over after Jesse Helms burst the balloon that was supposed to send Weld to Mexico as ambassador. Now he is sitting in a New York law firm, plotting his revenge. You are his ticket back to Washington. Think about it. (Gore-Weld?)
If she's going to be first lady, Tipper is going to need a cause to which she is passionately devoted. This is the year to start developing that deep, long-standing commitment to an issue. Dirty music lyrics have gotten too controversial. Her work for the homeless is good, but a little dated. Mental health, to which she has given much time, is a plus. But try something a little more uplifting.
The photography shtick is pretty good, but a little too modern. I once saw Tipper buying posters in the National Art Gallery gift shop. Why not, "America's Museums, A National Treasure"? If that's not magnanimous enough, she could tackle a project dedicated to American culture. As we stand on the verge of a new millennium, she could devise a plan for a nationwide celebration of our country's artistic greatness. The best bet is just to let Tipper throw a party. She comes across as everyone's best friend anyway. Just make sure she stays away from any bizarre modern art.
You are going to need a solid, serious campaign book in 2000. I'd start lining things up now. Call a bunch of historians like David McCullough (he wrote that huge Truman biography of which your staff prepared a summary) and David Donald (he wrote the endless Lincoln biography--have someone write a memo on it). Then call Alice Mayhew, the hot-shot editor at Simon and Schuster, and tell her you want to write a serious book. Instead of an autobiography, take a page from Nixon and have someone write the equivalent of his Six Crises. You know, a book that puts you in the center of a handful of watershed events: your vote on the Gulf War, your call for an inquiry into the Challenger disaster, your decision to go to Vietnam despite your father's moral opposition to the war, your fight for free trade. The take-away message of the book: Al Gore is a decision maker.
You've hated House majority leader Dick Gephardt since you served in the House. He looks like a snake who has just emerged from his skin. His working-class, anti-corporate, protectionist rap is a disaster for the country, but it appeals to the yahoo vote all over Iowa and New Hampshire. Still, to love your enemy is to know him. Start to arrange congressional planning sessions with him. Don't let him out of your sight. You never know, you may need him sooner than you think.
Consider the possible scenarios: a few more revelations, a scandalized presidency, Vernon Jordan turns state's evidence, an Oval Office address, a defiant wave from the helicopter, you place your hand on the Bible....
Did somebody say Gore-Gephardt?
Daniel Casse is a senior director of the White House Writers Group, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy communications firm, and an advisor to Republican politicians since 1987. He lives in Nashville.
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