In his new book based on a series of interviews with Bill Clinton, Taylor Branch provides a remarkable account of a conversation between Clinton and Al Gore late in 2000, after Gore’s presidential campaign had finally ended in perhaps the post painful defeat imaginable.
Clinton told Gore, Branch writes, that he was disappointed that he wasn’t used more in the campaign’s final days and that Gore had not developed any overarching theme. Gore countered that Clinton had never personally apologized to him for the Monica Lewinsky scandal and that he was still traumatized by the 1996 fundraising scandals. Gore also suggested that Clinton was to blame for his defeat by George W. Bush
“I thought he was in Neverland,” Clinton told Branch.
But even Lost Boys grow up. And while appearances can and often have been deceiving when it comes to the complicated case of Al Gore and Bill Clinton, friends and current and former associates say there are increasing signs that they are growing back into a friendship . . . or a least a civil relationship in which bygones remain bygones.
A joint appearance at Jackson Day dinner in Nashville in late August marked three co-billed Clinton/Gore events in the past several months. One of those, the airport tarmac return in Burbank, Calif., of two journalists held by North Korea, featured Gore saluting Clinton as “my partner and friend,” and wrapping him in a lengthy, seemingly genuine hug.
In Music City, Gore said not once, but twice, that he was “so proud of Bill Clinton.” And Clinton was similarly effusive. Gore, he said “was the best vice president this country ever had. And if you think about the difference between Al Gore and Dick Cheney, no one can say it doesn’t make any difference who the vice president is.”
Is this sense of détente real? Friend and former aides say it is, at least to a point.
Clinton always wanted Gore’s friendship, in the same fashion that he prefers to be friends with almost everyone he meets. Gore’s feelings, people close to him say, have always been more complicated. But he seems to have mellowed on Clinton as he has gained his own celebrity and international stature and his former partner’s gigantic shadow over him has lessened. The sting of Gore’s 2000 disputed Electoral College loss to Bush is also receding.
Gore associates also say Clinton’s role in helping deliver the two journalists, who worked for Gore’s Current TV project in California, can not be underestimated in adding new warmth to their relationship and that Gore’s emotion in thanking Clinton was very real.
A former Clinton White House official — who, like most contacted for this story, wanted no part of talking about the Clinton-Gore relationship on the record — said Gore’s rage toward Clinton has eased and that there is something to the perception that they are reaching for a new civility.
But the former official also warned against believing the two men have become soul mates — and suggested that a shared interest in seeing the Obama administration’s key goals achieved is more of a factor here than the healing of deep, old wounds.
“It started thawing around Sept. 11, when they were forced to do events together. But I know that for quite some time, Gore would not be seen with Clinton,” the former Clinton aide said.
“As Gore has cut his own path and with all of the accolades, he seems to be settling down as far as this relationship goes. Clinton, as always, does not want this to end the wrong way.
“My guess is that it is a continuing process in the personal direction — but at its heart, it’s a business relationship,” the aide concluded. “It’s not a personal one.”
The circumstances surrounding the Jackson Day dinner tend to support that view. Clinton agreed to appear after he was asked by his old friend, former Tennessee governor Ned Ray McWherter, whose son Mike is running for governor. Gore then asked to join, according to a state Democratic official, because he made a pretty basic political calculus: “Clinton is coming to my town, so I guess I better show up.”
Several Gore associates also warned against reading too much into the summer mini-tour by Clinton and Gore, which also included an energy event in Las Vegas at the quest of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
In their view, the Clinton-Gore feud was never as bad as the media has made it out to be and the seeming distance between the two men was a natural byproduct of the fact that they no longer worked in the same building or lived in the same city.
“When you see three events, it’s a trend, but I think their relationship is a lot like an iceberg — there is a lot more below the surface than what meets the eye. What’s happened this year is there’s been a lot more above the surface,” said a Gore insider who also requested anonymity in order to speak freely.
“People don’t see phone calls. Those things aren’t necessarily publicized, nor should they be. Here are two guys interested in a lot of the same things and what’s interesting now is that action is possible on a lot of the issues they care about.”
A former aide to both Clinton and Gore said that while the relationship has seen predictable ups and downs, a connection has always endured.
“They live in different cities, so it’s not like they would run into each other in the normal course of events. They talk often and see each other on these occasions when their schedules overlap. ... They still remain two of the most popular figures in the party,” the former aide said.
“There was a time when they spent three-quarters of their day together. That’s not possible anymore, but there is a bond there. And given everything that they’ve gone through together, it’s a pretty strong bond. It would have to be.”
Other Clinton administration veterans, however, question how strong the Clinton-Gore bond ever was and suggest that the depiction of the two as characters from a politically-themed buddy movie in 1992 was largely a media myth.
While most of their colleagues agree that Clinton and Gore had a cohesive working relationship in their first term, they never saw them as having a deep personal friendship. “They were never really friends but business partners where their interests lined up perfectly in the '92 campaign and first term,” said the former White House official.
They were, and are, deeply different personalities. With his once-in-a-generation political skills and effortless gift of gab, Clinton never quite got Gore’s brainy awkwardness and seeming inability to totally master the basic stagecraft of running for office. For his part, Gore, by numerous accounts, was horrified by Clinton’s lack of discipline, an irritation that grew to near-revulsion when the details of his affair with Lewinsky finally became public.
There is also the clash of southern archetypes in the Clinton-Gore saga — a clash that has often echoed in the lives of both men. Clinton, for all his tours through Oxford, New Haven and ultimately Washington, is at his heart a lower-middle class kid from Hot Springs, Ark. He saw Gore, the son of Tennessee who actually grew up in Washington as the son of a senator, as a quintessential elitist. As Clinton once said of another stiff Southern politician who has stayed too long in the North: “He’d ask for Chablis at a fish fry.”
Yet the pride both men clearly feel in what they accomplished in office seems — now, nearly 10 years on — to have begun to override all that. As does the sense often felt by their less celebrated fellow citizens that the longer you live, the harder it can be to remember why you are so mad at someone.
Many of those who worked with them hope that a friendship, however uneasy, ultimately broadens between the two men who, for better or worse, have come to define a successful era of Democratic politics.
“Remember, Ford and Carter beat each others brains out, as did (George H.W.) Bush and Clinton, and they became pretty close,” said the former White House official. “I don't see why Clinton and Gore can't do the same.”