WASHINGTON -- Al Gore had better watch out the next time he makes a rare appearance in the Senate to fulfill constitutional duties as its president. "He wouldn't have the Secret Service surrounding him," Sen. Arlen Specter told me. Specter is still sizzling about a Gore aide accusing him of McCarthyism and the vice president acquiescing. Gore can expect an earful on the Senate floor.
He guaranteed that on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday by shrugging off the senator's protests. Would he apologize for his press secretary, Chris Lehane, asserting that Specter was "McCarthy-like" in revealing a new Justice Department recommendation for a special prosecutor of Gore's 1996 campaign finance conduct? "No," said Gore, after cryptically commenting that Lehane "speaks for himself."
More is at stake than the Democratic presidential candidate's tiff with a Republican senator from Pennsylvania. Just how mean Gore should be is being debated in his campaign. Doubts are also rising about Gore's ability to perform on his feet. He struggled under examination Sunday by Tim Russert while Republican George W. Bush was placidly responding to easier interrogation on ABC's "This Week."
Russert's long interview was nearly finished when he brought up Specter's complaint. Exercising oversight as a Senate Judiciary subcommittee chairman, Specter on June 22 revealed that the Justice Department's campaign finance task force chief Robert Conrad wanted a special prosecutor. Lehane quickly accused Specter of orchestrating "a crude McCarthy-like effort" to cover up Bush's campaign contributions from the oil industry.
Specter could not believe his ears. While a consummate politician, he is no partisan (breaking party ranks to vote against removing President Clinton from office and just last week opposing repeal of the estate tax) and enjoyed warm collegial relations with Sen. Al Gore. "To compare me to McCarthy!" Specter said to me. "McCarthy told lies. I told the truth."
Lehane, an apprentice spin doctor at the White House during the Whitewater investigation, as Gore's spokesman has been flailing away for months. Could a 32-year-old rookie concoct this vitriol? A Democratic friend who thinks the McCarthy-like accusation "is way over the top" asked him. Lehane replied he would not be assaulting a U.S. senator without higher approval.
That's what Specter wanted to know in increasingly bitter letters to Gore June 27, 28 and 29. "I await your apology!" he concluded the third letter. All three went unanswered by Gore, copying the model set by President Clinton in handling communications from Capitol Hill.
When Russert brought this up Sunday, Gore further infuriated Specter. "Has he no shame?" asked a smiling vice president, echoing Joseph Welch's famous riposte against Joe McCarthy 46 years ago. "That wasn't an accusation that I made, but an accusation my press secretary made," Gore added. By then refusing to apologize, he seemed ambivalent in his campaign's internal debate over whether he should or should not be mean.
That was not the only part of "Meet the Press" providing discomfort for Democrats. He dodged Russert's abortion questions about when life begins and requirements for parental consent. He would not comment on a Supreme Court decision permitting Boy Scout rejection of homosexual scout leaders, pleading he had not read the opinion. "I don't think I ever wrote" a profane message rejecting a 1995 CIA report on corruption in Russia, Gore said, but claimed "it was a very sloppy piece of work."
Then there was Gore's response when Russert read from the book ("Truth to Tell") by Clinton-Gore defender Lanny Davis admitting that "those (White House) coffees were held to raise money during a political campaign." "Well," insisted Gore last Sunday, "they were not fund-raisers."
Was Davis wrong? "Yeah, as far as I'm concerned, he is," Gore replied. Davis in his book added no money was actually solicited or collected at the White House coffees. Gore himself in his April 18 sworn deposition taken by Justice's Conrad said that people invited to the coffees "would be likely to be asked to contribute later on."
Why didn't the vice president make this distinction Sunday? Why did he feel impelled to continue the attack on a once friendly U.S. senator? Is this candidate ready for the presidential debates that he seeks so eagerly?