A calculated risk?

President Clinton is supposed to be going his way, Al Gore going his. Indeed, the vice president seems to be convincing the voters that he's been able to establish this independent identity.

Yet at the Democratic convention I heard some well-informed journalists saying that Mr. Clinton had been pushing from behind the scenes for Senator Lieberman to be Mr. Gore's running-mate and that, in fact, he had prevailed on Gore to make that selection.

True? Well, it's highly possible. Clinton has for years been high on Mr. Lieberman.

For corroboration of that statement, let me take you back to a Monitor breakfast of June 18, 1992, when presidential candidate (soon to be nominee) Bill Clinton dropped by for a while and, after telling us where he would take the nation, said of Lieberman, also a guest that morning: "Senator Lieberman is one of the best representatives of where we are wanting to go. People who view the Democratic Party nationally should see it through the eyes of Senator Lieberman."

He continued: "Joe wrote this article in Domestic Affairs in what he said he thought our economic policy ought to be. And I think it is very, very good. And I think the position he is taking on foreign policy is also very good."

Of course, Clinton had been focusing that morning on his own vision for America.

"We will win if people see that we are the instrument of history and change," he said.

But before finishing, he underscored again that this vision was shared by Lieberman, who was an old friend from Yale Law School days.

It was a fascinating breakfast session. Our guests were members of the Democratic Platform Drafting Committee: Congressman Bill Richardson, former Hubert Humphrey aide Ted VanDyk, former Jimmy Carter aide Stuart Eizenstat, and the somewhat new Senator Lieberman.

So we were there to talk about the Democratic platform. Clinton became an "accidental" guest. And here is how it happened: For the first 15 minutes or so, the members of the group held forth on what they regarded as important inclusions in the platform they were drafting. Lieberman's main contribution to the discussion was on his support for a child credit for middle-class taxpayers. At one point he spoke of the "middle-class tax relief that Clinton has held most dear."

Then the hotel's longtime maitre d' handed me a note that said: "Did you know that Bill Clinton is in the room next door, meeting with a few of his aides?"

I had read in the paper that morning that Clinton had left the campaign trail to meet with Boris Yeltsin at the White House - after Mr. Yeltsin's get-together with President Bush. But I had no idea that Clinton had then come directly from seeing Yeltsin to this hotel.

I immediately told our group that "Clinton is next door," and I said to Lieberman, "You are an old friend of Clinton's. Would you care to go over and see if Clinton will come over here and tell us about his meeting with Yeltsin?"

Graciously, Lieberman said he would.

Within a minute or two, Lieberman was back, bringing in tow a grinning Clinton, who jumped right in with these words:

"I told him [Yeltsin] that I thought he deserved a lot of credit for the arms-control agreement. I told him it was something he undertook at some risk to himself back home - certainly not popular with everyone there - and I hoped it would be enough to get the Congress to support the assistance package."

He went on: "I found him to be a very impressive fellow. He represents a dramatic departure from anything we've ever seen in Russia. He is a genuine democrat. I really think he sees himself as fighting a war to the end against bureaucracy in favor of an open-market system. And I think we ought to be in there helping him."

It's interesting to look back on those Clinton words, uttered before he even had been nominated. We can see that Clinton's policy of sticking with Yeltsin, through thick and thin, was adopted even before the Arkansas governor got to the White House.

Before leaving, Clinton talked about the platform. "I think if we can have a platform that really reflects a message that goes beyond the last 10 years and offers a prospect of real political reform, it would make a difference to people."

Clinton closed with his high praise for Senator Lieberman. But, now, back to the present:

Yes, Clinton could very well have been pushing for Lieberman from behind the scenes.

And, yes, his quiet intervention may well have persuaded Gore to make what was then seen as the high-risk choice of selecting Lieberman to be his No. 2.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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