Even though Vice President Al Gore appears to be holding his boss at arm's length, even though he's gone so far as to move his headquarters to Tennessee, President Clinton is nonetheless playing an active, if somewhat muted, role in the Gore presidential campaign.
From fund-raising to gentle arm-twisting for political endorsements, Mr. Clinton has adopted a stance of support for his vice president that is unprecedented in modern political history. No other incumbent president - not Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, nor Dwight Eisenhower - ever threw so much support behind the Oval Office bid of his second-in-command, analysts say.
That's not to say the two men have had an easy time working out the new script for the election season. But after tripping over each other early on, the president seems to be warming to his supporting role.
Last week, Clinton spoke privately with labor leaders to urge them to endorse Mr. Gore for president, then gave the vice president credit for a mammoth land-protection plan for national forests. Since August, he has held five fund-raising events on Gore's behalf.
Gore is "appreciative" of such efforts, says a campaign official. But there's also some ambivalence over how involved Clinton should be in the campaign. The two never appear together on the campaign trail - a recognition that Gore needs to stand on his own and that the public feels a certain level of "Clinton fatigue."
"It's obviously something they have struggled with - how to get help from a politically active president without a smothering embrace," says Michael Waldman, former speechwriter for Clinton.
Indeed, in an interview with The Washington Post Saturday, Gore said he may ask the president not to help him on the campaign trail. He said, "I think you have to win a race on your own" - a point the president understands, says White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.
It's this "never been there, never done that" aspect that has the Gore campaign feeling its way on how much involvement the president should have.
"Clinton's supportive stance for Al Gore is unprecedented. We simply have not had this before," says George Edwards, a presidential expert at Texas A&M University in College Station.
"This issue never arose," agrees Mr. Waldman, and people are learning through trial and error.
Some political observers say the primary phase is a natural time for Clinton to be involved in the Gore campaign. They note that he's still influential with the Democratic base, key votes that Gore needs in his battle with rival Bill Bradley.
"Clinton can help at this stage," says Paul Light, governmental studies director at the Brookings Institution here. "He can help in terms of motivating core constituents, and he's still the best fund-raiser in the Democratic Party."
Historically, presidents have taken a hands-off approach when their vice presidents aspired to replace them. Sometimes they've opposed them outright, sometimes just benignly neglected them. President Reagan, not wanting to play favorites, didn't back his veep, George Bush, until he won the Republican nomination. President Johnson clashed with his No. 2, Hubert Humphrey, over the Vietnam War. And President Eisenhower, when asked by a reporter to list Vice President Richard Nixon's accomplishments, remarked: "If you give me a week, I might think of one."
Clinton, on the other hand, sees the election of Gore as a continuation of his own legacy. Plugging him last week at an East Room press conference, Clinton said Gore was "by far the best vice president in history."
This kind of comment - standard PR woven into a news setting - doesn't usually make it beyond transcripts to the media. More meaningful are the president's other efforts, including coordination of policy between the Gore team and the White House, analysts say. Examples of policy cross-pollination abound. Clinton's national-forest initiative came in the wake of a minor but symbolic endorsement of Mr. Bradley by the activist group Friends of the Earth.
White House assistance
The president also recently approved the export of computer-encryption technology, long demanded by the executives of Silicon Valley, whose allegiance to the tech-savvy vice president has been eroded by both Bradley and Republican candidate George W. Bush. And then there's been White House assistance on a host of other issues important to the vice president, including agricultural relief, veterans spending, and limiting companies' Y2K liability.
Despite the daily back and forth between White House and Gore policy people, schedulers, speechwriters, and press offices, there have been clashes along the way. At the start of the campaign, Gore's stinging rebuke of the president's extramarital affair reportedly irked his boss. And the president's unsolicited, public advice on how Gore should run his campaign likewise hurt the vice president.
More recently, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta was reportedly unhappy with Gore's unilateral decision to launch an ad campaign based on last week's defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Many Democrats believe the best contribution the president has made to the Gore campaign is his legacy of a booming economy. But even on a subject as sure-fire as the administration's economic success, Gore's balancing act is revealed. While he spoke explicitly about the "Clinton-Gore" economic record before friendly labor leaders last week, he sometimes drops the Clinton reference when speaking to other audiences, preferring the more impersonal "we" or "our."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society