Wrestling with his thoughts late one night, President Clinton nearly settled on a candidate for a top post. He was impressed by the man, his credentials and experience. Still, there was doubt.
“I’ve got to talk to Al,” he muttered to an aide, and left the room.
Hardly a decision is made about the second-term team without Clinton talking to Vice President Al Gore, whose fingerprints are all over the transition. In helping his boss build a new administration, Gore is building his base for 2000.
Clinton allowed Gore remarkable influence in the first term. And the loyal No. 2 will assume even wider latitude as Clinton puts together a new administration - especially in areas affecting Gore’s plans to run for the presidency in four years.
The vice president will get say-so in the naming of a new White House political director and Democratic party chairman, aides say. Before the president finishes filling his half-empty Cabinet and topsy-turvy White House, Gore will have confidants sprinkled throughout the administration.
Evidence of his touch is everywhere:
Aides say retired Army Gen. Colin Powell is not being considered for a Cabinet post despite his enormous political appeal. Powell is seen as a threat to Gore in 2000.
Retiring Republican Sen. William Cohen emerged Thursday as a surprise leading contender for defense secretary. Gore, a former Tennessee senator, goes way back with Cohen and has supported the Maine lawmaker in private chats with Clinton.
Ron Klain, the vice president’s chief of staff, found a spot in the small circle of aides who held the first post-election transition meetings with Clinton.
When a coalition of women’s groups sought a White House audience to press for women in the Cabinet, the president dispatched Gore. It gave the vice president a chance to soothe a key constituency for 2000. Gore is the transition’s point man with minority groups, too.
Still early in the process, Friends of Al are considered daily for second-term openings. Aides were asking this week whether Environmental Protection Agency head Carol Browner, a longtime FOA, would make a good domestic policy adviser.
It was a telling inquiry: The current domestic policy adviser, Carol Rasco, is a friend of Clinton’s from Arkansas - and has not resigned.
Browner landed at the EPA four years ago in part because of Gore’s unusual influence from the start. His power has steadily grown. Just this summer, Gore pressed Clinton to name Franklin D. Raines budget director - then swore Raines in himself.
Political operative Michael Whouley will oversee Gore’s political operation from the outside, after putting people inside the vice president’s office and at the Democratic National Committee.
One thing he will watch out for is House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., a likely Gore competitor for the party mantle. The vice president is said to be leery about any Gephardt people vying for administration posts.
Gore also may be tempted to use his influence to fend off presidential decisions that could hurt him in 2000. Officially, administration officials say Clinton’s second-term plans will not conflict with Gore’s ambitions. Privately, aides say it will be fascinating to see what happens the first time Clinton makes a presidential move that could complicated Gore’s presidential bid.
Nobody is thinking about that now, not during the rush to name scores of new appointees. Indeed, the president gave his vice president credit Friday for convincing him that the process was moving too quickly.
“What I concluded, after talking about this extensively with the vice president, in particular, is that we needed to make absolutely sure that we knew what the team was going to be,” Clinton said.