Vice President Al Gore is not known for daring improvisation.
“This is really one of the wonders of the world,” he said, as he looked out Thursday on the silent rows of hundreds of life-sized terra-cotta warriors entombed with an emperor in Xian, China, 22 centuries ago.
Moments later, he was asked again for his reaction. “It’s a fantastic sight,” he said. “One of the world’s wonders.” After a few more minutes, he encountered the same reporters.
“One of the world’s wonders,” he observed.
Gore’s weeklong foreign trip, which ended Saturday a visit to the demilitarized zone north of here, sorely taxed his improvisational skills.
Pinned in the spotlight, Gore did not demonstrate anything approaching the nimbleness of his boss and past presidents on such trips. Years after Ronald Reagan visited Xian in 1984, Chinese there recalled with delight how he threw the loyally waiting warriors a salute, and one word: “Dismissed.”
Gore made no bold moves, never stopping to shake hands or question people not on his itinerary.
Still, on the policy front, Gore left China on Friday having witnessed the signing of major new contracts for Boeing aircraft and General Motors.
But on both policy and political ground, Gore stumbled.
He returns to Washington with nothing to demonstrate that the Chinese have made progress on human rights or toward ending weapons sales to Iran or Pakistan. He can also produce no tangible evidence that the Chinese are willing to sacrifice to protect their environment.
Instead, on Tuesday, Gore found himself cornered into sharing a toast with Prime Minister Li Peng, who presided over the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. With glasses of champagne suddenly materializing, Gore frowned and spilled his champagne, but the footage is still fodder for political attack commercials.
More significantly, Gore appears to have tried to walk such a fine line in his negotiations with Li that he even confused other U.S. officials.
At issue was whether Gore had told Li on Tuesday that U.S. policy toward China would be affected if the Chinese had tried to influence last year’s U.S. elections through campaign donations. A lower-level administration official told reporters Tuesday night that he had not.
But Wednesday morning, a senior administration official insisted the vice president had said the accusations, if true, could have an impact.
On Thursday, the U.S. ambassador to China, James Sasser, said Gore told the Chinese that the issue “was a serious matter, that it was under investigation, and that was essentially it.”
The confusion underscored the clumsiness of Gore or his aides and the briefing Wednesday eclipsed Gore’s speech that morning on human rights.
That speech, billed by Gore’s aides as a highlight of his trip and singled out for praise by President Clinton, received little attention as reporters scrambled to revise articles about the previous day’s meetings.