Al Gore may be wise in moving his campaign headquarters from Washington to Nashville, Tenn. But on the way home he is dragging along some heavy Beltway baggage, in the form of his chief advisors, campaign chairman Tony Coelho and media advisor Carter Eskew -- a pair who symbolize the vice president's fundamental problem these days.
If Gore truly wishes to be "closer to the people," as he proclaimed in explaining his decision to relocate, why has he placed his political fate in the hands of Coelho -- a corporate front man accused of gross self-dealing by a Clinton administration watchdog -- and Eskew, a cynical tobacco flack? By doing so he has created an apparatus that inevitably muffles his own message and leaves him vulnerable to his opponents.
Coelho's alleged ethical transgressions were publicized over the weekend by the Center for Public Integrity, one of the few nonprofit institutions in Washington that is actually nonpartisan as well. According to an audit by the State Department's inspector general, Coelho badly abused his position as the U.S. commissioner general of the 1998 World Exposition in Lisbon, Portugal.
The former California congressman is specifically alleged to have given patronage jobs to his relatives and cronies, grabbed airline tickets that had been donated to the government for his personal use, hired a chauffeur-driven Mercedes limo with public money and mingled his personal business interests in Portugal with his duties as the Expo commissioner.
Assuming that those charges are accurate -- and for the most part they remain undenied -- Coehlo appears to have confused a position of public trust with his own private enrichment. For someone who departed Congress under a shadow involving his personal finances in 1989 to become a wealthy businessman and lobbyist, this isn't exactly a shocking development.
Ironically, Coehlo's wide-ranging corporate connections include a very lucrative directorship with Service Corporation International, the huge funeral conglomerate whose regulatory troubles in Texas have embroiled Gov. George W. Bush in an embarrassing lawsuit. Indeed, Coehlo has extensive business ties with Republicans, including several of Bush's major contributors and advisors.
Although the State Department report on Coehlo's alleged misconduct involves no criminal charges and may ultimately fade away, it became public only days after media consultant Eskew was forced to sever his connections with the tobacco lobby because of inquiries by a New York Times reporter.
Gore brushed these questions aside by insisting that voters don't care about the character of his advisors, and he may be right about that. But he is fooling himself if he thinks that none of this matters. While he strives to present himself as the tribune of working families and the protector of the public interest, Gore's campaign apparatus seems to represent the very forces he claims to oppose. The effects of this contradiction are corrosive over time.
Seeking to understand how he can recover some momentum this election season, Gore would do well to reflect on the 1992 campaign that first elevated him to the No. 2 job. The Clinton-Gore "war room" was not run by lobbyists or front men; the battle to defeat that George Bush was waged by a wily Louisiana populist and an idealistic young congressional staffer.
Leaving aside President Clinton's own natural superiority on the stump, an important difference between that campaign and this one is the difference between James Carville and Tony Coelho, between George Stephanopoulos and Carter Eskew -- a difference of substance and style. Whatever their faults, nobody could doubt that Carville and Stephanopoulos were dedicated to Democratic ideals -- and whatever their virtues, there seems to be little doubt that Coehlo and Eskew have other fat fish to fry.
To the mechanical-minded, this may seem like a contrast of no consequence. After all, with an intelligent and highly qualified candidate like Gore, a determination to stay "on message" with Democratic fundamentals and a sufficient war chest, why should it matter who gives the orders?
It matters because, as Mario Cuomo once noted, a successful campaign is an exercise in poetry (as opposed to a competent government, which functions in prose). Cuomo's eloquent observation is especially but not exclusively pertinent to Democrats, who usually must inspire more voters with less money than their Republican rivals.
The domination of a Democratic campaign by figures such as Coehlo and Eskew mutes that kind of inspiration with excessive caution. It's true that Gore suffers from his own personal awkwardness as a candidate, but his campaign's hesitation in responding to political opportunities and challenges has aggravated the feeling of ennui that now surrounds him.
In recent weeks, for example, Gore has forfeited at least two chances to stand up against the far right, and thus left his friends wondering what, if anything, he stands for.
When the authorities in Kansas declared their hostility to evolution, the vice president should have risen to the occasion with a major speech in defense of natural science, the Enlightenment and the separation of church and state. The devotees of creationism are not about to vote for him under any circumstances, so he had nothing to lose by doing the right thing. Instead what issued forth from his campaign office was mush, and Gore himself seemed to have nothing of consequence to say.
Another chance to stand up and deliver came when Pat Buchanan's muddled opinions about the Allied war against Hitler made headlines. Buchanan ought to be an inviting target for any Democrat, but again Gore remained seated and silent. The task of defending Western civilization was left instead to Donald Trump.
In both instances, the cautious, corporatized Gore campaign let slip an opportunity to define the vice president as the leader of his party and the defender of democratic values.
Clearly, the vice president needs better advice. Unless he refreshes his organization with some new and daring leadership, he may well end up losing the nomination and watching his corporate handlers return to their usual occupation -- making money.