Bill to Al: You Don't Bring Me Flowers Anymore

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Bill Clinton and Al Gore

Friday, in an extraordinary piece of psycho-journalism, the New York Times' Melinda Henneberger and Don Van Natta, Jr., delved deeply into the political and personal dynamic between President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. According the story, that relationship, once based on mutually held policy ideals and a muted respect for one another, is now in tatters: Gore has publicly dodged his boss, avoiding the White House and even trying to suppress photos of the two men together. Clinton is reportedly frustrated and surprised by Gore's behavior, struggling to understand why his erstwhile right-hand man has shunned his political advice — especially at a time when Gore's campaign appears to be headed for disaster.

White House insiders say the Times story is bunk, but questions about Gore's possible disillusionment with Clinton, says TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan, have been circulating in one form or another since the Lewinsky scandal broke. And while the Times piece is unabashedly melodramatic — picture a heartsick Clinton, leaning his forehead against a rain-covered windowpane, wondering why Gore hasn't called — the so-called rift, says Branegan, is based less on emotion and more on political expedience.

"Clinton and Gore both want Gore to win. They want that very badly," says Branegan. "Clinton obviously sees Gore's success as a reflection on his own presidency, and he's frustrated that Gore isn't doing better in the polls." But there's nothing personal about the frustration, says Branegan. Clinton is irked in part because he respects Gore — he feels they've had a good run together. Clinton's drive to see Gore elected also means the President is amenable to to taking a few shots, says Branegan. "If Clinton saw Gore winning on a platform that called the President every name in the book, Clinton the tactician would understand."

And even if he is slightly miffed by his veep's disengagement, the political animal in Clinton respects Gore's studied distance from the White House. "At the Democratic convention, Gore got up and said he'd be his own man, and he got a bounce," says Branegan. And Clinton knows that means Gore can't come running back to him every time he wants advice.