All Al Gore really needed to know about April 18, 2000, was summed up in his horoscope that morning. "Questions concerning legal affairs, reputation, marital status loom large," read the Washington Post's astrology column. "You could be forced into a corner; be ready with answers based on research." For once, the stars were right. Over four hours that day, federal prosecutor Robert Conrad fired questions at the Vice President about his role in the 1996 campaign-finance scandal. The afternoon session in the vice-presidential mansion was edgy and sometimes contentious. But Gore told reporters days later, "I, of course, answered every question fully and completely."
His inquisitor didn't agree. Last week Republicans on Capitol Hill leaked word that Conrad, head of the Justice Department's campaign-finance task force, has recommended that Attorney General Janet Reno appoint a special counsel to probe whether some of Gore's responses were untruthful. Reno's decision could be weeks away, but the disclosure that she is once again considering a larger investigation of Gore comes at a bad time for a candidate with a flagging campaign.
Just five months before the presidential elections, the whole ugly 1996 campaign-finance mess has come washing back, along with memories of fund raisers John Huang and Maria Hsia, the Buddhist-temple incident and the never fully answered question of how foreign money wound up in Democratic Party accounts to help the Clinton White House win re-election in 1996. Which is why the Gore campaign battled right back last week. "We're not going to take this lying down," a Gore staff member said hours after the news broke on Thursday. On Friday Gore released the transcript of the entire April 18 ordeal. Give him points for that. "I think the truth is my friend in this," Gore said.
But is it? The Gore in the transcript could have learned a lot from the astrologers, plagued as he seemed to be by faulty memory, defensiveness and--a defense lawyer's nightmare--a tendency toward needlessly expansive, rambling responses that sometimes contradicted his earlier words. And Gore's body language, which isn't conveyed in the transcript, helped convince Conrad that the Veep might be fudging; the prosecutor has mentioned to several people that Gore was sweating profusely. Never mind that Gore is often a prolific perspirer--the impression Conrad took away was that Gore had something to really sweat about.
Take the discussion of the infamous White House coffees of 1995-96, events that were scheduled to reward and grease soft-money donors to the Democratic Party as Clinton and Gore ran for re-election. "I may have attended one," Gore told Conrad. "It was certainly not my understanding that they were fund-raising events," he said. Echoing Clinton's infamous parsing of the verb "is," Gore says, "Well, let me define the term 'raising.'" And as for the notion that there might have been a price tag attached to attending a coffee, Gore was outraged. "Absolutely not," he said. "And it is my belief that that would have been considered wildly inappropriate, if not worse."