[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
January 27 - February 3, 2000


Spinning loyalty

The Gore camp prepares to explain why the VP stood up for his philandering boss. Plus, the politics of the Skakel case, and the incredible shrinking governor.

by Seth Gitell

How's this for a bit of political spin? If Al Gore had not been so loyal to President Bill Clinton during the impeachment hearings, America would be a shambles today. Any other action by Gore would have torn the country apart and caused the stock market to plummet.

That's the latest line coming privately from portions of the Gore camp to explain what's likely to become a major issue in the general election should Gore win the Democratic nomination. Like Naomi Wolf's alpha-male strategy and Gore's decision to move his center of operations to Nashville, which inspired controversy earlier in the campaign, this issue is likely to stir debate within the Gore team. Expect it to come into sharper focus as Election Day approaches.

The vice-president does have a problem. On December 19, 1998, the day the House of Representatives voted to impeach his boss, Gore joined House Democrats and the president on the White House lawn for a rally in Clinton's defense. Gore declared that the impeachment vote "does a disservice to a man I believe will be regarded in history books as one of our greatest presidents. There is no doubt in my mind that the verdict of history will undo the unworthy judgment rendered a short while ago in the United States Capitol." Today, if you travel to the vice-president's campaign headquarters in Nashville and look up, you'll see a giant billboard of Gore embracing Clinton. The caption reads, ONE OF OUR GREATEST PRESIDENTS.

The billboard was paid for by the Republican National Committee.

In the face of such digs, the new Gore campaign tack is "part inoculation," according to Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "It's trying to have it both ways," she says. "For the people who like Clinton, they already like Clinton. For the people who didn't like Clinton, it allows Gore to say, `What choice did I have?' "

The maneuver should appeal to the new constituencies the vice-president is trying to attract, notes Henry Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic consultant. "There is a sense that Clinton's behavior is in the back of people's brains, especially among fundamentalist Christians, whom Gore has tried to reach out to," he says. "The notion that saying he did the right thing to protect the country makes sense."

"I think it's a good explanation for his loyalty in spite of what some may see as immoral behavior," Sheinkopf says. "He put the country's betterment above his own feelings. It's a way to make him a patriot for not denouncing the president."

But not everyone thinks Gore's loyalty needs any explaining. "The vice-president would say, `This was an attempt to take the president out -- an attempt to destroy an administration,' " says one close Gore ally. "The vice-president was not going to allow that to happen. I think the vice-president can say very simply and very honorably, `I was not going to walk away from the most successful presidency of my lifetime.' " Still, the source acknowledges that the campaign is working on ways to shield Gore from Republican attacks on this issue. "They're all kind of trying to figure out how to spin this so it doesn't injure him."

Part of the problem, some Democrats say, is the tone of the Clinton love-fest that Gore took part in more than a year ago. "I think he should have toned his rhetoric down a touch. I think the White House rally was a mistake," says US Representative Barney Frank, who staunchly defended the president during the impeachment trial but did not join his House colleagues on the lawn that day. "What I said throughout was that the president was entitled to fairness but not to indignation. He was a guy who screwed up. I did not think triumphalism was appropriate on that Saturday." Frank has yet to endorse a Democratic presidential challenger.

In Gore's defense, though, the vice-president was in no position to "ignore" the rally, Frank says. "You didn't know I wasn't there," he points out. "But if Al Gore wasn't there, [the press] would have written about it. He didn't have any choice. No vice-president has any choice. Nobody blamed Gerald Ford for standing by Nixon."

Political consultant Michael Goldman, a local adviser to Bill Bradley, notes that the dilemma underscores an underlying tension in the Gore campaign. "The problem for these guys is that everything good about this administration, they want to take credit for," he says. "Everything bad about the administration, they want to distance themselves from."

"This guy has no rudder," says Republican National Committee spokesman Mike Collins of Al Gore. "First he was being loyal out of friendship. Then he said [he was defending] one of our greatest presidents. Then he said he found his behavior reprehensible. Now they say, `He did it to keep Wall Street from going into a panic.' " As he says this, Collins can't keep incredulity from creeping into his voice. Consider it a foreshadowing of what Gore would hear from the GOP in a face-off against George W. Bush or John McCain.

Footnote: the Gore camp can't be happy with the latest television ads from the diet company Jenny Craig, featuring Monica Lewinsky. The ads are unpopular because they apparently remind the public of something everyone would rather forget. Because they are paid advertising for a private company, they fly under the scrutiny of federal election authorities. But people like Mike Collins must adore them.

As Connecticut attorneys prepare to litigate the case of Michael Skakel, who stands accused of beating 15-year-old Martha Moxley to death with a golf club in 1975, political junkies are watching closely for potential fallout. Skakel, 39, is a nephew of Ethel Kennedy and the first cousin of former congressman Joe Kennedy. He's also the Kennedy relative who ratted out the late Michael Kennedy for his alleged affair with a Cohasset teenager.

The case is being heard by juvenile court judge Maureen D. Dennis. But prosecutors are working to transfer the case from the juvenile court to the criminal court in Stamford. If they succeed, Skakel will be tried as an adult (possible under 1975 law). If that happens, watch for the Kennedy connection to come up during jury selection. During voir dire, attorneys on both sides can ask prospective jurors questions about their feelings and attitudes toward the case.

"Voir dire in Connecticut is wide open. A question might be asked, `What do you think of the Kennedy family?' " says Boston attorney and New England Cable News legal editor Jeffrey Newman. Compare that with Massachusetts, where voir dire is limited to statutorily mandated questions that prospective jurors answer en masse by raising their hands. Judges rarely allow additional questions.

Peter Truebner, a former New York prosecutor and a criminal-defense attorney with 20 years of experience in the Stamford court system, says he'd query jurors about their feelings toward the Kennedys. "I think you'd have to probe. You'd have to ask, `You always liked John Kennedy. Would that fact make you more or less likely to be fair in this case?' " Truebner notes. "There may be a pre-trial motion to prohibit any reference to Skakel as a Kennedy or a Kennedy relative. A judge could fairly exclude it from the evidence. I'd be inclined to think from a defense standpoint, you would not want that fact before the jury."

Skakel himself is from tony Greenwich, and that's GOP country, says Peter Beck, the town's Democratic Party chairman. "The only time a Democrat wins [elections] is in unusual circumstances," he says. "We elected the tax collector this year. That's a big job in this town." The court's jurisdiction cuts a swath through Fairfield County, and other communities in the area are more diverse, Beck notes: "Stamford is a Democratic town. Darien and New Canaan both tend to be Republican. Norwalk is working/middle class. Westport is sort of like Greenwich, but more politically liberal." Still, the jury pool will probably include a greater-than-average number of Republicans.

"There may be an anti-Kennedy bias from staunch Republicans," says Harvard Law professor and defense attorney Alan Dershowitz. "If it were to come to a jury, of course, you'd have to get the Kennedy haters off."

An even more pressing issue may be Skakel's religious background. He's an Irish Roman Catholic being tried for murder in one of the last remaining WASP communities in the country. Writes Dominick Dunne of a Catholic family in his 1993 fictionalized account of the case, A Season in Purgatory: "They were neither accepted nor received by the society of their city, for the Irish -- even the rich Irish . . . were considered in those days to be not altogether correct."

Skakel's family connections drew the interest of Dunne, who, in turn, involved former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman in the murder mystery. Fuhrman's 1998 book about the case, Murder in Greenwich, is credited by some with sparking the DA's decision to take the case to a grand jury.

What's more, Fuhrman's book agent for the project was Lucianne Goldberg, a former friend of Dunne's. Goldberg, of course, was in cahoots with Linda Tripp in the events that eventually led to the impeachment of the president. Jeffrey Toobin, in his new book A Vast Conspiracy (Random House), reports that Goldberg, with Tripp on the telephone, asked Fuhrman whether semen preserved on clothing could be tested for DNA purposes. Goldberg did not tell Fuhrman the identities of the people involved. Fuhrman told Goldberg that it could. Tripp subsequently persuaded Monica Lewinsky to save the blue dress that had the president's "genetic material" on it. So now we face the remarkable circumstance of having Fuhrman, Goldberg, and Tripp on the same side against Skakel. Who says this isn't going to be bigger than O.J.?

Footnote: none of the Kennedys have rallied to Skakel's defense. Senator Ted Kennedy issued a statement about the case that can only be described as tepid: "I haven't seen any of the reports," he said. "It's a very sad situation." Don't expect to see Hyannis or Hickory Hill come running when it's time for Skakel to find character witnesses.

Governor Paul Cellucci appeared to do a remarkable job on Thursday, January 20, of impersonating the chairman of the Lowell School Committee. His much-analyzed decision to hold the State of the State address at Lowell High School, rather than at the State House, didn't have the intended effect: Cellucci failed to come across as a populist fighting the ugly tentacles of Beacon Hill. Instead, the setting seemed to diminish the governor -- an impression intensified by his 20-pound weight loss of recent months.

Cellucci's address had none of the majesty associated with Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or other masters of political stagecraft. Louisiana governor Huey Long, perhaps the greatest "populist" of our century, realized that in order to fight effectively for the working people, he first needed to give them something to be proud of. The spectacle of state dignitaries squeezed into chairs meant for students was not what the governor needed to energize his tenure.

Finally, hats off to Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. Her instincts told her that something was wrong with Bill Bradley well before he announced last week that he'd suffered four more episodes of irregular heartbeat. Marsh told me that she found Bradley's failure to respond to Gore's attacks on Medicare and Iowa farm relief disconcerting. She couldn't understand how someone fighting for his political life could be reacting with such languor. Maybe his heart problem is more serious than he's letting on, she said. Soon, we had the news proving Marsh's theory correct.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.