WASHINGTON -- To nobody's surprise, the unprecedented joint appearance of an American president and his vice president on a national television show -- "Larry King Live" on CNN -- was a meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society.
Vice President Al Gore spent most, though not all, of his time extolling the virtues and record of his boss, President Clinton. And Clinton as expected expressed his high regard for the man he picked as his understudy, to the point of saying it is his "intention" to ask Gore to run with him again in 1996. That was not exactly a thunderbolt either.
But the very fact that a vice president appeared with his president on television in a relatively freewheeling discussion, with Gore not hesitating to put his two cents in, was an instructive commentary, not only on the role of the vice presidency today but also on the continuing relationship between the two men.
You don't have to go back any further than George Bush and Dan Quayle to remember that there was a time when vice presidents were supposed to be seldom seen or heard in the presence of the presidents under whom they served. Although Quayle's proclivity for putting his foot in his mouth was a particular reason for Bush to keep his distance, most vice presidents down through the years generally got the same treatment from their presidents.
Not until Jimmy Carter, another Democrat like Bill Clinton from the ranks of the governors and without Washington experience, tapped Walter Mondale, another senator like Gore, to serve with him did vice presidents begin to be given truly important responsibilities -- and wide visibility. Clinton now has taken the exposure of the vice president to new heights, and Gore seems not the slightest bit inhibited in speaking his piece, though not, certainly, contradicting his boss.
King, for example, asked Clinton early in the interview what the outlook was in Bosnia. Clinton offered a mushy answer ending with the comment that if his approach failed, "we'll have to consider what our options are then." Then, when King suggested "but no troops," Gore jumped in. "Anyone who is worried about the U.S. sending ground troops there should not be," he said. "That's not going to happen."
Earlier, Clinton had found himself in hot water by having observedin a speech that American ground troops might have to be deployed to help relocate certain United Nations peacekeeping forces. Gore seemed bent on setting the record straight.
A few minutes later, when King asked whether the United States was going to settle its dispute with Tokyo over the imposition of tariffs on expensive Japanese cars, Gore answered again before Clinton could. "Well," he said, "that's up to Japan." Only then did the president offer that "we have to be firm here. I have done everything I could for two years to have a good, constructive, friendly relationship with Japan. We are allies. We are friends. But we must be firm on this."
And when King asked about Republican foot-dragging in the House on anti-terrorism legislation, Gore fielded the question first. Clinton, he said, "won't say this the same way I do. I would personally like to say I'm very frustrated with what the House of Representatives is doing. The president's made it clear why this is necessary for our country." Only then did Clinton take a more conciliatory stand, saying, "This is not necessarily a partisan deal," and commending Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole for trying to move the bill along.
In one sense, it was nothing more than the old good cop/bad cop routine, with Gore playing the heavy. But the sense of outspoken independence that Gore conveyed, with Clinton's approval, was a clear measure of how far the vice presidency has come in the hands of these two political partners.
Near the end of the interview, when Clinton said he didn't intend to accept Ross Perot's invitation to a meeting of 1996 candidates, he added that he hadn't discussed with Gore whether the vice president should go -- whereupon Gore volunteered flatly: "I don't plan to go."
Imagine such an exchange involving Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, or Ronald Reagan and Bush -- if you can.