WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton was asked at his Wednesday news conference how he thought Vice President Al Gore was doing establishing himself as "his own man" in his presidential quest, he suggested it's always a challenge for the No. 2 man in an administration.
He cited the task faced by Richard Nixon in 1960 seeking to succeed President Dwight Eisenhower, by Hubert Humphrey in 1968 running to succeed President Lyndon Johnson, and by George Bush the elder in 1988 bidding to replace President Ronald Reagan. Only Mr. Bush made it, and none of the three vice presidents got anywhere near the help from their bosses that Mr. Gore has received from Mr. Clinton.
Mr. Gore's mentor suggested that a vice president becoming "his own man" after eight years in the shadow of the president is "a gradual process" and that "one day it reaches ... a tipping point, and people kind of get it and say, 'Well, there it is, there this person is.' And I think that after the conventions it will be quite crystal-clear, and the main players on the stage of American political life will be the two candidates for president."
In other words, Mr. Clinton was contending that it was just a matter of time, until vice presidents seeking the top office come to be accepted as their party's leaders -- punctuated by their nominations at their party conventions --that they can escape the presidential shadow.
Nixon in 1960, however, never was able to move out of his own shadow as a slippery operator and vice-presidential hatchet man, especially against the smooth and appealing John Kennedy. Humphrey in 1968 also failed in large part because he couldn't exert independence from the overpowering LBJ, who kept him on a tight rein on the prosecution of the Vietnam War.
In 1988, Vice President Bush toiled to erase "the wimp image" -- the product of his worshipful allegiance to Mr. Reagan. Only with a strong acceptance speech at his convention (remember "Read my lips"?) did he emerge sufficiently to be elected -- with a slashing campaign against a weak Michael Dukakis.
Although Mr. Clinton pointed to these precedents to rationalize Mr. Gore's continuing identity crisis, they hardly apply to Mr. Gore, who unlike Vice Presidents Nixon, Humphrey and Bush has received an unprecedented embrace from the man under whom he serves. It was evident to a remarkable degree again in the news conference, as Mr. Clinton painted his No. 2 as a policy architect over the last nearly eight years.
He postulated that maybe Mr. Gore was having some difficulty because he has been such a key participant in many of the major policies of the Clinton administration. "It shouldn't surprise," he said, "that having worked here for eight years, as we all have, that a lot of the new things he proposes will grow naturally out of what has been done rather than being a departure from it." Noting Mr. Gore's latest energy proposal, Mr. Clinton said that "while he did incorporate a lot of what I have proposed on energy and efficiency, he went way beyond what I'd ever proposed."
That answer was a far cry from the one Eisenhower gave at a news conference in 1960 when he was asked for "a major idea" of Nixon's as his vice president "that you had adopted." Ike replied: "If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don't remember."
Forty years later, Mr. Clinton is outdoing himself pinning a rose on his No. 2, to the point of saying that "no person in the history of the Republic has had the positive impact in this country as vice president that Al Gore has had. Therefore, in my lifetime, he's the best qualified person to serve." Accordingly, Mr. Clinton said in what is probably the best campaign pitch that can be made for Mr. Gore that he "is far more likely to keep the prosperity of this country going."
Indeed, with the economy thriving and Mr. Gore's experience so broad, the obvious question is: why is he trailing in the polls? What is it about him that turns voters off?
That is the elusive element with which his strategists continue to struggle. Perhaps the Democratic convention will give him the forum and generate the necessary public reaction to solve the puzzle. Until then, all the Gore tub-thumping by his boss in the White House doesn't seeming to be counting for much.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).