- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2000

No issue is going to determine the outcome of this year's presidential election more than character. After more than seven tortuous years of scandal, cover-ups, criminal investigations and lies, the American people want a president they can believe in again, someone they can point to with pride as an example for their children to follow.
And this is Al Gore's biggest problem. Not only is he joined at the hip to Bill Clinton's presidency, which has become a synonym for moral turpitude, he has also been tarred by his own legal transgressions and his notorious habit of exaggerating, dissembling and covering up.
He said he never used the office of the vice presidency to raise campaign money, only to admit later that he had indeed made fund-raising calls from his White House office. Some Democratic corporate donors termed the calls "a shakedown."
He said the fund-raising calls he made from the West Wing were only for "soft money," for party building, for which there is "no controlling legal authority" (meaning such crimes are never prosecuted). But then it was revealed that some of the big money he raised on government property was hard money for the Clinton-Gore campaign. And that is prosecutable.
He said he doesn't remember discussing the ins-and-outs of raising hard money in the White House, but a Justice Department task force found he was very much part of that discussion and knew hard money was being raised in contravention of the laws against raising such funds in a federal office.
He said he did not know a 1996 presidential campaign fund-raising event at a Buddhist temple was a fund-raising event. But an investigation revealed a paper trail that showed it was impossible for him not to know money was being illegally raised there for the campaign.
Now that he is running for president, Mr. Gore confesses he made numerous "mistakes" in his fund-raising activities, and says he has "learned from my mistakes." But has he? And at this point, does it matter?
He has been the subject of several Justice Department investigations to see if an independent prosecutor was needed to dig out the truth about his illegal campaign-finance activities. But each time, Attorney General Janet Reno concluded there was no evidence to warrant such action. Charles LaBella, who headed the task force that investigated the charges, concluded otherwise. His findings were swept under the rug.
Now Mr. Gore's veracity is under question again, this time about an e-mail trail of White House computer messages that were subpoenaed by a grand jury, the Justice Department and three congressional committees. Some of the missing e-mail that has just come to light is related to the Clinton-Gore campaign-finance scandal.
When Mr. Gore was questioned about the e-mail by the Associated Press last week, he retreated into his "no controlling legal authority" attitude, first flatly denying, then dissembling, then just becoming very vague about it all.
When asked how much he had used e-mail during the course of his 1996 re-election campaign "to communicate about fund raising," he answered, "Didn't."
When the AP reporter pressed him to elaborate, asking "Just 'didn't'?" Mr. Gore quickly backed off his one-word denial, saying, "Well, first of all, I don't know. But whatever is there will be disclosed fully and completely."
When Mr. Gore was reminded of his reputation as an Internet-savvy person who uses e-mail frequently, he said: "Not about this."
Then he "immediately backtracked into vaguer statements," the AP reported. "First of all, I just don't know. I just don't know… . They're reconstructing this."
Mr. Gore is similarly vague and dissembling when he is questioned about a recent Joint Committee on Taxation finding that two of his White House aides had improperly tried to obtain confidential records from the Internal Revenue Service for a labor union.
When pressed about the improper request and to name the union, Mr. Gore replied, "I don't really know." Asked if he recalled directing the two aides to make the IRS inquiries, Mr. Gore says "No, no." He insists the White House counsel's office gave his aides advice about submitting information inquiries to the IRS, "without his knowledge."
All this will be fully investigated by a Justice Department task force that is looking into whether the White House, especially Mr. Gore and his staff, obstructed justice when they failed to produce e-mails related to the campaign-finance scandal.
Now Mr. Gore is running as a presidential candidate who wants to reform the campaign-finance system. Calling himself an "imperfect messenger," he seems to be saying, "Who knows more about this issue than someone who has repeatedly broken the laws governing it?"
Little wonder that when 1,000 registered voters were asked last week if they wanted a candidate who was a reformer or someone who was honest and had strong character, 73 percent said they preferred the latter.
They are going to get that choice in November.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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