WASHINGTON — In an unusual bid at political damage control, Vice President Al Gore defended his aggressive role in Democratic Party fund-raising by declaring Monday that he never did "anything wrong, much less illegal," but pledging not to repeat the actions that most recently brought him under fire.
At a hastily scheduled press conference, the vice president acknowledged that he placed fund-raising calls from his White House office in 1995 and 1996. But he argued that he and the president are exempt from the legal ban on such actions that applies to other federal employees.
"Everything I did, I understood to be lawful," Gore declared, even as he told reporters that he no longer would make such calls from his office.
In seeking to contain what is arguably the first crisis of his not-yet-announced bid for the presidency, Gore on Monday alternated between a legalistic, almost stilted, tone and scrappier, campaign-style rhetoric. The spotlight on Gore's cash-raising activities--which reportedly earned him the moniker "solicitor in chief" in high-level political circles--is the latest episode in an ongoing series of revelations about Democratic fund-raising in 1995 and 1996.
"My counsel advises me that there is no controlling legal authority or case that says that there was any violation of law whatsoever," Gore told reporters, using legalese to describe an absence of case law that might more clearly set forth precisely what actions a vice president may or may not take to raise funds on government property.
Later, Gore shifted into a political mode, declaring that he was "proud to have done everything I possibly could" to reelect Clinton and help his efforts to "protect Medicare and Medicaid" and balance the budget.
"Our economy is roaring, inflation is low, crime is down, investments in education and protecting the environment are going up," he said. "Social trends are favorable. Economic trends are favorable. We are moving in the right direction."
It was not the first time that Gore, who has sought to preserve a wholesome, uncontroversial image as he jockeys to remain the Democratic front-runner for president in 2000, has faced unpleasant publicity on campaign-finance issues. He was previously embarrassed by revelations that he appeared at a money-raising lunch at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, an event that he initially said was not a fund-raiser.
In recent weeks, however, Gore has been linked more directly to his party's aggressive fund-raising practices and to individuals with controversial overseas links, such as John Huang, who is under investigation for his actions as a top Democratic fund-raiser. Gore also hosted a coffee reception attended by a fugitive Lebanese businessman sought by the international police agency Interpol on embezzlement charges, and he met with foreign-linked donors whose contributions were later returned.
The Washington Post on Monday cited an unidentified source who claimed that there were "elements of a shakedown" in a solicitation he received from Gore.
Gore on Monday declined to answer that anonymous description, but he acknowledged that he felt personal discomfort with the task of fund-raising, a chore that vice presidents traditionally are required to undertake. By one account, Dan Quayle, the vice president under Republican President George Bush, raised more than $35 million by appearing at fund-raisers before the '92 election.
"Does it--does it make one uncomfortable to do that?" Gore asked aloud about soliciting individuals for money. "Well, sure," he answered. He added that it is tolerable, nonetheless, "if you believe [in] what you're doing."
According to an earlier Post account on Sunday, Gore's fund-raising effort yielded at least $40 million for the party.
The vice president told reporters that most of the cash was raised through traditional fund-raising events as he campaigned in 1995 and 1996, a period when the Democrats were trying to finance a major ad campaign.
In addition, he made fund-raising calls "on a few occasions" from his office in December 1995 and the spring of 1996, using a Democratic National Committee credit card, Gore said. "I was advised there was nothing wrong with that practice," he said.
The White House released an April 1995 memo written by Abner J. Mikva, then counsel to the president, instructing employees that, under the Hatch Act prohibiting federal employees from engaging in political activity while on duty, "No fund-raising phone calls or mail may emanate from the White House or any other federal building."
The memo, directed to White House staff members, did not specifically address whether the law applied to fund-raising activities of the president and vice president.
Citing the same law, Gore said that there was a specific exclusion for the president and vice president because, unlike federal personnel, they are candidates.
Gore disputed that he had made a "mistake," even as he announced that he would no longer make such calls from his office, noting that "it's aroused a great deal of concern and comment, and it's not something that I want to continue if it's going to raise this kind of concern."
"If I had realized in advance that this would cause such concern, then I wouldn't have done it in the first place," he added.
Gore also told reporters that he favored elimination of "soft money," a type of contribution to the political parties not affected by ordinary limits, and which he helped raise in 1995 and 1996.
Asked about any impact of today's controversies on his future, Gore said: "I'm not focused on a political campaign in the future. I'm focused on doing everything I can to help this president be the best president he's capable of being. . . ."