When Vice President Al Gore sat down to breakfast recently with a small circle of California advisors, the conversation covered the length and breadth of the state.
Over cheese omelets and fresh fruit, a group including former cabinet secretary Henry Cisneros, former White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers and former Los Angeles Rep. Mel Levine offered their thoughts on fund-raising, California's changing demographics and how--and where--Gore should spend his time in the state.
Not once during the 90-minute conversation did Gore mention what turned out to be the singular event of his recent Southern California visit: his enlistment in the nation's culture wars.
By extolling the lesbian sitcom character "Ellen" in a speech to a Hollywood audience the next day, Gore reignited the on-again, off-again political debate over entertainment ratings versus social responsibility. The reason the subject never came up at the Century City breakfast was the simple fact that the vice president apparently had no idea his comments would have such impact.
"It was never meant to be a driving point of his speech," said one participant at the breakfast, describing Gore and his political advisors as stunned by the coast-to-coast headlines generated by the vice presidential embrace of "Ellen."
His supportive remarks were evidently aimed at a much narrower and calculated audience: the nation's gay and lesbian activists, a group the vice president has been carefully cultivating for years.
From virtually the moment he took office, Gore has established himself as the best friend gays and lesbians have in the White House. Now, in his time of political need, the vice president is turning to the gay community and other segments of the Democratic Party base--blacks, labor, environmentalists--to help restore some of the luster dimmed by his ties to the ongoing White House fund-raising scandals.
"Al Gore is no longer so inevitable as the Democratic nominee in 2000," said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "So he's got to go to work nailing down the support he needs from crucial Democratic constituencies before he can even start thinking about moving to the middle."
But winning gay and lesbian support is not as simple as delivering a supportive speech, despite what Gore's allies might hope or his critics--crying pander--have suggested.
The Clinton administration's uneven record on issues of concern to gays and lesbians, from same sex-marriage to the status of gays in the military, has complicated Gore's courtship, making every overture important--and politically treacherous, as the "Ellen" controversy suggests.
"In 1992, it was the Sally Field syndrome: 'They like us, they like us!' " said longtime gay political activist David Mixner, recalling the heady feeling in gay circles at being wooed by presidential candidate Bill Clinton. "As we approach 2000, merely being liked, merely being courted isn't going to cut it."
On Saturday, Clinton is due to shatter a barrier of sorts when he speaks in Washington at the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian political organization. Clinton's appearance will be a presidential first and an important symbolic gesture.
But that show of support aside, Clinton's relations with the gay community have been rocky from the start of his administration.
Soon after talking office, the president backed off his pledge to ban discrimination against gays in the military. Eventually he settled for the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which many in the gay community consider worse than the old way of doing business.
Although the president has won plaudits for appointing openly gay men and women to significant positions, other actions have provoked outrage--none more so than his support for legislation forbidding federal recognition of same-sex marriages, which he signed last year at the height of his hug-the-center reelection campaign.
"The administration has more failures at this point than successes," said Jeff Sheehy, president of the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Democratic Club in San Francisco. "There's a recognition we're much further than we've ever been. But [the president] has never really stepped up to the plate and produced anything of any significance that will extend beyond the life of his presidency."
Throughout his time in office, Gore has been seen as the gay community's true friend in the administration, whether hosting political activists at a Christmas party at his home, presiding over a White House reception for gays and lesbians or carrying messages from gay supporters to the president.
Occasionally, those things the vice president has not done or said have been seen as equally, if not more, significant.