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joe conason

Throw the bums out
Al Gore's corporate team has struck out, so it's time for the vice president to bring some true believers on board.

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By Joe Conason

Oct. 5, 1999 | Al Gore may be wise in moving his campaign headquarters from Washington to Nashville, Tenn. But on the way home he is dragging along some heavy Beltway baggage, in the form of his chief advisors, campaign chairman Tony Coelho and media advisor Carter Eskew -- a pair who symbolize the vice president's fundamental problem these days.

If Gore truly wishes to be "closer to the people," as he proclaimed in explaining his decision to relocate, why has he placed his political fate in the hands of Coelho -- a corporate front man accused of gross self-dealing by a Clinton administration watchdog -- and Eskew, a cynical tobacco flack? By doing so he has created an apparatus that inevitably muffles his own message and leaves him vulnerable to his opponents.

Coelho's alleged ethical transgressions were publicized over the weekend by the Center for Public Integrity, one of the few nonprofit institutions in Washington that is actually nonpartisan as well. According to an audit by the State Department's inspector general, Coelho badly abused his position as the U.S. commissioner general of the 1998 World Exposition in Lisbon, Portugal.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason's column appears in Salon News every other Tuesday.

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The former California congressman is specifically alleged to have given patronage jobs to his relatives and cronies, grabbed airline tickets that had been donated to the government for his personal use, hired a chauffeur-driven Mercedes limo with public money and mingled his personal business interests in Portugal with his duties as the Expo commissioner.

Assuming that those charges are accurate -- and for the most part they remain undenied -- Coehlo appears to have confused a position of public trust with his own private enrichment. For someone who departed Congress under a shadow involving his personal finances in 1989 to become a wealthy businessman and lobbyist, this isn't exactly a shocking development.

Ironically, Coehlo's wide-ranging corporate connections include a very lucrative directorship with Service Corporation International, the huge funeral conglomerate whose regulatory troubles in Texas have embroiled Gov. George W. Bush in an embarrassing lawsuit. Indeed, Coehlo has extensive business ties with Republicans, including several of Bush's major contributors and advisors.

Although the State Department report on Coehlo's alleged misconduct involves no criminal charges and may ultimately fade away, it became public only days after media consultant Eskew was forced to sever his connections with the tobacco lobby because of inquiries by a New York Times reporter.

Gore brushed these questions aside by insisting that voters don't care about the character of his advisors, and he may be right about that. But he is fooling himself if he thinks that none of this matters. While he strives to present himself as the tribune of working families and the protector of the public interest, Gore's campaign apparatus seems to represent the very forces he claims to oppose. The effects of this contradiction are corrosive over time.

Next page | Where's the poetry?

Illustration by Zach Trenholm

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