By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2000
The happiest person in Washington to see Elian Gonzalez's father arrive from Cuba last week should have been Al Gore.
Only the father's arrival could turn attention away from Gore's shifting, tortured statements about Elian Gonzalez's fate. Only Gore, with his clarifications and nuances and footnotes, could make George W. Bush sound clear, concise and consistent.
First, of course, Gore surprised even the White House on March 30 by breaking with the Clinton administration. He embraced an effort by Sens. Bob Graham and Connie Mack of Florida to give Elian and some of his relatives permanent residence status, a proposal that is going nowhere in Congress.
But the vice president's penchant for digging himself deeper the more he talks was best illustrated last Tuesday.
First, Gore's comments on NBC's Today sounded as though the vice president endorsed returning the boy to his father the minute he arrived.
"If the father says on free soil that he believes the son should go back with him, that of course is likely to be determinative and will be determinative," he said.
That "likely will be determinative" sounds an awfully lot like "no controlling legal authority." Those were the infamous words that Gore used to claim early on that he did nothing wrong when he made campaign fundraising calls in 1996 from his White House office.
Bush is often criticized for failing to offer substantive, unscripted answers. But Gore has demonstrated time and again that he also can talk himself into trouble when he is put on the spot.
The Today show was just his first attempt of the day explain away his pandering to South Florida's Hispanic voters.
Realizing their candidate had triggered more questions about consistency, the Gore campaign released a statement several hours after the show in an attempt to clarify.
"From the beginning, I have said . . . this is a custody matter that should be handled in a domestic court with expertise in these matters," the statement began.
Even then, Gore wasn't finished explaining his explanations.
In an interview with a Knight Ridder reporter, the vice president fired back at both Democrats and Republicans who have criticized his evolving position.
"This is not a set of views that I suddenly adopted because I'm involved in a presidential campaign," Gore said of his stance on Elian's case. "And it's ironic that some of those who leap to that calculation turn around in the next breath and say, "And he's so foolish because the vast majority of the voters disagree with his position.'
"This is a matter of principle with me. It has been from the beginning. I have not changed my view. I have been consistent throughout."
If it were a matter of principle, Gore would not have suddenly supported legislation calling for permanent residence status. Or he would have staked out that position from the beginning.
But Gore wasn't finished.
In an interview published in USA Today last week on the same day the Knight Ridder interview was published, the vice president said he doesn't care that national polls indicate most of the country's voters favor returning Elian to Cuba.
"I don't care how people tried to interpret it, because I'm going to say what I think is right, and there has never for an instant been a doubt in my mind about what's right in this case, and what's right is to make the decision on the basis of what is in the best interest of that young child and not allow Castro to intimidate the central players in this drama and substitute his political will for what the family ought to be able to decide in circumstances of freedom, without the intimidation of Castro," Gore said.
There also has never been an instant of doubt that Gore's hopes of winning Florida in a close race could hinge on the very Hispanic voters he is trying to appease. Yet Gore didn't risk going to Miami-Dade County last week. He made sure he stayed well north of the county line as he raised money in Palm Beach and Broward counties.
Gore has created more problems for himself than he has solved. He finally found a way to distance himself from the Clinton administration, but his sudden embrace of the legislation granting Elian permanent residency status was panned by editorial boards across the country and by Democrats as well as Republicans.
The idea that Gore bravely bucked the national mood to stand on principle should be filed under the same label the vice president used to describe the notion that Elian's father could have spoken freely in Cuba.
Elian's plight is not the issue most Americans will consider when they vote in November. It is foremost in the minds of many Hispanic voters in Miami, and it could be decisive as they make their decisions.
At most, Gore neutralized some critics in South Florida. He also somehow won over the editorial board of the Miami Herald, which published an editorial last week that claimed Gore has been consistent in his position.
During a panel discussion at a meeting of the Society of Professional Journalists last week in Tampa, the talk turned to whether journalists nit-pick at politicians. In a world of 24-hour cable news and constant Internet updates, the suggestion was made that we are so quick to seize on the slightest inconsistency that there is no room for a thoughtful politician's position to evolve on complicated issues and changing circumstances.
Perhaps, but this isn't one of those times.
Gore exploited Elian to pander for votes in the same way that U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum is using the child to raise money for his Senate campaign. In the process, the vice president has reinforced his image as an opportunist who shifts positions and is willing to say almost anything to get elected.