Al Gore Is Only Blowing Smoke

President Clinton has won a reputation for being able to hold two sides of the same issue at almost any time and getting away with it. But having seen the vice president's convention speech about the death of his sister, I know that President Clinton has some real competition from his running mate.

The vice president delivered a long and stirring speech about his sister's death from lung cancer. This kind of personal revelation from a major public figure is almost unheard of. Such disclosures are usually relegated to lesser figures who explain how they didn't think something was a real problem AIDS, for example but now realize just how big an issue it is.

Yet there was some important information missing in Mr. Gore's testimonial, information that raises a serious question about the messenger and the message.

First, the messenger. What Al Gore didn't tell America in his message is that the Gore family owe much of their fortune and success in politics to the tobacco industry. The vice president didn't mention that he was raised on a tobacco farm or that in years past he has actively wooed the votes of the tobacco industry. He did not include in his speech a statement that he gave in 1988 to tobacco farmers: "Throughout most of my life, I raised tobacco. I want you to know that with my own hands, all of my life, I put it in the plant beds and transferred it. I've hoed it. I've dug in it. I've sprayed it, I've chopped it, I've shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it."

But now he disassociates himself from it.

He did not tell you that he had taken more than $16,000 in campaign contributions from tobacco company lobbies between 1979 and 1990, nor, for that matter, did he tell you that the tobacco lobbies have contributed more to Democratic candidates than to Republican candidates between the years 1987 and 1996.

No, he saved the revelation of his own involvement until Thursday morning, after his widely watched Wednesday-night speech, and only after the media raised questions about his past connections with the tobacco industry. When confronted, he conceded his past involvement.

This may all be smart politics. But Gore's failure to mention his own culpability has undermined the long-term importance of his address. A meaningful conversion experience in which a person shifts dramatically from one side to another on a moral issue requires that the individual both realize and acknowledge that he has been wrong in the past. When St. Augustine wrote his famous autobiography The Confessions, he discussed in detail his past life and the errors he had made leading up to his conversion to Christianity. When St. Paul discussed his conversion in the New Testament he did the same.

But when Al Gore discussed his conversion to an anti-tobacco position, he gave no indication that he had done wrong in the past. One hesitates to think that the vice president would use such a sensitive issue as his sister's tragic and untimely death simply for political gain, but genuine repentance does demand recognition and acknowledgment of the error of past ways.

As for the message, what the vice president left out of the speech was one of the most important policy distinctions between Republicans and Democrats: that of individual responsibility and personal accountability. One got the distinct impression listening to Mr. Gore that his sister was a victim of tobacco. But the fact is that his sister made a choice to smoke. She made that choice every day she lit up a cigarette. Her untimely death was the result of those choices, not of evil tobacco companies.

Al Gore also made a choice: to seek support from the tobacco industry. He can't disassociate himself from the responsibility that comes with the freedom of making that decision. The fact that the messenger hid his past conduct, and that his message undermined the moral imperative of individual responsibility for one's actions, implies that he hasn't really been converted. He is only temporarily blowing smoke.