WHITE HOUSE WATCH by Richard S. Dunham November 8, 1999

Open Letter to Al Gore: Here's Help with Your CEO Problem
Some unsolicited advice on how to convince corporate bosses that you're not a threat to their way of life

Dear Al,

What is it with you and Corporate America? The economy is going great guns. The budget is balanced. And CEOs are saying it's time for you to go.

I know this doesn't come as a surprise to you. At the beginning of 1999, I asked Housing & Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo about Corporate America's palpable hostility toward you. He suggested that the mood in the business community would shift once top execs got to know you better. "That'll solve this situation over time," your friend and adviser told me, "because the exposure is all this man needs."

Well, you've certainly gotten plenty of exposure this year, and, if anything, the situation has worsened. Even the most humorless corporate drones were chuckling at the "Alpha Al" jokes that followed disclosures recently that you were paying feminist author Naomi Wolf $15,000-a-month to advise you on escaping Bill Clinton's shadow. That "Underdog" costume you wore was a clever touch this Halloween. But if you don't do something about Wall Street's corporate doubters soon, dead dog will be more like it.

In case you haven't seen the latest issue of Business Week, a study of the political contributions of the top 1,000 corporation finds that just 44 have contributed to your 2000 campaign (see BW, 11/15/99, "Who the Corporate Bosses Are Backing"). Heck, Bill Bradley has more than twice that many CEOs in his pocket. And he has never run anything but a fast break on the basketball court.

The CEOs give you precious little credit for the booming economy, despite your prominent role within the Administration as a deficit hawk and a free-trader. Frankly, there's something about you that makes CEOs grind their teeth. Many fear that you're a radical environmentalist who would be far more likely to regulate their businesses than President Clinton.

As I see it, you have two choices at this point: Stop trying to win over the boardroom set and start bashing Big Business -- or show some real Alpha leadership and make an aggressive case to the corporate community. That'll take a lot more than a recitation of impressive economic statistics. Here are a few unsolicited suggestions:

-- Pick a fight with organized labor. Don't worry, it doesn't have to be a big fight. Just let business know you're not in the pocket of your early endorsers at the AFL-CIO. You might push for a new round of visas to fill the shortage of high-skilled tech workers. Or you could get into a little spat over free-trade agreements.

-- Let the trial lawyers know they don't own your soul. There's nothing business leaders hate more than lawyers, especially plaintiffs' attorneys. How about expressing an openness to a compromise on tort reform? You'll never be able to match George W. Bush in lawyer-bashing. But corporate titans might appreciate a moderate display of independence.

-- Make sure you're the candidate of fiscal responsibility. Republicans are promising budget-busting tax cuts. Bradley is proposing budget-busting social programs. You can be the defender of balanced budgets, lower interest rates, and declining national debt. What chief exec would argue with that bottom line?

-- Deliver a big speech on the environment -- with business leaders on the podium, as well as your green friends. Explain how your views have evolved since you wrote that the internal-combustion engine was a threat to humankind. Talk about how regulations themselves can't solve our pollution problems. Results count. Flexibility is the buzzword. Of course, some enviro-extremists are sure to criticize you. But that'll help you even more with CEOs.

-- Repeat after me: "Greenspan rocks." President Clinton figured this out long ago. You can never praise Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan too lavishly or too often when you're speaking before a business audience. Let them know that you're all in favor of his reappointment. (Unless you're not, of course. But there's a whole new can of worms.)

Even if you do some of these things, you're not likely to win over the majority of CEOs. They're just too Republican. But if you can convince CEOs that you're not dangerous, it's possible that they won't write those huge soft-money checks to the GOP next year, after the nominees are chosen. Just realize that time is running out. You need to act now.

Dunham, White House correspondent for Business Week, offers his views on Mondays for BW Online

EDITED BY DOUGLAS HARBRECHT _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

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