Bush Team Devised Truth Trap” blared the headline of a story by Howard Kurtz and Terry Neal of the Washington Post. “A Sustained GOP Push to Mock Gore’s Image” was the headline for the New York Times piece on the same day about the same topic. And there was another piece on the same topic in the Time’s “Week in Review” section.
It may just be me, but it seems like the Washington press corps is more than a little surprised — and remains more than a bit upset — that Gore’s problem with truth telling has become a central issue in the campaign.
Columnists favorable to Gore or hostile to Bush have been arguing that Gore’s lies fall into the “everybody does it” category. According to Slate editor Michael Kinsley, Dick Cheney lies about his policies, but apparently the only lies emanating from Goreland are meaningless. Kinsley writes, “the main reason Gore’s lies are a big issue and Cheney’s are not is precisely that Gore’s lies are trivial and serve no purpose.”
Jonathan Alter of Newsweek writes that “If these slips had been made by any other politician, they would have caused barely a peep.” After Bush erred by saying that all three of James Byrd’s murderers were going to be put to death, E.J. Dionne wrote, “It turned out that only two of the men were sentenced to death; the third was given life in prison. You wonder: Will this exaggeration receive as much notice as Gore’s misstatements in the last debate? If not, why not?”
The common explanation, conceded by all of these Gore defenders, is that the media has been fed a story line about each candidate and those story lines dictate coverage. The Bush line is that he is dim, and so any time something comes up that reinforces that impression, the press jumps on it. The Gore line is that he is a liar or, more politely, an “exaggerator.” So, “Gore can say stupid things without fear,” Kinsley writes, “and Bush can tell whoppers, but not the other way around.”
Yeah, okay. But what seems to offend the apologists is that this dynamic of the campaign is actually hurting Gore. It goes without saying that Jonathan Alter didn’t rush to the airwaves to denounce the excesses of the media when George Bush was being mocked for his pronunciation of “subliminal.” And I don’t recall Dionne making the case that Gore should be raked over the coals for any of his Dan Quayle-like pronouncements — like “We all know a leopard cannot change his stripes.” That’s all fine and to be expected.
But what’s going un-remarked upon is the degree to which the press is covering this story as an unfair set-up. Just look at the headlines, “Bush Team Devised Truth Trap That’s Tripping Gore,” declares the Washington Post. Even when the frenzy was at it’s most furious, after the first debate, the Post covered it as if it’s somehow unfair or at least questionable to go after Gore for his relationship to the truth: “GOP Hones In on Gore’s Credibility” was the front-page headline.
How come when the vice president of the United States begins the first presidential debate by lying in response to the very first question he’s asked and keeps going from there, the story is about what the GOP does? It is a fact of logic that you cannot “trap” someone in a “truth trap” (whatever that is) if they do not lie.
Now that it’s clear that Gore’s problem with the truth is hurting Gore — and the Gore campaign is clearly whining about it to the press corps — there’s an attitude that this is a “new” issue of some sort. But this has always been Gore’s Achilles heel. That’s why, for example, National Review’s John Miller started compiling a list of Gore lies a long time ago.
In fact, I seem to recall the issue of Gore’s flip-flopping — on abortion, gays, guns — being on topic for a very long time. I recall articles by my friends at The Weekly Standard and in National Review about Gore shamelessly lying — at the 1996 convention — about how his “battle” against tobacco was launched with the death of his sister. I reviewed Bob Zelnick’s biography of Gore for National Review over a year ago. I recall the issue of Gore being a fibber playing a large role in the review and, more importantly, the book. In fact, I have heard rumors to the effect that Gore’s tendency to exaggerate more than a midget in a carnival mirror is a theme in all of the Gore biographies.
So, there’s really nothing new here. Is there something nicely Shakespearean about the fact that the mainstream press let Gore slide for years only to have him get snagged just weeks before the election? Well, yeah. But that goes to the fact that the press was irresponsible in not holding Gore accountable long ago.
But, more importantly, there’s nothing “trivial” about Gore’s lies. After Watergate, Jimmy Carter felt it was necessary to promise he’d “never tell a lie.” It was an awfully Boy-Scouty thing to say, but it was understandable why he said it. America was sick of lies coming from the White House, for good reason.
One may differ about how the Clinton years compare to the Nixon years, but only a fool — or Sean Wilentz — would argue that lying wasn’t an unusually major theme in the Clinton years. President Clinton’s lies are endless. And, in substance, many of them have been eerily similar to Al Gore’s. But Bill Clinton told them more effectively.
Lies matter, credibility matters. Truth-telling does have a direct effect on governance. Bill Clinton would never have been impeached if he hadn’t built a vast reservoir of ill-will, including all of the people he lied to. Al Gore wants to stand on the shoulders of Clinton’s positive legacy — fair enough. That’s a vice president’s prerogative. But he must also stand above the fetidness of Clinton’s benefaction of lies. And there’s simply nothing unfair about that at all.