Al Gore is worried about “alternative facts,” “disinformation campaigns,” and “intentionally falsified information.” At least he says so in a new and updated edition of The Assault on Reason, his decade-old book on how Democrats tell the truth and Republicans don’t. In the paperback version published last week, Gore adds that since President Trump’s election, a “feeling of unease about our democracy has deepened considerably.”
My own feeling of unease also has deepened, but mostly over the former vice president’s ongoing struggles with the truth.
When The Assault on Reason originally came out in 2007, Gore blasted money in politics and quoted Abraham Lincoln:
I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign . . . until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands.
The passage continues: “I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.”
It’s a doozy of a quote from one of America’s great statesmen, foreshadowing concerns about capitalist greed that have animated progressives such as Gore from the early years of the 20th century to Bernie Sanders’ Twitter feed.
It’s also fake — and Gore knows it.
He probably didn’t know it back in 2007. In the first edition of his book, Gore included a footnote. It references a “Letter to Col. William F. Elkins,” written in 1864 and mentioned in The Lincoln Encyclopedia, a 1950 reference guide edited by Archer H. Shaw, an Ohio journalist. This much is true: The quote appears in Shaw’s compendium, which in turn cites a 1930 book that offers no source.
Yet there is one. John Hay and John Nicolay — secretaries to Lincoln who published their former boss’s collected writings — traced it to an 1888 pamphlet. Then they denounced it as a forgery. (The historian Thomas F. Schwartz described their investigation in a 1999 newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association.)
Gore is not a scholar. Either he or a researcher likely stumbled across the Lincoln quote, found it useful, and verified it in a volume that, to their amateur eyes, looked authoritative. Everyone makes mistakes, and this one surely was made in good faith.
But then Gore got called on it, as often happens when someone prints this phony Lincoln line. In 2007, the author and journalist Andrew Ferguson debunked it in the Washington Post.
Now, ten years later, we have a 2017 edition of The Assault on Reason, revised to include a new preface plus a new final chapter. Despite these renovations, the bogus Lincoln quote still shows up on page 88.
Today, however, Gore knows that he’s peddling a lie. Ten years ago, in more innocent times, he introduced the quote by writing that Lincoln “perceived the dangers” of corporate power and “noted” them in his 1864 letter. In the new version, however, Gore pulls back from his assertion: “Lincoln may have perceived the dangers” of corporate power, “and some historians attribute the following statement to him.” (Emphasis added.)
Good historians know the truth. So does Gore — but rather than fix an error, he now chooses to spread rotten information. Even his old footnote remains, unchanged.
Perhaps this is a nitpicky point that only fussy academics can appreciate. Gore, however, seeks to make a larger point about the health of our democracy. In the final chapter of the new edition of The Assault on Reason, he puts it this way: “When both sides in a political conflict claim expertise and cite allegedly authoritative sources to label the assertions of the other side as false, then it should not be surprising that voters begin to develop cynicism and even contempt for any and all claims of expertise.”
Nope, it shouldn’t surprise anybody at all.
— John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review, the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College, and the author of The First Assassin, a novel set in Lincoln’s Washington.