latimes.com: Gore can misspeak, and that's no exaggeration
WASHINGTON -- Which of these statements did Al Gore make?
A) I invented the Internet.
B) I discovered Love Canal.
He said neither. But in popular mythology, he said both. Therein lies a problem for the vice president. He only perpetuates it with his own occasionally imprecise and careless use of words, and the occasional blatant exaggeration.
The question is: Why?
To answer that, says Leon E. Panetta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff who was elected to Congress in 1976 at the same time as Gore, "you better talk to some shrinks."
The issue has dogged Gore throughout his presidential campaigns. Indeed, the press secretary of his 1988 race for the Democratic presidential nomination warned him in a memorandum, well reported this year, that he needed to control his tendency to exaggerate.
New questions about the vice president's credibility were raised this week when the Boston Globe looked behind the figures Gore used to illustrate the cost of prescription drugs. The vice president said in Tallahassee, Fla., that the cost of supplying his dog with a monthly dose of an arthritis drug was $37.80, and the cost for the same drug each month for his mother-in-law was $108.
The paper found that the vice president's campaign had taken the figures not from Gore family medical bills but from a study for House Democrats. And even those numbers were misused because they represented wholesale and not retail costs.
The gaffe gave the campaign of Republican nominee George W. Bush an opportunity to question Gore's credibility.
Jano Cabrera, a spokesman at Gore's Nashville headquarters, tried to turn the same issue on Bush. "The better question is, does Bush exaggerate?" Cabrera said. "He said he had a prescription drug plan for every senior. That was wrong. He said two [military] divisions weren't ready for service. That was wrong."
Another member of the Gore entourage muttered sarcastically, "It's hard to believe exaggeration and puffery take place in politics."
But to the extent Gore is fairly accused, his transgressions often occur in areas where the exaggeration, built often on a foundation of reality, quickly crumbles, often because he is using detailed data or other elements that can be checked. That was the case in his talk on prescription drugs.
"I think it's significant that he does it where whatever it is that is exaggerated is obvious," said Wayne Field, the director of American culture studies at Washington University and author of "Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence."
Bush avoids such traps, Fields said, because he avoids specificity. But some exaggeration, Fields suspects, is there too.
"For Bush, it's his piety. He ain't that pious," Fields said. "But what he is trying to say is the idea of being religious, of his inner commitment, is important to him. What he's projecting is a kind of ideal that is not in fact dishonest. Bush is doing it in areas we're used to."
As seen by both Gore's supporters and those outside his circle, including historians, Gore doesn't necessarily lie intentionally. Rather, they say, he embellishes, and does so mysteriously in areas where the truth is already on his side. And then his language, they say, gets blown out of proportion in journalists' efforts to simplify and build up a story.
But, they say, his exaggerations are no greater than those of other politicians, whether those running for Congress or the White House.
So, what did he say about the Internet? "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet."
The Bush campaign argues, as do others, that the Internet stemmed from a Pentagon computer communication network established in 1969. But Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and a Republican who is no friend of the Gore campaign, said earlier this month, "Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet."
On Love Canal, Gore said in less-than-precise language that, in seeking out toxic waste sites while in Congress, he found the polluted waterway in upstate New York.
In the wake of Gore's earlier exaggerations, news reports of this comment, delivered last year to high school students in New Hampshire, suggested it was one more case of "there he goes again." In fact, problems at the canal were already known.
Robert Somerby, a friend from Gore's Harvard days, operates a Web site, the DailyHowler.com, dedicated to countering some of the stories circulating about his classmate. He said that, in talking about the canal in New Hampshire last winter, Gore's point was that, during congressional investigation of polluted sites, he came across the example offered by the canal. Gore did not mean to suggest, Somerby said, that he was the first to discover pollution there.
The list of questioned Gore statements goes on, muddied by time, reporting and interpretation over what is an outright lie and what stems from misrepresentation. For example, he was quoted as saying he and Tipper Aitcheson, the girlfriend he dated throughout college and eventually married, were the inspiration for the novel "Love Story." Gore said later his own "miscommunication" led reporters to write that author Erich Segal had based the book on the couple.
All of which brings Leo Ribuffo, a George Washington University history professor who specializes in the presidency, to say: "In the heat of a campaign, hyperbole is all over the place. Which major political figure would you say didn't do it in the heat of a campaign?"
"This is the country of P.T. Barnum, Madonna and Michael Jackson," he said of the tendency to hype. "It is only so striking in Gore because he's so controlled."