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Stretching the Fabric

Al Gore bends the truth like his mentor Bill Clinton, but for a different reason

cover image

By Margaret Carlson

February 7, 2000
Web posted at: 12:54 p.m. EST (1754 GMT)

Suddenly, with the victory of John McCain last week, spin is out and candor is in. In the course of 114 town meetings in New Hampshire, McCain was asked a thousand questions and dodged none. The Senator released every medical record, herpetic lesions and all. The breakup of his first marriage? McCain takes the blame. As to what the biggest mistake of his life was, McCain reminded voters of the Keating Five scandal. George W. Bush blithely cited his trade of Sammy Sosa. McCain's book is a signed confession of his sins--being a spoiled brat at Episcopal High School, a jerk at the Naval Academy and a show-off flyboy at sea--until he was forced to grow up in a Hanoi prison.

Al Gore shares with Bush a tendency to trim the edges, smudge the details, grasp at qualifiers and embrace technicalities. But what if Gore has to face the straight-shooting McCain in the fall? Since Gore linked up with that Clinton fellow, labeled "an unusually good liar" by Senator Bob Kerrey, the Veep's grip on reality has, shall we say, loosened. You can see the wheels turning. Sure, honesty is the best policy. What's the second best policy? He saw the potential of the Internet early, but invent it? He and Tipper the models for Love Story? A bit of a stretch. And even before signing up with Clinton he could cut a corner. He did volunteer to go to Vietnam--admirable, since most sons of privilege got out of it--and he did get close to the action. But he went there as an Army reporter, not the role suggested by the photo of the gun-toting Gore pictured in 1988 campaign literature. When two reporters caught him switching the ribbons on a pair of cattle at the Iowa State Fair for a photo op, a staff memo cited it as the kind of incident that could fuel the perception that Gore "stretches the truth to suit a political moment."

Unlike Bill Bradley, I'm not prepared to call the man dishonest or morph him into Nixon. But at times, when Gore descends to the politics he disdains, he can't find the level beneath which he will not sink. At the 1996 convention he described how he sat at the deathbed of his younger sister in 1984 as she succumbed to the ravages of lung cancer, and how he vowed to fight tobacco until he drew "his last breath." Problem with that was he had made a 1988 speech to North Carolina farmers in which he extolled the joys of growing tobacco. Plus there was his continued acceptance of campaign contributions from Big Tobacco. No one questioned his sorrow, but those who were spellbound by his story were left to wonder how he could link something so sacred to something phony.

More recently, Gore's fudging is notable for being reflexive, subject to immediate refutation by checking his record, and gratuitous, since the truth would work as well. We all know he's pro-choice, but why did he insist he had always been so, rather than explain his moral struggle to get there? He conceded that he had voted to deny federal funds for abortions, but omitted that as a House member he was generally antiabortion, voting for a proposal that would have defined a fetus as a human life, which would have negated Roe v. Wade. As Vice President he can take pride in the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. But why brag that he was the "principal proponent" of it in Congress when, at most, he co-authored one extension?

In a televised debate, Gore said he would give a litmus test to his Joint Chiefs of Staff on whether they would support gays serving openly in the military, but took back the litmus test part the next day when everyone howled, all the while insisting through his staff that he was not doing so. Last Wednesday on Good Morning America, he corrected Diane Sawyer when she said he had lost the youth vote, asserting that he had "won in every single demographic category." Well, it depends on your definition of youth, perhaps. Among voters 18 to 29, Bradley beat him. A Gore appearance should be closed-captioned with the truth.

This is not to say that Gore is the only hedger in the race. Bush fudges whether he intends to make abortion illegal, as the Republican platform he embraced would do. His insistence that being a Bush closed as many doors as it opened is a Clintonian fable. Bradley's signature flip-flop is on ethanol, which he once damned as a ludicrous subsidy; but as a presidential candidate he embraced it after saying a bit disingenuously that Iowans had helped change his mind. Bradley didn't reveal his heart ailment until it forced him to the hospital. He has yet to release his medical records, apart from the most recent.

And then there's the master. Clinton can launch a whopper like "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" and have it stay aloft for nearly a year. Gore says there's "no controlling legal authority," and it's a late-night laugh line in Jay Leno's monologue before you can say Buddhist nun. Gore is just so obvious. When laying one on us, he tilts his head, goes all syrupy like an infomercial host, and slows his singsong voice even further (picture a teacher's pet whining Good morning, Miss Jones, and you've captured the Gore cadence).

This is not to say that if you're going to pull the wool over our eyes, make it cashmere and we won't mind so much. Gore's hedging springs from a place he can escape from more easily than Clinton can. Clinton's mom convinced him he was perfect, so he came to think he could get away with anything. Gore keenly senses he's not perfect and rewrites history to try to make it so. He hated bringing home B's to his parents. Like few others, McCain accepts that to err is human. He had 5 1/2 long years to think about it. That alone gives him an advantage over Gore and Bush at this moment, when voters are aching to know the character, warts and all, of the men who want to be President. --With reporting by Tamala M. Edwards


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Cover Date: February 14, 2000


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