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    With a focus on Gore's exaggerations, Bush gets away with murder

    By PHILIP GAILEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000


    Al Gore was supposed to make short work of George W. Bush in a series of three presidential debates. But after two debates, it is Bush who has emerged with the political advantage from these encounters, even though Gore clearly outscored him on points and demonstrated a superior grasp of foreign and domestic issues. In the first debate, Bush was shaky and shallow on foreign policy, but fortunately for the Texas governor, Gore came across as an overbearing bully, emitting audible sighs and rolling his eyes as if he were sharing the stage with the class dunce. In Winston-Salem on Wednesday night, Gore tried too hard to compensate. His performance was lackluster and tentative as he tried to control his body language and strike a civil tone. The bar for Bush was set so low that all he had to do was look confident and relaxed, which he did.

    As Ronald Reagan demonstrated in his debates with President Jimmy Carter, the race is not always to the swiftest or the brightest. There is something strange and mysterious about the ways voters size up presidential candidates. It is an alchemy that often has more to do with personality and style than issues and substance. That is Gore's problem. Some reporters who have covered Gore over the years use the word "weird" to describe him. At his worst, he can come across as arrogant and evasive, as a man who keeps re-inventing himself, as a shameless panderer (the Elian Gonzalez case) and, according to his harshest critics, as a man who cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

    Clearly, for whatever reason, even many of the voters who share Gore's positions on issues are struggling to increase their comfort level with the man. They wonder if he would represent four more years of what they like least about the Clinton administration -- a president who, when cornered, argues over what the meaning of "is" is. Gore's credibility problem may finally be catching up with him. In the second presidential debate, Gore admitted that he sometimes gets his facts wrong and promised that as president he would always try to get the "big things" right.

    At the moment, it's the little things that are stalling Gore's campaign. His credibility has become an issue because he has a history of exaggerating or embellishing his own political accomplishments, denying the undenial and grossly misrepresenting his opponent's positions. In the heat of last winter's primary campaign, Bill Bradley, who unsuccessfully challenged Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination, aimed this shot straight at Gore: "Why should we believe that you will tell the truth as president if you don't tell the truth as a candidate?"

    Much to the dismay of the vice president's own supporters, his behavior in the general election campaign has given Republicans an opening to reprise Bradley's charge. At least Bill Clinton -- an "unusually good liar," Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., called him -- lied to protect his political behind, whether the issue was draft-dodging or Monica Lewinsky. Gore, however, has developed a reputation for fibbing on trivial matters when it's not necessary.

    With all the attention focused on Gore's credibility, Bush is getting away with murder. The Texas governor continues to mislead the public and misrepresent his $1.3-billion tax cut plan. In explaining his budget, Bush's math is worst than "fuzzy." It is bogus. Bush keeps telling whoppers while Gore is portrayed by Republicans as a pathological liar. Perhaps the lesson here is that in politics, if you are going to play loose with the truth, it's better to tell big lies than little ones.

    It's one thing to make factual mistakes, as most candidates are prone to do. It's something else to consistently misrepresent, exaggerate or embellish one's own record or to disregard the truth. In Gore's case, even his own supporters ask themselves why he does it.

    Why, for example, did he deny in the first presidential debate that he had ever questioned Bush's qualifications to be president when he had done just that in a recent interview with the NEW YORK TIMES? Or why did he claim to have been one of the architects of the Earned Income Tax Credit that was enacted in 1975, three years before Gore was elected to Congress? And why would Gore say he co-sponsored the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill when he left the Senate to become vice president before Feingold even took his oath as a senator? In a recent interview with the NEW YORK TIMES, Gore said PBS has never invited him to appear on a documentary about presidential debates. But PBS officials said they had personally asked Gore to be interviewed for the documentary, and Gore's own spokesman confirmed that the vice president had rejected the offer.

    Voters are left to wonder if this pattern is indicative of a deeper character flaw in Gore, one that would be magnified in the White House. They should be just as troubled by Bush's lack of honesty about his tax-cut plan and budget proposals.

    Gore appears to be in another slump, but this is still his election to lose. He continues to lead Bush in key battleground states, and the polls suggest that most voters favor his positions on the issues they care about. In the campaign's final stretch, Gore needs to raise the public's comfort level with the idea of his being in the Oval Office for the next four years. Tuesday night's final debate in St. Louis may be Gore's last chance to reassure voters that if he is elected, it won't be necessary to add another sentence to the presidential oath of office that reads ". . . and I promise to tell the truth, so help me God."

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