W A S H I N G T O N, Oct. 7, 2000 -- This just in: Al Gore has a penchant for exaggeration.
From tales about his relatives to claims about his own achievements, the vice president’s embellishments frequently send media “truth squads” cracking and campaign aides back-peddling.
Pants on Fire
Gore’s latest trouble with the truth came Tuesday in his first presidential debate with Republican candidate George W. Bush. When moderator Jim Lehrer asked the candidates about their “ability to handle the unexpected,” the Texas governor cited his handling of wildfires that swept through part of his state in June 1998.
“I accompanied [Federal Emergency Management Agency Director] James Lee Witt down to Texas when those fires broke out,” Gore said in his response.
The vice president was in Texas shortly after the fires had broken out, but he was there to address the state’s Democratic Party at a June 26 fund-raiser, not to inspect fire damage, as his remark implied. Furthermore, Witt was never with him at any point during the trip.
An aide later claimed the vice president had conducted an aerial inspection of the affected area from Air Force Two.
“I was there in Texas,” Gore said on ABCNEWS’ Good Morning America the next day. “I’ve made so many trips to these disaster sites … If James was there before or after, then I got that wrong.”
Are You Experienced?
But Gore ‘got it wrong’ a number times throughout the course of the evening.
When Lehrer asked the vice president to clarify what he means when he questions whether his opponent is experienced enough to be president, Gore insisted, “I have actually not questioned Governor Bush’s experience. I have questioned his proposals.”
On March 12, however, as he criticized his opponent’s tax relief proposal at a campaign rally in Irving, Texas, Gore said, “[This] raises a serious question: Does Governor Bush have the experience to be president.” “No!” cried the partisan crowd. “Proposals like that make you wonder,” Gore added.
In an exchange about public education, Gore told the tale of 15-year-old Kailey Ellis, a student at Sarasota High School in Florida, who had to stand during her science class because, Gore claimed, “they can’t squeeze another desk in for her.”
But the school’s principal, Daniel Kennedy, called the story “misleading” and said Ellis was only without a desk for one class period.
“I think the vice president’s intentions were completely honorable, to try to get more money for the schools,” Kennedy said in an interview with ABCNEWS, “but he was provided with facts and information that were simply misleading.”
“We certainly have enough desks,” Kennedy added. “He slipped up on the facts.”
And Tuesday was, by no means, the first day the vice president ‘slipped up on the facts’ in an effort to score political points. Gore, in fact, stretches the truth regularly.
His most infamous exaggeration occurred during an interview with CNN on March 9, 1999, when he boldly asserted, “I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”
Gore is widely credited with having been a leader in the area of information technology, having introduced key legislation such as the Supercomputer Network Study Act and the National High Performance Technology during his tenure in the House. But Gore’s critics seized on what was admittedly an overstatement of his achievements.
Last December, Gore acknowledged accidentally misleading reporters aboard Air Force Two to believe he and Tipper were the inspiration for the 1970s romance novel Love Story. A spokeswoman said it was a simple “miscommunication.”
These statements could be written off as verbal gaffes, but a slew of other less well-known exaggerations could not — and many were exposed only after a close examination of the facts.
For the Dogs
On Aug. 28, at a forum with seniors in Tallahassee, Fla., Gore used a personal example to illustrate the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs. He told his audience that his mother-in-law, Margaret Ann Aitcheson, pays nearly three times as much for the arthritis medicine Lodine as he pays to get the same medication for his dog, Shiloh. It was a tale told at least twice before — at an assisted living center in Eugene, Ore. and at a community college in Cincinnati — but it wasn’t quite true.
The monthly costs he cited — $108 for his wife Tipper’s mom and $37.80 for his black, Labrador retriever — were, campaign officials later admitted, from a congressional study of wholesale prices and not the actual retail prices paid by him or his mother-in-law.
“The issue is not her,” Gore responded. “The issue is what seniors around this country are paying.”
Five months earlier, it was the vice president’s own mother, Pauline LaFon Gore, who was the subject of an embellishment. In a speech to the Nashville City Club in Tennessee, the vice president recounted how his mother was invited for lunch at the club in 1971, only to be kicked out of the main dining room due to the club’s all-male policy.
“The resulting outrage … caused a revolution,” said Gore. “And a few days later, this City Club was opened to women and the charter was changed.”
The club did start allowing women into its dining area, albeit after several weeks — not “a few days.” But even after Mrs. Gore’s protests, women could only enter if accompanied by male members. And they were not allowed to become members themselves until 14 years later.
His mother made another memorable appearance in a story the Republicans pounced on as another example of Gore’s storytelling: On Sept. 18, when the vice president told a Teamsters conference in Las Vegas that she sang him to sleep as a child by singing, “Look for the Union Label.”
The jingle, however, was not written until 1975, when Gore was 27. While aides insisted the line was clearly a lighthearted joke and a standard part of his stump speeches, Republicans pointed to it as another mark against him. The Gore camp later claimed he had meant to cite a different, older song.
“I think this whole exaggeration thing is exaggerated by the press,” said Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway. “The press jumps all over verbal stumbles and honest mistakes.”
Hattaway accused the media of misrepresenting many of the vice president’s statements. “He never said he invented the Internet — that was an exaggeration by the press … The lullaby thing was a joke. And his mother-in-law’s prescription does cost more than his dog’s.”
Reporters were to blame for at least one inaccurate report of an embellishment that wasn’t. In November 1999, Gore boasted to students, parents and teachers at a New Hampshire high school that he was the first to call for a congressional hearing into a toxic waste disaster in the 1970s.
“I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal,” he said. “I had the first hearing on that issue … that was the one that started it all.”
Many news organizations incorrectly quoted the vice president as saying, “I was the one that started it all.”
“The press screwed up the Love Canal thing because he never said he discovered it,” said Hattaway.
Campaign Trail Fodder
Every time Gore plays fast and loose with the facts, regardless of the subject matter, it provides campaign trail fodder for his opponents. On Friday, the Bush campaign was in full attack mode.
“He seems to have a compulsion to embellish his arguments,” vice-presidential nominee Dick Cheney told reporters aboard his campaign plane. “This is a man who’s got significant accomplishments … and yet seems to have this uncontrollable desire periodically to add to his reputation, to his record, things that aren’t true.”
And Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan said the campaign has no intention of dropping the issue of Gore’s “truthfulness” in the final weeks of the campaign.
“We will keep pressing the issue so long as Al Gore keeps making up stories out of whole cloth,” he said. “It is certainly a legitimate concern.”
“We don’t attack Bush for his crimes against the English language,” countered Hattaway, referring to the Texas governor’s numerous gaffes and mispronunciations.
“There’s a huge and significant difference between making up stories and facts and an occasional slip of the tongue,” said Sullivan. “This is not just an occasional problem for the vice president. It seems to be a pattern of embellishments.”
And Gore’s Republican rivals and the media are not the only people questioning the veracity of certain statements made by the vice president. Robert Conrad Jr., the supervising attorney heading up the Justice Department’s campaign finance probe, recommended to Attorney General Janet Reno in June that a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate whether Gore made false statements under oath. Conrad concluded that Gore was less than truthful in an April 18 interview on his role in allegedly improper campaign finance practices.