Legal Affairs – Clinton’s Apprentice: How Much Does Honesty Matter?

National Journal

On the issues, Bill Bradley and Al Gore do not differ very dramatically. On the character front, however, they present a clear but complicated contrast: Gore’s intelligence and energy are marred by a persistent habit of distorting the truth-including both his opponents’ records and his own-sometimes to the point of flat-out falsehood. Bradley, on the other hand, seems pretty honest, albeit flawed by an above-it-all sanctimoniousness that made it seem jarring when he shifted belatedly, and half-heartedly, into attack mode.

Gore’s distortions include his suggestions that Bradley did not "speak up" on campaign finance reform until recently, his assertion that Bradley’s health care plan would hurt "African-Americans and Latinos," and Gore’s claims that he has always supported abortion rights. When Bradley finally complained, Gore attacked him again-for making "negative personal attacks"!

The question is whether playing games with the truth will work as well for the heavy-handed, gut-fighting Gore as it has for that artful master of deception, President Clinton-who was recently heard (on Jan. 26) telling Jim Lehrer how proud he was of "defending the Constitution" against those who made such a fuss about his perjuries and obstructions of justice.

The answer from New Hampshire-Gore over Bradley by 52 percent to 48 percent-is not conclusive, because that vote may have been skewed by Bradley’s blunder in waiting so long to blow the whistle on Gore’s distortions.

By November, we will have a better idea about whether the stunning indifference to untruthfulness in high office that was manifested by much of the press and the public during the year of Monica was an artifact of that strange drama-with sex, farce, lies, impeachable offenses, prosecutorial blunders, and partisan agendas all rolled into one big mess-or whether it has become a permanent feature of American political life.

To be sure, anyone who expects purity from politicians is doomed to disillusionment. H.L. Mencken said that "a good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar." And Russian leader Vladimir Putin, of all people, once told an interviewer that to campaign for election, "one has to be insincere and promise something which you cannot fulfill. So you either have to be a fool who does not understand what you are promising, or deliberately be lying."

That’s hyperbolic. But even the righteous Bradley has done his share of pandering, as in his flip-flop to supporting ethanol subsidies in Iowa. And in fairness, Al Gore is not the most untruthful politician around. He has never been as profligate in using deception as has his mentor, the man Gore has said "will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest Presidents." And some of Gore’s self-puffery-that he was the inspiration for the novel Love Story, the co-creator of the Internet, the discoverer of Love Canal, and so on-is too silly to take seriously.

But still, Bradley put his finger on something important in his Jan. 26 reproach to Gore: "Why should we believe that you will tell the truth as President if you don’t tell the truth as a candidate?"

I first began to wonder about Gore (after voting for the Clinton-Gore ticket in 1992) around the time of the 1996 Democratic National Convention, when he claimed that his experience at his sister’s bedside as she lay dying in agony from lung cancer in 1984 had inspired him to "pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking."

How to square this with the six years after his sister’s death-during which Gore had taken $16,000 from the tobacco industry, had grown tobacco on his own land, and had rhapsodized at a 1988 campaign rally about how he had "shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn, and stripped it and sold it"? Gore later offered this explanation: "People are becoming more willing to give some respect to the importance of the way people feel and to try to balance emotions and logic in a more artful way," and "it took me a few years after my sister’s death to grow into the deeper awareness of how strong I felt." Yuck.

Gore’s most-mocked statement-his sevenfold repetition at a 1997 press conference that "no controlling legal authority" had indicated it was illegal for him to have made fund-raising calls from his White House office-at least had the virtue of being true. More revealing were Gore’s other comments that day: "I’m proud of what I did. I do not feel like I did anything wrong, much less illegal."

Gore has not said he was proud of attending the 1996 fund-raiser at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in California, where he encountered his longtime fund-raising friend Maria Hsia, who is currently on trial on charges of, among other things, conspiring to channel illegal contributions of temple funds into Democratic coffers. Although Gore has not been implicated in any crime, his claims that he had no idea he was at a fund-raiser-and thought it was just a "community outreach event"-are more than a little bit implausible.

In the current campaign, Gore’s style of distortion is typified by his efforts to scare minority group members into thinking that Bradley’s health plan would leave them "out in the cold" by abolishing Medicaid. Gore aides defend such rhetoric as grounded in the legitimate criticism that there isn’t enough money in Bradley’s plan to cover the cost of funding private health insurance for the people now on Medicaid. But while that criticism might be fair, Gore’s scare tactics are misleading. Bradley has no intention of leaving minorities worse off than they are now, and Gore knows it.

Gore’s most brazen falsehood, like some of Clinton’s, is notable less for the importance of what he seeks to hide than for the shamelessness of the attempt. It came during the Jan. 26 debate, when Bradley sought to show that Gore had not always been consistent in supporting abortion rights. "I’ve always supported Roe vs. Wade," responded Gore. "I have always supported a woman’s right to choose." His sole qualification was that "y in my career I wrestled with the question of what kinds of exceptions should be allowed to the general rule that Medicaid should also pay for this procedure."

The proof that this was false includes Gore’s 84 percent right-to-life voting record from 1977-84, when he was a member of the House, and his succession of letters asserting that "it is my deep personal conviction that abortion is wrong," that abortion "is arguably the taking of a human life," that "innocent human life must be protected," and that "I have consistently opposed federal funding of abortions," as Gore stated on July 23, 1987. The starkest proof is Gore’s June 26, 1984, vote for a one-sentence amendment to the civil rights laws, designed to ban abortions at hospitals that take federal money. "For the purposes of this Act," the amendment declared, "the term `person’ shall include unborn children from the moment of conception."

That language is a direct attack on the logic of Roe vs. Wade, which held that a fetus is not a "person" protected by the Constitution. But although Gore could hardly have forgotten voting for the amendment-critics have repeatedly confronted him with that vote over the years-he has repeatedly misrepresented how he voted that day, and he continues to deny that he ever strayed from Roe vs. Wade.

What’s striking here is that it would hardly have been a political disaster if Gore had simply admitted that his support for abortion had once been shaky, while stressing that he had developed pro-choice convictions many years ago and has been rock-solid ever since. Apparently his calculation is that candor might raise questions about the sincerity of his conversion and cost him some votes-and that deception is the way to win.

That calculation may be correct as far as the most passionate of the party faithful are concerned. Voters who care deeply about, say, abortion rights, affirmative action, or other Democratic causes are not likely to vote against the candidate who most loudly champions their views-or who seems the best bet to beat the Republicans-merely because he stretches the truth.

But Gore’s low candor quotient could cost him the support of independents. One such, who likes Bradley, told a Democratic worker in Iowa that he would have trouble voting for Gore even against a Republican, because Gore was too Clintonesque with the truth. The Democratic worker’s retort: "Your standards are too high."

How high should our standards be? Gore is testing the limits