Whose lie is it, anyway?

When it comes to George W. Bush's record on people with disabilities, Gore and Bush each say the other is truth-challenged.

By Jake Tapper

Published June 30, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

At the height of a campaign swing in which Gov. George W. Bush proposed a sweeping "New Freedom Initiative" to benefit people with disabilities, the campaign of Vice President Al Gore was rude enough to say that Bush's Texas record on disabilities was wanting. And the Bush people got PO'ed pretty quick.

What had Gore said?

That "Bush fought against a U.S. Supreme Court decision favoring people with disabilities who want to live in their own communities rather than institutions."

That "protesters in wheelchairs demonstrated outside Bush's mansion against his support of Texas Attorney General John Cornyn's position" on the Supreme Court case Olmstead vs. L.C., in which the state of Georgia was sued by two disabled women who wanted to live in communities rather than in an institution.

The Gore campaign also noted that in February 1999, "fifteen protesters, most in wheelchairs, were arrested for trespassing as they protested Texas' decision" to side with Georgia in the case.

Harsh rhetoric indeed against a man who had spent the week declaring that "Our goal now is clear: to remove the last barriers to full and independent lives for all Americans with disabilities." The Gore camp charged that just over a year ago, Bush was fighting to keep barriers for two disabled women to have full and independent lives.

So on Wednesday, Team Bush sent out a press release hammering Gore for having "blatantly misrepresented Governor Bush's record on improving access and independence for Texans with disabilities."

Gore was just lying again, the Bush campaign said. "Texas is recognized as a leader in responding to the Supreme Court decision. ... Shortly after the Supreme Court ruled on the Olmstead case, Governor Bush gave an executive order explicitly calling for a review of the Texas system in light of the Supreme Court ruling and changes to comply with the ruling."

So which is it? Bush's father, President George Bush, was a leader in the fight for the groundbreaking Americans with Disabilities Act, after all. Surely this was another example of Gore's shaky alliance with the truth.

Not so fast. For one thing, the Bushies don't deny Gore's claim that their man supported his attorney general's decision to file a brief siding with the state of Georgia -- and against disability rights advocates -- in the Olmstead decision.

Nor are the Bushies disputing that 15 protesters -- most of whom were in wheelchairs -- were arrested outside the back gates of the Governor's mansion, where they'd congregated to protest what the disability rights organization ADAPT called "the intent of the state to keep people with disabilities warehoused in nursing homes and other institutions -- against their will."

According to Clay Robison, the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau chief, "the demonstrators hardly posed a threat to public safety, much less to the governor, who wasn't even home at the time. But they had ignored officers' orders to clear the exit." So they were arrested, many of them spilling from their wheelchairs.

Bush's response at the time? "They criminally trespassed. They were given due warning."

So if the Bushies don't deny any of these facts, what was the Gore camp lying about? Maybe they were hoping that no one would read past the headline on their press release.

So how is Bush's record on disabilities?

"It hasn't been great," says Michael Auberger, national organizer and cofounder of ADAPT, which stands for American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today. "He opposed the Olmstead decision, which was a Supreme Court decision that pretty much says that people with disabilities have a right to live in the community and use Medicaid dollars and have that choice."

The Bushies don't try to dispute this. But they point out that after Georgia lost the case in a 6-to-3 decision that came down on June 22, 1999, Bush gave an executive order to review the Texas system in light of the Supreme Court ruling. And the campaign cites the Bush proclamation in response to the Supreme Court ruling beneath the header: "Texas is recognized as leader in responding to the Supreme Court decision."

"That stretches the truth a long way," says ADAPT's Auberger. "He hasn't done anything to initiate Olmstead in Texas.Up until -- believe it or not -- about a week ago, George Bush hadn't supported anything for disabilities including the ADA. But he has now taken a political position that is significantly different from that."

Now, Auberger says, Bush says "that the Olmstead position should be supported, he now has very strong support for the ADA; all of a sudden he's supporting all these disability issues. I don't know if his father got to him, or he got religion, or what."

It should be noted that Auberger is no Gore man, either. "Al Gore's support of the disability community -- as with the administration -- has been lukewarm at best," he says.

When I call the Bush campaign to clarify where the "blatant misrepresentation" of the Bush record is, I'm put through to Ray Sullivan. Didn't Bush support the state of Georgia in the Olmstead decision?

"I know that the attorney general did file an amicus brief based on some federalist concerns," Sullivan says. "And as you know, the attorney general is elected here independent of the governor."

Right, but Bush had supported the attorney general in that decision, right?

"It wasn't so much an issue of serving and caring for the disabled, but whether the state or the federal government should be in charge of caring for them on the state level," Sullivan says.

Great, but where's the misrepresentation of the Bush record on the disabled?

"The Gore folks were trying to attack the governor on being opposed to community care," Sullivan says. "The governor supported the goal of community care. He had concerns, as did the state of Texas, about some of the issues of federalism in the case."

But the Gore people don't say that Bush opposes community care, I say. Just that he sided with Georgia in that Supreme Court decision, and that there were disabled protesters arrested outside his mansion. Where's the "blatant misrepresentation"?

"The misrepresentation is the implication that the governor did not support community care and is opposed to the Olmstead decision," Sullivan says.

Perhaps mindful of the fact that their utterances are judged meticulously, the Gore people were precise in their accusation. The charge doesn't say anything about Bush's general position on community care, even back then, and it does conclude that Bush's position on Olmstead is now different.

"Bush now says he will enter an Executive Order supporting the most integrated community-based settings for individuals with disabilities, pursuant to the Olmstead decision, and call for the identification and removal of barriers to community placement," the Gore statement reads -- bending over backwards (again, they kind of have to) to make sure that the entire Bush record on this issue is presented.

In fact, the Gore people even make sure that we know that during the protest "Governor Bush was not at home."

Just because Gore has a record of misrepresentin', that shouldn't mean that we take Bush's word for it every time he cries "Lie."

Because here, Bush was lying about what Gore was accusing him of. More than that, Bush was lying about his own record -- which is understandable, considering what his record is.

It's hard to imagine any candidate would want to own up to disabled protesters spilling out of their wheelchairs in his backyard as his security force arrests them, after all. It's not a shot you'll see in a campaign brochure anytime soon.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Al Gore George W. Bush