In an attempt to get back on track, last week the campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush declared that it would turn to issues. So on Monday, I called Bush HQ in Austin, Texas, telling a press aide that I would like to discuss with a spokesperson the new campaign strategy: specifically, how and why those crucial swing voters will vote for Bush because of his plans for Social Security reform, his call for a greater accountability in education and the new way he was explaining his tax cut.
Pretty straightforward questions. Still, nobody called me back.
The next day, I called and asked to talk about a Bush press release I'd received at 8:38 a.m. EST slamming Vice President Al Gore for having allegedly "fabricated information about his mother-in-law and dog to score political points."
The call was returned almost immediately.
It wasn't that surprising, considering that on Monday Bush, running mate Dick Cheney and communications director Karen Hughes were all making extensive public comments about the dog story, which first appeared on Monday in the Boston Globe. According to a senior GOP official, this attack has little to do with the details of the dog story itself. Rather, it "begins to provide an excuse for reporters to write about the bloom coming off Gore's rose in the last month. Gore's having to play defense a bit, so reporters can say, 'Hey, Gore's not having the best week,' and it helps change the prism through which the media views the race."
In the past few weeks, as a rejuvenated Gore went though his post-convention "bounce," Bush's momentum was hobbled by a series of silly missteps: an insulting argument that his plea for shorter debates viewed by fewer people wasn't a dodge; calling a reporter a "major league asshole;" the subliminal "RATS" frame in a Republican National Committee anti-Gore ad; and his pronunciation of "subliminable."
And it would appear that Bush is trying to do the same to Gore, making him die the death of a dozen small, silly cuts. Declarations to the contrary, it appears that any renewed talk about "issues" has largely been put on the backburner. In its place: invented "scandals" the Bush campaign hopes will derail Gore's campaign and put him on the defensive. The Bush team has reached back more than a month, to August, for their ammo. And like "RATS," it involves guests from the animal kingdom -- a dog, and eels.
But the tactic, this week, has appeared awfully transparent, with some of the alleged ties to Gore more than a bit tenuous. The first charge has to do with a statement Gore may or may not have made -- as of yet, no one has produced the tape -- and a debate over whether that statement was exact or approximate. The second charge is even more spurious, dealing with the content of a CD given out at an event that the Bush campaign has inaccurately described as being a fundraiser, with direct ties to either Gore or the Democratic National Committee, where children were present -- none of which appears to be true.
Apparently, on Aug. 28 in Tallahassee, Fla., Gore had said that his mother-in-law, Margaret Ann Aitcheson, pays nearly three times as much for the arthritis medicine Lodine, than the vice president spends on virtually the same drug for his 14-year-old Labrador retriever, Shiloh. The Globe story raised questions about the legitimacy of the figures, which coincided exactly with those on a list of standard Democratic Party talking points, that compared the average cost of a prescription to Lodine ($108) to that of the canine Etogesic ($37.80).
When a spokesman from the Gore campaign allowed for the possibility that Aitcheson might not actually pay $108 a month for her Lodine, or that the vice president might not actually pay $37.80 for Shiloh's Etogesic, the Globe cried foul.
Gore's opponents soon followed.
"America better beware of a candidate who is willing to stretch reality in order to win points," Bush said Monday, Day 1 of his new issues-based campaign. "I have always been concerned about Vice President Gore's willingness to exaggerate in order to become elected ... Now he's exaggerating about family members of his, in order to make a point on a very highly charged, very emotional issue."
"It looks like another Al Gore invention," seconded Cheney in Seattle. "It strikes me that this was the kind of statement we have heard in the past from Al Gore and frankly, I would expect better from the vice president."
The Bush communications team was doing everything it could to encourage reporters to follow up on what Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett jokingly referred to as "Shilohgate."
"I hope you all will ask him today about the Boston Globe story," Hughes urged reporters on Monday. Bush HQ even sent out seven "unanswered questions" about Gore's claims about Shiloh and his mother-in-law's drugs. (Question No. 3: "Does he have receipts or records to back up his claim?"; Question No. 4: "Does his mother-in-law, Margaret Ann Aitcheson, have health insurance? If so, is it possible she actually doesn't pay anything other than a small co-payment for her Lodine?")
On Monday and Tuesday, the Bush campaign sent out 22 press releases to national reporters, six dealing with the vice president's mother-in-law and dog.
But they're having a tough time of it. While a few dozen newspapers have written about Shilohgate, none of the network TV news shows have reported on the flap. Even with the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times weighing in Wednesday about the issue, nearly all of the accounts have reported the story as a Bush assault against Gore, and not a legitimate story on its own. "In Harshest Attack Yet, Cheney Accuses Gore of Fabrications," reads the headline in Wednesday's New York Times.
The senior GOP official says he doubts that slamming Gore for being a chronic fibber will be enough. "If they're just trying to make this into a 'Love Story,' 'Love Canal,' 'I invented the Internet' thing, that won't work so much," he said. "We've been down that road before. It's a cul-de-sac."
But, the official says, in combination with a host of other news items -- Bush's magnificent performance on Tuesday's "Oprah Winfrey Show," Gore's bashing of the entertainment industry while collecting millions of its dollars, a New York Times report about how a Democratic National Committee aide had alluded to a possible Clinton veto of tort reform while fundraising among trial lawyers, the Wen Ho Lee disaster -- might just help turn the tide.
"The tactical move feeds more into the strategy" for a shift in momentum, the GOP source says. "The tide's turning a bit." And while Shilohgate isn't the strongest case against Gore, the official acknowledges, "it doesn't do any harm."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement -- and with good reason. The first problem with this particular Bush assault, Gore communications director Mark Fabiani eagerly points out, is that no one has a record of what Gore precisely said on Aug. 28 in Tallahassee. Even the Boston Globe story was oddly bereft of the exact quote -- which a reporter would only leave out if he didn't actually have it.
And for the TV guys -- who always need a pretty picture -- no videotape has surfaced of the questionable comment, unlike the footage of Bush smiling and cursing about a New York Times reporter while Cheney chimes in, "Big time."
Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett acknowledges that his campaign doesn't have the transcript. And while the Gore campaign has never disputed the possibility that Gore might have gotten a little carried away with his rhetoric -- it's certainly happened before -- that's not quite a smoking gun.
In fact, the Associated Press reported that Gore's comments that day gave him plenty of wiggle room to argue that he was speaking in general terms about the prices. "While it costs $108 for a person, it costs $37.80 for a dog," Gore said in the Aug. 28 report.
Still, the senior GOP official says, "If the Gore people aren't disputing it, then he probably said it." But more importantly, as Gore asserted Tuesday, his general point was essentially correct. "The issue is what seniors around the country are paying, and the wholesale price is between two and three times what is charged for pets," the Gore said.
Fabiani says that while the Bush campaign kept pressing for precise figures, it ended up being close enough. The studies show that, generally, the comparative cost for human drug vs. the doggie drug is "2.8 times, not three," Fabiani says. "And [Aitcheson] paid 2.315 a capsule times as much as was paid for the dog."
Bush's Bartlett disagrees. "We're talking about prescription drugs," he says. "We're talking about explaining to seniors one of the most important issues in the campaign, which is prescription drugs. Gore's the one who injected Shiloh and his mother-in-law into it."
So Shilohgate, the Bush campaign contends, actually is about the issues.
Then on Wednesday Bush launched an attack on Gore over a DreamWorks Records compact disc with dirty words -- "Daisies of the Galaxy," by the Eels -- that was handed out at an August reception for Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., held around the time of the Democratic Convention and hosted by DreamWorks SKG and Chase Manhattan Bank.
"America's parents can't count on Al Gore to protect their kids from Hollywood's inappropriate marketing practices," says Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett. "If the Democrats didn't stop Dreamworks from handing out a CD with explicit lyrics at a convention under their control, why will they stop Hollywood from marketing the same material to children at other venues?"
But a closer review of the the details of the event, and the CD, makes the Bush charges seem overstated at best.
The Bush press release, titled "Offensive CD distributed at Gore's Convention," reported that the CD "was handed out in a 'gift bag' at last month's Democrat National Convention ... distributed at a DNC fundraiser." But the event was not a fundraiser, nor was it an official event of the Democratic Convention or the Democratic National Committee (whichever the release was referring to).
The event was a reception hosted by DreamWorks SKG and Chase Manhattan Bank. It wasn't even in honor of Gore, it was in honor of Democratic women members of Congress. Neither Al Gore nor his running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman -- nor Tipper Gore, nor Hadassah Lieberman -- even attended.
"Al Gore had nothing whatsoever to do with the event," says DreamWorks SKG executive Andy Spahn. And, Spahn says, the luncheon took place on a Monday afternoon on the first day of the convention, when Gore wasn't even in Los Angeles -- wasn't even in the West Coast time zone -- at the time.
"I find this to be absurd," said Lowey's chief of staff, Matthew Traub. "This is the desperate flailing of a desperate campaign." When asked, the Bush campaign pooh-poohed the details of the event.
"I don't pretend for one instant that Al Gore knew about this CD," says Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. "But somebody in the Democrat Party should have seen this and said 'This is not appropriate to be handed out.'"
Why would it not be appropriate to be handed out? Well, the Bush campaign charges, because the CD cover features cartoon children. "It's classic marketing aimed at children," according to Fleischer.
But Spahn takes issue with the Bush campaign's assessment of the CD as being marketed to children. It's not, he says. DreamWorks Records went so far as to print a parental advisory warning label on the jacket of the CD itself, "not just on the wrapper." There are no cartoons on the cover, he says; it's serious art of a period style.
And Fleischer couldn't quite claim that the Eels' CD wound up in the hands of a minor because of the DreamWorks-Chase Manhattan Bank event. "There were children at the fundraiser, and everyone at the fundraiser was given a goody bag that contained the CD," Fleischer said.
"No one at the luncheon was a child," Spahn asserts. "There were no children there." Two other individuals who were at the event also told Salon they saw no children there.
Additionally, Spahn says that of the 600 party bags given out at the event, only 10 contained Eels CDs. "I think the Bush people are on drugs," Spahn says, calling the campaign "desperate" since Bush is "down in the polls."
Whether a kid got his grubby little paws on it or not, with or without parental advisory warning label, the Bush campaign did some labeling of its own, calling the CD "offensive" since one song is called "It's a Motherfucker," and the CD, Fleischer said, contained the lyric, "When I grow up, I'll be an angry little whore."
Fleischer did allow that on the cover of the CD the one questionably titled song is censored, labeled instead: "It's a MotherF@#%?."
Moreover, a closer review of the lyrics on the album indicate that the CD's actually pretty tame. The third verse reads: "it's a motherfucker/how much I understand/the feeling that you need someone/to take you by the hand/and you won't ever be the same/you won't ever be the same." In the 82 words of the song, the word "motherfucker" is used three times, and no other curse words are employed.
In fact, of the 1,960 words on the album, only a handful could pass as curses. There are three "motherfuckers," two uses of "shit," one "damn," one "piss" and one "turd."
It's perhaps appropriate that the Bush campaign has devoted its last three days talking about Shiloh and the Eels -- because "Shilohgate" is one dog of a scandal, and slamming Gore for the Eels CD is about as slippery a charge as I've heard this year.