It was one of the more revealing moments of body language during Tuesday night's presidential debate.
Asked how he responds in a crisis, Gov. George W. Bush recounted Texas fires and floods, praising Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt.
Then it was Vice President Al Gore's turn to speak. "I accompanied James Lee Witt down to Texas when those fires broke out," Gore said. And as he did, Bush furrowed his brow, seeming to question the veracity of Gore's claim.
It turns out that the truth wasn't quite how Gore had made it sound. Gore had been there at the time of the floods, but with a subordinate of Witt's, not with Witt himself. Gore had been with Witt to roughly 18 or so other disaster areas, so the misstatement didn't necessarily seem like all that big a deal.
Except to the Bush campaign, that is, which correctly pointed out that this was just one of a long line of Gore boasts that didn't quite match up to the reality. Speaking to the Republican National Committee on Wednesday, Bush's running mate, former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, said that Gore "once again, made up facts."
"Al Gore has described these presidential debates as a job interview for the American people," Cheney said. "I have learned over the years if someone embellishes the risumi in a job interview, don't hire them."
But the problem isn't that Gore lies and Bush doesn't. The problem is that they both lie -- like cheap rugs -- but, for whatever reason, Bush gets away with his fibs.
Even Tuesday night, when Bush tried to weasel around the fact that his prescription drug plan just simply isn't as generous (and therefore as expensive) as Gore's, and Gore tried to call him on it, there was little post-debate mention of this slipperiness.
"All poor seniors will have their prescription drugs paid for," Bush said. "In the meantime, we're going to have a plan to help poor seniors. And in the meantime could be one year or two years. I don't know ..."
"OK," Gore interrupted, "Let me call your attention to the key word there. He said all 'poor' seniors."
"No, wait a minute," Bush said. "All seniors are covered under prescription drugs in my plan."
"In the first year?" Gore asked, knowing the answer. "In the first year?"
"If we can get it done in the first year, you bet," Bush said, even though first-year coverage is not what his plan calls for.
Or take Bush's debate-night rebuttal that Gore was using "fuzzy math" when talking about how much of Bush's proposed tax cut would go to the nation's wealthiest. That's a slam that implies that Gore's charge was inaccurate. It wasn't, as Bush himself acknowledged the next morning on ABC's "Good Morning America."
"But is he incorrect in saying that you would give to the top 1 percent of income-earners in this country in tax relief more than you would spend on healthcare, prescription drugs, education and national defense combined?" Charlie Gibson asked.
"No," said Bush.
If you're looking for claims that are more self-aggrandizing and Gore-like in nature, look no further than Bush's most repeated claims on the stump: that under his watch, Texas passed both a patient's bill of rights and legislation that provided the Children's Health Insurance Program money for kids at up to 200 percent of the poverty level.
Like almost all of Gore's "whoppers" -- as the GOP is now referring to them -- there is some truth to the claims. Both bills did, indeed, become law while Bush was governor. But in reality, Bush fought both tooth and nail. He vetoed the patient's bill of rights when it first came up, in 1995, and then in 1997, faced with a likely veto-proof majority, he let it pass without his signature. Republican state senators on the floor of the state Senate complained that Bush's key staffer was trying to sabotage the bill.
As for the CHIP program, Bush did everything he could to keep the coverage down at 150 percent of poverty level, even though other Republican governors had the coverage as high as 300 percent. No matter. Bush lost the battle, the bill became law, and now he boasts about it as one of his key healthcare accomplishments on his Web site, along with a boast that he "led the nation in adopting a strong Patients' Bill of Rights."
Bush, like many politicians, has a long history of this sort of fibbing. But unlike Al Gore, who has been exaggerating far too long, and far too often, Bush has been doing it largely in Texas, thousands of miles away from Washington. Plus, of course, the media has decided that Bush is the dumb guy and Gore the liar -- so if Gore forgets the word "mammogram," as he did a few weeks ago at the very beginning of a week devoted to discussions of women's health -- it hardly registers.
But Bush shouldn't sell himself short; he has a long and healthy record of not telling the whole truth. There are dozens of examples of these white lies scattered throughout Bush's public life, starting as early as his first congressional run, in Texas in 1978. In 1999, the Washington Post reported that, though Bush referred to himself as an "oil producer" for that first race, the truth was that he'd "organized his first company, Arbusto Energy Inc., in 1977 on the eve of a run for Congress and quickly put it to use as a credential for the political contest." The company didn't actually start active operations until March 1979.
During that race, Bush's campaign brochure also stated that he was "born July 6, 1946 and raised in Midland, Texas," though to be precise, Bush was born in Connecticut. Another Bush fib appeared in an ad in the Lubbock (Texas) Avalanche-Journal that claimed that he'd served "in the U.S. Air Force," which he hadn't, serving instead in the Texas Air National Guard -- which any Air Force veteran will tell you is quite a different thing.
Some in Washington have picked up on it. Time magazine's Jay Carney and John Dickerson pointed out last week how much of Bush's campaign messages have been poll-tested, despite his continued bashing of Gore for being too poll-driven.
And some reporters out there even might remember this little incident that took place around Feb. 19, when Bush won a little thing called the South Carolina primary by telling lies about his record, as well as that of Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Then of course there was the barrage of anti-McCain ads run before Super Tuesday. Even Bush himself has almost acknowledged that his infamous "breast cancer ad" -- in which the Bush campaign accused McCain of opposing funding for research into breast cancer because he had opposed the funding process through which it, and several hundred other bills, had gone through -- wasn't the whole truth.
Neither was a mailing to Iowa straw poll voters that included this endorsement: "'He has a clear and compelling idea in his mind of where he wants to take the nation.' -- New York Times Magazine, 9/3/98." As CNN's "Inside Politics" pointed out in August 1999, the actual quote is, "Bush says, if he runs, it will be because he has a clear and compelling idea in his mind of where he wants to take the nation."
"So while the mailer suggests 'The Times' endorsed Bush," CNN's Bernard Shaw reported, "in fact, it was Bush endorsing Bush."
So there's been plenty of self-puffery to go 'round; Cheney just might want to soft-pedal the rhetoric that "if someone embellishes the risumi in a job interview, don't hire them." That is, unless he wants the contest to come down to Ralph Nader vs. Pat Buchanan.