During a brief press conference on his plane as it flew from Shreveport, La., to Fort Smith, Ark., former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney diagnosed Vice President Al Gore in stark psychological terms almost unknown to presidential politics. Gore, he said, "seems to have had a compulsion to embellish his arguments or, as I mentioned the other day, his risumi."
"This is a man who has got significant accomplishments, been a congressman, a senator, vice president," Cheney said. "He held national office for 24 years. And yet he seems to have this uncontrollable desire periodically to add to his reputation, to his record, things that aren't true. That's worrisome. And I think it is appropriate to point that out."
It was part of a day of nasty political pop-store psychoanalysis perhaps not seen since it was reported in 1972 that Democratic vice presidential candidate Tom Eagleton had gone through electroshock treatment for depression. Friday, it was Gore's psychological fitness that was under scrutiny.
Gore communications director Mark Fabiani said Bush's "personal negative attacks on Gore in Tuesday night's debate backfired badly on him, based on the research that we've seen and other evidence. Swing voters did not like it. And that's why Cheney, last night in front of a huge audience, wasn't negative at all -- not even for a minute. Yet today when Cheney returns to his typical obscurity on the campaign trail, he's negative again."
Indeed he is. The nice, calm, tempered and reasonable Dick Cheney who won rave reviews for his performance during Thursday night's vice-presidential debate stepped aside Friday morning, returning to his rather nasty attack-dog mien.
Cheney's laconic style helps his snipes and accusations seem reasonable, like a man just laying out the facts. But, boy was he going negative! Crazy negative! The kind of negative that candidates like Gov. George W. Bush usually leave to surrogates with no provable ties to the campaign.
At a rally for party faithful at Louisiana State University at Shreveport, Cheney, sharp-tongued wife Lynne and former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson tore into Gore repeatedly, calling him a liar - though without ever actually using the word, using synonyms instead.
They painted the vice president as a pathological liar probably lying about the state of the military, and one who sold his vote on the Gulf War to whichever side allotted him the most prime-time speaking time, a charge Gore has denied.
Before the Shreveport audience, Cheney went so far as to paint his disagreement with Gore about the state of the military as a question of whether or not Gore is lying.
"You're going to hear a lot of other double talk from the other side on this issue; we heard some of it last night," Cheney said, referring to his debate with Gore's running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., in Danville, Ky.
"There are only two ways to interpret Al Gore's refusal to admit what's going on here," Cheney said. "Either: One, he doesn't know what the state of the U.S. military is today. Or: There's an alternative. He's decided not to tell the truth about it.
"That's a terrible indictment of the man who would be commander in chief," Cheney said.
Fabiani questioned not only the veracity of the charges, but the political wisdom of making them. "These are the kind of negative personal attacks that swing voters have rejected," Fabiani said. "Governor Bush doesn't have the guts to make these attacks himself so he sends out attack dogs like Dick Cheney and Lynne Cheney and Alan Simpson to make the attacks for him."
Regardless, like vampires at Mardi Gras, the GOP B-team sure looked like they were having fun.
In Arkansas, slamming the Gore tax cut plan instead of Gore personally, Cheney said that to qualify for the Gore tax cut you need to qualify "in 29 different categories. If you have solar paneling. If you drive a battery-operated car. If you eat at an organic food store ... You get the idea," he joked. Then he went back to questioning whether Gore was lying about the military's readiness.
The slam session began immediately Friday morning, as soon as Cheney's wife Lynne, the former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was introduced to the crowd at around 10:15. The audience, consisting of roughly 500, some of whom had been there since 7, included a local high school marching band, high school students from a local Christian academy, a smattering of college students and a bunch of middle-aged Louisiana Republican Party stalwarts.
"I once wrote a book called 'Telling the Truth,'" Lynne Cheney said right off the bat. "And I am sending an autographed copy to the vice president!" The crowd cheered.
After a minute or so of inane chatter about the previous night's debate being like an old-fashioned western and her grandchildren and such, Lynne Cheney then introduced Simpson, who called Gore "the provocative prevaricator of our times. That's a big word, there's a better word for it, but I can't use it here."
"Bush makes it work, and Gore makes it up," Simpson said. Calling his former Wyoming congressional colleague "as real as the rocks and the sage and the high blue skies of Wyoming," Simpson said that "telling the truth is the essence of leadership."
Simpson said his wife, Anne, "used to say to me, when everything else fails, tell the truth. It would be good that the vice president would remember that."
"Look at the New York Times this morning, talking about Al Gore," Simpson said. "These are not just slips of the tongue. These are disturbing traits of exaggeration and prevarication."
The Times story, by Richard Berke, discussed several comments Gore made during Tuesday night's presidential debate that weren't entirely accurate. He claimed to have visited the sites of Texas floods and fires in June 1998 with Federal Emergency Management Authority director James Lee Witt, though he actually had done so with a Witt deputy. Gore told the story of a 15-year-old Sarasota, Fla., student whose father told him that she didn't have a desk in her classroom, though that desk-less period appears to have lasted one day.
Gore spokesman Fabiani says that "Instead of talking about big issues, like middle-class tax cuts and paying off the national debt, they talk about whether James Lee Witt was or was not in Texas on a particular day."
They sure do. "I think it's fair to say on some of the stuff everybody had a good laugh, when you were talking about 'Love Story,' 'I invented the Internet,'" Cheney said on the plane - himself distorting what Gore said about his involvment with the Internet's development. "But now we're talking about and getting into some very serious policy matters -- prescription drugs, the military."
Asked if he wasn't going negative, Cheney said that it was "perfectly appropriate" to discuss what he called Gore's "credibility problem." When asked what he thought about Gore's point in the Times' story -- that during the debate Bush had told his share of mistruths as well, such as that Gore had outspent him when the truth is the opposite, by a 2-to-1 margin -- Cheney lamely opted out, saying he hadn't read the story that both Simpson and others on his staff had referred to.
When asked why he didn't go so negative during the debate before an international audience of millions, Cheney said that he "was answering [CNN anchor and moderator] Bernie Shaw's questions. Joe and I were joking last night, right after the debate, that both of us had more aggressive options that we didn't use. We wasted about half the prep time."
"Look up the word 'deceit' in the dictionary," Simpson instructed the Louisiana crowd. "It sounds like a harsh word; it is not as harsh as its definition. Its definition is to 'intentionally mislead.' That's what Al Gore is doing."
Simpson scoffed at Gore's reference to what he called "personal attacks" levied against him by Gov. George W. Bush during Tuesday night's debate, saying that Gore went for "the jug'lar" of his primary opponent, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.
"Remember who brought up Willie Horton during the last campaign -- that was Al Gore," Simpson said, though when Gore mentioned Horton in the 1988 Democratic primaries against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, he did so without mentioning Horton's race -- unlike then-Vice President George Bush and his allies. Simpson did not go into the much nastier campaign Bush waged against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during the GOP primaries.
The highlight of Simpson's remarks -- the reason he seems to have been asked to join up with Cheney for the next few days -- was a story that he said would cut through "the babble" about Gore's support for the Gulf War, when he and Lieberman were two of only 10 Democrats to vote against the party line.
"He came to [then-Senate Minority Leader] Bob Dole and to me before the vote," after they'd allotted two hours of speaking time on each side, Simpson said. "And Al Gore said, 'How much time will you give me at the debate if I support the president?' And Bob, quick as a wink, said, 'How much time will they give you on the other side?' And Al said, 'Seven minutes,' and Dole said, 'I'll give you 15.'" Simpson said he threw in five minutes of his own, for 20 minutes total, and Gore said -- according to Simpson -- "I'll think about it."
To sweeten the pot, according to this tale, Dole later said that the 20 minutes could take place during prime time.
"He called the secretary of the Senate that night," Simpson went on, "and he said, 'Am I going to get my 20 minutes tomorrow, Howard Greene?'" Greene said he had to check with then-Majority Leader George Mitchell and former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga.
"'Damn it, if I don't get 20 minutes tomorrow, I'm going to vote the other way!'" Simpson said Gore said to Greene, who left the Senate in 1996. Greene could not be immediately reached for comment, though both Dole and McCain have told the same story.
"That's Al Gore," Simpson said. "He had simply decided to support the side that gave him the most time at prime time. And that's the Al Gore I know."
He later repeated the story to a crowd in an airport hangar in Arkansas. "I was galled by it," Simpson told the cheering Arkansans. "It was a tough moral vote ... I do not consider that integrity in any way."
On the plane, Simpson said that Lieberman's vote in favor of the Gulf War went down quite differently. "Joe Lieberman was with us from the beginning," Simpson said. Virginia Sen. "Chuck Robb was from the beginning."
But Gore spokesman Fabiani called Simpson's anecdote "an old charge, and it's not true."
"Instead of being able to talk intelligently about real issues, Bush and his attack dogs are bringing up old untrue allegations," Fabiani said. "The Bush campaign flounders on a daily basis to figure out something to say."