Vice President Al Gore is, of course, a long-established embellisher and should be condemned as such. But be very wary of anyone who suggests that both Gore and Bush don't fib.
In the last debate, Gore, of course, bungled facts having to do with whether he had accompanied Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt to Texas (he was actually there with Witt's deputy) and completely lied about whether he had ever questioned if Bush is experienced enough to be president. The Bush campaign and others slammed Gore for an anecdote about overcrowding in Sarasota, Fla., schools, but Gore ended up being essentially right on that one, not that you'd know from how the media accepted it as another example of Gore's propensity to embellish.
Meanwhile, during the last debate, arguably the most flamboyant lie was told by Bush, when he claimed that Gore was outspending him, though the truth is that Bush has outspent Gore almost 2-to-1, setting the all-time world record -- more than $100 million -- in his presidential race so far.
Wednesday night, as the world turns its eyes to the second presidential debate in Winston-Salem, N.C., reporters will be armed with research teams that will ensure that every single Gore statement and anecdote passes rigorous New Yorker-style fact-checking standards. As they should.
But let's see if Bush's assertions are also put to the same test. For starters, while Gore was hammered for three alleged big fibs last week, here are three that came from Bush during the same debate, of generally much larger consequence, that have gone largely unnoticed:
1. The Bush tax cut will consume only one-fourth of the projected budget surplus.
Not true. As the New York Times' Paul Krugman has pointed out time and time again -- $1.6 trillion is much closer to a third of the $4.6 trillion surplus than a fourth. (On the stump, Bush goes so far as to illustrate this with four dollar bills.) This is not an inconsequential lie. Bush is deceiving the public about the size of his tax cut, in which the bulk of the money is targeted toward the nation's richest. It is a question of being honest with the American people.
Sen. Everett Dirksen used to say, "A billion here, a billion there. Pretty soon it runs into real money." Same goes, I think, for a trillion.
2. Gore's claim that Bush's tax cut favors the wealthy is "fuzzy math."
It's a cute ploy, but the morning after the debate, questioned by Charlie Gibson on ABC's "Good Morning America," Bush admitted that Gore's claim was correct.
"I want to raise a point that I was puzzled you didn't attack," Gibson said. "Specifically, the vice president said maybe half a dozen times that you would give to the top 1 percent in a tax cut more than you would spend on education, healthcare, prescription drugs and national defense combined. He said it over and over again ... 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?"
"No," Bush said. "I think what people have got to understand is, wealthy people pay a lot of taxes today, and if everybody gets tax relief, wealthy people are going to get tax relief."
We'll see if he's as, um, forthcoming with Jim Lehrer on Wednesday night.
3. Bush's privatization plan for Social Security won't rely on either cutting benefits or major funding.
"There's a third way," Bush said during the debate. "And that is to get a better rate of return on the Social Security monies" through privatization. But as the Wall Street Journal pointed out Tuesday, most experts believe that either a cut in benefits or a multitrillion-dollar infusion -- or a combination of both -- will be necessary to keep the program afloat for such a transition. When pressed by the Journal, Bush's economic advisor, Lawrence Lindsey, said Bush would consider taking out a "bridge loan" worth hundreds of billions of dollars if the market underperforms, so that benefits would not be cut.
Whether Bush falls back on his misleading rhetoric on any of these issues will be one thing. Whether anybody calls him on it will be another.