Implying that there's a double standard in media coverage that unfairly tilts toward the GOP presidential candidate over the Democrat, the chairman of Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign Thursday morning accused Gov. George W. Bush of making "exaggerated" claims in Wednesday night's debate and challenged the media to "hold Gov. Bush to the same standard" to which it has held Gore for his past misstatements.
Bush "tried, in our opinion, to mislead the American people on the issue of 'hate crimes,'" said campaign chairman William Daley in a conference call with reporters, trying to break the Gore camp out of its defensive posture and put it back on the attack. Referring to the trial of the three men accused of killing James Byrd, Jr., Daley said, "Once again Bush made an exaggeration, when he gave an exaggerated description of the outcome" of that trial.
Daley's choice of words wasn't coincidental. Stories -- some fair, some not so -- about Gore's propensity to exaggerate have vexed the vice president's campaign in the past few weeks.
The exchange about hate crimes came when Bush was asked about "hate crimes" legislation, which additionally penalizes violent offenders for crimes deemed to be rooted in prejudice. Bush said that no such law was needed since Texas law punished criminals harshly no matter what their motivation.
"The three men who murdered James Byrd, guess what's going to happen to them?" Bush asked. "They'll be put to death. A jury found them guilty. It will be hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death ... In this case we can't enhance the penalty any more than putting those three thugs to death. That's what is going to happen in the state of Texas."
In actuality, two of the men were sentenced to death while the third was sentenced to life imprisonment.
"I hope that the same sort of look at Al Gore's comments of the last week will be done to Governor Bush," Daley said. He complained that when Gore said in the first debate that his "uncle was a victim of poison gas" in the Balkans during World War I, some in the media challenged the claim, "start(ing) with the premise that they assumed it wasn't true. It was proven to be accurate as we knew it and [Gore] knew it, but the [question of its veracity] was still out there for 24 hours."
Daley acknowledged that not everything out of his candidate's mouth in the first debate was gospel. He referred to a Gore misstatement from the first debate that he had "accompanied James Lee Witt [director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency] down to Texas when those fires broke out," when in actuality he had been briefed at the airport by a Witt deputy.
"Last week's statement about flying with James Lee was not of any note," Daley said. "But if you considered Al Gore's comments exaggerations, certainly the kind of things [Bush] said in the last 24 hours should be put in the same category."
Asked if he thought Bush's statement that three men, not two, had been sentenced to death qualified as an exaggeration, Daley said, "I think that he exaggerated and I think that he didn't know what he was talking about. He obviously didn't know that all three were not sentenced to death. Either he didn't know or it was a misstatement or an exaggeration. If it wasn't one of those things, I don't know what it was."
Bush's campaign dismissed Daley's charges. "These sound like the comments of a campaign that's down in the polls and stung by their candidate's pattern of exaggerations and distortions," said Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan. "The fact is, two of James Byrd's killers were sentenced to death, one to life. That fact was corrected shortly after the debate. Gov. Bush's office helped fund the prosecution in those cases and those individuals received tough justice."
Sullivan said that he "believe(d) Gov. Bush did know" the facts surrounding the three verdicts. "He simply made a slip of the tongue when he said that last night."
The Gore campaign also issued a statement from Laurence Tribe, a leading constitutional scholar at Harvard University Law School, asserting that Bush's claim about the three convicted felons was legally questionable and irresponsible, and might actually help the three killers as they make their way through the appeals process.
"Apart from the awkward fact that one of the three men has actually been sentenced to life in prison rather than to death," Tribe said, "the governor's statement is a truly shocking one for any executive official to make during the pendency of appeals from criminal convictions. No judge or jury who will have heard the governor say these men are going to die for their crime can be certain that this official commitment from the highest level of state government will not affect the process of judgment."
Thus, Tribe claimed, Bush might end up even helping the three killers. "It is clear that any result meted out to the three convicted men will be rendered vulnerable to possible state and federal challenges on the ground that the bottom line was foreordained," Tribe said. "For a state's chief law enforcement officer to jeopardize the state's appellate and clemency processes ... displays a stunning disregard not only for the integrity of the legal process but also for its ability successfully to bring men like these to justice."
"For no apparent reason more compelling than to score points in a presidential debate, the governor of Texas has seriously endangered the ability of his state to vindicate the rule of law in one of the most horrendous slayings in the nation's history," Tribe said.
Bush spokesman Sullivan pooh-poohed the comments of Tribe, as well as similar ones by former Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox, who said that Bush's remarks may have "complicated the appellate process in this case."
"The comments of two liberal lawyers, one a former Democratic officeholder in Texas, should be chalked up to partisan politics," Sullivan said. "The governor's comments about Texas having a hate crimes statute is accurate, and the men who killed James Byrd received the death penalty."