Goofus Al and Gallant George

In 2000, the media hounded Al Gore over alleged minor exaggerations. So why does it give Bush a pass when he doesn't tell the truth about life-and-death matters like Iraq and tax policies?

Published July 1, 2003 11:17PM (EDT)

What a difference a few years makes for the Beltway press.

Today, as the fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq continues and the White House claim that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to America seems more dubious by the day, more questions are being raised in Congress about President Bush's tendency to mislead and deceive. Many journalists, though, seem less interested in being the watchdog than in assuring Americans that Bush hasn't lied about central issues like war and peace. Instead, he's simply exaggerated.

It is a curious position. During the 2000 presidential campaign, the press couldn't stop writing, investigating and carrying on about Al Gore's alleged exaggerations regarding old movies, canoe trips, and classroom seating inside a Sarasota school.

As detailed at Daily Howler, journalists turned exaggerations into the pressing issue during the closing weeks of the campaign, as pundits argued that Gore's embellishments all but disqualified him from serving as president. Hooked on the story, reporters spent an extraordinary amount of time checking in with experts -- psychoanalysts, academics, political scientists -- trying desperately to figure out what all the exaggerations meant.

By dwelling on, and often falsely reporting, Gore's so-called exaggerations, the press became the Bush campaign's best ally and helped drive down Gore's poll numbers, particularly when voters were asked which candidate was more trustworthy. As veteran political analyst Charlie Cook noted last year in a National Journal column, it was Gore's "exaggerations that cost him his post-Democratic convention lead."

But Bush's current-day exaggerations about Iraq's nuclear weapons program, Saddam's fictional alliance with al-Qaida, or the reasons for flying in a jet fighter to a photo-op on the USS Lincoln? Or the deceptive White House spin on Bush's radical tax policy? Much of the press gives him a pass. Chattering cable pundits have no interest in chewing up TV time to examine what's behind Bush's conflicts with truth and reality, or what those say about Bush the man and how he's leading the country. In just two and a half years, the Beltway press has come to the hasty conclusion that presidential exaggerations are no longer considered deal breakers. Everybody does it, the reasoning seems to go; what really matters most are outright lies.

With the Bush administration leading an ongoing war on terror, it's possible that journalists, at least subconsciously, do not want to publicly question the president's character. "There's a huge psychological need to believe and trust your president when we're being told every day we may be attacked by terrorists," says Emmy Award-winning journalist James Moore, a coauthor of "Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential." "But I think there's a dangerous mentality among the press that says, Well, yeah, he needed to exaggerate to go after Saddam Hussein, but that's OK because it's for the good of the country and we shouldn't hold him accountable."

"I believe the press is in awe of the Bush juggernaut," adds Jay Rosen, chairman of New York University's journalism department. "Journalists respect a winner and those they think of as savvy and effective. Besides, what's a worse crime according to journalists, shading the truth or being naive about the way the world really works? It's definitely the latter."

Or maybe some journalists who covered the 2000 race don't want to concede they made a mistake. "They would have to admit they were duped by an exaggerator," says Moore. Either way, today's blatant double standard over exaggerations is not reserved for Gore's hard-luck campaign. It's part of a larger pattern in how the press treats Democratic candidates tougher than it treats Republicans. Examples from the current campaign trail abound.

Bush backers in the conservative press have been out front defending the president's shaky grasp of the truth. Blogger Andrew Sullivan last week wrote that charges against Bush and his crusade against still-missing WMD "ultimately amounts to an argument that the administration exaggerated." The clear implication is that exaggerations are not serious matters that warrant serious attention. Which is odd, because during the closing days of the 2000 run, Sullivan, writing in the Sunday Times of London, listed "exaggerations" to be among Gore's most damning traits. But the it's-only-exaggeration spin has now become the mainstream mantra as well. A recent Washington Post editorial addressing the fruitless hunt for WMD noted matter-of-factly, "While the Bush administration may have publicly exaggerated or distorted parts of its case, much of what it said reflected a broad international consensus."

Note how presidential exaggerations are an accepted part of today's political landscape and should not raise doubts. Is this the same Washington Post that, one month before the 2000 election, ran a Page One piece exploring Gore's exaggerations? In the article, two Post reporters combed through decades of public statements; as proof of Gore's exaggerations they pointed to a boast he had made years ago that while a journalist in the 1970s he "got a bunch of people indicted and sent to jail." The truth, harrumphed the Post, was that "two were indicted, and in fact, no one went to jail." It was an example, the Post intoned, of Gore's "casual lying." Yet Bush routinely misleading Americans on the reasons to wage war? That's just exaggerating.

Or look at the June 22 New York Times Week in Review essay, "Bush May Have Exaggerated, but Did He Lie?" Again, note the assumption of the headline, that exaggerations matter less than lies. In that piece the Times assured readers: "A review of the president's public statements found little that could lead to a conclusion that the president actually lied" about WMD or his tax plan. And in a strange defensive burst on behalf of Bush, the Times announced categorically: "There is no evidence the president did not believe what he was saying."

Yet a few paragraphs later, the newspaper reported that Bush had claimed his tax-cut package would mean "relief for everyone who pays income taxes." That's patently false; nearly 10 million income tax payers will get no relief. Was that a lie, something intended to create a falsehood? The Times makes no judgment but offers a generous observation instead: "If [Bush] had said 'almost all,' it would have been accurate."

Is this the same New York Times that relentlessly, and often erroneously, documented Gore's trivial embellishments in 2000 and treated them with utmost seriousness? The same paper that devoted nearly 30 paragraphs to determine whether Gore was the inspiration for the main character in the 1970 novel "Love Story," as Gore had claimed in a offhand, off-the-record comment? (The facts are that Gore went to college with "Love Story" author Erich Segal, who patiently explained to the Times that the novel's main character was based on both Gore and Gore's college roommate.)

What's so remarkable about the Times and Post rushing to Bush's aid over the question of exaggerations today is that during the last presidential campaign, both papers were so anxious to snare Gore in embellishment that their overeager reporters often helped concoct Gore's alleged missteps.

For instance, there's the infamous Love Canal incident. When Gore spoke at Concord High School in New Hampshire on November 30, 1999, he urged students to take an active role in politics, and he recalled it was a letter written to him in the '70s from a student in Toone, Tenn., that got then-U.S. Rep. Gore interested in the topic of toxic waste. "I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing," Gore told the students. "I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I had the first hearing on that issue -- and Toone, Tenn., that was the one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all."

The next day, both the Washington Post and the New York Times botched the quote, erroneously reporting that Gore had bragged, "I was the one that started it all." [Emphasis added.]

That set off the TV talkers, with MSNBC's Chris Matthews mocking Gore for being delusional, while ABC's George Stephanopoulos lamented that the vice president had "revealed his Pinocchio problem." It took both the Times and the Post a week to publish mangled corrections, thereby ensuring that the Love Canal story would hound Gore for years.

But today, if Bush lays out eye-popping "exaggerations" all by himself -- "We've found the weapons of mass destruction," Bush declared on Polish TV after the war-- the Times and Post assure their readers it's just rhetorical flair.

Unfortunately for the Democrats running in 2004, it doesn't appear the press's double standard was unique to Gore's run. A more recent example was on display two Sundays ago when Vermont Gov. Howard Dean appeared on "Meet the Press." The telecast started a Beltway buzz in part because Tim Russert created a combative atmosphere from the outset: Question No. 2 was, "Can you honestly go across the country and say, "I'm going to raise your taxes 4,000 percent or 107 percent" and be elected?" (Russert was figuring Dean's tax plan based on Bush administration calculations.)

Russert continued to press Dean hard, including a pop quiz question about how many men and women currently serve in the military. When Dean said he did not now the exact number, Russert shot back: "As commander in chief, you should know that." Dean estimated there were between 1 and 2 million men and women in active duty; according to the Pentagon, there are 1.4 million.

The D.C. conventional wisdom was clear: Dean had failed the "Russert primary," a sort of 60-minute, on-air boot camp all candidates must go through as the NBC host puts them through rigorous paces and hits them with pointed follow-ups. Russert, the C.W. went, had cleaned Dean's clock and showed how unprepared the candidate was to go toe-to-toe with Bush. "Mr. Dean's "Meet the Press" performance was, to put it charitably, less than impressive," tsk-tsked a condescending Post editorial.

But travel back in time to 1999 when Russert had a far more civil sit-down with then-candidate Bush. (Russert: "Can kids avoid sex?" Bush: "I hope so. I think so.") Russert even agreed to leave his NBC studio and to travel to Bush's home in Austin to conduct the interview, thereby giving the Texas governor a sort of home-field advantage. For nearly 60 minutes the two men talked about key issues, but Russert never tried to pin him down the way he did Dean. For instance, the host let pass candidate Bush's implausible notion that he had no opinion on the politically sensitive topic of whether South Carolina should fly the Confederate flag.

Thanks to Russert, Bush came off looking strong when the host dwelled on the fact Bush had picked selective fights with right-wing Republicans, with Russert even repeating Bush's carefully crafted sound bites: "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor." Of course, at the time Russert must have understood those "fights" with the GOP were clearly stage-managed to give mainstream voters the impression that Bush was closer to the middle politically, a true compassionate conservative, but Russert dwelled on them just the same. By comparison, in his recent interview with Dean, Russert seemed to be trying to paint the Democrat as being too far to the left by dwelling on topics such as gay marriages.

And when Russert did spring a specific question on Bush in '99 about how many missiles would still be in place if a new START II nuclear weapons treaty were signed, Bush answered: "I can't remember the exact number." But unlike his session with Dean, Russert dropped the topic without lecturing Bush that "as commander in chief, you should know that."

Incredibly, two weeks ago Russert pressed Dean about the details of the medical deferment that kept him out of Vietnam. Back in 1999, though, Russert never thought to ask Bush about how he was able to finagle his way into the Texas National Guard during the height of Vietnam War and why, according to most accounts, he failed to show up for his final two years of duty.

Going into the 2004 campaign, Bush already enjoys an enormous fundraising advantage over the Democrats, as well as a poll bounce from being a "wartime" president. It appears Bush will again profit from kinder, gentler press coverage, too.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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