Four years ago, the press excoriated Al Gore for supposedly stretching the truth in his first debate with George W. Bush. Voters who actually watched that debate thought Gore had gotten the best of his opponent. But in the days that followed, the media, buying into the Republican story line on Gore's supposed mendacity, told them they were wrong. Bush had won the debate by defying the low expectations that had been set for him. Gore had lost it by stumbling over the facts -- sort of -- on a couple of inconsequential anecdotes about which FEMA official joined him on a tour of a disaster area and whether a schoolgirl in Florida had a desk.
As president and as a candidate, Bush has been known to mangle facts big and small -- but he most likely won't get Gored at the first debate here tonight, as he hasn't yet in the 2004 campaign. Desperate to get three debates with Bush, the Kerry campaign agreed to Republican ground rules that will make the debates little more than dueling stump speeches interrupted by lights and buzzers that go off when a candidate -- Kerry, inevitably -- takes more than two minutes to answer. The candidates will not be allowed to pose questions to one another during tonight's debate on national security or during the Oct. 13 debate on domestic issues. And at the open-topic "town hall" debate Oct. 8, the moderator is under orders to cut off any commoner who strays from a pre-approved question and to cut off the mike before anyone follows up.
It's all a way to keep Kerry from explaining complicated ideas -- "grandstanding," as the Republicans call it -- and to keep Bush from being caught off-guard. But if the press were covering Bush today as it covered Gore in 2000, the Democrats wouldn't need to hope for a debate-night, deer-in-the-headlights stumble from Bush. The story line on Bush would already be written: In his run for reelection, the president has often exhibited an aversion to the truth.
There are the big whoppers, of course, like the administration's off-and-on efforts to link Saddam Hussein to the attacks of Sept. 11. But then there are the questionable tales of lesser consequence, like the one Bush tells nearly every day about his first visit to ground zero on Sept. 14, 2001. Bush says the experience remains "so vivid" in his memory that it "might as well have happened yesterday." But each time Bush repeats his ground zero story, the tale gets a little better in the retelling -- an evolution that the reporters who cover Bush regularly don't bother to chronicle. It's the kind of evolving story that would have landed Al Gore in a heap of trouble four years ago.
When Bush first started telling the ground zero story, in February of this year, he'd say he remembered walking through the ruins and seeing "a guy pointing at me and saying, 'Don't let me down.'" By March, Bush had the "guy" saying, "'Mr. President, never let me down."
One morning in May, Bush said: "I clearly remember a guy in a hard hat" who said, "'Don't let me down.'" Later that same day, Bush said: "I'll never forget the firefighter that pointed at me and said, 'Don't let me down.'" By June, the "guy" had become a whole group of "tired firefighters and police and rescue workers" who said, "'Don't let us down.'" By July, the "guy" was just a guy again, but Bush couldn't remember which kind: "I remember a fireman or a policeman, I can't remember which one, looking me in the eyes and saying, 'Do not let me down.'"
At about the same time, the guy -- whoever he was -- started getting physical. No longer did he merely point at the passing president; he "grabbed me by the arm," Bush said. One morning in July, Bush said the grabber "was a policeman or a fireman, I don't know which one, but he had tears in his eyes." By that afternoon, the guy had become a "firefighter" again, with "bloodshot eyes and sweat pouring."
And it kept getting better. In early August, Bush said: "I don't know if he was a firefighter or a policeman -- I do know that he was looking through the rubble for one of his buddies." A week after that, Bush said the guy had been searching for "a loved one." One day later, he had been searching for "somebody that he worked with." And the day after that, he was searching for a "buddy" again, but this time he said: "Mr. President, do not let me down." Two weeks later, Bush had him saying, "You don't let me down."
And on Sept. 14, 2004 -- the third anniversary of the president's visit to ground zero -- Bush offered up his most vivid memory yet. "I remember a guy grabbed me the arm, a big old burly firefighter, I guess he was a firefighter, he said: 'Do not let me down.'"
It was, the president said, "a day I'll never forget."
Bush's fact-challenged ways aren't contained to trivial anecdotes like the ground zero story, of course. Although -- if Bush got as good as he gave Gore, that might be enough to convince the media of his dishonesty. After the first debate in 2000, the Bush campaign and the press hammered Gore for two misstatements. Gore said that he had toured flood- and fire-ravaged Texas with FEMA director James Lee Witt when, in fact, he had toured flood- and fire-ravaged Texas with a FEMA official, and he had toured other disaster locations with Witt. And Gore said that, because of insufficient education funding, a Florida schoolgirl didn't have a place to sit in her science class when, in fact, she had been seatless but received a desk of her own a few weeks before the debate. For this, Gore was slammed in the press, including a "Liar! Liar!" headline emblazoned across the front of the New York Post.
The day after the debate, Bush told Fox News that Gore had a "record, you know, of sometimes exaggerating to make a point." Karen Hughes said Gore's debate performance was part of a "disturbing pattern of the vice president simply making things up."
How "disturbed" would Hughes have been if Gore had told a whopper about something of substance -- say, as Bush did this week. At a campaign rally in Missouri Monday, Bush claimed that, because of U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan, the "Taliban no longer is in existence." The president's pronouncement must have come as news to the troops currently fighting Taliban and al-Qaida members in Afghanistan, and it's directly contradicted by statements made just last week by Republican members of Congress and a Defense Department official familiar with operations in Afghanistan.
The Kerry campaign pounced on the comment, equating it with Gerald Ford's infamous statement that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Ford's doozy, made in a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter, halted his momentum and may have cost him the White House. Bush's stumble? So far, big media has ignored it.
Maybe the press thinks Bush's Taliban comment was just a slip of the tongue, like when the president suggested the other day that the Afghan army was part of the Iraqi army and said that it was "the Afghan national army that went into Najaf and did the work there." Or maybe the press thought the comment wasn't news; as the Nation's David Corn notes, this isn't the first time that Bush has "errantly declared the Taliban extinct."
Or maybe the idea of Bush-as-falsifier just doesn't fit the story line the press has accepted for this race. By the time Gore made mistakes in describing his trip to Texas and the status of the seating in a Florida science class, the press was already primed to think of him as an embellisher. Republicans had spent months portraying Gore as a man who would -- in the words Karl Rove had focus-grouped for Bush -- "say anything" to get elected. Never mind that the construction was built on a shaky foundation -- Gore never actually said that he "invented" the Internet or that he discovered Love Canal -- the vice president's missteps at the 2000 debate "confirmed" that the construct was correct.
John Kerry and the Democrats haven't succeeded in building up that kind of construct about Bush. Afraid of being dismissed as angry anybody-but-Bush Michael Moore clones, the Democrats spent the spring and the summer introducing -- and introducing and introducing -- voters to John Kerry, rather than working in a consistent and coordinated way to pin the "misleader" tag on the president. Meanwhile, day after day for month after month, George Bush and Dick Cheney and Ed Gillespie and all their surrogates repeated, virtually word-for-word, the same flip-flopper stories about Kerry.
As the Republican Convention ended, Kerry and the Democrats finally started linking Bush's dissembling about WMD to dishonesty about other administration policies. And in the last few weeks, Kerry and John Edwards have pounded away at the notion that Bush has not "come clean" about Iraq or anything else. But that idea hasn't taken hold yet in the minds of the voters, at least not in the same way the mere mention of Kerry's name now seems to elicit a Pavlovian response of "flip-flopper." Polls show that voters see Bush as the more "honest and trustworthy" of the two candidates. Kerry acknowledged Wednesday that Republican efforts to portray him as a flip-flopper have been "particularly successful," and one of his top advisors, Tad Devine, told Salon that it was probably too late to persuade voters that Bush is a serial prevaricator.
But there are signs that the media may be turning the corner on this. In recent days, the San Francisco Chronicle and Knight-Ridder have each run stories explaining that, the flip-flopper label notwithstanding, Kerry really always has had one consistent view on Iraq: He has always maintained that he was right to vote in October 2002 to give Bush authority to go to war, and he has always said that Bush should have moved more slowly, building a coalition and giving inspections time to work before invading. And reporters seem increasingly comfortable pointing out that Bush has flip-flopped, too. CBS News has listed Bush's Top 10 flip-flops, and on CNN Tuesday night, Paula Zahn raised Bush's flip-flops on the creation of a Homeland Security Department and the creation of the 9/11 commission, forcing John McCain to concede that all politicians are sometimes "plagued" by evolving positions.
But expect Bush to push the flip-flopper charge hard tonight, both because it's the centerpiece of his anti-Kerry campaign, and because it's a hard charge to refute in the two-minutes-and-then-the-buzzer-sounds format of these debates. Bush has already taken to saying that it's difficult to prepare for a debate against Kerry because "he keeps changing positions on the war on terror." Dick Cheney likes to say that Kerry has taken nine "distinct positions" on the war in Iraq. It's not true -- a Bush-Cheney spokeswoman ran down the list for Salon last week, and the nine include a smattering of out-of-context half-quotes as well as tangential disputes over whether Kerry vowed or didn't vow not to criticize Bush for Iraq. But just try explaining away "nine positions" -- including several you didn't take -- in a two-minute answer or a one-minute rebuttal.
That's exactly where Bush wants Kerry to be -- explaining himself rather than attacking Bush -- and he's shown in recent weeks that he's willing to mischaracterize Kerry's statements and his records in order to keep the Democrats on the defensive. When Kerry said in August that, even knowing what he knows today, he would have voted to give Bush authority to use force in Iraq, Bush misrepresented the statement as an agreement that Bush was right to invade Iraq. When Kerry said last week that America had traded a dictator in Iraq for chaos there, Bush said that Kerry "preferred" that Saddam Hussein remain in power. Bush will likely repeat the charges tonight -- once the message-disciplined president says something, he tends to say it a lot -- and Kerry will have to spend some of his precious time onstage with Bush setting the record straight.
Other misstatements likely to fall from the president's lips tonight:
Revisionist history on "Mission Accomplished." Kerry has hit Bush hard for his premature celebration on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003. Expect Bush to dissemble on what he was doing there. In an interview with Larry King in August, Bush said that he "didn't say" the battle of Iraq was over that day on the ship. And in an interview with Bill O'Reilly this week, Bush suggested that all he did say was "thank you" to the troops who had served. In fact, under that "Mission Accomplished" banner, Bush said: "In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."
Covering his tracks on the 9/11 commission. In May 2002, Bush said clearly that he opposed the creation of a commission to investigate Sept. 11. "Since it deals with such sensitive information," he said, "in my judgment, it's best for the ongoing war against terror that the investigation be done in the intelligence committee." When Larry King asked him last month if he had opposed creation of the commission, Bush said: "Not really."
Hiding concern over North Korean nukes.If Bush starts talking about dining with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi -- he tells the story of their meal together as a way to illustrate what can become of former enemies -- watch for the president's evolving memory about the topic of their discussions. In the early days of his stump speech, Bush would say that he and Koizumi talked about the nuclear threat from North Korea. Now that the administration is distracted by Iraq -- leaving the Korean situation to fester -- Bush says that he and Koizumi talked about "the peace."
Overstating Iraqi security. At his press conference with interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi last week, Bush said that "nearly 100,000 fully trained and equipped Iraqi soldiers, police officers and other security personnel are working today." But at a Pentagon briefing last week, it became clear that the 100,000 includes about 36,000 police officers who have not completed the two-part training that the Pentagon had planned for them. While the 36,000 officers have completed either three or eight weeks of police academy training -- LAPD recruits spend seven months at a police academy -- it appears that not one of them has completed the 24 weeks of on-the-job training described in Pentagon documents. And as for being fully equipped? Those 36,000 undertrained cops, combined with about 50,000 more the Pentagon lists as "untrained" or "in training," share about 13,000 radios -- or about one for every seven officers -- and some of those have "an interim capability only."
And when Bush begins to invoke memories of Sept. 11 again tonight, listen carefully -- and not just for another round of suggestions that Saddam Hussein had something to do with it. In a question-and-answer session in December 2001 -- just three months after the attack -- Bush remembered watching the first plane hit the World Trade Center while he was waiting to enter that classroom in Florida. "I was sitting outside the classroom waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower -- the TV was obviously on," Bush said. "And I used to fly, myself, and I said, 'Well, there's one terrible pilot.' I said, 'It must have been a horrible accident.'" Bush repeated the story at another event in January 2002.
The only problem is, it never happened. The first attack wasn't broadcast live -- who would have known to show it? -- and videotape of it wasn't available until much later. Bush may believe the words he says, but there's no way he saw what he said he saw.