In his February 27 column, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen faulted "some of my colleagues" who "caricatured" former Vice President Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign "as a serial exaggerator, a fibber, a pretender -- the guy who invented the Internet, who was the model for the novel (and movie) 'Love Story,' who applied one too many coats of passion to that kiss he delivered to his wife, Tipper, at the Democratic National Convention in 2000." Cohen himself, however, contributed to this "caricature" of Gore in 2000, even after he acknowledged that the portrayal of Gore as dishonest was baseless.
Cohen wrote in his February 27 column:
It's a joke, isn't it? I mean, it was Gore who was universally seen as the flawed man, uncomfortable in his own skin and, therefore, in this TV age, incapable of uniting the nation. He was caricatured by some of my colleagues as a serial exaggerator, a fibber, a pretender -- the guy who invented the Internet, who was the model for the novel (and movie) "Love Story," who applied one too many coats of passion to that kiss he delivered to his wife, Tipper, at the Democratic National Convention in 2000. There were so many reasons not to vote for him -- none, in retrospect, much good.
At the time, however, Cohen himself frequently propagated the image of Gore as an "exaggerator." For example, in his October 12, 2000, Post column, Cohen wrote:
In Reagan's case, these stories were dismissed by his supporters and characterized as charming eccentricities. Yet, some of the same people and editorial organs now get the vapors when confronting one of Al Gore's exaggerations. Gore, for some reason, is a liar while Reagan was just a marvelous storyteller.
I am not going to sit here and defend Gore's exaggerations. I wish he wouldn't make them. I wish he did not say he had been to the Texas fires when he hadn't. (Maybe he ought to have said concentration camp.) I wish he had not compared his dog's prescription plan to his mother-in-law's. I wish he had been a bit more modest about his role in developing the Internet or, way back, in describing his Vietnam War experience.
In fact, Gore never claimed that he "had been to the Texas fires" -- a reference to wildfires that broke out in Parker County, Texas, in 1998. Gore simply stated that he went "down to Texas" at the time the fires broke out -- not to the site of the actual fires, as Cohen implied. At the October 3, 2000, presidential debate, Gore said: "First, I want to compliment the governor on his response to those fires and floods in Texas. I accompanied James Lee Witt down to Texas when those fires broke out." Gore later acknowledged that he mistakenly claimed that Witt, then-director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had accompanied him on the trip to Houston, when, in fact, it was Witt's deputy who had accompanied Gore. An October 4, 2000, Associated Press article quoted Gore saying: "I was there in Texas, in Houston, with the head of the Texas emergency management folks and with all the federal emergency management folks. If James Lee was there before or after, then, you know, I got that wrong then." As USA Today reported on October 11, 2000: "Gore said Tuesday that he had made 16 or 17 similar trips with Witt and simply confused those with the one he made to Texas with Witt's deputy."
However, the Bush campaign, Gore's critics, and the media seized on Gore's misstatement that Witt had accompanied him, casting Gore as a liar or an exaggerator. The October 4 AP article cited above quoted Bush saying: "Of course, it turned out he didn't (make the trip with Witt). This is a man -- he's got a record, you know, of sometimes exaggerating to make a point." On the October 4 edition of CNN's Crossfire, co-host Mary Matalin said: "He did not accompany James Lee Witt in '96 or '98. He never toured any of the fire zones. He did get a briefing in the pilots lounge at the airport when he went down to campaign for Governor Bush's opponent."
Cohen also wrote in his October 12, 2000, column:
Gore's burden is his association with Bill Clinton, whose behavior was largely overlooked by the press until it could be overlooked no more. So now we study Gore for the telltale signs of a larger problem. But what could it be? He has been vice president for eight years, a senator and congressman before that. No one who has worked with him calls him a liar. He is just an exaggerator.
Gore's abiding, overriding and maybe insurmountable handicap is that he is no Reagan--he lacks the man's charm. Where Reagan could dismiss his critics with a wave of his hand and some disarming joke, Gore just digs in more, tries harder and smiles like the groom at a shotgun wedding.
It seems true that Reagan sometimes could not distinguish between what he had seen on film and what he had experienced firsthand--and so his stories, strictly speaking, were not lies. With Gore, it's not clear if he gets confused or knows at the time that he's taken things too far. But the outcome is the same: False is false.
Cohen also questioned whether Gore was "real" and suggested he was a "pretender." In his October 12, 1999, column, Cohen wrote:
Whatever else you -- or I -- might say about [former Senator Bill] Bradley [D-NJ], he has conducted himself with dignity, with the strong suggestion that there are things he will not do and positions he will not take just to become his party's nominee. His manner assures us that, just as he had a life before this presidential race, he will have a life afterward. He seems to know who he is.
I wish I could say that about Gore. But there is something both frantic and synthetic about the campaign's move to Nashville and all this talk about home. It was only done, after all, when the campaign got into trouble. It's not so much a move as a retreat. Besides, if Gore has to be on location to be real -- if he has to be in Tennessee to be the sort of person he really is -- then what is he going to do if he wins the presidency -- move the White House to Nashville?
Albert Gore was first elected to Congress in 1976. He has been a public figure since his twenties, a national figure since his thirties, a presidential candidate by his 40th birthday (in 1988) and vice president since 1993. All this searching for roots, all this stuff about home, suggests something I'm sure he does not intend. It's not that we really never knew the real Al Gore. It's that he never really knew himself.
In his November 2, 1999, column, Cohen wrote:
"The male body is home to me, my rocket, my whirlpool." So wrote Naomi Wolf in her book, "Fire With Fire" which will soon be required reading along the campaign trail. Wolf -- sometimes a feminist, sometimes not, but always controversial -- has just been revealed as a secret Al Gore campaign adviser, apparently teaching the vice president how to be a rocket and a whirlpool. Some of us, though, would settle for just plain Al Gore.
But it is more and more clear that no one, least of all Al Gore, knows who that is. This is why he moved his campaign headquarters from Washington to Nashville, why he has gotten some new suits (it's the whirlpool look), and often appears in leisure clothing. He is newly energetic, sometimes manic and moves like a character in some speeded-up silent movie. I suppose this is what happens when you're a rocket.
An alpha male would not have hidden her. An alpha male would not have been afraid to be up-front, maybe introducing her to the press and saying -- in effect -- I'll take your best punch. And an alpha candidate would have realized that Wolf's presence on the payroll was going to leak. After all, she was pulling down big money. Others had been fired. This was Washington. This was politics.
Mostly, though, an alpha candidate would not need Wolf at all. He would not have to be told who he is and how to dress. He would be led by conviction -- out of a solid sense of who he is. Gore keeps signaling that's not the case. Maybe, come to think of it, he's a whirlpool after all. His campaign's going down the drain.
Notably, in his August 10, 2000, column, Cohen defended Gore against false claims that he was a liar:
In contrast, poor Al Gore has not been able to make a single exaggeration or the slightest fib without the hall monitors of the press issuing multiple demerits. In fact, even Bush got in on the act. In Philadelphia he poked fun at Gore's purported claim to have invented the Internet.
Trouble is, Gore made no such claim. Instead, he spoke as a legislator who really had been among the first to grasp the importance of the Internet: "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet." He did. You can look it up.
Similarly, Gore did not say he had discovered the Love Canal toxic waste debacle, nor did he claim that the character in Erich Segal's "Love Story" was based entirely on him. Yet for these and other supposed statements--some, I grant you, sloppily worded--a brace of commentators has called Gore a liar. A full listing plus an account of what Gore really said was published in the April issue of the Washington Monthly.