July 27, 2000

A Question of Character

Gore as a Liar

The second most prevalent theme of those studied about the Vice President was the idea that Gore has problems sticking to the truth. Often it came in the form of soundbites from his rivals, who did verbal calisthenics to turn a subject from whatever to Gore's truth problem. Here CBS News' Early Show has a segment from correspondent Bill Plante with this quote from Bush:

Governor Bush: "When Vice President Gore stands up and says he's a—all of a sudden he's a campaign funding reform advocate, after having gone to a Buddhist temple a couple of years ago, I just—I'm not going to let that pass by. I'm going to remind people what the truth is, and what reality is."

Often Gore's "Pinocchio problem" was raised in the context of how his rivals would exploit it. "Well Antonio," ABC correspondent Dean Reynolds told anchor Antonio Mora on Good Morning America one day in mid-March, "the governor (Bush) is going to continue to hammer away at what they believe is a credibility gap the vice president suffers from. The governor repeatedly refers to Al Gore as a man who will say anything to get elected."

As mentioned earlier, more than third of the Gore assertions studied (34%) were about his tendency to lie or exaggerate. What stood out, as well, was that Gore and his supporters were so incapable of responding. Only 2% of all the assertions about Gore studied argued against this charge.

This is especially notable given that even some reporters during the campaign had suggested the charges against Gore were overstated. Robert Parry, writing in the Washington Monthly, for instance, found that one of the biggest accusations against Gore—that he discovered the Love Canal toxic waste site—was a misquotation. Another, that he was a prototype for the character in the book Love Story, was actually true.Much of the reporting captured in the study had to do with Gore's claim that he had been absent in the men's room during a crucial discussion about campaign money in 1996.

More than any other thread, a popular source for the idea of Gore's truth problems was another candidate, primarily Bush or Bradley. Candidates accounted for a full 35% of the assertions. Journalists, on the other hand, were less likely than to be the source for this assertion than they were for other themes (39% versus 50%).

Once again, Gore's record was often what did him in. More than third of the statements about Gore's tendency to stretch the truth referred to his public record, slightly higher than for all other themes. Another two-in-ten (18%) cited an opponent's attack as the evidence.

What was the upshot? Again, the press was less likely to explore the implications of this problem on a Gore Administration than to tie the issue to some more immediate concern, such as Gore's campaign. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of the time the assertion was related to how it would affect Gore's tactics and strategy. The press put Gore's exaggerations into the context of his potential leadership just 23% of the time.

Evidence for Gore as a Liar
Voter Interaction 1%
Public Record 35
Recent Remarks 10
Camp. Platform 8
Tactics/Rhetoric 6
Opponent Attack 18
Friends' Remarks 0
Past Personal Life *
Poll 1
Other 5
 
No Evidence 16
Total 100

Like his ties to scandal, Gore's honesty problem was hammered at during the key primary battle. In all, 43% of the assertions came in March. And, as with the scandal theme, the Chris Matthews show was a popular place to discuss his tendency to exaggerate. Twelve percent of these statements appeared on this show alone, compared with 9% overall and 5% of all the Bush threads combined.

Gore's veracity did seem to penetrate to some degree with the public, though not overwhelmingly. The public was noticeably more likely to attribute saying anything to get elected to Gore than to Bush, by a margin of 36% to 25%.

And it seems to matter to people. About half of Americans said that Gore's tendency to lie or exaggerate would make them "less likely" to vote for him, compared with 40% who said it wouldn't make much difference.