Gore's Truth Troubles

It sounded like a vivid personal anecdote that drove home the urgency of Al Gore's signature campaign issue: the high price of prescription drugs for seniors. Gore told a crowd in Tallahassee on Aug. 28 that his mother-in-law and his dog take the same arthritis medicine, but that Margaret Ann Aitcheson's prescription costs three times as much as the one for Shiloh, the black Labrador.

But family stories are dangerous territory for Gore. As is often the case, this one was a little too vivid. The Boston Globe reported on Monday that Gore took his figures not from his family's records but from a House study on drug prices. Moreover, Aitcheson uses Lodine while Shiloh is given an animal version called Etogesic. Gore struck again the same day the Globe story ran. With a pack of reporters on full embellishment alert, Gore serenaded an audience of Teamsters in Las Vegas with the first line of what he said was a childhood lullaby: "Look for the union label ..." If it's true, then Tipper must have been singing him to sleep, because the song was written in 1975, when he was 27 years old. The campaign said Gore had misstated the name of an older song, "Don't Forget the Union Label." And when aides coughed up figures on the arthritis medications, it turned out that the retail price for Shiloh's was, indeed, lower than Aitcheson's.

It doesn't look like either story will do serious damage. But the episodes are part of a disquieting pattern. I'm often asked what most surprised me as I researched my biography of Gore. The answer is easy: his trouble with the truth. What makes it especially puzzling is that, for the most part, the statements in question aren't huge "I-did-not-have-sexual-relations-with-that-woman"-sized lies, but small, often silly and self-aggrandizing distortions of his background. Gore never met a personal anecdote he didn't like well enough to stretch further than the facts would allow.

Other politicians have taken liberties with the facts to emphasize some point of policy. Ronald Reagan used to talk about the "welfare queen" who drove to the supermarket in her Cadillac to use her food stamps. Where or when he encountered her, Reagan could never quite say. Most of Gore's tales are tethered to a sizable chunk of reality. In nearly every case, the straight story would have been just as interesting or praiseworthy. Gore did not, as he told Wolf Blitzer in 1998, take "the initiative in creating the Internet." But he did sponsor legislation that invested billions in critical fiber optics research than paved the way for the Internet we have today. And while he was not the basis for the Oliver Barrett character in Love Story, author Erich Segal says Barrett was a combination of Gore and his Harvard pal Tommy Lee Jones. Gore's work as a reporter in Nashville did not, as he claimed in 1988, result in jail time for two members of the city council. But they were indicted on bribery charges as a result of Gore's investigation.

It's a self-destructive, neurotic tick in the character of a man who is usually at home in the world of facts and ideas. I have no definitive explanation for Gore's tendency to embellish. But my strong sense is that the trait is a product of two major forces that shaped him: post-war, pre-Watergate Washington and the culture of grandiosity inside his own family.

Gore grew up in a media culture where reporters were more respectful of authority and politicians were essentially free to tell their stories the way they wanted to. In a world without Lexis/Nexis, C-Span, CNN or instant transcripts, it was easier to take liberties with personal history. And young Gore had vivid early examples of how politicians molded and shaved the truth.

His father, Sen. Albert Gore, was also known to enhance the size of his achievements on occasion. Part of this was the old Tennessee story-telling tradition, and part was his own outsized ego. "Albert is prone to exaggerate," Pauline Gore, his wife and the vice president's mother, told me in 1997. "I dread when he starts in his exaggerations, because I don't like to call him down."

Sen. Gore was especially proud of his role as a co-sponsor of the bill that created the Interstate highway system in the mid-1950s. Over the years, Gore took increasingly generous measures of credit for the project, despite the key roles played by others, including President Dwight Eisenhower. Jerry Futrell, the former vice mayor of Carthage, Tenn., and a long-time family friend, said that Gore Jr. himself was well aware of his father's problem. Futrell told me in a 1997 interview that Gore once made of a point of accompanying his father to a reunion of officials who worked on passage of the highway bill and then spoke in his place. Gore told Futrell he was worried "that if his father was the speaker, Gen. Eisenhower wouldn't have gotten any credit for the highway system."

Albert Gore Sr. envisioned sitting in the White House one day. His expectations for "Little Al" were so broad, so deep, so all-encompassing that it wasn't enough for the son to merely excel. Somewhere inside of Gore there is a place where he believes that it isn't enough to be an important player in the development of the Internet, or a distinguished investigative reporter--that somehow he has to save the world. So far, despite months of Republican drumbeating, Gore's forays into fantasyland haven't been fatal. Perhaps most voters are simply reconciled to the idea that truth is the first casualty in any presidential campaign. But as the race comes down to its last critical weeks, he would do well to get a grip on his grandiosity.