For a while all they could talk about was the kiss. Prescription drug benefits and a patients’ bill of rights? Very nice. Paying down the debt to keep mortgage and auto loan rates low and the economy humming? Lovely. But did you see that kiss? Awesome!

Now all they can talk about is the sighing, which I admit was unfortunate. (One of you wrote to me that the first debate was a case of “the overbearing versus the overwhelmed.”)

Few question the VP’s competence for the job.

Few dispute that the last eight years have been really good.

Few think Al Gore’s choice of running-mate sent anything but the best signals.

But what about the sighs?

(Having been in a couple of debates over auto insurance reform, where the other side was spectacularly misleading the audience by, in effect, calling the facts “fuzzy math,” I have made the same mistake. It’s a hard reflex to quash.)

More to the point, what about the lies? And this is where the other side makes me truly crazy, because it turns out that, if anyone has been deliberately misleading the public, it’s the other side.

This is not to say that the VP has not occasionally misspoken or exaggerated in the telling of a story — who hasn’t? But that’s a million miles from the kind of picture the Bush folks are skillfully — one might almost say cynically — attempting to paint.

Let’s start with the Internet. It is now well known among those who follow these things — and must surely be known within the Bush campaign — that the Vice President never said he invented the Internet. He . . . just . . . never . . . said . . . it.

He did claim to have been the Internet’s champion in Congress — and that was true.

If you doubt this, I offer you Robert Parry’s now pretty famous article in the Washington Monthly. Or consider the words of Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf, who did invent the Internet:

“No one person or even small group of persons exclusively ‘invented’ the Internet. It is the result of many years of ongoing collaboration among people in government and the university community. But as the two people who designed the basic architecture and the core protocols that make the Internet work, we would like to acknowledge VP Gore’s contributions as a Congressman, Senator and as Vice President. No other elected official, to our knowledge, has made a greater contribution over a longer period of time.”

☞ That would seem to be a good thing, no? Deserving of respect?

“Last year,” Kahn and Cerf continue, “the Vice President made a straightforward statement on his role. He said: ‘During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in creating the Internet.’ We don’t think, as some people have argued, that Gore intended to claim he ‘invented’ the Internet. Moreover, there is no question in our minds that while serving as Senator, Gore’s initiatives had a significant and beneficial effect on the still-evolving Internet. The fact of the matter is that Gore was talking about and promoting the Internet long before most people were listening. . . . As far back as the 1970s Congressman Gore promoted the idea of high speed telecommunications as an engine for both economic growth and the improvement of our educational system. . . . Though easily forgotten, now, at the time this was an unproven and controversial concept.”

☞ What good was George W. doing for anyone in the 1970s?

“When the Internet was still in the early stages of its deployment, Congressman Gore provided intellectual leadership by helping create the vision of the potential benefits of high speed computing and communication. . . . No one in public life has been more intellectually engaged in helping to create the climate for a thriving Internet than the Vice President. Gore has been a clear champion of this effort . . . “

I go on at such length — and quote Kahn and Cerf at such length — because this is important. The other side has taken something truly praiseworthy and consciously twisted it into character assassination.

Is that not a big deal?

What does that say about the other side?

To me it says that they see no other way to regain power and enact multi-million-dollar tax cuts for the wealthiest Republicans.

Ah, you say, but there’s so much smoke here, there must be fire. What about the famous Buddhist temple? If you read Jeffrey Toobin’s extensive article in the New Yorker last month (sorry, not on-line), you’ll find out that the Vice President seems to have done nothing wrong.

And Love Canal? He never said he discovered Love Canal. His comments to a group of students were misreported by the pool reporter. They went around the world, exposing Gore to Republican ridicule — to the dismay of the students who heard him with their own ears, and who got a lesson in just how unfair the world can be — before eventually, in much smaller type, being corrected. And yet the ridicule continued. (The Love Canal episode was documented extensively in the March, 2000 Brill’s Content and elsewhere.)

And Love Story? The VP told a couple of reporters on Air Force Two that author Erich Segal had once told a Tennessee newspaper that he and Tipper had been models for characters in Love Story. Well, the newspaper article did quote Segal saying that! And apparently one of the characters in Love Story was based partly on Al Gore (though the other was not in fact based on Tipper).

Well, then, how about the abortion flip-flop? Journalist Mickey Kaus looked into this one and concluded it was “mostly a bum rap.”

The Union Label lullaby? He was kidding. It was a funny way of saying, “I’m with you guys.” But quoted without the smile or the laughter, it can be used as “yet another example” of something that most of the other examples weren’t examples of, either.

Yes, he said he co-sponsored the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill — clearly wrong, since, by the time it was introduced, he was already out of the Senate and VP. But he supported the bill, and had earlier co-sponsored other campaign finance reform bills. So in hindsight, of course, he should have said “supported” rather than “co-sponsored.” Is this slip even remotely newsworthy?

And the fundraising phone calls? No controlling legal authority? Not a winning turn of phrase, to be sure. But the law he was accused of violating had been written before there were telephones, back when fundraising solicitations were face to face and it was considered a bad idea to shake down government employees for contributions on the job. How would calling some rich out-of-town donors from his office relate to this? Yes, it would have been better if the calls had been made elsewhere. But isn’t the larger issue here that we badly need campaign finance reform? And that Gore has pledged to make McCain-Feingold the very first bill he submits to Congress? And that Bush opposes it?

Then you have, from the first debate, the Sarasota school kid standing at the back of the class with no desk. Apparently, unbeknownst to the visitors, she did later get a desk. But was this a willful deception? Or simply a way to communicate something completely true and crucially important: far too many of our classrooms are run down and wildly overcrowded. I had two tenants who taught in the Miami public school system. They told me repeatedly, before they quit, how awful the conditions were, with some classes being conducted in trailers with 35 or 40 kids — an impossible number to teach effectively. I’m told the Sarasota classroom the VP visited was designed for 24 and had to accommodate 36. The child’s father has spoken up to support the VP’s message.

Accompanying James Witt to a fire? Clearly, Gore goofed in saying this, and I don’t know why. But I’ll bet you the VP has been to a lot of disaster scenes, and that he has flown with James Witt. So maybe in the heat of the moment — and, yes, overeager to score a debating point — the two melded in his mind.

Again, I’m not saying the Vice President is perfect. In front of a camera or yet another audience of strangers, he sometimes gets stiff or pedantic or awkward or defensive or perhaps overly competitive. I wish he didn’t and I have no doubt he wishes he didn’t. But this is a fine, loving man with a great sense of humor, a deep sense of justice, an abiding commitment to make the world a better place, and exceptional competence to do the job.

So the most self-interested thing you can do — though it’s hard — is to try to ignore the stuff that really doesn’t matter very much (what was with that makeup?) and attempt instead to figure out which guy wants what you want.

If you want Roe v. Wade overturned, vote for Bush. If you want it preserved, vote for Gore.

If you want the wealthiest sliver of Americans to get a big tax cut that even John McCain says is too heavily weighted in favor of the rich, vote for Bush. If you want a more modest tax cut targeted mainly at the middle — leaving that much more money to pay down the debt, beef up the military, help seniors buy prescription drugs, and fund a cushion for emergencies — vote for Gore.

If you’re proud that the United States nixed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that Clinton and the leaders of 152 other nations signed, vote for Bush. If you favor ratification, vote for Gore.

If you like the idea of Jesse Helms “un-vetoed,” vote for Bush. If you would rather Helms were checked and balanced, vote for Gore.

If you sided with the Republicans in opposing an increase in the minimum wage, vote for Bush. If you were glad to see it raised, vote for Gore.

If you feel the Brady bill was a mistake and the gun-show loophole needs to be preserved, vote for Bush. If you think guns are as dangerous as automobiles and should be subject to reasonable regulation, vote for Gore.

If you think two white, Texas oil men care deeply about issues of diversity and inclusion, and protecting the environment, vote for Bush. If you think Gore is more comfortable drawing on the talents of all Americans, and that he has a deeper understanding of the kinds of environmental challenges our planet faces, vote for Gore.

I could go on, but I fear I’m becoming a little pedantic and overbearing myself.

If you want some fun, click here to read it the Molly Ivins way. (Her Monday, October 9 column, in case it scrolls off.) Forward it to everyone you know.


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