Lies the Press Likes

Dick Cheney has said that he is “puzzled and saddened” by Al Gore’s habit of embroidering anecdotes. He may well be puzzled, but does anyone believe he is actually saddened? That Cheney mopes around wishing that Gore wouldn’t keep dropping these ripe plums in his opponents’ laps? Cheney was, in a word, lying. Not just lying but obviously lying.

Sure, as lies go, this one is pretty inconsequential—almost pro-forma. But it’s not quite meaningless. Saying he is “saddened” by a political rival’s foible contributes to the image Cheney likes to convey of being above the fray, observing politics from on high rather than participating in it—and of being magnanimous even as he plunges the knife between the ribs. Joe Lieberman has the same irritating pretension, with the difference that Lieberman’s viewpoint is heaven while Cheney’s is the chairman’s office.

Cheney told several other obvious lies in his debate last week with Lieberman, not even counting the mind-numbing numerical disputes about Bush’s proposed tax cut. Also not counting some delightful Uriah Heepery about how, “with all due respect to Al Gore,” someone “who campaigns on the basis of castigating others, of pointing the finger of blame at others” isn’t fit to be president. (Not to castigate or point the finger or anything.)

What the heck, we won’t even count a near-repeat of the “puzzled and saddened” fib, in which Cheney declared himself to be “especially disturbed” that Lieberman attended a fund-raiser where someone told an anti-religious joke, although “I know you’re not responsible …” Oh right, he was disturbed. He was disturbed all the way to the opposition research office. (See my colleague “Chatterbox” for more on this episode.)

But how about a line for which Cheney has been widely praised (by my colleague “Ballot Box,” among others): “It is a big difference between us. They like tax credits. We like tax reform and tax cuts.” This is not a throwaway line. A major Bush-Cheney theme is that the Republican plan gives folks their money back with no strings, whereas Gore’s tax plan depends on meddlesome credits for preferred people and activities.

It’s not true. Well, I can’t prove that Messrs Bush and Cheney are personally fond of tax credits. But if Cheney’s statement is reasonably taken to imply that their tax plan, unlike Gore’s, avoids tax credits, this is certainly false. A lie. In a major investigation, I spent five or 10 minutes surfing the Bush-Cheney Web site and found it strewn with the supposedly vile things.

There’s a $1,000 tax credit for each child you have (actually, a doubling of the current $500 credit, but Bush is happy enough to refer to it sometimes as a $1,000 credit that’s all his own). There’s a “Family Health Credit” of up to $2,000 a year to buy health insurance. There’s something called ” ‘Individual Development Accounts’ that will provide tax credits for low-income people to put away money into savings.” There’s permanent extension of the research and development tax credit, a tax credit on top of the traditional deduction for contributions to charity, a higher tax credit for adoption, and so on.

Bush’s Web site offers five sample families and how much they would save under his proposal. In four out of five, most or all of the savings comes from tax credits, not from lower tax rates.

In the debate, responding to a Lieberman canned joke that Cheney is better off than he was eight years ago, Cheney made an excellent off-the-cuff crack: “And I can tell you, Joe, that the government had absolutely nothing to do with it.” Very witty, but not even close to being true. Cheney’s former high government positions—and the connections this gave him in the U.S. and foreign governments—were what got him his CEO job at Halliburton, a company whose prosperity depends mightily on government contracts.

So why is the issue Gore’s lies and not Cheney’s, or virtually any other politician’s? After all, Gore’s fabrications are also inconsequential—in fact their distinguishing characteristic is that they derive from no calculation and serve no apparent purpose. What difference does it make, except as a test of Gore’s veracity, whether he visited a disaster area with or without the head of FEMA?

One explanation is that Gore’s embroideries can be objectively disproven, whereas Cheney’s assertions about his own mental state are merely false on their face. Journalists are more comfortable with the former.

Also, as others have explained, there is a bizarre press convention that assigns every candidate an official flaw—Gore lies, Bush is dumb—and only plays up incidents that confirm the diagnosis. Gore can say stupid things without fear, and Bush can tell whoppers, but not the other way around. (This would seem to violate a hoarier press convention that news is when a man bites a dog. Shouldn’t it logically be a bigger deal, by now, if Gore displays unusual honesty or Bush says something smart?)

But the main reason Gore’s lies are a big issue and Cheney’s are not is precisely that Gore’s lies are trivial and serve no purpose. Cheney’s, by contrast, are part of the official campaign kabuki. Sometimes the press exposes lies, but sometimes it virtually requires them.

Imagine if Cheney said he was “thrilled and delighted” at the latest Gore fib. This would surely be closer to the truth. But the press would come down on it big-time. It would be a gaffe. It is often said that a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth. A corollary is that to avoid a gaffe, you sometimes have to lie. Cheney’s most characteristic lying falls into this somewhat forgivable category. He does, though, seem unnecessarily good at it.