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11 May 2000

Our current howler (part III): School daze

Synopsis: Gore fibbed about where he went to school, the Globe said. But the evidence says something quite different.

Record shows Gore long embellishing truth
Walter Robinson and Michael Crowley, The Boston Globe, 4/11/00

The crime of saying something
Editorial, The Washington Post, 10/13/87

Al Gore and the window of certainty
Myra MacPherson, The Washington Post, 2/3/88

The Son Also Rises
Gail Sheehy, Vanity Fair, 3/88

Al Gore's Double Life
Alex Jones, The New York Times Magazine, 10/25/92

The Chosen One
Marjorie Williams, Vanity Fair, 2/98

Did Gore fib a lot in 1988, when he and other Dems staged dozens of debates? No one said so at the time. But our scribes have a good explanation:

ROBINSON AND CROWLEY: But what raised the most eyebrows in 1988 was not what Gore said about his opponents. It was his inclination, during his first audition on a national stage, to add lustrous detail to his own resume.

Many of the embellishments were unearthed at the time, but attracted little attention because Gore's 1988 campaign proved a hapless effort.

In other words, Gore didn't lie about other Dems in debates. He lied on the stump, about himself. But his peculiar tales "attracted little attention" because his campaign "proved a hapless effort."

For the record, the notion that Gore's campaign received "little attention" is difficult to square with the facts. Gore's campaign was viable through the April 19 New York primary; he was one of only three Dems left in the race, and he was widely criticized in New York for being too brash and aggressive. Indeed, some other hopefuls had criticized Gore for an aggressive debate outing way back in October. The Washington Post editorialized on it. The paper dished out a good scolding:

THE WASHINGTON POST: Sen. Albert Gore Jr. has committed the unpardonable sin of trying to use a debate to debate, and for this he has incurred the quivering, sanctimonious rebuke of his fellow presidential-candidate debaters. How could he? It is not in the interest of the group for him to do this. It is divisive. Boo hoo hoo.

In other words, the Post supported Gore's approach to the debate. "Why not go at the subjects [Gore] has raised," asked the Post. "Why not have a real debate, a scorcher?"

So was Gore's campaign such a "hapless effort" that it received "little attention?" Hardly. Gore's campaign received plenty of attention, and a lot of it wasn't very flattering. If Gore had shown some troubling sign of making up phony facts on the stump, it seems to us there's every chance we might have heard something about it. If the Globe writers meant to say that Gore's campaign received "little attention," we'd have to call it a bit of a stretch.

Were Robinson and Crowley embroidering a bit? We're not sure, but they do seem inclined to embellish a tad when they list Gore's alleged bogus statements. Again, most of their claims are impossible to judge, because the authors are so imprecise; they complain about "Gore's claim that he grew up in Carthage, Tenn., when he was reared in a Washington hotel suite," for example. But every biographer of Gore—every one—has stated that Gore spent substantial amounts of his childhood in Tennessee, and the authors provide no quotes—nada, none—to show what Gore actually said. Nor are any quotes provided to flesh out Gore's alleged "exaggeration of his farming background," or to show us whether he really misstated in his "insistence that he had been a homebuilder and small businessman when he had minimal involvement in a small Tennessee subdivision." By the way, if Gore did overstate his business background—and we are surely not prepared to assume that he did—was it more or less than Governor Bush has overstated his business experiences (if he has done so at all)? Again, we have no way of knowing, because in the Globe's hopeless procedure, only one candidate is placed on the grill. Every part of this puzzling article founders on that one great miasma.

But one of the authors' charges against Gore is clear enough to be traced to its source. As they list alleged fibs in 1988, they refer to "[Gore's] claim to have been schooled in rural Tennessee and urban Washington, when he was educated at an elite private school in the capital." That sounds a good deal like St. Albans to us, the Washington, D.C., school Gore attended from fourth grade through high school graduation. For the record, anyone reading the authors' words can see how they picture Gore's remark. In the authors' construction, Gore claimed that he went to school in rural Tennessee and in some "urban" setting, instead of at the "elite private school" he did attend.

But what sort of claim had Gore really made? Again, no quotes are provided, none at all; readers are forced to trust Crowley and Robinson's account of Gore's remark. But in an e-mail, Robinson tells us that "in 1988, Gore claimed both rural schooling in Tenn. and urban schooling in DC; this misstatement was written about at the time, most prominently by the Washington Post." Indeed, in a lengthy profile of Gore in that paper—one of three lengthy profiles which appeared in the Post—Myra MacPherson reported the incident which the authors seem to describe:

MacPherson: In front of the small schoolhouse in Cotulla, Tex., where Lyndon Johnson taught, Gore railed against the disparity between rural and urban education and drew cynical gasps from national reporters when he said he knew about it firsthand because he'd attended schools in rural Tennessee and Washington, D.C.

Later, MacPherson did something sensible. She asked Gore to explain what he'd said:

MacPherson (continuing directly): Asked later when he went to school in Carthage, Gore says, "In elementary school, before the third grade. And I would start there for about three weeks before school opened in Washington." Gore says the difference was brought home when he received a letter from a close Carthage friend "who was every bit my equal at conversations but couldn't write, couldn't spell. I sat on my bed and read that letter and just cried and cried, realizing how his opportunities were so much more limited."

One might excuse the reporters who emitted the "cynical gasps" for not knowing the facts which Gore described, but it's hard to know why Robinson and Crowley would still be unaware of them now. Since MacPherson wrote in 1988, biographers and journalists have frequently described Gore's experience in the Carthage schools. His second-grade teacher, Eleanor Smotherman, has been quoted in several major profiles of Gore. In fact, she was quoted by Gail Sheehy in a Vanity Fair profile right at the time of MacPherson's piece. We're not quite sure how the Globe missed it:

SHEEHY: He attended the local country school for a few weeks at the start of every summer and when the folks were away on long trips, leaving young Al on the farm. Miss Eleanor Smotherman, a dedicated spinster teacher who to this day brings her own bread into the coffee shop to be toasted so as to confine her expenses to coffee, had Al Gore in her second grade class. She set him to tutoring the rural kids, who trucked in with their runny viruses from hollers that weren't even places, only near places.

If Robinson and Crowley missed Sheehy in 1988, they could have read Alex Jones in 1992. Jones profiled Gore in the New York Times magazine:

JONES: Despite protestations that his childhood was normal, Gore seemed to grow up much faster than most of his peers. "When I talked to him, I almost had to look to see whether I was talking to a child or an adult," recalled Eleanor Smotherman, Gore's second-grade teacher in Carthage.

Jones elaborated on Gore's Tennessee experiences, describing his life when his parents were off campaigning:

JONES: Usually, young Al was left in the care of Alota and William Thompson, the tenant farmers who ran the Gores' spread outside Carthage, a small town about 50 miles east of Nashville...[T]he Thompson home had no indoor plumbing and was heated by a single coal-burning fireplace. Al shared a bed with the Thompsons' only child, Gordon.

Marjorie Williams expanded this portrait in 1998, writing in Vanity Fair:

WILLIAMS: [I]n Carthage, "when he was around us, he never did mention his life in Washington," says Gordon Thompson, the son of the couple who managed the Gores' farm. "He brought himself down to our level. Because he knew, to get along with us, he had to."

Gore's parents sometimes left him with the Thompsons for long periods; when he was in the second grade, he lived with them from Christmas until the end of the school year, sharing a bed with Gordon. They were the first of a series of surrogate parents from whom he drew a needed warmth.

In 1988, the scribes who emitted "cynical" gasps hadn't yet seen these profiles. Gore's reference to attending a rural school may have struck them as odd. But by the time Robinson and Crowley wrote their accusatory piece, Gore's Carthage schoolroom experiences had been widely described. But—remarkably—Gore's twelve-year-old comment was paraded around as a sign that Gore makes weird things up.

In closing, take a look back at the way Robinson and Crowley described Gore's 1988 comment. They criticize him for "his claim to have been schooled in rural Tennessee and urban Washington, when he was educated at an elite private school in the capital." But MacPherson doesn't record Gore saying that he went to school in "urban Washington;" and the entire point of Gore's remark was that he had received advantages at his Washington school that rural kids weren't receiving. The whole thrust of Gore's remark—which seems to be entirely factual—is reversed in the Globe's current retelling.

Why was little made of Gore's remark back in 1988? Was it because his campaign received "little attention?" No—to all appearances, it was because MacPherson asked Gore what he meant, and received a satisfactory answer. Twelve years later, the incident reappears, offered to readers as a sign that Gore lies. Gore's twelve-year-old comment—trivial; fleeting—also seems to have been perfectly accurate. So again, it's rather hard not to ask: Why did this appear in the Globe?


Friday: Gore fibbed about his dad, the Globe said. We were shocked—till we read David Maraniss.

Little attention: For the record, Gore was the subject of at least three long profiles in the Post during the 1987-88 cycle:

  1. "Gore seeking to embody a new Democratic Party." Helen Dewar, 11/12/87, 3757 words.
  2. "Al Gore and the window of certainty." Myra MacPherson, 2/3/88, 4215 words.
  3. "Al Gore the unlighted torch." Sidney Blumenthal, 4/14/88, 2014 words.

On Post search engines, the terms "Gore AND debate" produce 222 articles between 8/1/87 and 4/31/88. The term "Gore" alone produces 867 articles. But what were the Globe's readers told? They were told that Gore's alleged fibs received "little attention" in 1987-88 cycle because his campaign was such a "hapless effort." The fact is, Gore's campaign received lots of attention. We think the Globe gave its readers a vastly misleading impression.