. . . Reagan's Whoppers
By Richard Cohen

Thursday , October 12, 2000 ; Page A25

For those people who fret over Al Gore's propensity to tell it like it isn't--to exaggerate
and embellish and fib it up a bit--and who insist this is a matter of character and integrity
and God only knows what else, I offer a two-word rebuttal: Ronald Reagan.
No one could match the Gipper when it came to concocting whoppers.

It was Reagan, you might remember, who told an annual meeting of the Congressional
Medal of Honor Society about a World War II B-17 commander who elected to stay
with a wounded crewman rather than bail out of his stricken plane. "He took the boy's
hand and said, 'Never mind, son, we'll ride it down together.' Congressional Medal of
Honor, posthumously awarded."

Actually, Congressional Medal of Honor never awarded. There's some dispute about
where Reagan got the story. Some said it was from the 1944 movie "A Wing and a Prayer"
while others cited a Reader's Digest item. Whatever its source, Reagan's account was not true.

That incident was hardly unique. The Gipper was forever mistaking fiction for fact.
He told Israel's Menachem Begin that he had been present at the liberation of a concentration
camp when he had only seen a film of the event. The 1951 movie  "The Day the Earth Stood Still"
fixated Reagan on the notion that the United States and the Soviet Union would be forced to
cooperate if our little planet was faced by an invasion from space. Even Reagan's advocacy of
the so-called Star Wars program probably got its inspiration from his 1940 movie
"Murder in the Air." It featured an "Inertia Projector," a kind of ray gun.

In Reagan's case, these stories were dismissed by his supporters and characterized as
charming eccentricities. Yet, some of the same people and editorial organs now get the
vapors when confronting one of Al Gore's exaggerations. Gore, for some reason,
is a liar while Reagan was just a marvelous storyteller.

I am not going to sit here and defend Gore's exaggerations. I wish he wouldn't make them.
I wish he did not say he had been to the Texas fires when he hadn't. (Maybe he ought to have
said concentration camp.) I wish he had not compared his dog's prescription plan to his
mother-in-law's. I wish he had been a bit more modest about his role in developing the
Internet or, way back, in describing his Vietnam War experience.

Gore's burden is his association with Bill Clinton, whose behavior was largely overlooked
by the press until it could be overlooked no more. So now we study Gore for the telltale
signs of a larger problem. But what could it be? He has been vice president for eight years,
a senator and congressman before that. No one who has worked with him calls him a liar.
He is just an exaggerator.

But to listen to GOP politicians or to read the semi-official GOP press, you would think
Gore was a pathological liar. The New York Post headlined "Liar, Liar" and the Whore
Street Journal's editorial page, the Rorschach of the Right, called Gore's bad habit
"an issue of serious concern"--a bit of exaggeration right there.

Gore's abiding, overriding and maybe insurmountable handicap is that he is no Reagan--
he lacks the man's charm. Where Reagan could dismiss his critics with a wave of his hand
and some disarming joke, Gore just digs in more, tries harder and smiles like the groom
at a shotgun wedding.

It seems true that Reagan sometimes could not distinguish between what he had seen on film
and what he had experienced firsthand--and so his stories, strictly speaking, were not lies.
With Gore, it's not clear if he gets confused or knows at the time that he's taken things too far.
But the outcome is the same: False is false.

And if Gore seemed to base too much on a single incident in Florida in which a high school
student was temporarily without a desk, it cannot be compared to Reagan's repeated use of
a single welfare cheater, Chicago's own Linda Taylor, as a "Welfare Queen" who represented
the moral bankruptcy of an entire system.

So, yeah, I worry a bit about Gore and what seems to be his compulsion to stretch things
a bit too far. But I worried about Reagan, too. Now, though, the ex-president is a GOP saint,
his confusion of fact with fancy just part of his tremendous charm. I wish Gore would simply
stick to the truth, but if, as is bound to happen, he feels compelled to exaggerate,
he might as well make it a whopper.

Al, tell one for the Gipper.

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