During the vice presidential debate, Al Gore took great delight in tweaking Jack Kemp for flip-flopping on policy issues after being named to the Republican ticket. When Kemp attacked the Clinton administration's economic record, for example, Gore jibed, "He's said much worse about Bob Dole" and recited Kemp's memorable 1988 line that "Bob Dole never met a tax he didn't hike."
The implied contrast was supposed to be telling: Gore, unlike Kemp, is truly a man of his word. Certainly, Gore's wooden persona, pedantic speaking style, and self-congratulatory comments about his own high ethical standards have led to his being considered a real straight arrow in an otherwise dubious profession. If Honest Al can't be trusted, then who can?
In fact, Gore is no more trustworthy than any other politician. Indeed, he may even be more contemptible than most, since he has proven himself willing to exploit personal tragedy for public gain. Remember his emotional, apparently heartfelt comments at the Democratic National Convention about his sister's tobacco-related death? After choking up during the speech, Gore rode a tidal wave of new-found sympathy and respect. Time, for instance, labelled Gore one of its weekly "winners," noting "tears, not smoke, in their eyes as he tells delegates of his sister's battle with lung cancer." In its "Conventional Wisdom Watch," Newsweek similarly praised Gore: "VP kicks butts in speech."
But Gore was hardly being open or honest about his relationship to tobacco, and a fuller accounting of the matter makes it impossible to escape the conclusion that the vice president is little more than a shameless hypocrite who will stop at nothing to pull votes his way.
In his speech, Gore recounted how his sister Nancy had started smoking as a teenager and eventually died from lung cancer at age 45 in 1984. "Three thousand young people in America will start smoking tomorrow," said Gore, who lauded President Clinton's limits on cigarette advertising. "One thousand of them will die a death not unlike my sister's. And that is why until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking."
Oddly, though, it took quite a while for this political fire to catch in Gore's belly. While he helped sponsor 1983 legislation that led to new warning labels on tobacco products, until very recently he usually boasted of his tobacco connections. When he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988–four years after his sister's death–Gore bragged to a North Carolina audience, "Throughout most of my life, I raised tobacco. I want you to know that with my own hands, all of my life, I've sprayed it, I've chopped it, I've shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it, and sold it."
That same year, Gore, then a senator from tobacco-rich Tennessee, wrote a letter to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette stating, "I do not believe the answer to curbing our nation's tobacco use lies in banning tobacco advertising or in prohibiting tobacco use"–two policies he now backs vociferously.
There's more: The day after his speech at this year's Democratic convention, he admitted to receiving campaign donations from tobacco companies through 1990 (the Democratic National Comittee still accepts such funds). He also acknowledged that his family continued to grow tobacco on their farm and that he got paid for leasing additional property for tobacco production for years after his sister's death.
Gore's rationale for the glacial pace of his policy switch is hardly convincing and his current anti-tobacco stance smacks not of moral outrage but good old political opportunism. He told reporters that the "numbness" after his sister's death made him slow to get out of the tobacco business, to stop taking money from tobacco companies, and to start attacking tobacco advertising. "Sometimes you never fully face up to things that you ought to face up to," he said. "You never fully learn the lessons that life has to teach you."
It's not clear what lesson Gore is talking about–especially since everyone has known for decades that smoking causes health problems. The vice president's timely lesson learning is not, of course, atypical (though exploiting a family member's death for political gain is perhaps uncommonly low). But that is precisely the point: Politicians, for the most part, will say whatever it takes to get elected. And when it comes to popularity versus principles, the latter will almost always get the short end of the stick.
That is the lesson Americans have fully faced up to, even if some members of the press have not yet graduated to the same level of understanding. Being wary of politicians–particularly in an election year and perhaps especially when they claim to speak with conviction–is the smartest choice voters can make.