Is There a Double Standard?

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The candidates after their second debatein Winston-Salem, NC

In debate two, Gore did not boast and Bush didn't coast. The Governor even brought up East Timor voluntarily — a country whose inhabitants a few months ago he called Timorians — successfully deploying knowledge of the one to suggest knowledge of the whole. For his part, Gore had to forgo his brute-force game and, like a player coached out of a bad backhand but without time to develop a new one, he was left with no swing at all. He agreed with Bush on just about everything, including the Golden Rule, and committed no new anecdotal crimes.

But Bush benefited from a double standard. Residual disdain for the teacher's pet makes it satisfying to catch a smarty pants like Gore in an error, while it's no fun to go after the class cutup. This is not meant to excuse Gore's earlier performance in Boston or withhold credit from Bush for passing an exam on world affairs. But had the standard of accuracy operating in the first debate been applied in the second, Bush would not have fared as well. For instance, Bush said we should pull our troops out of Haiti, but there are not a lot of troops in Haiti — a scant 34 soldiers by the Pentagon's last count. We don't need to persuade Europe "to put troops on the ground" in Kosovo because almost 85% of the soldiers there now are from Europe. When bombing broke out in Bosnia, Bush did not leap to support it, as he claimed, but said at the time he was "praying," before eventually lending an equivocal voice. He called Nigeria an important "continent." And he may have created a minor international incident by accusing former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin of pocketing IMF loans, without any solid evidence. Gore let it go, but Chernomyrdin didn't. He warned that "Mr. Bush Jr. should be getting ready for a trial."

On other issues, Bush, in arguing against the Kyoto environmental agreement, seemed unaware of scientific consensus that pollution does indeed cause global warning. He spoke as if a link between pollution and global warming had not been scientifically established. He claimed to be tolerant of gays but against what he called "special rights." But he's on the record as being adamantly opposed to hiring an openly gay person in his Administration. And his running mate, Dick Cheney, was forced to back off on his support for recognition of gay and lesbian relationships. Bush got positively gleeful over sending the three men who dragged James Byrd on the back of a truck to the death chamber, when only two are going (the other got a life sentence). And contrary to what he said in the debate, he did block hate-crimes legislation.

Perhaps if Gore had been alive, those mistakes would not have gone unanswered. But he was completely unnerved, and not just by his own unforced errors and the Bush assault on them. He had been compelled to watch a devastating Saturday Night Live parody of his overcaffeinated performance in Debate One, a destabilizing experience.

It's not that Gore doesn't deserve criticism. But when a smart person like him presses a point, however peripheral, it's perceived as calculating and deceitful, not merely wrong, and counted as a character defect. When a less gifted person does it, it's, well, kind of cute. Bush has succeeded in turning his off-mike "a__hole" comment into a joke. This scoring for Bush buys into the premise at the very center of his campaign that he is morally superior to Gore, as exemplified by his overarching theme of restoring honor and dignity to the White House. To that end, Bush tried for a solid week after Debate One to tie Gore's anecdotal inaccuracy and exaggeration into a bundle that rendered him unfit for the Oval Office.

At the same time, Bush has avoided embellishing his own life by refusing to answer questions about it. He presses a biography in which he was born again at about age 40, when he found Jesus, gave up drinking and struck it rich. This has removed from public inquiry 15 years during which he wandered. He's never had to give a straightforward answer on cocaine or on why there's no record of him showing up for National Guard duty in Alabama. And he has never owned up to how much his name helped him secure a piece of the Texas Rangers with relatively little cash.

But many of the biographical details Gore has provided are regarded as romantic airbrushing, from summers clearing fields on his family's farm in Carthage, Tenn., to his years of living in a rundown apartment hotel in Washington, to actually going to Vietnam so that another hometown kid did not have to go in his place. We prefer to think of him as a pampered prep-school kid growing up in a tony hotel, who went to war solely to help his dovish father in his Senate race.

So far, Bush has slipped the bonds of mortal combat. Gore gets pummeled when he deserves it and when he doesn't. Maybe this week, for the final debate in St. Louis, there will be one standard evenly applied to both.