Here’s what Trent Lott said at a farewell party for Strom Thurmond: “I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over these years, either.”
Here’s what Al Gore said about what Trent Lott said: “It is not a small thing, Judy, for one of the half dozen most prominent political leaders in America to say that our problems are caused by integration and that we should have had a segregationist candidate.”
Of course, Trent Lott said nothing of the sort. Trent Lott put his foot in his mouth with an incredibly stupid comment that minimized Thurmond’s segregationist past in much the same way everyone overlooks Robert Byrd’s segregationist past, but had Lott said anything remotely approaching what Al Gore said Lott said, Lott would have to resign immediately. Al Gore knows this, and every commentator in Washington knows it. So why on earth did Al Gore invent a new version of Lott’s comment?
(And why doesn’t Gore’s exchange with Judy Woodruff appear in the transcript of Monday’s “Inside Politics” broadcast? I had begun to wonder whether Gore was being framed because I couldn’t find the Gore quote in the transcript even though the quote was bouncing around the Internet, but Gore’s ridiculous charge does appear in a John Mercurio online piece for CNN. Curious.)
Here’s why Gore said what he said: He can’t help himself. In a continuation of behavior that has followed him throughout his career, Gore overstates, embroiders, or simply invents the facts he needs in the moment he needs them. Whether its the cost of medicine for his dog Shiloh or a trip with a FEMA director or most famously inventing the Internet, Gore conjures up his version of reality as he needs it. Rarely does the public get to glimpse the process this closely.
There is no defending the stupidity of Lott’s remarks. The 1948 presidential campaign of Thurmond was built on racism. Thurmond should not have been praised for running it, and Mississippi’s vote for Thurmond is not likely to be featured on Mississippi’s Greatest Hits reel. Lott has apologized for his “poor choice of words,” and he needed to.
The farewell party for Thurmond – 54 years removed from that campaign and having long ago repudiated segregation – put Lott into a position where, with a little more felicity with words, Lott could have memorialized Thurmond’s career without tripping over the embarrassment of 1948. Democrats have mastered the art of stuffing their segregationist baggage down the memory hole, and no one more than Al Gore – who never finds it necessary to discuss his father’s own Senate opposition to civil-rights laws. Lott deserves the criticisms he is getting from all sides.
But Gore’s psyche can’t let him score just the points allowed following a gaffe. Gore had to add a late hit, had to invent a slander on Lott. No one else in official Washington is saying that Lott attacked integration. Just Gore. Just weird Al. Alone again with his own reality.
The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes, in a fine piece that jumped on Lott hard, described Gore’s comments as “opportunistic.” This is too gentle. Way too gentle. Al Gore is running for president and he is already making up stuff on a weekly basis. This is not normal behavior. It wasn’t normal in 2000, and it isn’t normal now. Even the frothing Paul Krugman of the New York Times refused Al Gore’s crazed translation.
Krugman used leading questions to deepen Lott’s self-inflicted wound: “What exactly did Mr. Lott mean by ‘all these problems’ … Is it possible that a major modern political figure has sympathy for such views?” See – the safe ground of ridiculous but stinging insinuation. Not the nutty invention of Gore. Big difference. Important difference. Krugman knows there are lines you cannot cross without losing all credibility, even with a narrow spectrum of very-left readers. Al Gore has no such brakes. Gore literally appears unable to stop himself.
Which is why, I think, North Dakota’s Byron Dorgan went public on Monday with an appeal for Al Gore to take a pass on ’04. Even if Gore doesn’t get the nomination, he’ll turn the next 15 months into a bonfire of the vanities of other Democratic candidates. He has already started in on John Kerry. Folks remember what Gore did to Bill Bradley, and Bradley was a tomato can of an opponent. What will Gore say about Kerry and Edwards if Gore thinks he’s losing his chance for a rematch? Dorgan and others know that if Gore can invent a Lott statement condemning integration, he will be just as inventive with his fellow Democrats. Gore unbound is a scary thought for Dems thinking about November of 2004.
Republicans are conflicted. They are fairly certain they can beat Gore like a bongo and dream of his renomination. But folks concerned for the country don’t want him anywhere near the Oval Office, fearing the flukes of politics. I am still in the former camp, but every time Gore displays his bizarre side and his impulsive, uncontrollable need to invent, I edge closer to the latter. Al Gore is a very, very odd man. Can Democrats not see that?