The Conversation

He was robbed.

It was fifteen years ago tonight that then-Vice President Al Gore and then-Texas Governor George W. Bush met for their first debate on the campus of the University of Massachusetts in Boston. The event, moderated by then-PBS Newshour host Jim Lehrer and watched by an estimated 46 million viewers, would be remembered as a low point in US mainstream-media false balance.

Let’s be honest: Gore whipped Bush’s rear end that night, showing a command of the facts that the Texas Governor couldn’t hope to match. Defending the Clinton-Gore administration’s accomplishments, warning of the consequences (especially to women) of right-wing dominance of the federal judiciary, lamenting the growing problem of income inequality and big-money manipulation of the political process, and making a passionate defense of government’s ability to do right by people, Gore absolutely dominated the hapless Texas governor. Bush was shifty-eyed and deceptive, disparaging the federal government’s ability to fix social problems while professing an obviously phony belief in bipartisanship; he came across as “a man unfit to run a hardware store, let alone a nation like this one,” as the novelist Philip Roth observed in 2004.

When the debate turned to energy and the environment, Gore was masterful, recognizing the importance of addressing both short- and long-term problems:

My [energy] plan has not only a short-term component but also a long-term component. And it focuses not only on increasing the supply, which I think we have to do, but also on working on the consumption side.

Now in the short term, we have to free ourselves from the domination of the big oil companies that have the ability to manipulate the price, from OPEC when they want to raise the price. And in the long term, we have to give new incentives for the development of domestic resources like deep gas in the Western Gulf, like stripper wells for oil, but also renewable sources of energy. And domestic sources that are cleaner and better. And I’m proposing a plan that will give tax credits and tax incentives for the rapid development of new kinds of cars and trucks and buses and factories and boilers and furnaces that don’t have as much pollution, that don’t burn as much energy, and that help us get out on the cutting edge of the new technologies that will create millions of new jobs. Because, when we sell these new products here, we’ll then be able to sell them overseas. There is a ravenous demand for them overseas.

Now, another big difference is Governor Bush is proposing to open up some of our most precious environmental treasures, like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the big oil companies to go in and start producing oil there. I think that is the wrong choice. It would only give us a few months’ worth of oil and the oil wouldn’t start flowing for many years into the future. I don’t think it’s a fair price to pay to destroy precious parts of America’s environment. We have to bet on the future and move beyond the current technologies to have a whole new generation of more efficient, cleaner, energy technology…

Now, as for the proposals that I’ve worked for, for renewables and conservation and efficiencies and new technologies. The fact is for the last few years in the Congress, we’ve faced a lot of opposition to them. They’ve only approved about 10% of the agenda I’ve helped to send up there. I think we need to get serious about this energy crisis, both in the Congress and in the White House, and if you entrust me with the presidency, I will tackle this problem and focus on new technologies that will make us less dependent on big oil or foreign oil.

Yes, Gore sighed a few times during the debate. So what? Considering the amount of dishonesty flowing from Bush’s mouth, sighing was the most restrained response possible.

Of course, Gore’s sighing was seized upon by Republican hacks desperate to take the public’s focus away from Bush’s self-disqualification as a legitimate candidate, and by the mainstream press, which feared that reporting the truth—i.e., that Gore destroyed Bush during that debate—would lead to the usual idiotic “liberal bias” charges. In a 2007 Vanity Fair piece, Evgenia Peretz (who acknowledged, “In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that my father, Martin Peretz, was his teacher at Harvard and is an ardent, vocal Gore backer. I contributed to his campaign in February 1999. Before reporting this article, however, I’d had maybe two passing exchanges with Gore in my life”) noted:

The trivial continued to dominate during the postmortem following Gore and Bush’s first debate, on October 3, 2000. The television media were sure Gore won—at first. But then Republican operatives promptly spliced together a reel of Gore sighing, which was then sent to right-wing radio outlets. Eighteen hours later, the pundits could talk of little else. “They could hear you audibly sighing or sounding exasperated as Governor Bush was answering questions,” Katie Couric scolded him the next day on the Today show. “Do you think that’s presidential behavior?” For the Times’s Frank Bruni, the sighs weren’t as galling as Gore’s familiarity with the names of foreign leaders. “It was not enough for Vice President Al Gore to venture a crisp pronunciation of Milosevic, as in Slobodan,” he wrote. “Mr. Gore had to go a step further, volunteering the name of Mr. Milosevic’s challenger Vojislav Kostunica.”

As Jonathan Alter points out, “Overall, the press was harder on Gore than it was on Bush.… The consequences of [that] in such a close election were terrifying.”

A rather odd October 5, 2000 column by then-New York Times columnist Bob Herbert symbolized the Fourth Estate’s desperation not to be perceived as biased in Gore’s favor:

If he can somehow force himself to stop sighing and interrupting and behaving condescendingly in front of the television cameras, Al Gore may yet get elected president.

Most of America understands that the competence bar is set so low for Gov. George W. Bush of Texas that it’s practically lying on the ground. It was pretty much acknowledged going into the debate that as long as he didn’t misspell potato or mispronounce some three-syllable word or misstate the name of a world leader, he would be judged to have done O.K.

Woody Allen is supposed to have said that 80 percent of success is just showing up. That was proved Tuesday night. Governor Bush showed up — albeit reluctantly — at the Clark Athletic Center at the University of Massachusetts. And he did fine.

That is, if you didn’t bother to look at the content of the debate.

If you paid attention to the content, and used it as a gauge to determine which candidate was better prepared, was more knowledgeable, had a greater command of the facts and grasp of the issues, then Vice President Gore won easily.

He asserted, for example, that Governor Bush ”would spend more money on tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent than all of the new spending that he proposes for education, health care, prescription drugs and national defense all combined.”

That happens to be true. And Mr. Bush never attempted to explain why this peculiar configuration of priorities — this re-direction of national resources from the bottom and the middle to the top — is a good idea.

The vice president clobbered Mr. Bush on the issue of prescription drugs for the elderly. And he scored well, I thought, when discussing potential appointments to the Supreme Court, saying, ”Governor Bush has declared to the anti-choice groups that he will appoint justices in the mold of [Antonin] Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who are known for being the most vigorous opponents of a woman’s right to choose.”

But Vice President Gore never wins easily. He may have the experience and most of the issues on his side, but he can’t keep his superciliousness in check. He just can’t do it. So there he was on Tuesday night sighing loudly with disdain, or smiling contemptuously, or smugly, as Governor Bush did the best he could with this answer or that.

Earth to Al Gore: This turns people off.

The press just couldn’t simply declare Gore the obvious winner of the debate and be done with it. No, that would tick off the wingnuts. The Fourth Estate just had to promote the idea that both Gore and Bush had severe flaws. See, no bias here!

If you do nothing else today, please set aside ninety minutes and watch the debate. Watch how Gore takes control of the stage, showing absolute confidence and competence. Watch how Bush seems to shrink on camera, like a man promoted to a position that he knows damn well he’s unqualified for.

As you watch, think about how lucky you are to be able to watch this debate again after fifteen years. Think about the people who will never have the ability to watch it again, because of a war Gore would not have waged, and because of a climate crisis Gore would have devoted his soul to fighting as president. Think about how much better things would have been, economically and ecologically, in the 2000s if five robed reactionaries hadn’t blocked Gore’s path to the White House. As you think about the injustice perpetrated against this statesman by the press, the courts and his ideological adversaries, you’ll likely feel anger and sadness welling up inside you. If so, just let it out with a sigh. Unlike Gore, no one will wrongfully attack you for doing so.

UPDATE: Al Gore’s extraordinary interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. Part 1 and Part 2.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.