Will Gore’s little lies be big turnoff for voters?

Vice President Al Gore, FEMA Region 4 Director John Copenhaver, FEMA Director James Lee Witt, Congressman Bishop, and other officials bring a message of hope to tornado victims. (Photo: Liz Roll)

By Aubrey Immelman
St. Cloud Times
October 22, 2000

“Liar! Liar!” proclaimed the New York Post’s front-page headline the day after Democratic nominee Al Gore’s first presidential debate against Republican contender George W. Bush.

But careful scrutiny of Gore’s penchant for hyperbole and his tendency to garnish the truth with self-serving affectations permits a more nuanced perspective: Gore’s embellishments are driven by a confluence of conscientious and introverted personality patterns that constitutes a recipe for haplessness in retail presidential politics.

Conscientious personalities typically are people of integrity virtuous, hardworking, and loyal to a fault. Yet, ironically, they are prone to bouts of self-doubt over perceived shortcomings or failure to live up to self-imposed, exacting standards of perfection.

As Gore ponders in his environmental treatise, Earth in the Balance: “A developing child in a dysfunctional family searches his parent’s face for signals that he is whole and all is right with the world; when he finds no such approval, he begins to feel that something is wrong inside. And because he doubts his worth and authenticity, he begins controlling his inner experience smothering spontaneity, masking emotion, diverting creativity into robotic routine, and distracting an awareness of all he is missing with an unconvincing replica of what he might have been.”

In short, the conscientious character dreads disapproval, with a corresponding tendency to overvalue aspects of themselves that signify perfectionism, moral rectitude, and diligence. Few things give them greater satisfaction than
showcasing their virtues and convincing others that they are right. Perhaps unfairly, but not surprisingly, others regard such conduct as self-righteous, moralistic, overbearing, and condescending.

For example …

Political commentator Tony Snow provides a striking account of this proclivity in Gore. When forest fires ravaged Florida in the summer of 1998, President Clinton dispatched Vice President Gore to commiserate with the victims.

“After surveying the carnage,” writes Snow, “Gore stepped to a podium, and informed the throng that the tragedy served as a powerful reminder of what global warming could do to the planet. … His artless lecture on global warming wasn’t an isolated incident. … [Gore] constantly instructs others on lifestyles, manners and habits. Indeed, fresh from his Florida trip, he showed up on the Mall in Washington, armed with a meat thermometer and a spatula. … ‘Don’t let avoidable food-borne illness endanger life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ he said.”

While Gore’s overconscientiousness adequately accounts for his compulsive need to flaunt perfection and erudition, it fails to fully account for his political ineptitude and lack of social graces.

Enter the strong introversive streak that permeates and colors Gore’s conscientiousness. Deeply introverted personalities frequently fail to respond
appropriately to social cues, which gives rise to interpersonal awkwardness and difficulty in social communication.

They are restricted in the ability to perceive emotional meaning or express feelings in social settings. Their social communications sometimes are convoluted, obscure, and abstruse.

Simplify, please

In Gore: A Political Life, biographer Bob Zelnick relates a particularly fascinating instance of this tendency in Gore. This is how the vice president explained to the Washington Post his decision to enter divinity school upon his return from Vietnam:

“I think a lot of people who have faith in this day and age try to find ways to reconcile their faith with what initially appear to be challenges to that faith. … The best known are Galileo, which displaced the Earth as the center of the universe; Darwin, which places us in the animal kingdom; Freud, which displaced consciousness as the sole process of thought; Einstein, which destroyed the concept of solidity and matter. And today the existence of massive starvation and the prospect of nuclear holocaust side by side with the whole idea of progress and civilization makes one question where we are going. But the answer is within ourselves.”

A simple “I felt a calling to the ministry” would have done.

But as Timothy Noah has written in U.S. News & World Report, there is a facet of the mind of “Albert the Brainiac” that obfuscates messages by “weighing down simple ideas with pretentious, often scientific allusions.”

Highly introverted personalities rarely are introspective; as personality expert Theodore Millon explains, “the satisfactions to be found in self-evaluations are minimal” for individuals with a diminished capacity to experience deep emotions.

According to Millon, these personalities are hampered by a tendency to overlook, scatter, and coalesce the varied elements of their experience. Consequently, they may fail to differentiate events and discern their discriminable and distinctive aspects.

If this is the case, perhaps Gore really did believe that he had traveled to Texas with FEMA director James Lee Witt, or that he was serving in Congress when the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was established.

Gore’s problem, then, may be less “fuzzy math” than fuzzy memory about events and faulty perception of his personal role in events. With respect to presidential leadership and public policy, this raises questions not of character, but of reality testing and judgment.

For better or for worse, Al Gore is no Bill Clinton. For Gore, stretching the truth reflects a compulsive drive for perfection and deficits in social intelligence, not perfidious dishonesty or a flaw of moral character.

Nonetheless, it raises disquieting questions about his common sense and insight, his ability to relate to the public, the Congress, and world leaders, and his capacity to perform crucial duties constitutionally entrusted to the president.

Beyond simply being a matter of credibility, Gore’s long track record of factual flourishes boils down to a question of leadership. No leader is perfect. But the challenge for voters in the next two weeks is to determine the meaning and leadership implications of the vice president’s tendency to exaggerate, and to resolve the difficult question of how much embellishment they can tolerate in a president.

Aubrey Immelman is a political psychologist and an associate professor of psychology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.