'Pinocchio politics,' in which someone else pulls the strings

June 24, 1996|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The Bob Dole campaign got caught taking a classic political cheap shot the other day. But, as usually happens, the candidate himself apparently escaped unscathed.

This is becoming an increasingly common pattern in campaigns, in part because of laxness in the press. Too many news organizations pay too much attention to minor campaign functionaries.

In this case, a Dole press-office staffer, Christina Martin, produced a handout quoting Vice President Gore as saying ''there is no proven link between smoking and lung cancer and if you look closely at the scientific data, you have to admit that there are uncertainties.''

This citation from a 1992 television interview was supposed to be a rebuttal of criticism directed at Bob Dole for his own attempt to butter up the tobacco industry by questioning whether smoking tobacco is necessarily addictive.

But the quotation from the vice president was a misleading excerpt from what he really said, which was that some tobacco-company scientists ''will claim with a straight face that there is no proven link between smoking and lung cancer, and if you look closely at the scientific data, you have to admit that there are uncertainties. We don't know exactly how smoking causes lung cancer, but the weight of evidence accepted by the overwhelming preponderance of scientists is, yes, smoke does cause lung cancer and so we act on that knowledge from the scientific community.''

Mr. Gore, whose sister died of lung cancer, was predictably outraged. He accused Senator Dole of playing ''the politics of Pinocchio: Forget about the truth, tell a bunch of lies and let someone else pull the strings.'' He said Mr. Dole should ''correct the record and instruct his campaign team to respect the truth.'' And Mr. Dole did.

That's the way these things always work out. Somebody far down the chain of command makes some outrageous accusation and if it backfires, the candidate shrugs it off with an apology and perhaps a promise to chastise the naughty staff member. Whether this show of contrition ever catches up with the original smear is an open question.

Above the mud

Part of the problem lies with the press, as well as the candidates. Too many newspapers and broadcast-news organizations allow TTC ''spokesmen'' to attack the opposition while the candidate remains above the mud. And too many of them accept at face value the substance of accusations and pass them on to voters who have no reason to know if the facts are wrong.

It would be unreasonable, of course, to insist that the press report only the rhetoric that comes directly from the mouths of the principals in a presidential campaign. The candidates have to be allowed to have high-ranking advisers with the authority to speak for the campaign in a variety of circumstances.

But the press is undiscriminating. Any campaign flack with a talent for coming up with a clever or caustic phrase can find some newspaper or television network that will pass it on. Perish the thought that the competition have some ''good quote'' you don't have. What should be asked is whether the statements of some hack in a press office are news.

In too many cases, the imperative is to give an appearance of fairness in a story by quoting someone from the ''other side'' on an issue. We are treated regularly to the Clinton-Gore campaign responding to sallies from the Dole campaign with statements from a spokesman essentially unknown to the voters.

The Gore incident demonstrates that there are perils for a campaign in taking cheap shots. They can, as in this case, backfire and embarrass the candidate with at least a few voters. But it is also an unfortunate fact that mud sticks in the minds of some voters and feeds the loudmouths of talk radio who often don't bother with facts.

Politicians are never going to abandon negative campaigning; it works too well too often. But the press shouldn't help the process along.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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