Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Straying beyond the factual

On paper, Bill Richardson would appear to be the perfect Democratic presidential candidate. He has serious executive experience at the federal level (Energy secretary, U.N. ambassador), a long stint on Capitol Hill (14 years as a congressman), and, perhaps most importantly, he is currently the popular governor of a swing state (New Mexico), where his track record as a tax cutter has earned plaudits from Forbes magazine and the libertarian conservatives at the Cato Institute think tank. Plus, he’s an Hispanic at a time when the Hispanic vote is becoming more pivotal to victory. Plus, he’s a four-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Plus, he’s a back-slapping people person in the mold of his ex-boss, Bill Clinton.

But I suspect that even if Richardson was somehow able to outfight his two mega-celebrity rivals (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama), and neutralize the charismatically gifted John Edwards, he might still be politically vulnerable to Republican attack.

I can see it now: “Bill Richardson, serial exaggerator.” In other words, a replay of 2000, when Al Gore wore the label.

I say this, because Richardson has been known on occasion to stray beyond the factual. Maybe that’s a key character flaw, maybe not. But the point is, the GOP has been masterful at converting trivialities into hyperbole. And yesterday, for instance, even as Richardson officially announced his ’08 candidacy, two seemingly minor matters caught my attention.

First, while launching his campaign in vote-rich and heavily Hispanic California, he hawked his credentials as a son of the Golden State: “It means so much to me to announce my candidacy in California, the state that I was born.” I was surprised to learn he was a native Californian…but, it turns out, that was only technically true. Within hours, he felt compelled to amend his story, by confessing that that his stint as a native Californian lasted “about eight hours,” because his father had wanted him to be born on American soil, as opposed to Mexican soil. So why did Richardson stress California roots in his announcement? Because, he replied yesterday, “now there’s the California primary, so I’m trying to improve those roots.” (Italics are mine.)

Second, Richardson was dogged yesterday by a complaint from a New Mexico woman who contends that her governor has been repeatedly misquoting her on the campaign trail. De’on Miller says that Richardson has been telling a “lie” about her, inventing an exchange that she says never took place, and she is demanding an apology.

In 2004, Richardson attended a memorial service for Miller’s son, Aaron Austin, a Marine lance corporal who was killed in Iraq. In campaign speeches, Richardson has often recalled having a conversation with Miller that day; according to Richardson, Miller said this to him: “I wanted you to know that my son was 17. He’s a Marine. That’s all he wanted to be. He was proud to serve his country. And I know he is happy today. What I also want to thank you for is this check I just got from the United States government. It’s $11,000.” Richardson says that this conversation inspired him to push successfully for state legislation that provides a much high death benefit to the survivors of National Guardsmen killed in Iraq.

But Miller says she never talked to Richardson about money. She told the Associated Press: “I didn’t exchange words at all with the governor there, except when he gave me the flag. And those few words – whatever was exchanged when he handed me the flag and the Spirit of New Mexico award – certainly had nothing to do with money….I don’t know a person rich or poor that would be told that their only living child has been killed, and you’re going to strike up a money conversation? I didn’t discuss money with my mom or anyone like that. Why would I discuss it with him at a memorial service for my son? I’m still in shock (at that moment)…if I had every bill in the world due and no money, I’m not caring about that…I got the feeling he’s trying to use us to make us sound like little podunks or something. My husband makes $60,000 a year. I’m a college graduate. You know, I find it all very insulting.”

The Richardson camp is sticking with the candidate’s version of the conversation, although it acknowledges that, in the retelling, Richardson has frequently gotten the son’s name wrong, misstated his age, and referred to him as the first New Mexico citizen killed in Iraq, when, in reality, he was the third.

Maybe this story, and the California conflation, strike you as trivial. (Miller also says she’s a Republican who generally likes Richardson, so maybe factor that in.) But the potential problem, this kind of stuff has come up before.

Richardson used to claim that, during a youthful stint on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had served as the top foreign affairs aide to liberal legend Hubert Humphrey. But he dropped the claim when the press discovered it was untrue. Richardson didn’t go quietly, however, saying, “I was not the top aide, but I was a top aide, what the hell’s the difference?” To which a former Humphrey aide said that Richardson “was just a regular member of the subcommittee staff.”

Richardson also used to claim that, as a young amateur baseball player, he had been drafted in 1966 by the big-league Kansas City Athletics. He repeated this claim for nearly four decades; it turned up in his campaign biography when he ran for Congress, and again in a Clinton White House press release in 1997, on the eve of his stint as U.N. ambassador. Eighteen months ago, a New Mexico newspaper established that the claim was bogus. Richardson didn’t dispute finding: “After being notified of the situation and after researching the matter….I came to the conclusion that I was not drafted by the A’s.”

Again, none of this necessarily means that the guy can’t be trusted to keep America safe; and we would be hard pressed to find a politician who doesn’t invent facts or stretch the truth on the campaign trail. But if Richardson winds up on the national ticket (arguably as running mate), his verbal expansiveness might be grist for GOP caricature.

Lest we forget, those are the same folks who successfully painted Al Gore as a compulsive liar, simply by listing the small fibs he had really uttered, and making up some bigger fibs that he had never uttered. (Gore never said that he had invented the Internet, merely that he had worked to set it up during his ‘80s Senate career.) Indeed, the guy who used the Gore/Internet lie in his stump speech sits in the White House today.


Speaking of the guy in the White House, he uttered this gem yesterday: Any attempt by the Democratic Congress to conduct a vote of no-confidence in attorney general Alberto Gonzales would be mere “political theatre,” concocted by “actors on the political-theatre stage.”

This, from the same guy who perfected the flight suit strut on Mission Accomplished Day, with the event staged at twilight, or, as they call it in Hollywood, “magic hour.”