- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2000

It was one of those heart-rending stories for which Vice President Gore is justifiably famous. It seems an overcrowded, ill-equipped high school in Sarasota, Fla., found itself unable to offer a young woman a seat in her science class. The result? She had to stand through the entire 50-minute class. The vice president, a beacon of light in these dark days, promised millions of people watching his debate with George W. Bush that in a Gore administration she and other students would have a place to sit down.
It's all very moving. It just that there is some debate about the accuracy of the story.
Here's how Mr. Gore characterized Kailey Ellis' plight. "Her science class was supposed to be for 24 students. She is the 36th student in that classroom. [Her father sent] me a picture of her in the classroom. They can't squeeze another desk in for her so she has to stand during class. I want the federal government, consistent with local control and new accountability, to make improvement of our schools the number one priority so Kailey will have a desk and can sit down in a classroom where she can learn."
One would think she was going to school in Dickensian England, the room crammed to overflowing with hapless students destined for ignorance and poverty for lack of a place to sit down. Officials at the school she attends, Sarasota High School, say things aren't quite that bad. They would always welcome more money to improve their schools. But notwithstanding Mr. Gore's tale, they don't think more money would have solved the problem. Indeed, it's not clear they even believe there was a problem.
It's something that every school goes through every year when school starts, a school spokeswoman said in an interview. Students are changing class schedules. Furniture is being moved around. Sometimes the two don't match. So she stood for one 50-minute class. "We think Mr. Gore was well-intentioned," she said. "We just think he got misleading information."
It's true that the class was crowded, but the problem in part was the wealth of resources the school enjoyed, not the want of them. It turns out there was about $100,000 worth of science equipment packed behind her waiting to be unpacked. Still, the spokeswoman said, there were stools in the back of the room she could have used to sit down. And the teacher could have asked the janitor to bring another desk into the room. No one had to stand the next day.
Now perhaps Mr. Gore wants to create a federal Department of Student and Desk Synchronization. If he does, he might say so. Turning the job over to the people who created gas shortages and gas lines in the 1970s seems like a good way to guarantee further shortages, ones that wouldn't end within the day, but he's welcome to argue otherwise.
If that's not what he meant, he might have saved himself the trouble of correcting the record by checking with the school in advance. The school says that neither Mr. Gore nor his staff bothered to call before he recited his grim story. Apparently the campaign relied on a news story that appeared in a Sarasota paper. The paper told the story all over again following the debate, highlighting Mr. Gore's sensitivity and concern for the state of Florida's education in what happens to be a key, "battleground" state. That's "free" media Mr. Bush couldn't buy if he wanted to.
Mr. Gore apparently took other liberties during the debate as well. He and his aides have routinely suggested Mr. Bush lacks experience for the job of president. In an April 13 interview with the New York Times, Mr. Gore said Mr. Bush's call for a large tax cut "raises the question, 'Does he have the experience to be president?' " His spokesman has called Mr. Bush a "lightweight." Twice debate moderator Jim Lehrer asked Mr. Gore to explain himself, and twice Mr. Gore denied having made the accusation. Also during the debate, Mr. Gore said he had traveled with the director of the Federal Emergency Management, James Lee Witt, to inspect Texas floods and fires. Mr. Gore subsequently said that while he had gone to Texas, he hadn't gone with Mr. Witt.
This latest flap over Mr. Gore's veracity let's call it tale-gate reinforces his image as a politician for whom facts aren't stubborn things but instead are pliant and supple enough to make anew. He "remembers" hearing union lullabies as a child that didn't exist until he was in his 20s. He "knew" that arthritis medicine was three times more expensive for his mother-in-law than for his dog, only to have aides acknowledge that the cost data came not from his mother-in-law but from a partisan Democratic study.
For the time being, the political fallout from Mr. Gore's tales is limited; he's still just a political candidate for president. If he's elected president, however, voters won't be able to erase the policies that come of such stories and to insist that he write 100 times, "I will not tell tall tales about schools. I will not tell tall tales about schools."
E-mail: smithk@twtmail.com

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