Vice President Gore on the campaign trail. (AP photo)
This is one of a series of political profiles produced by
political psychologist Aubrey Immelman in the Unit
for the Study of Personality in Politics at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's
University in Collegeville, Minn.
October 22, 2000
Will Gore's little lies be big turnoff for voters?
By Aubrey Immelman
"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
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
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,
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
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. You may write to him in
care of the St. Cloud Times, P.O. Box 768, St. Cloud,
George W. Bush