To the Guinness Book of Records :
Reserve a whole page under hypocrisy.
It's for George W Bush and the managers of his bid for the White House.
They have run a campaign of character assassination. Knowing that Al Gore has an intimidating grasp of the issues, they have used every trick, every dollar of special interest money, every toady in the press, to smear the vice-president as a liar. The cleverness of that diversionary tactic was that if it worked it would relieve GW of giving proper answers to the questions of substance he finds so bewildering.
Now Bush is revealed as a liar on a serious issue of character. And what happens?
The smear artists are shouting "dirty politics".
Given   the   anti-Gore   bias   of   the   mainstream   press,   last Thursday night's revelation that Bush was arrested for drunken driving in 1976, when he was 30, may have come too late to affect his lead. The Republican spin machine has also been adept in damage control. Within 24 hours it had almost managed to turn the story into "who leaked?" instead of "why didn't he come clean?' It is true the disclosure came from a Maine Democrat, though not from the Gore campaign. But the point is that it is true, and the real question is the character of the candidate who tried to conceal his past.
He did confess to "mistakes" of his youth, but he would never be specific - hoping the "mistakes" would be thought of as youthful pranks, not serious crime. It is an offence to apply for any federal office without divulging an arrest record. Bush not only went to great lengths to cover up his conviction.
He lied about it, too.
In a 1998 interview, a Dallas Morning News reporter asked Bush point-blank if he had ever been arrested other than for a 1968 fraternity prank and Bush said flatly : "No."
The exchange was not reported at the time; it didn't seem newsworthy. And when Bush was called to jury service in a drunk-driving trial in Texas, he filled out the jury questionnaire, but left blank the yes-no entry asking if he had ever been accused in a civil or criminal case. Then he hastily got himself excused on the basis that he was the governor of the state.
The Wall Street Journal, the most sedulous of the defamers, would have dispatched ferrets to find out what happened on the other form-filling occasions when "the liar" had to yield his record. Now the Journal, you bet, will be part of the great "Smeargate" diversion.
Bush's handlers are saying, with some success, that his ready admission of the offence, when found out, is another sign of his probity. This sums up their entire campaign, one of breath-taking arrogance wrapped up in feel-good bromides. And they have got away with it.
The basic misperception here is to confuse amiability with integrity, marketable charm with ability. The truth, bluntly, is that Bush is an irresponsible know-nothing.
His instincts are those of the 1930s isolationist, little America, rather than the America that led the world in the creation of a new liberal world order.
If he is president, say goodbye to the nuclear test ban, to action on global warming, to peacemaking interventions.
Those of you in sodden Britain who might conclude that global warming, for instance, is a matter of concern should know that Bush, like the Wall Street Journal, regards it as a leftist scare. Asked what he would do, he responds that we need more study before ratifying the Kyoto agreement, putting me in mind of a fire chief who arrives at the blaze to say he will have to study the origins of the fire before trying to put it out.
On social security, he has never throughout the entire campaign explained how he can take a trillion dollars and put it into personal accounts for mainly young workers without saying where the money will come from to secure the retirement payments for the rest of the ageing workforce. This weekend, attacking federalism, he did not even seem to realise that social security is a federal programme. Why hasn't the press blown the whistle? The economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times, a rare pundit who bothers to do the sums, writes: "Really big misstatements, it turns out, cannot be effectively challenged because voters can't believe that a man who seems so likeable would do that sort of thing."
But he would. The drunken driving arrest is not the only character evidence from Bush's past that has been suppressed or glossed over.
On October 2, the Center for Public Integrity in Washington and Bill Muntaglio and Nancy Beiles in Talk magazine revealed that Bush not once but repeatedly missed the legal deadlines for reporting his insider stock trades when he was a director and member of the audit committee of a ropey Texas oil company, Harken Energy.
In 1991, three years before he ran for governor, the Wall Street Journal headlined one instance when Bush sold near the top of the market before the stock plunged, pocketing nearly $850,000. He was eight months late in reporting this coup. He claimed he had but that the SEC had "lost the paperwork". But neither the Journal, or anyone else, has asked Bush if the SEC "lost the paperwork" when he was derelict on three other newly-documented insider trades he did not report in the way required by the anti-corruption laws.
The 1991 SEC investigation, criticised for being run by friends of then President Bush, ended inconclusively. Bush, it was said, could not have known of the magnitude of Harken's impending loss when he sold out. But the SEC never interviewed Bush and documents obtained last month under the Freedom of Information Act clearly show that Bush had more knowledge than he admitted. At least twice during the month he cashed out, he received memos showing the company was in financial peril.
The man who claims the presidency on the grounds of probity has asserted :
"I believe in individual accountability and individual responsibility."
But the credulous press and the cerebrally challenged television talk shows have been too busy pillorying Gore to ask Bush to reconcile rhetoric and action.
"I will do everything I can," he has said, "to defend the power of private property and private property rights." But he has failed to reconcile that public testament with his enrichment from the seizure of private land for his Texas Rangers baseball stadium. Though then a private citizen, he contrived to use the power of the state to claim eminent domain over 270 acres - most of which was not needed for the stadium.
Families who lost their land so that Bush and his partners could profit from the
development potential are still mad at him for the land-grab and the ordeal of court
hearings they had to initiate before getting a fair price. Maree Fanning, who lost the
family horse farm, told a reporter :
"If I saw him today, I'd say 'Bite my ass'."
Tomorrow too many American voters, deprived of the real story, may kiss it.
Harold Evans is the author of 'The American Century'