Republican Senate candidate Paul S. Trible Jr. was speaking to students at Virginia Wesleyan College when he pointed dramatically at the empty chair on stage with him. College officials put it there, he told them, as a reminder that his Democratic opponent, Richard J. Davis, had refused to join him for a debate.
There was only one problem with Trible's statement, made a few weeks ago at the Virginia Beach school:
It wasn't accurate.
"No one knows how that chair got there," said James R. Bergdoll, Virginia Wesleyan's vice president of college relations, adding that Davis hadn't been scheduled to join Trible at the school. "Mr. Davis is on our board of trustees. It would be very unlikely that we would want to offend Mr. Davis."
While Judy Peachee, Trible's campaign manager, says that Trible made the remark after having been told about the chair by a student volunteer -- he never intended to mislead anyone, she says -- the remark and the reaction of his Democratic rival seem to be symptomatic of the state of affairs in the campaign.
On the one hand, with Virginia's Senate race going into its final days, Democrats are calling Trible's "empty chair" remark a clear example of the Republican nominee's willingness to part company with the facts when it suits his campaign. "I'm not talking about hype," says Davis campaign manager James Carville. "I'm talking about lies."
Republicans, on the other hand, counter that it is the Democrats who have been playing fast and loose with the facts, misrepresenting Trible's attendance record and incorrectly labeling him as a "do-nothing congressman" in a effort to mislead voters.
"They certainly have gotten into a lot of distortions in this campaign and away from a discussion of the issues," says Peachee. "It really seems there's more to be concerned about in the big scheme of things than an empty chair."
In fact, there is more than one "empty chair" canard, and the second happens to rankle Peachee. That empty chair appears in Davis' TV commercials that label Trible's congressional attendance record as one of the worst in Congress.
Those ads fail to note that the figure Davis uses -- "399th out of 435 members" -- covers only the current year. What's more, in that ad, an announcer ticks off a lengthy list of big-ticket military items that Trible failed to vote on, without noting that all of them were included in one amendment that failed 345-to-55. "That is such a distortion, in my opinion," said Peachee.
The reason for Davis' TV strategy, of course, is that he realizes that a crucial issue in his race is whom the voters trust.
But clearly there have been some exaggerations by both sides, on TV and off.
Consider, for example, Trible's direct mail attack on Davis' opposition to a proposed change in the Hobbs Act, a 1946 anti-racketeering law. Davis has opposed an amendment to the act that would make picket-line violence by union members a federal crime, arguing with others -- including Ronald Reagan -- that such crimes can be prosecuted more effectively by the states.
"So crossing state lines to commit violence and extortion is okay if you are a union official," wrote Trible in a fund-raising letter. "Only the most ideological liberal would defend this special privilege. Dick Davis defends it. Can you trust this man to represent the conservative views of the majority of Virginians?"
Consider, too, the Trible television ad that features a photograph of the congressman clad in an Air Force pilot's flight suit, sitting in the cockpit of a jet plane and giving the "thumbs up" sign that indicates he is ready for takeoff.
Nowhere in the commercial is it pointed out that Trible has never served in the armed forces, and that he doesn't know how to fly a jet. Trible supporters say the photo was intended to demonstrate the congressman's work on the House Armed Services Committee and familiarity with military issues.
Republicans still are grumbling about a Davis press release that detailed Trible's foreign trips to Switzerland, Fiji, Italy and the British West Indies while failing to note that the congressman was traveling on official business. "They implied that they were junkets, when they were all related to congressional business," Peachee says.
And Democrats still gripe about the Trible fund-raising memo alleging that Davis supporters had appeared at a labor conclave in New York. The Democrats, according to the memo, had urged unionists to contribute to the Davis campaign in a manner designed to circumvent federal fair campaign practices laws, and had shown television spots promoting their candidate.
Democrats and unionists denied that the incident had taken place, saying that Davis supporters had never made such a pitch nor had they even completed any TV commercials at that time. Since then, the Trible campaign has offered no evidence to support their claims.
In the final analysis, it's going to be up to the voters to sort out the half-truths from any out-and-out deceptions--a chore that will not come as easily to them as it has to partisans of the two candidates.
At least they've made it simple in the Davis headquarters where the word according to campaign manager Carville is:
"Characterize our charges as fact and theirs as hallucinatory."