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HOWLER HISTORY! SPINNING WOLF (PART 1)! The press discovered Wolf in plain sight—then delivered a smut-laden trashing:


A WEEK OF HOWLER HISTORY: For the reasons we stated last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/26/03), we start a week of HOWLER HISTORY. Democrats need to understand the way their party lost the White House. And all Americans need to know the way their “press corps” actually functions. The month-long frenzy surrounding Naomi Wolf was one of Campaign 2000’s most startling episodes, and it has never been fully explained. We wish there were a way to do this without dragging Wolf back through all the mud. But readers will see who mixed that mud—and readers will see the terrible problem that lies at the heart of our troubled democracy.

Howler history: Spinning Wolf

The flap about Wolf began in Time, in an article written by Michael Duffy. Released on October 31, 1999, Duffy’s report was instantly flogged by the press, but the piece had some obvious problems. “GORE’S SECRET GURU,” the headline said, and the article stressed a key theme: Gore was trying to keep Wolf a Big Secret. But how did Time seem to have learned about Wolf? “Wolf has a way of popping up at make-or-break moments for Gore,” Duffy wrote. Indeed, she had spent three days in New Hampshire the previous week, the scribe said, helping Gore prepare for his debate with Bill Bradley. “After [the debate],” Duffy continued, “while Gore spent 90 minutes answering questions from lingering audience members, Wolf sat half a dozen rows back in the auditorium, dressed in black, watching her client intensely.” But if Wolf was sitting up front at this major event, just how intense was the “secrecy” effort? The rest of the press corps knew enough not to ask, and the notion that Wolf was a “secret guru” (a “mad genius,” to quote another of Duffy’s odd phrases) became one of the elements pundits hit hardest as they ginned up their pleasing new scandal. In fact, several scribes called the secrecy factor the most disturbing part of the whole Wolf brouhaha. None of them mentioned how Wolf was “discovered”—sitting up front at a major event. But then, crackpot logic would routinely prevail in the ugly frenzy surrounding Wolf, as your “press corps” showed it was fully prepared to make a joke of your White House election.

Should pundits have been surprised to learn that Wolf was advising Gore? Their shock is a bit hard to fathom. As Duffy noted, Wolf—a well-known, best-selling author—had regularly advised the ’96 Clinton campaign. (Wolf’s husband, David Shipley, was a Clinton speechwriter.) Indeed, in his widely-read book, Inside the Oval Office, former Clinton honcho Dick Morris had praised Wolf’s advice. Here was his first passage about Wolf:

MORRIS: Two to three times a week, [a number of advisers] met with me to formulate copy...Author Naomi Wolf was sometimes with us. I myself met with Naomi every few weeks for nearly a year to get her advice on how to target women voters. She also gave me remarkably prescient analyses of the social-cultural trends in the country.
In Time, Duffy quoted more of Morris’ praise for Wolf—and for her thoroughly mainstream advice. (According to Morris, Wolf had helped “persuade me to pursue school uniforms [and] tax breaks for adoption.”) Meanwhile, according to Duffy’s article, Wolf was now helping Gore attract female voters, just as she’d done for Clinton:
DUFFY: Wolf, campaign sources say, has also bonded with Gore’s eldest daughter Karenna Gore Schiff, with whom she is working on efforts to involve younger voters—particularly women—in the campaign. Indeed, it is the women’s vote, so crucial to Clinton’s success, that has been one of the biggest puzzles for Gore this year.
Wolf had given “remarkably prescient” advice to Clinton. Four years later, she was helping Gore too. It’s hard to know why this should have seemed odd—or why it was even worthy of note. In a rational world, it’s hard to fathom the big surprise about Wolf’s role in the Gore campaign effort.

But by October 1999, the Washington press corps was on a crusade, apparently targeting Gore for defeat. Consider that first Gore-Bradley debate, the one where “Gore’s secret guru”—his “mystery consultant”—sat for hours in the sixth row. The debate took place on October 27, four days before Duffy’s article appeared, and the press corps put on a startling display—booing, jeering and laughing at Gore as they watched in an adjacent press room. “That’s the only time I’ve ever heard the press room boo or hiss any candidate of any party at any event,” Salon’s Jake Tapper later said. Hotline editor Howard Mortman also described the press corps’ odd conduct. “The media groaned, howled and laughed almost every time Al Gore said something,” he said. But unless you were reading THE DAILY HOWLER, you probably heard nothing about the corps’ astounding misconduct. Three hundred journalists were present that night—but only three mentioned what their cohort had done. Four days later, those same booing scribes were more than prepared to create a big flap around Wolf.

This month-long flap was one of the strangest in all of Campaign 2000. It began with Wolf—sitting right in plain sight—described as Gore’s “SECRET GURU.” But as the flap unfolded, the author was subjected to a truly nasty sexual trashing, and the press corps invented crackpot tales about her role in Gore’s campaign. Meanwhile, the corps’ many unlicensed psychiatrists came out to play, reciting a set of brainless spin-points about Gore’s disturbing mental problems. The press corps’ performance was a lasting embarrassment—and has never been fully described to this day. As we prepare for a controversial war, Americans need to understand the way the press corps put their current president into the White House. And Americans need to understand the way their “press corps” really functions.

TRASHING WOLF: The spinning of Wolf had so many elements, it would take a whole book to recount them. But how was the press now conducting its business? On November 2, two days after Duffy’s article appeared, Richard Cohen mocked Wolf and Gore in his Washington Post op-ed column—a column built around a “quote” by Wolf which had never appeared in her writings. (Cohen showed no sign of having read Wolf’s books. Weirdly, he had pulled his “quote” from a six-year-old, sexed-up profile in Esquire which included the bogus “quotation.”) But Cohen wasn’t the only Post scribe creating sexed-up tales about Wolf. On November 7, for example, Tony Kornheiser made a mess of his widely-read Sunday “Style” column:

KORNHEISER: Let me see if I have this right: Al Gore, who is running for president on the grounds that he is a regular guy who’s in touch with the people of this country, has hired feminist author Naomi Wolf to advise him on his campaign. Ms. Wolf, a big-haired cutie, is perhaps best known for her views on sex. She advocates teaching teenagers masturbation, mutual masturbation and oral sex—a subject in which, she brags in her book “Promiscuities,” she was rather adroit.
Unfortunately, Kornheiser did not “have this right;” this short paragraph contains inexcusable errors. In Promiscuities, Wolf described the sexual coming-of-age of her peer group in San Francisco during the 1970s, often stressing the problems encountered by teenage girls in an oversexed culture. But Wolf never “bragged” or claimed that she was “rather adroit” at oral sex; simply put, the book contained no such passage. Puzzled by what Kornheiser had written, The Nation’s Eric Alterman asked him why he had written it. Prepare to see how the Post was gathering information about major public figures:
ALTERMAN: When I contacted [Kornheiser], he admitted that he had never seen the book and was quoting someone who made this claim on Imus, who in turn had not read the book but had seen it “in a wire story.” When the subject is blow jobs (or Naomi Wolf), that’s good enough.
In fact, whoever made the claim on Imus had most likely “seen it” in the New York Daily News. On November 4, Sherryl Connelly had railed against Wolf. “There is no way Gore is going to be allowed to disassociate himself from Wolf’s provocative sexual opinions,” Connelly thundered. “She wrote [Promiscuities] in what she called ‘the first-person sexual’ and described quite explicitly how good she was at delivering oral sex at 15.” It’s unclear why Connelly thought Wolf had said that; there is nothing resembling that statement in Wolf’s book. But by saying that Gore would be tarred with Wolf’s “sexual opinions,” Connelly proved an able prophet. Indeed, as her own misstatements about Wolf helped show, the corps was prepared to goose up Wolf’s “opinions” until they had the kind of smutty tale our modern press very much likes.

Cohen based an entire column on a “quote” which never appeared. Kornheiser repeated a smutty claim because he’d heard someone say it on Imus. And then there was the Post’s Ann Gerhart, who penned a long profile of Wolf for the November 5 “Style” section. At one point—wallowing in the total trivia the modern press so dearly loves—Gerhart explained why a reviewer had seen beauty products inside Wolf’s bathroom back in the early 1990s:

GERHART: Now we know that was because she finally had gotten in touch with her inner slut, according to her third book, “Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood,” which [reported] her own coming-of-age experiences.
Wolf had “gotten in touch with her inner slut?” There is no such phrase in Promiscuities, although the pundit corps was now bristling with claims that Wolf “has very detailed programs on how a woman can get in touch with her inner slut” (Christina Hoff Sommers, Hardball, 11/1) or had “urged women to release their inner sluts” (Maureen Dowd, New York Times, 11/3). The phrase “inner slut” doesn’t appear in Wolf’s book, but it got big play in the Washington Post, helping to fuel a feeding frenzy which went on in the press for a month.

It’s hard to find words to describe the work that was now going on at the Post, in which major journalists typed smutty claims because they had heard them on Imus, or had seen them in Esquire, or because Maureen Dowd had typed them up first. But such work appeared throughout the press as pundits began a ritual trashing—work in which they rarely showed the slightest sign of having looked at Wolf’s books. In Promiscuities, for example, Wolf routinely decried the problems of modern, oversexed culture. She laments the nation’s high divorce rate, which she calls “destructive to us as a society.” She laments the fact that the United States “tolerate[s] the highest teen abortion rate in the industrialized world.” She laments the fact that “the experiments of the [sexual] revolution, great fun for adults, were sometimes played out at the expense of children.” Indeed, the book’s brief passage on sex education is explicitly presented as a way to get teens to postpone having intercourse (and no, she didn’t “advocate teaching teenagers” to have oral sex, although scribes had a good time pretending). What is the actual tone of Wolf’s book? In its memorable introduction, Wolf describes some of what she and her friends encountered while coming of age in San Francisco in the sex-drenched, hedonistic 1970s:

WOLF: We would encounter the most harmful manifestations of the times in the shape of thirteen-year-olds wearing dominatrix costumes alongside the adults showing off their tattoos in the cold air outside The Rocky Horror Picture Show every Friday night, the affluent parents who would take their children out of school for a week at a time so as not to miss the good snow at Tahoe, and in the baggies of elephant-tranquilizer-laced Sensimillan that bearded men in their thirties sold with a joke and a mellow smile to fifteen-year-olds at Grateful Dead concerts.
When Promiscities appeared in 1997, Courtney Weaver reviewed it for the New York Times. “Who besides Ms. Wolf,” Weaver asked, “has tackled in so personal a way the effect on children of the irresponsible behavior virtually mandated by the hippie revolution?” It is simply absurd to portray Wolf’s book as some sort of tribute to sexual license. But that’s the predictable way the press corps played it in a remarkable, month-long feeding frenzy which ought to go down as a lasting embarrassment to American public discourse. Generally, the press corps “reviewed” Wolf’s unread books in the schoolboy way Cohen attempted and bungled; they pulled random quotes completely out of context, then offered wildly inventive accounts of what the statements supposedly meant. Everyone knows how stupid this is, but pundits stood in line to do it. Expressing the smutty culture of the modern press corps, they were eager to show how thoroughly—and unfairly—they could conspire to tart up Naomi Wolf.

How extreme was Wolf’s sexual trashing? The former Rhodes Scholar had written three best-sellers, two of them picked by the New York Times as “notable books of the year.” Her first book, The Beauty Myth, had been picked by the Times as one of the 70 most influential books of the century (according to a 1997 Washington Times review). But in a know-nothing press corps which showed few signs of ever having looked at her books, Wolf was dismissed as a “big haired cutie,” a “kook,” a “crackpot,” a “bimbo,” an “oddball,” and a “flashy Culture Babe.” Thirty-seven years old when the frenzy began, she was described as “this girl,” “this silly girl,” a “girl writer,” a “Valley Girl,” and was scorned as “this silly book author” by Margaret Carlson on Capital Gang. Needless to say, the pundit corps’ tone was reliably smutty. For example, here is Maggie Gallagher in the November 6 Washington Times, pretending to speak to Gore:

GALLAGHER: So now I hear you’ve gone out and hired a feminist babe with big hair, friend of your daughter, to help boost your MQ (that’s “masculinity quotient” to you outside the Beltway)…So you’ve got this pretty little writer thing (don’t get me wrong, smart too, gives real good pen), who’s going to teach you how to be a man, Al, and you are going to pay her 5,000 big bucks a month for the privilege.
According to Gallagher, Wolf, a highly accomplished 37-year-old woman, was a “pretty little writer thing” who “gives real good pen.” (“Real men don’t pay, Al,” the smutty halfwit scribe informed Gore. Spewing smarm and disinformation, Gallagher pretended it was Wolf who was trashy.) But then, in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky era, the endemically juvenile Washington press corps was simply obsessed with oral sex, and pundits weren’t above casting Wolf as the slut of their latest confection. (On Crossfire, Tucker Carlson gravely described Wolf as “a powerful advocate of onanism.”) Indeed, in one of the most repulsive parts of the ritual trashing, a small cottage industry quickly sprang up in tortured, Wolf-as-Lewinsky comparisons. In her Post profile, Gerhart said that Wolf’s hair resembled Lewinsky’s. On Hardball, Chris Matthews said that Wolf sounded like Monica. In the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, John Brummett said that Wolf was “someone who combines the public policy of Joycelyn Elders with the sensibilities of Monica Lewinsky,” a reference he felt no need to explain. In her nationally syndicated Chicago Tribune column, Kathleen Parker said that “at a glance [Wolf] could be the sister of another well-known, raven-haired former Washington belle.” But the most repulsive performance came from conservative pundit Jim Pinkerton, writing in Newsday and the Los Angeles Times. Pinkerton opened his November 4 column with this trashy and laughable passage:
PINKERTON: Naomi Wolf even looks like Monica Lewinsky. Same creamy cheeks, same bee-stung lips, same startled-fawn eyes. Indeed, Lewinsky, an obviously intelligent woman a decade younger than Wolf, could, if she puts her mind to it, aspire to write a book like “Promiscuities,” Wolf’s most recent tome.
Laughably, it was now Lewinsky who was the “obviously intelligent person”—who could easily have written three best sellers, just as her look-alike, the Rhodes Scholar, had done. (Needless to say, Pinkerton didn’t tell his readers about the success and acclaim of Wolf’s books.) Finally, after citing a negative review of Promiscuities, the pundit returned to his reveries:
PINKERTON: After such a review, maybe Wolf figured that working on the Gore campaign was an easier way to earn big money. Just as a needy intern found an even needier president, Wolf found her beta male. And as Clinton struggled to conceal his physical relationship with Lewinsky, so Gore labored to hide his fiscal relationship with Wolf.
Trashy halfwits like Gallagher and Pinkerton wanted you picturing Wolf just one way. But what could have been in the minds of editors putting such ugly work into print—work comparing Wolf to Lewinsky for no reason but sexual insinuation and slander? Again, it was the “liberal” Times and the “liberal” Newsday which stooped to publish Pinkerton’s reveries. The papers set aside their “liberal bias” to take part in the ritual trashing.

It’s hard to believe that America’s discourse lies in the hands of the thigh-rubbing breed which created the oddball flap around Wolf. But by the fall of 1999, that booing, jeering, laughing press corps had made a decision about Candidate Gore, and they would now engage in endless efforts to discredit his run for the White House. Wolf was a thoroughly mainstream figure; she had offered “remarkably prescient analyses” to the Clinton campaign only four years before. But your press corps wanted you thinking that Gore was strange—that he was taking advice from a “kook” and a “crackpot.” The press corps told you the story it liked—and it told pleasing stories all through the next year, eventually putting George Bush in the White House.

TOMORROW: An earth tones prequel

Five days after the Wolf flap began, Candidate Bush was hit by Andy Hiller’s “pop quiz.” Did pundits trash Bush, as they were now trashing Gore? Please. Almost to the very last pundit, the corps recited the Bush campaign’s spin-points. This happened at the very same time that the corps was ranting about Gore’s “mad genius.” To understand the way your dysfunctional “press corps” really works, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/6/02.