Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler Banner Graphic
Caveat lector

SPINNING WOLF (PART 3)! Duffy’s report made a fleeting remark. And the pundits were soon spinning alpha:


A WEEK OF HOWLER HISTORY: Enjoy each episode in our week-long report:

SPINNING WOLF (PART 1): The press discovered Wolf in plain sight—then conducted a smut-laden trashing. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/3/03.

SPINNING WOLF (PART 2): Weeks before the Wolf flap began, boots-and-suits made a strange earth tones prequel. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/4/03.

Howler history: Spinning Wolf

SPINNING ALPHA: Four days before Michael Duffy’s report, the press corps watched Gore and Bradley’s first debate, booing and laughing at Gore. In Time, Eric Pooley described their conduct. “Whenever Gore came on too strong, the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some helpless nerd,” he wrote. Hotline editor Howard Mortman offered a slightly more sweeping report; according to Mortman, “The media groaned, howled and laughed almost every time Al Gore said something.” Salon’s Jake Tapper made it three: “That’s the only time I’ve ever heard the press room boo or hiss any candidate of any party at any event.” The press corps’ misconduct was simply astounding. And four days after this startling display, Duffy’s report was released in Time—and the corps’ jeering pundits got themselves busy ginning up flaps around Wolf. They dished her a nasty sexual trashing, an ugly performance that went on for a month (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/3/03), and they began inventing other odd claims that could be used in their trashing of Gore.

Everyone who followed Campaign 2000 was exposed to their strange, stupid spin-points. According to Every American Pundit, Naomi Wolf had told Al Gore that he had to become an alpha male. And the veep’s “mad genius” had also told Gore that he ought to campaign wearing earth tones. Every scribe knew that these statements were true—and every scribe knew what these statements meant. They meant that Gore doesn’t know who he is, they agreed, and they showed that Gore had to hire a woman to teach him how to become a man. These points were recited for a good solid month—until Ceci Connolly ginned Love Canal, and your “press corps” had a new scam to peddle.

Let’s start with the claim about alpha males—a claim which is actually found in Duffy’s report, unlike the claim about earth tones. At one point, Duffy described a bit of advice Wolf had allegedly offered:

DUFFY: Democratic Party sources say it’s Wolf who, more than anyone else, has urged Gore to bare his teeth at the President he has served loyally for more than seven years. Wolf has argued internally that Gore is a “Beta male” who needs to take on the “Alpha male” in the Oval Office before the public will see him as the top dog. In private, sources say, Gore expresses an almost primal bitterness about his relationship with Clinton, contending that while he was crucial to getting the President elected in 1992, the public’s disgust with Clinton now threatens his own ambitions.
Your press corps quickly began pretending that Wolf’s advice was disturbing and strange. Maureen Dowd’s clowning on November 3 captured the corps’ mocking tone. “[W]hen a man has to pony up a fortune to a woman to teach him how to be a man, that definitely takes the edge off his top-dogginess,” Dowd wrote, in the same repulsive, half-witted column where she said that Wolf had “urged women to release their inner sluts.” As if to prove her alpha stupidity, Wolf even phoned gong-show anthropologist Lionel Tiger, who heroically tried to walk Dowd through the deeply puzzling “alpha male” concept:
DOWD: “It’s baby biology, for heaven’s sake,” says Lionel Tiger, the anthropologist and author of The Decline of Males. “In two months the vice president has paid Naomi Wolf the annual salary of an assistant professor of zoology at a decent university to tell him something so elementary.

“If Gore actually was a dominant male, he wouldn’t need to be told how to have gusto.”

Zowie! Such zingers rang all through the press—peddled by the dispassionate bunch who had booed and jeered Gore one week earlier.

But what advice had Wolf really offered? And was there anything strange about what she had said? In her interview with the New York Times’ Melinda Henneberger, Wolf addressed the alpha male flap. According to Henneberger, Wolf “did mention Alpha versus Beta males, she allows, but only once, in passing.” Meanwhile, Wolf noted that the point she had made was the most obvious point in the world:

HENNEBERGER: Ms. Wolf, who says she mostly writes memos for the Gore campaign about the concerns of women, and works closely with [Gore’s daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff] on reaching younger voters, is keenly interested in sticking up for her boss.

Whom, she insists, she never tagged as a Beta type, as first reported in this week’s Time Magazine. “It was just a truism, something the pundits had been saying for months, that the vice president is in a supportive role and the President is in an initiatory role,” she said. “I used those terms as shorthand in talking about the difference in their job descriptions.”

Duh! In fact, every pundit on the face of the earth had offered some version of this “truism,” noting that Gore—like every VP who runs for the White House—needed to emerge from his president’s shadow. The comparison with Bush and Reagan in ’88 had been quite widely presented. And guess what? Some pundits, like Wolf, had used colorful imagery to describe this fact of political life. All the way back in March, for example, Hardball’s Chris Matthews had discussed Gore’s conundrum. On March 16, Matthews discussed Gore’s low poll numbers and how “boring” he was compared to Clinton. At one point, Rep. Joe Scarborough voiced a bit of conventional wisdom. “Al Gore’s problem is that he hasn’t been able to get out and speak on his own,” the pol said. In reply, Matthews turned to the New Republic’s Nurith Aizenman. And the great man posed a sweetie-pie query:
MATTHEWS: Nurith, when is Al Gore gonna come out of that, that little caterpillar womb and become a butterfly? When’s this gonna happen?
Awww! In Matthews’ metaphor, Gore was still in the caterpillar stage and he had to turn into a monarch. And just in case anyone missed his point, Matthews posed the very same question to Boston pol Tommy O’Neill:
MATTHEWS: Tommy O’Neill, when should Al Gore become a butterfly and cease being a caterpillar?
And guess what? Tommy O’Neill didn’t waste his time psychoanalyzing Matthews’ metaphor. Tommy O’Neill simply answered the question. “Oh, I think as late as he possibly can, to be honest with you,” O’Neill simply said.

Maybe we should all be thankful that Wolf spoke about “alphas” instead of “caterpillar wombs.” One can imagine the way the “press corps” would have mocked that turn of phase—although it would have been harder to dish the smut your pundits now showered on Wolf. But one thing is clear in this whole foolish matter. When the corps made a flap about Wolf’s advice, it was discourse as dumb as our discourse can get. As Wolf noted, every pundit on the face of the earth had voiced some version of this “truism.” And it seemed that others—not Wolf alone—sometimes used colorful metaphors. But four days before the Wolf flap began, your “press corps” had sat in a crowded room, jeering, booing and laughing at Gore, and now they saw that Gore’s “mad genius” could be used to advance their tomfoolery. Dim-witted pundits—Hardball’s Matthews a leader—began to rail about Wolf’s strange advice. Meanwhile, they invented a flap from a lone “speculation.” They invented a flap about earth tones.

TOMORROW: Inventing earth tones

ALPHA SPINNER: Wolf’s advice was about as obvious as a bit of advice could be. Every pundit had said that Gore needed to emerge from Bill Clinton’s long shadow. But on October 31, the Duffy report mentioned “alpha” and “beta,” and your pundits were off to the races. An instant example of their consummate clowning was offered by Fox’s Brit Hume. On that morning’s Fox News Sunday, the pundit was deeply kerflubbled:

HUME: We learn now, today, that Mr. Gore has as one of his advisers, at $15,000 a month, at least for a while, Naomi Wolf, who is sort of an interesting young woman who is tribune of sort of modern feminist psychobabble, who is said to have advised the vice president that he is the beta male to Bill Clinton’s alpha male in that relationship, and that it’s very important that he somehow reverse that in some way and then we read from the Los Angeles Times that he’s casting himself—I mean, this all sounds a little strange.
Poor Brit was completely confused! Moments later, he tried it again:
HUME: I think what it suggests about Al Gore is—a man we all have known in one way or another for a very long time, but never any of us really known, who’s always had this disconcerting difference between the public self and the rather easy-going private self, or at least personal self—that this may be a man who doesn’t know who the heck he is, doesn’t have any idea who he is and is trying to find who to be.

Now, all politicians make adjustments continually on issues and positions and attitudes for political suitability. That’s all within the realm of reasonableness, but when you have somebody who brings in some exotic consultant from the, you know, feminist psychobabble movement, who’s trying to teach him about alpha male and beta male stuff, you wonder if Al Gore has any idea who he is.

You just can’t get any stupider. Hume—complaining about Wolf’s alleged “psychobabble”—quickly engaged in deep babble himself, telling the public that Gore was a man who doesn’t know who the heck he is.

On this particular morning, of course, Hume was a man who didn’t know what he was talking about. Wolf hadn’t commented yet on Time’s report, and Duffy’s piece only included a fleeting account of what Wolf supposedly said. But because Hume’s comments were perfectly dumb, they had instant appeal to the rest of the corps, and as we’ll see in the next few days, his spins were recited by everyone.