PART 3—RICHLY HE TURNS: How could we say it? an e-mailer asked (in an e-mail which posed a list of good questions). How could we possibly call Frank Rich dumb? The mailer praised Richs columns on Bush, saying: When the history of GWB is written, we'll look to his columns as contemporary indictments of the ineptitude of this administration. Maybe Rich fell for the dumb Gore scripts when he should have known better, the mailer writes. But yes—actually, a lot of people are dumber than Rich. Well offer this readers full e-mail below; it goes on to ask a superlative question:
E-MAIL (6/1/06): Rich clearly isn't a simple script-spewer. Certainly not with the Bush administration. So what explains the phenomenon of otherwise smart people being so uncritical about Gore?In our view, the question for liberals goes well beyond the bizarre script-reading RE Gore. But this mailer asks a set of excellent questions—questions all libs must consider.
Plainly, in one way, Rich isnt dumb; hed clearly do well on an IQ test, and he knows exactly how to rework all approved scripts of his cohort. (This includes many high-minded scripts which are thunderously critical of Bush.) But in fact, some of his work in the past ten years goes well beyond what youd think of as dumb—and his column this Sunday was a Rich case in point (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/1/06). By normal standards, Richs balance of the equities was simply bizarre. Rich was upset that an audience laughed at Gores jokes, and that the group was multicultural; somehow, this was supposed to balance off several decades of sound judgments by Gore. (He was right on the Gulf War! Right on Iraq! But omigod—students have laughed at his jokes!) And when Rich wanted to make us think that Candidate Gore muted his views about science, he dredged up an incident so utterly trivial that Richs own Times—like almost all papers—never even bothered to report it. (Richs readers, of course, had no way to know this. They thought they were hearing the latest grim tale about Candidate Gores appalling performance.) But this is the way our discourse has worked over the course of the past dozen years, as pundits like Rich invent bogus facts and defy normal logic, all in service to their cohorts great scripts. (Called narratives by Tom Toles in this brilliant cartoon, which captures their love of these stories.) In fact, Richs performance in Sundays column goes well beyond normal boundaries of dumb, closer to the realms of bizarre and incomprehensible. And that odd performance continued yesterday as the pundit chatted with Imus, offering up his brilliant thoughts about Gore clownish new film.
The things Rich told Imus went well beyond dumb. And since Rich would do well on an IQ test, the e-mailers question should trouble all liberals: Why exactly have pundits like Rich adopted this puzzling stance toward Gore? And what explains the sometimes puzzling tone theyve adopted toward other Big Democrats?
Rich was eager to share his thoughts on Gores film with Imus. (The film was directed by Davis Guggenheim.) Suddenly, Al Gore has this little movie thats essentially a chalk talk, the great savant said, and people are running around like crazy in the Democratic Party. A few minutes after this opening putdown, Imus sought a fuller view. Here was Richs opening profile:
RICH (6/1/06): Well, its, its like at the high end of those good-for-you movies that you used to have to watch in high school. Its a compelling lecture about global warming with a lot of slides and power point stuff and intermingled with it, weirdly, are these sort of scenes from Gores personal life and scenes of him now sort of, you know, shlepping his own suitcase through security in airports and looking sort of like Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman. [Laughter] I guess thats supposed to give it kind of a poignance, that this guy is on his last legs and is saving the world. Theres one other interesting, odd thing about it. Every single time they can, they show the logo of Apple computer—hes got an Apple laptop throughout the movie—and then you find out later, reading, that hes on the board of Apple. So thats the sort of commercial aspect of it.Lets translate. According to Rich, An Inconvenient Truth is on the high end of the instructional films we had to watch about avoiding VD. And his condescension toward Gore-as-Loman was quite undisguised—quite apparent. At this point, Imus offered a thought; Rich makes An Inconvenient Truth sound like a campaign film, he said. And as Rich replied to the I-fellows comment, you just had to throw your hands up and laugh. By any normal standard of judgment, what followed went well beyond dumb:
RICH (continuing directly): It seems to me that it was in part a campaign film and I find it odd—it got all these great reviews where people just sort of ignored this part of it and just talked about what they wanted to be the main part, which is important, which is climate change and all that...By normal standards, that isnt dumb; the word weve long used at this site is dysfunctional. How could reviewers have done it? Rich asked. (A. O. Scott at the pundits own Times, for example.) How could they have avoided discussing the logo on Gores computer? How could they have talked instead about climate change and all that—the thing they wanted to be the main part? One barely knows how to respond to such an astounding assessment. Obviously, reviewers treated climate change and all that as the main part of this film because climate change is what this films all about. But in the world of Richs gonzo cohort, everything always has to maintain the brilliants cohorts crackpot narratives—in one of which, Gore has long served as the enjoyable punch line. To Rich, therefore, this film is about the logo he spots on Gores computer! (Well admit—we never noticed it.) And yes, this dysfunctional focus continued as Rich continued to chatter with Imus. There are no scientists in the film, he complained, echoing a weird point from his column. And then, he was back to those laughing students, the ones he finds so upsetting. At this point, Imus inserted a moment of sanity, noting that Gore, as a matter of fact, was actually right about global warming. When Rich replied to Imus point, the gods on Olympus surely roared:
RICH: But essentially hes giving it before an audience that looks like a Benetton ad, its like this sort of multicultural and mostly young thats just laughing at every joke and cheering him on—sort of like the Today show this week [when Katie Couric left the program].I think thats one of the good things about him! To our mailer, we can only say this: Thats well beyond dumb, more like cosmically comical. But just drink in the whole daffy statement:
IMUS: Well—he is—he is right [unintelligible]
RICH: Hes totally—hes completely right! Yeah, hes completely—theres no question that hes right, and I think thats one of the good things about him.
RICH: Hes totally—hes completely right. Yeah, hes completely—theres no question that hes right, and I think thats one of the good things about him. And he was right about it when a lot of people were saying its nonsense, and now almost everyone accepts that this is a major problem. They may disagree about some of the details and about some of the solutions but he was a voice in the wilderness. And look, he was also—and this is another good point about him—he was right about the Iraq war very early. He spoke in September 2002, about six months before the invasion, when the Democrats were all cowering, he was saying, Whats the plan for after we topple Saddam? Are we gonna nation-build? Do we have the troops? He was asking these questions and largely being ignored.Gore was also right on Iraq—and thats another good point about him! Here, as in Richs plu-daffy column, we see the values of his elite pundit class. Gore was right about warming when no one else was. The same is true of the war in Iraq. And those were two good points about Gore. But what did Rich want to talk about—before he got his prompting from Imus? The logo he spotted on Gores computer! The fact that some grad students laughed at Gores jokes! The fact that the students were multicultural! That mocking image of Gore in an airport! To Rich, these pointless matters loom so large that he cant understand why other reviewers just sort of ignored them! And in these moments, Rich gives us a look at the life-draining values of his vacuous class—a class that recalls Marie Antoinettes court, a Millionaire Pundit class which has lost all contact with the concerns of actual people.
Gore was right about global warming—but Rich is more drawn to Gores troubling logo. But this is what happened to our national discourse during the two years of Campaign 2000, when Richs vacuous, millionaire class conducted a campaign about clothing (Paul Krugman)—when they talked about earth tones, doggy pills and Love Story, eventually sending Bush to the White House.
Richs column—and his chat with Imus—go well past dumb to the realm of dysfunction. Arguably, so do the things Rich said to Imus concerning Gore and Iraq.
To Rich, it was a good point about Gore—he had warned us about our current disaster, back in September 2002, about six months before the invasion, when the Democrats were all cowering. No, this didnt seem to matter as much as that Apple logo—but yes, it was another good point. Gore was asking the right questions back then, Rich said—and he was largely being ignored. But uh-oh! Surely, Gore would rather have been ignored than have been the butt of Richs dissembling, as he was in November 2002, when Rich finally turned his haughty gaze back to his cohorts favorite punch line. In his November 23 column, Rich didnt ignore what Gore said on Iraq—he openly ridiculed Gore for his efforts. Gore had just appeared on Today. Heres how the pundit played it, in what was roughly his three millionth column about what a Big Phony Fake Gore is. By the way—note how Rich mocked the foolish idea that Gore might not run for president:
RICH (11/23/02): [I]t took Katie Couric all of three minutes to uncover the old Al Gore lurking inside the latest model. When he protested that he wouldn't really, really decide whether to run for president until after the holidays, she spoke for many viewers by responding, "Why am I having a hard time believing that wholeheartedly?" Then came the Gore equivocation and hair-splitting that he perfected in the 2000 debates. Ms. Couric had to ask seven questions to pin him down on how he would "handle Saddam" if he were president. The answer? He said that President Bush was taking "the right course of action" by winning a unanimous Security Council vote. And now what? "I don't know where this goes from here," said Mr. Gore.Carnac the Magnificent knew, of course, that Gore was running for president. (He sees the same thing in Gores film today.) What else could Gore do with himself, after all? (At the time, Gore was giving his little chalk talk all over the world, and he was on a national book tour.) But Frankly, everything else Rich said in this passage was basically false—a vast deception of his readers. To Rich, Gore was still a human punch line—and that narrative scripted his nasty treatment of the things Gore had said on Iraq.
People don't change. Mr. Gore doesn't let the chips fall where they may; you can still spot him counting each one before doling them out. And of course he is still running for president. Polls of Democratic voters and politicians alike show that he remains the first choice of a plurality of them, and besides, what else does the guy, a political lifer, have to do with himself?
Republicans profess to be delighted at this prospect while non-Gore Democrats are despondent. They are united in their recognition that he is the least spontaneous presidential contender since Richard Nixon, who similarly kept rolling out "new" incarnations of his public persona after each defeat. But Nixon did bounce back, and from a worse setback than Mr. Gore's: He lost his own state even more embarrassingly, in a failed post-vice-presidency run for governor, and then threw a public temper tantrum to blame his own failings on the press. Six years later he took the White House anyway, at a time when the country and the party in power were both traumatized by a war without end.
So many have written off our former vice president in 2002 that the conventional wisdom could be as wrong about him as it was about the former vice president of 1962. Yet if Mr. Gore—or the tongue-tied party he all too perfectly embodies right now—is going to be taken seriously by voters, "I don't know where this goes from here" will hardly do.
We discussed this column by Rich in real time (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/25/02). What was wrong with the scribes presentation? According to Rich, Couric had to struggle to get answers from Gore—and Gore had ended up agreeing with Bush, saying that he had no idea where [the matter of Iraq] goes from here. Because of Gores equivocations, Rich wrote, he perfectly embodied his tongue-tied party. This was the same old Gore, Rich sneered. But then, he made the same point in Sundays column, after watching those students laugh at Gores joke in his phony new film.
But uh-oh! Anyone who reads the transcript of Gores appearance can see that Couric had no trouble pinning him down about Saddam. In fact, she only asked six questions—and as youll see from reading the transcript, the only reason she had to ask six was because she kept interrupting Gores answers. Meanwhile, Rich baldly misled his readers when he made it sound like Gore ended up agreeing with Bush and had no ideas of his own. In fact, Gore challenged Bush from his opening sentence—and he did say what hed do about Iraq. Richs column was remarkably false. But it was true to his cohorts great narrative—the script in which, as Toles pointed out, Gore was long cast as the punch line.
Yesterday, Rich said Gore was right in 2002. Back in 2002, he said different—finding brilliant new ways to mock him. Richly he turned on this weeks Imus show—although, truth to tell, he was Frankly amazed to think that scribes focused on climate change when they reviewed Gores little chalk talk. To Rich, the film is about making Gore a big joke. That has always been his story, and beyond dumbly, hes still sticking to it.
Why did they focus on climate change? Beyond dumbly, Rich had to ask.
MONDAY—PART 4: In 1997, Rich Frankly proved his brilliant point by inventing the Love Story canard.
WHAT GORE SAID TO COURIC: Rich has flipped on 2002. These days, he says that Gore was right on Iraq. But my, how Richly the pundit has turned! Below, we reprint the segment of that Today show concerning Gores views on Iraq and al-Qaeda. Rich said that Gore refused to answer, then ended up agreeing with Bush. Those claims were almost impossibly bogus. Frankly speaking, those claims were quite Rich.
Note that Couric asked six questions because she interrupted almost every answer. (Rich implied that she had to do so because Gore was refusing to answer.) Gores program: In the short term, we should focus on al Qaeda, not Saddam. Saddam is a danger, but we should organize international support for [his] removal. As youll see, Gore was wrong about WMD—here, as in his speech that September. As well note at the end of this series, Gores judgments havent been right every time. Judged by conventional standards, he has been a man of good judgment, not necessarily an oracle or a seer.
Remember—Rich gave the impression that Gore refused to answer, then ended up agreeing with Bush. Our e-mailer asks a very good question: What explains that absurdly misleading presentation by Rich?
COURIC (11/19/02): Let me ask you about a speech you gave in—in San Francisco in September. You were highly critical of President Bush's handling of foreign affairs, specifically in Afghanistan and Iraq. You said that the campaign to oust Saddam Hussein could, quote, "Seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism."Gore said here, as he did in September, that he thought Saddam had WMD. Meanwhile, was Gore evading when he said, I don't know where this goes from here? It seems to us that he was saying that he didnt know where Bush was planning to go from here. At any rate, he instantly said where he would go: I think that it's the right thing to organize international support for the removal of Saddam Hussein and the destruction of his weapons of mass destruction. But what's been done throughout the fall, starting after Labor Day, I think has really distracted from the war against terrorism.
COURIC: How would you do things differently? How would you handle Saddam Hussein if you were president? [QUESTION 1]
GORE: I think that the—that the drumbeat leading up to the war against Iraq has distracted from the war against terrorism. I don't think there's any question about it. And if there is a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, then I'd like to see it. But they have not made any such links public. I don't think they have the—the evidence that there is one. And so—
COURIC: But do you think that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, and do you think he's a highly dangerous individual? [QUESTION 2]
GORE: Oh, yes. He's very dangerous. He should be—
COURIC: He should be dealt with? [QUESTION 3]
COURIC: Then how? [QUESTION 4]
GORE: Well, I think first things first. I think we—we have somebody shooting at us right now who has pledged to—to take action to try to do as much damage to America as possible. And the person who's done that is not Saddam Hussein. I think that we should focus our attention on the war against terrorism. I don't think we should have lost focus. What would I have done differently? Well, first of all, I praised President Bush for his immediate responses to 9/11, and I think he did a magnificent job rallying the country. Soon thereafter, I think we did lose focus. First, by refusing to allow the international community to put enough forces into Afghanistan to establish peace and order there. Now the warlords are back in control, the Taliban is back in the country, and al-Qaeda is back at the—posing as much of a threat, according to our intelligence agencies, as they did in the weeks leading up to September 11th. I—I think it was a mistake to allow that to happen. I think we should have been single-minded.
COURIC: So when it comes to Saddam Hussein, is it a case of let sleeping dogs lie? [QUESTION 5]
GORE: No, no, no, no. I think that if you're—
COURIC: In other words, what—would you have done anything? [QUESTION 6]
GORE: Oh, yes. I think if you're going after Jesse James, you ought to organize the posse first. And I think in recent weeks that President Bush has shifted direction and decided to invest impressively in the United Nations, got a unanimous Security Council vote, and I think that was the right course of action. I don't know where this goes from here. Some people think—some people on the right wing, in his party, feel that he's put himself in a box. I—I think that it's the right thing to organize international support for the removal of Saddam Hussein and the de—the destruction of his weapons of mass destruction. But—but what's been done throughout the fall, starting after Labor Day, I think has really distracted from the war against terrorism.
COURIC: Let me ask you about the Bush's—the Bush administration's economic policy...
Gore was wrong about WMD. In the long run, what would he have done about Iraq? There is, of course, no way of knowing. But in September 2002, he said it would be unwise to go after Saddam on our own, and he kept offering the same judgment here. But Richs readers heard something different. They heard that Gore had refused to answer; that he had ended up lamely agreeing with Bush; that he didnt know where to go from here. And that he perfectly embodied his tongue-tied party, 29 of whose 50 senators had just voted to give Bush the power to go to war with Iraq.
What was Richs main point in this piece? Gore is a fake, as he always had been. (It took Katie Couric all of three minutes to uncover the old Al Gore lurking inside the latest model.) But then, that was the main point of Sundays column as well! In 2002, Rich proved his point about Fake Old Gore by vastly miscasting his session with Couric. On Sunday, he proved his point again—by complaining about those graduate students, by mind-reading about the absence of scientists from the new film, and by dredging up that absurd non-story from August 1999. Back in 1997, of course, he proved his point by inventing Love Story. Rich has been wrong, again and again, and his bizarre work has gone well beyond dumb.
ONE OF THOSE PUZZLING REVIEWERS: To Rich, the script is perfectly clear—every event must help us see that Gore is a major-league faker. For example, here was the pundits troubled reaction to one troubling part of Gores film:
RICH (5/28/06): Though many of the rave reviews don't mention it, there are also considerable chunks of ''An Inconvenient Truth'' that are more about hawking Mr. Gore's image than his cause. They also bring back unflattering memories of him as a politician. The movie contains no other voices that might upstage him, not even those of scientists supporting his argument. It is instead larded with sycophantic audiences, as meticulously multicultural as any Benetton ad, who dote on every word and laugh at every joke, like the studio audience at ''Live With Regis and Kelly.''Its the law. Rich is require to take offense at every word that falls from Gores mouth (and hes required to say that Gore is really just like the Republicans). For that reason, he takes mighty offense at Gores reference to the World Trade Center. But others arent bound by this scribes inane scripts. In this mornings Washington Post, for example, Desson Thomson reports seeing something different at that part of Gores film. But then too, he was able to see Gore get a laugh without being driven to lunatic envy. And Thomson knows whos not in the room when Gore tells his joke, gets that laugh:
We are also treated to a heavy-handed, grainy glimpse of Katherine Harris, Michael Moore-style, and are reminded that Mr. Gore is not a rigid blue-state N.R.A. foe (he shows us where he shot his rifle as a farm kid in Tennessee). There's even an ingenious bit of fearmongering to go head to head with the Republicans' exploitation of 9/11: in a worst-case climactic scenario, we're told, the World Trade Center memorial ''would be under water.'' Given so blatant a political context, the film's big emotional digressions—Mr. Gore's tragic near-loss of his young son and the death of his revered older sister from lung cancer—are as discomforting as they were in his 1992 and 1996 convention speeches.
THOMSON (6/2/06): I'm Al Gore, I used to be the next president of the United States of America," he quips at the start of seemingly every show—which he has taken around the globe from Seattle to Tokyo since his defeat. The opener never fails to get a laugh. And as if surprised for the first time, Gore breaks into a Mount Rushmore-cracking smile.For ourselves, we had a different thought when Gore cited the World Trade Center. We thought we heard Gore saying this: Warming threatens the very things all of us hold the most dear. But Frankly, Rich was required to hear something different. By the rules, he had to hear what a fake Gore is—very much like the Republicans. By the rules of the game, there is one great man, and his name is Frank Rich. Except of course for the great Saint McCain, hes the one great man, finer than all.
It's easy to see why Gore revels so. He doesn't have to skew his speech to journalists and voters monitoring his every sigh. There are no restrictions on complexity at these venues, no timer light on the lectern.
Thus he tells audiences—in earnest, wonkish detail—about the isotopes trapped in air bubbles under the Antarctic ice. (They provide a record of the Earth's carbon dioxide levels, going back hundreds of thousands of years.) He explains how the emissions have elicited a biblical barrage of typhoons, tornadoes, hurricanes and heat waves from New Orleans to Bombay. And with wall-size animated depictions of a foundering world, he demonstrates what will happen if the polar caps finally melt: Rising waters will engulf major coastal regions around the globe, including the site of the World Trade Center. Gore's point about the hallowed Manhattan location: The environment poses as dangerous a threat as terrorism. If all college courses had presentations this evocative and sophisticated, no universities would hurt for enrollment.
Why is Gore so loose on the stump? Thomson nails it: Gore is loose because Rich is no longer present, monitoring his every sigh. Were only sorry that Thomson slandered the voters when he made this dead-on point. In fact, the mindless nonsense surrounding Gore has come from the Richs, not from the voters.
THAT FULL E-MAIL: This e-mail asked some very good questions. More at the start of next week:
E-MAIL: I tell everyone to read you. But come on: "Frankly, is anyone dumber than Rich?" Give me a break.That last paragraph is very important. We expect to return to its queries.
Look, I haven't seen the film, but even if Rich completely blows his analysis of the film, I'm sorry, his columns are week after week, tough, unforgiving and, "frankly," pretty on target. When the history of GWB is written, we'll look to his columns as contemporary indictments of the ineptitude of this administration. So let's be fair: Maybe he blows his analysis of "Inconvenient Truth". And maybe he fell for the dumb Gore scripts when he should have known better. And yes, he should be held to account for that. But yes, actually a lot of people are dumber than Rich.
This, of course, raises a problem: Rich clearly isn't a simple script-spewer. Certainly not with the Bush administration. So what explains the phenomenon of otherwise smart people being so uncritical about [the scripts concerning] Gore? I need to think about this one but thought I'd write you anyway in the meantime.