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BECAUSE OF YOU! Herbert kisses up to Gore. We recall what actually happened: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JUNE 5, 2007

THE DARNEDEST THINGS: Celebrities say the darnedest things—often, it seems, in an attempt to honor the bounds of Conventional Wisdom. In today’s New York Times, for example, celebrity historian pundit Robert Dallek reviews the new bio of Hillary Clinton written by Gerth and Van Natta. What follows is Dallek’s third paragraph:
DALLEK (6/5/07): Mr. Gerth and Mr. Van Natta see themselves as relating the unvarnished truth about Senator Clinton. ''Never before has such a high-profile candidate occupied the spotlight for so long without the public's learning the facts about so much that is crucial to finally understanding her,'' they write. Mrs. Clinton; her husband, Bill; and their supporters have told a flattering story about the couple. ''Now it is time for another,'' less laudatory version.
For all we know, that’s a faithful account of the way Gerth and Van Natta present their project. (We can’t imagine why Dallek thinks he knows how they “see themselves.”) Who knows? Perhaps these writers really think the world is awash in flattering stories about the Clintons. Perhaps they think that what this world really needs is a “less laudatory version” of Hillary Clinton’s story—the “unvarnished truth.” (For the record, those phrases both come from Dallek—not from Gerth and Van Natta.) But why would Dallek present such a strange claim without a word of comment? As every non-cyborg surely knows, the world has long been awash in unflattering books about Hillary Clinton. It’s bizarre to claim that the time has come for a “less laudatory version” of her story. But so what? Dallek offers this framework in paragraph 3—and never says boo about it. A reader might even think that Gerth and Van Natta are plowing new ground. Finally! Someone has offered a portrait of Clinton that doesn’t come from her supporters!

Why would Dallek write such a strange paragraph, placing it right at the top of his piece? We don’t have the slightest idea. But celebrities say the darnedest things!. They’ve been doing so for the past fifteen years when it comes to the Clintons (and Gore). Dallek simply extends this odd practice in that peculiar paragraph.

But then, we were even more struck by a passage from Michiko Kakutani’s review of Carl Bernstein’s new Clinton bio. In this case, it’s Bernstein himself who is typing, quoted by Kakutani. Do celebrities say the darnedest things? In this case, Bernstein says something accurate:
KAKUTANI (6/5/07): At times Mr. Bernstein tries hard to feel the Clintons' pain. He argues that the couple were ''treated more harshly, and often pursued with different standards and more relentlessly—during virtually the whole of their occupancy of the White House—than any president and his wife of the 20th century.'' He contends that many of the ''underlying assumptions'' of the assertions that fueled the investigation into their lives ''were often contextually misleading, exaggerated in significance, and sometimes factually off-base.''
Wow! Though Kakutani frames Bernstein’s statement with snark, she quotes him making a remarkable claim about the politics of the past fifteen years. Remarkable! According to Bernstein, Bill and Hillary Clinton were treated more unfairly “than any president and his wife of the 20th century.” The investigations that drove the politics of the 1990s “were often contextually misleading, exaggerated in significance, and sometimes factually off-base,” he says. Playing good soldier, Kakutani edits carefully; she doesn’t say who is alleged to have behaved so unfairly when it comes to the Clintons. But presumably, the mainstream press corps, even the Times, is involved in this remarkable conduct. If that’s the claim, then this statement by Bernstein helps us see how odd that presentation by Dallek is. But then again, it also raises an obvious question about Bernstein.

Who is Bernstein discussing here? Once again, let’s be clear: Kakutani has failed to say who Bernstein blames for this vast unfairness. But if Bernstein has dared to name the press, he has made a truly remarkable statement. Just think of it! In an era when we’re constantly told about the press corps’ “liberal bias,” Bernstein may have said that the first Democratic president in twelve years was treated more unfairly than any other president of the past century! If true, that’s an astonishing story—so astounding that one has to ask why Bernstein didn’t write a book about that! Why did he write the three thousandth profile of Hillary Clinton when he could have written the first major book about the most important journalistic fact of our era—the fact that the national mainstream press corps is now a Republican entity?

Did Bernstein say what he seems to have said? Did he say that President Clinton was treated more unfairly by the press than any president of the past century? If he did, it seems that he skipped quickly past a truly remarkable fact. But then, celebrities do the damnedest things in the desire to stay in that circle. Neither Dallek nor Bernstein seems inclined to help you grasp the most important political fact of your time.

EARTH TO BOB HERBERT: Bob Herbert is very upset—today. In today’s Times, he describes his reaction to an interview with triumphant Al Gore:
HERBERT (6/5/07): You look at him and you can't help thinking how bizarre it is that this particular political figure, perhaps the most qualified person in the country to be president, is sitting in a wing chair in a hotel room in Manhattan rather than in the White House.

He's pushing his book ''The Assault on Reason.'' I find myself speculating on what might have been if the man who got the most votes in 2000 had actually become president. It's like imagining an alternate universe.
It’s “bizarre” that Gore isn’t president, Herbert says—and he goes on to note a long string of history-changing blunders by Bush, blunders Gore would not have made. Later, he lets Gore semi-suggest how Bush ended up in the White House:
HERBERT: I noted that he had at least been good enough [at politics] to attract more votes than George W. Bush.

''Well, there was that,'' he said, laughing again. ''But what politics has become requires a level of tolerance for triviality and artifice and nonsense that I find I have in short supply.''
And make no mistake—it was the focus on triviality, artifice and nonsense that kept Gore out of the White House. And no one should know that better than Herbert! The last turning-point of Campaign 2000 was that first debate between Bush and Gore—the one Gore handily won on the overnight polls, before the press corps began to complain about the fact that Gore had displayed bad conduct and had made a few minor factual errors. Sensible people tried to fight back that week, against the waves of triviality and nonsense coming from the mainstream press corps—a wave of spin that reversed Gore’s win and sent him plunging down in the polls. And where was Herbert when history changed? Herbert worked on the side of sheer trivia! Here he was, on October 5, two days post-debate. We’ll do something we never do—we’ll reprint his column in full:
HERBERT (10/5/00): If he can somehow force himself to stop sighing and interrupting and behaving condescendingly in front of the television cameras, Al Gore may yet get elected president.

Most of America understands that the competence bar is set so low for Gov. George W. Bush of Texas that it's practically lying on the ground. It was pretty much acknowledged going into the debate that as long as he didn't misspell potato or mispronounce some three-syllable word or misstate the name of a world leader, he would be judged to have done O.K.

Woody Allen is supposed to have said that 80 percent of success is just showing up. That was proved Tuesday night. Governor Bush showed up—albeit reluctantly—at the Clark Athletic Center at the University of Massachusetts. And he did fine.

That is, if you didn't bother to look at the content of the debates.

If you paid attention to the content, and used it as a gauge to determine which candidate was better prepared, was more knowledgeable, had a greater command of the facts and grasp of the issues, then Vice President Gore won easily.

He asserted, for example, that Governor Bush "would spend more money on tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent than all of the new spending that he proposes for education, health care, prescription drugs and national defense all combined."

That happens to be true. And Mr. Bush never attempted to explain why this peculiar configuration of priorities—this re-direction of national resources from the bottom and the middle to the top—is a good idea.

The vice president clobbered Mr. Bush on the issue of prescription drugs for the elderly. And he scored well, I thought, when discussing potential appointments to the Supreme Court, saying, "Governor Bush has declared to the anti-choice groups that he will appoint justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who are known for being the most vigorous opponent of a woman’s right to choose.”

But Vice President Gore never wins easily. He may have the experience and most of the issues on his side, but he can't keep his superciliousness in check. He just can't do it. So there he was on Tuesday night sighing loudly with disdain, or smiling contemptuously, or smugly, as Governor Bush did the best he could with this answer or that.

Earth to Al Gore: This turns people off.

There's an old saying: You don't shoot a man who's committing suicide. There were times during the debate when Governor Bush seemed not to understand the finer points of his own tax cut and Social Security proposals. And he seemed lost on matters of foreign policy. It would have been quite sufficient for Mr. Gore to give his own views on these matters and to correct any misstatements by his opponent.

But Mr. Gore seems to feel the need to pour it on—to offer not just his answer to a given question, but to show us everything he knows about the topic. He doesn't seem to realize that in the real world, people hate Eddie Haskell.

At one point during the debate the moderator, Jim Lehrer, said to the vice president: "I've got an idea. If you have any more to say about this, you can say it in your closing statement. We'll move on, O.K.?"
The vice president's boorishness gets in the way of his message and almost certainly pushes some voters into a more favorable view of Mr. Bush, who benefits from a more conversational tone and the demeanor of an ordinary guy.

The bad news for Bush supporters is that there are not many other reasons for undecided voters to shift to their man. Mr. Gore has got a good thing going with, among other things, his health care issues, his strong defense of a woman's right to choose, and the continued strong economy.

Republican campaign operatives are very worried. Key swing states are moving toward the vice president. Some crucial states for the G.O.P.—Florida and Ohio—remain up for grabs. And despite Tuesday's debate, the belief that Mr. Bush may not be up to the rigors of the presidency is widespread and in danger of becoming entrenched.

Issues count in a presidential election, but so does style. Mr. Gore, as he closes in on his dream of winning the White House, might consider tempering his fighting style with a touch of modesty and grace.
It would be hard to overstate the bad judgment displayed in that column. Or the way it elevated triviality over substance. (By the way: When Gore did “temper his fighting style” in Debate 2, the pundits all complained about that!)

Let’s run through some claims Herbert made as history hung in the balance.

First, it was absurd to say that “most of America” understood that “the competence bar” had (somehow) been set low for Bush. In fact, the bar had been set amazingly low—set there by Herbert’s own press corps. (Link below. Don’t miss it.) But very few people understood the remarkable process by which this was occurring—and Herbert chose not to explain it. You know the ways of this celebrity breed: You never tattle on your friends—and they never tattle on you.

Second, it was absurd to say that Candidate Bush had “done the best he could” in giving his various inaccurate answers. Bush was baldly misleading that public that night; Paul Krugman had explained part of this ongoing, blatant process three separate times in the previous month. But Herbert, for reasons only he can supply, vouched for Bush’s good faith. Quite astounding.

In that same vein, it was amazing to say that Bush “seemed not to understand the finer points of his own tax cut and Social Security proposals.” The fine points? In the first half of this debate, Bush baldly misstated the most essential facts about both proposals—then kept calling Gore a liar when he made accurate statements in rebuttal. Like so many other pundits, Herbert understated Bush’s vast misstatements. He failed to mention Bush’s name-calling—and complained about Gore’s bad manners! In this column, Gore was boorish, supercilious, smug, contemptuous and condescending. And Bush had behaved in good faith!

Astounding. No other word for it.

And by the way: Jim Lehrer made that quoted statement to both the candidates, at the end of their long exchange about prescription drugs—the exchange in which Bush kept calling Gore as a liar as Gore recited accurate facts. (Amazingly, the New York Times never did a fact-check segment on this extensive exchange, perhaps the most striking in presidential debate history. Times readers never got to know that Gore had been right on the facts—and Bush had been wrong—even as Bush called him a liar.) Herbert has Lehrer chastising Gore alone, thereby implying that Gore was the big-mouth who wouldn’t stop talking (and “interrupting”). In fact, Bush spoke more words than Gore in this debate—a fact which many pundits ignored as they kept saying and implying that big, supercilious know-it-all Gore wouldn’t let Bush get a word in edgewise.

But the most appalling part of Herbert’s column was the way he pretended to speak for the public. You should be very unhappy with Herbert for that, right up to this very day.

“Earth to Al Gore,” he condescendingly said. Your superciliousness “turns people off.” But that had happened in the minds of pundits like Herbert—pundits who were now changing history. In the real world, five polls of viewers had been taken—and Gore had won all five polls, by an average margin of ten points. Despite this, Gore was battered—by crackpots like Herbert—for “turning off” the public! On the evening of the debate, viewers interviewed on cable complained about Bush’s bad manners (his repetitive name-calling) more than they complained about Gore. And let’s face it: They would have really hated Bush if someone had told them that he was wrong on the facts as he kept name-calling Gore—and, in turn, that Gore had been right. But very few pundits deigned to tell them—and Herbert played this same sorry game. Bush had been doing his best, he told readers. Gore was the rude, troubling man.

By the way: How much did Gore really sigh that night? Here at THE HOWLER, we taped the NBC broadcast of the debate, and you really have to struggle and strain to see or hear this now-iconic misconduct on the tape of that broadcast. Plainly, it hadn’t kept the people who watched this debate from naming Gore the winner. But you know that press corps! Rather than focus on Bush’s fact-challenged name-calling, they decided to focus on Gore’s troubling sighs! (As “sport,” it was more “entertaining” and “fun,” Margaret Carlson would soon tell Don Imus.) They created a loop tape of the sighs; jacked up the volume; and they played their tape again and again. And as they did so, Gore’s poll numbers dropped like a stone. If they had played tape of Bush saying “fuzzy math,” the same thing would have happened to him. But the press corps hated Clinton and Gore. The result is now broken history.

Herbert’s displayed gruesome judgment in that October 5 column. Yes, he knew that Gore, not Bush, should be the next president. But we have to share a dirty little secret. Herbert was (and is) a bit of a Clinton-hater too, for reasons he’s never quite been willing to own, and like the rest of his crackpot crew, he had transferred that animus over to Gore. Along with the others, he piled on that week—and Gore’s numbers dove to the floor. (Good God! Avert your eyes! He even played the Eddie Haskell card!) Gore was never quite able to recover. Today, Bob Herbert cries big tears about the outcome of that election. Kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss, he tells Gore. Oh please please please please please please please! Why won’t you please run for president?

Herbert thinks it’s “bizarre” that Gore isn’t president. But we can recall how it happened.

It’s hard to find sufficient words for the work of front-running pundits like Herbert. Earth to Bob Herbert: We’re in Iraq because of you, you dumb, phony front-running clown.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: The bar had been set very low for Bush—set there by the national press corps, moving script for the RNC. This is an astounding story. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/27/06.

ONLY YESTERDAY: Just yesterday, hero Paul Krugman discussed the lying by Bush that Herbert glossed. Here’s how he started his column:
KRUGMAN (6/3/07): One of the lessons journalists should have learned from the 2000 election campaign is that what a candidate says about policy isn't just a guide to his or her thinking about a specific issue—it's the best way to get a true sense of the candidate's character.

Do you remember all the up-close-and-personals about George W. Bush, and what a likeable guy he was? Well, reporters would have had a much better fix on who he was and how he would govern if they had ignored all that, and focused on the raw dishonesty and irresponsibility of his policy proposals.

That's why I'm not interested in what sports the candidates play or speculation about their marriages. I want to hear about their health care plans—not just for the substance, but to get a sense of what kind of president each would be...
“Raw dishonesty” is the term Krugman used as he recalled Bush’s policy statements. In real time, though, as history was changing, Herbert swore Bush was doing his best. He lambasted Gore’s gruesome conduct.

Today, he thinks it’s simply bizarre that this great man isn’t president.