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ALTER AND ALTERED MAN! Alter vouches for Gore—today. But here’s what he said when it mattered: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 13, 2007

A WHOLLY AUTHENTIC SMALL MAFIA: Hurrah! When Gene Lyons and Paul Krugman say it, you can take it straight to the bank. On Monday, Krugman mocked the way the press corps pretends to tell us who’s “authentic” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/11/03). In his current column, Lyons—author of Fools for Scandal—takes a similar tack:
LYONS (6/13/07): Nobody knows who next year’s presidential candidates will be. This column has no particular favorite, and will make no predictions.

Even so, it’s not necessary to be a prophet to know how Beltway pundits will handle the so-called “character” issue. The Republican nominee will be a virile, decisive straight-shooter who’s one hundred percent “authentic” and “comfortable in his own skin.” The Democrat will be an indecisive phony, uncertain of his/her identity, but willing to strike any pose, or pander to any constituency in a self-serving bid for power.
Building up steam, Lyons cracks wise about the pathetic small mafia we still describe as a “press corps:”
LYONS: In short, there’s no evidence that the “Sabbath Gasbags,” in Calvin Trillin’s immortal phrase, have any more insight into the candidates’ character than a trailer park palm reader, and somewhat less than my basset hound Fred, who could at least sniff their hands and figure out whose ears they’d been scratching.
Yes, they’re not unlike a mafia. They’re a small, inept, intermarried group who have somehow gained control of a major industry. They’re dumb as rocks—but they’re in control. They have no plan to give up their power.
(No wonder they love The Sopranos!)

At any rate, back to Lyons’ thesis: If our press corps doesn’t know how to judge character, it does know how to respond to criticism. In his last two columns, Krugman wrote scathing analyses of the way the press corps covers presidential elections. On Monday, he lashed out at the way the press corps judges “authenticity.” (His nugget: “What does authenticity mean? Supposedly it means not pretending to be who you aren't. But that definition doesn't seem to fit the way the term is actually used in political reporting.”) But so what? This morning, the Times prints five letters about these two columns—columns in which Krugman savaged the press corps. And the first four letters betray no sign that the press was the target of Krugman’s critique. Everyone else gets battered about. By some miracle, the press gets a pass.

Would a reader today have any idea what Krugman was talking about in these columns? The first letter, from Brooklyn, praises John Edwards, but fails to note that Krugman slammed the way he’s been trashed by the press. The second letter challenges Krugman’s definition of “authenticity,” then complains that three big pols don’t live up to their own ideals (Gore, Bush and Edwards). The third letter, though, was the perfect selection. Remember: Krugman criticized the press corps. So the Times decided to publish a letter which criticizes you—the voters:
To the editor:

Authenticity, as defined by politics today, is nothing more than an illusion; men who were raised with everything acting as if they had nothing. But that's simply a symptom of the times.

We've become an extraordinarily shallow country of voters, where the big question in 2004 was not Iraq, not health care, but which candidate would be more amiable over a beer. And even now, more than a year before ballots are cast, we're focused on John Edwards's haircut and Mitt Romney's hunting habits.

It was this inattention to (important) details that gave us the most destructive president in our history, and it is this ignorance that could very well lead to another mistake.
Perfect! Krugman criticized the press for focusing on such cosmic trivia. So the Times decided to publish a letter which says that we voters do this! At present, “we’re” focused on Edwards’ haircut, this self-flagellating writer says. In 2004, “we” were the ones who wasted our time dreaming of beer with a candidate. “We” have become extraordinarily shallow—we voters, this Times letter says.

But this is the way a small mafia works—even the sort that attended fine schools and types our most famous newspapers. In today’s first four letters, the writers focus on every target except the one which Krugman defined. Politicians are criticized; the voters are criticized; the Republican Party is criticized. But you have to read the fifth letter (out of five) to read a word of comment about the press corps, the subject of Krugman’s complaints.

Any good mafia would know to do this. Krugman’s point was almost wholly disappeared.

But then, we’ve told you again and again. No other cohort is as disingenuous as our professional press corps. The reason for that is fairly simple; they alone have the power to control what is said about themselves. In his last two columns, Krugman broke his guild’s treasured rules, naughtily talking about his own cohort. But presto! Change-o! Badda-bing! Badda-boom! America’s most authentic small mafia moved to create a new focus.

Get clean with Gene: Eventually, Lyons’ new column will be featured here.

YES, THEY PERSISTENTLY DO THIS: Yes, they constantly do this. For example, they love to report that it was “late-night comedians” or “Republican opponents” who called Candidate Gore a big liar. Pretending that others committed their deeds is a skill this sad cohort has mastered.

And don’t worry: If you challenge the press corps’ work, your views will be disappeared. In 2000, Lyons and Joe Conason published The Hunting of the President, a book about the savage war conducted against Bill Clinton (a war which continues today, this time aimed at his wife). About half the book dealt with the conduct of Republican hit-men; half the book dealt with the work of the press corps. But when the New York Times reviewed the book, guess which half of the book had been disappeared? This particular mafia has perfected these skills. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/13/00—the second part of a four-part report on the way this book was reviewed.

Like Krugman, Lyons and Conason criticized the press. But badda-bing! And badda-boom! Their claim was deftly disappeared.

ALTER AND ALTERED MAN: Because we like Jonathan Alter (though we barely know him), we’ll start off with a basic disclaimer. We’ve always considered Alter to be a very good guy. (Still do.) As a journalist, he’s as good as it gets at his level of the mainstream press corps. He rarely repeats their silliest tales. Almost always, he’s inside the lines.

Yep! This dude’s as good as it gets. But in some ways, that’s the problem. In the current Newsweek, Alter offers a long, too-thoughtful discussion about Al Gore and Bill Bradley. We’re puzzled by his account of their health care debate, but we’ll leave that for another day. But here’s the line which grabbed our analysts. Here’s the line which took them back to the day when our history was changing:
ALTER (6/18/07): Not surprisingly, Gore's great hope for restoring a "well-connected citizenry" is the Internet (which, by the way, he never claimed to invent, merely fund and promote). The subtext of [his new] book is that Gore will run in 2008 only if he genuinely believes the Internet has matured in time to redeem American politics. Otherwise, why risk his new stature as a global elder statesman?
Gore “never claimed to invent the Internet,” Alter notes. Everyone knows they should say this—now. But, as usual, a thought came to mind. What did he say when it mattered?

This takes us back to an unfortunate column by Alter, “Al Gore and the Fib Factor.” It appeared on October 9, 2000 (in the Newsweek dated October 16). There were roughly four weeks till America voted. Who would they pick: Bush or Gore?

Today, Alter tells us that Gore didn’t say it. But what did he say when it mattered?

In his “Fib Factor” column (we can’t find a link), Alter began by noting recent misstatements by Cheney, Lieberman and Bush.”[N]one of this is the slightest bit unusual in politics,” he correctly wrote, correctly noting that politicians frequently make slightly inaccurate statements. But uh-oh! Disaster was looming for the world; Alter’s column would be about Big Liar Gore. And uh-oh! On this day, with history hanging, Alter didn’t say that Gore was being unfairly quoted about his role in developing the Net.

After noting the others’ misstatements, Alter turned to the man of the hour. “Which brings us to Velcro Al, whose every misstatement sticks to him,” he wrote. “Several of the reports of his lies have themselves been exaggerated.” Omigod! People had lied about Gore’s alleged lies! Referring to Bush and Gore’s first debate, Alter gave two examples:
ALTER (10/16/00): Take last week. After dozens of trips with FEMA chief James Lee Witt to other disaster sites, it's understandable how [Gore] might confuse them, and say he had accompanied Witt to the Texas fires. (In fact, Gore was briefed in Texas by one of Witt's deputies.) And the embellished story about the Sarasota, Fla., student who had to stand in class in her overcrowded school was the result of bad staff work; no one double-checked the original story. If these slips had been made by any other politician, they would have caused barely a peep.
For the record, Gore had been reading a news report in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune when he discussed that girl in that crowded classroom; the girl’s father had handed him the report on the morning of that debate. Yes, it’s bizarre that a matter like that could be turned into a world-changing “lie.” But your press corps was more than up to the task—and Alter proceeded to help them along in this unfortunate column. Here’s the rest of his unfortunate piece—a column that helped give us war with Iraq. Here’s what Alter told us then, back when it actually mattered:
ALTER (continuing directly): The weird thing is that Gore clearly knew he was under extra scrutiny on this score. His rise in the polls stopped in September right around the time he was lambasted for claiming to have heard a union song as a lullaby that was actually written when he was in his 40s, and for making up a story about his mother-in-law and his dog to illustrate a point about prescription-drug prices. He realized that one of the ways he could lose the first debate was to reinforce the media cliches about "Love Story," Love Canal and inventing the Internet. As Mickey Kaus wrote last week on his Web site kausfiles.com: "The question isn't whether Gore is a liar and whether that's worse than Bush being dim; it's whether Gore's lying shows that, in some respects, he's dim, too."

This form of dimness may be hardwired into Gore's brain. His biographer, NEWSWEEK's Bill Turque, attributes it to the Washington culture of the 1950s and 1960s, when "public figures could frame their images more or less as they wanted." Gore's mother, for instance, has long claimed that she always cooked little Al's dinner and sat with him while he ate, when, in truth, she and Senator Gore Sr. were usually out.

The danger to Gore is that the fibbing will blossom into a full-blown credibility crisis, giving Bush an opening to cast doubt on everything Gore says. The way around that is simple: stop doing it. In the meantime, the press is right to bust him when he doesn't. But let's not pretend that we live in "The West Wing," where the president never exaggerates, much less lies. The program offers a wonderful ideal, and a potentially powerful way to reconnect people to politics. But it's still only a TV show, ultimately unhelpful in the critical task of sorting through all of the arguments, exaggerations and flat-out lies, then making a complex real-world judgment about their lasting importance. [End of column]
Go ahead, readers—drink it in. In a nutshell, that column explains how George W. Bush ended up in the White House. That column—written about ten thousand times—gave us the commander-in-chief who would take the U.S. to Iraq.

Almost every part of those last three grafs is remarkable. Alter started by saying that Gore was “under extra scrutiny on this score”—without explaining why that was the case. He correctly noted that Gore’s ongoing surge in the polls had “stopped in September” when two new incidents had blown up—and he proceeded to ignore the counterfeit nature of those much-ballyhooed incidents. He described Gore’s joke about that union lullaby as if it had been a serious statement. (Two weeks earlier, Bob Novak had written that it was a joke. But Alter was still saying otherwise.) And he accused Gore of “making up a story” about his mother-in-law and his dog; in fact, both were taking the prescription drug in question, just as Gore had told a few audiences. But so what? Soon, Alter was quoting “Gore’s biographer,” Bill Turque, as Turque peddled psychiatric theories about why Gore does so much of this lying. He even went to a place few did. He seemed to say that Gore was a liar because his mom was a Big Liar too.

Let’s face it—you’re really walking the line when you let your sh*t go to that point. Until we reread this, we thought only Berke had served up this deeply sad porridge.

And then, he simply laughed in your faces. “The danger to Gore is that the fibbing will blossom into a full-blown credibility crisis,” he amazingly wrote—nineteen months after that crisis had blossomed. But Alter had a solution for this: Gore should “stop doing it,” he now advised. That’s right! Gore should stop telling jokes when he spoke to the unions. And Gore should stop making accurate statements about his arthritic black lab.

And, of course, Alter went to the grail; he went to invented the Internet. But uh-oh! He forgot to say what he tells you today; he forgot to say that Gore never said it! Instead, he moved straight ahead to a Mickey Kaus post—a post in which Kaus had discussed “Gore’s lying.” This phony issue had been a crisis since March 1999—and Alter was driving it further.

Today, he tells you that Gore didn’t say it. Back then, when it mattered, he said something different. Back then, he said it was part of “Gore’s lying.” (Maybe he did it because of his mother!) In less than four weeks, the public would vote. Two years later, we’d be in Iraq.

This week, Alter tells you the truth: Gore never said he invented the Net! But when it mattered, he churned some political porn, even trashing Gore’s elderly mother. But then, it’s just as we’ve always told you: Few politicians could hope to dissemble the way the national press corps does. Last week, we showed you Bob Herbert, playing dumb about Gore and the White House (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/5/07). This week, it’s Alter—and he’s truly as good as it gets. As we told you when we began, that is precisely the problem. Why won’t even the best of these people own up to what they have done?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: We discussed this column in real time; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/10/00. History hung in the balance.

WHY THEY DID IT: In September 2000, Gore was pulling away in the polls; the experts said the campaign was over. And then, out of nowhere, the press corps struck twice! First, that idiot doggy-pill tale. Then, the union lullaby scandal—sadly, an obvious joke

As Alter noted, Gore’s progress in the polls was reversed. A few weeks later, the nonsense which followed that first debate pretty much finished things off.

So why in the world did the national press corps push those idiot tales in September? On September 21, 2000, Howard Fineman answered that question for Brian Williams, Jack Welch’s “Lost Boy.” Given the history that has unfolded, this was one of the most remarkable statements any journalist ever made on any TV program.

Why did the national press pretend that Gore had lied about that lullaby? Why did they pretend that he had lied about those doggy-pills? Here’s what Fineman told Williams that night. This is truly a tale for the ages:
FINEMAN (9/21/00): I don’t think the media was going to allow, just by its nature, the next seven weeks, the last seven or eight weeks of the campaign, to be all about Al Gore’s relentless, triumphant march to the presidency. We want a race, I suppose. If we have a bias of any kind, it’s that we like to see a contest and we like to see it down to the end if we can.
According to Fineman, the national press corps turned on Gore that week because they wanted to keep the race close.

For a fuller account of that conversation, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/24/03. A few weeks later, Alter was still playing dumb about Gore’s pointless lullaby joke. And he forgot to say what he told you this week: Al Gore never said he invented the Net! Now, you know what he said this week—and back when it actually mattered.

DOCTOR TURQUE’S MATING RITUALS: Turque paraded all about, psychiatrizing Gore’s penchant for lying. Unmentioned: Doctor Turque was literally married to the “Gore Liar” narrative. The first of Gore’s deeply troubling “lies” was his accurate statement about Love Story. And who had bungled that report for the New York Times? Melinda Henneberger—this good doctor’s wife.

TOMORROW—PART 3: Bern, baby, Bern.