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THERE THEY GO AGAIN! The New York Times is up to old tricks in its slick, silly, sad campaign coverage: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JULY 10, 2007

THE CASE OF THE PASSIONATE PROFESSOR: We haven’t read Professor Drew Westen’s new book, although we may well do so. The brilliant scholar is full of advice about the way Big Dems should campaign—and some of the professor’s advice may even be semi-decent. But at the end of Patricia Cohen’s long piece in the Times, we rolled our eyes when the reporter described some of the professor’s brilliant advice. Finally! The professor knows what Gore should have said in his first debate with George Bush! Seven years later, the brilliant professor has scripted a “smack-down comeback:”
COHEN (7/10/07): Aside from the scientific patina, part of Dr. Westen’s appeal to the party faithful, no doubt, is his smack-down comebacks that Democrats wish they had heard.

Writing of the 2000 presidential debate [sic], Dr. Westen says that instead of saying he was “not going to respond in kind” to Mr. Bush’s attacks on his credibility and character, Vice President Gore should have said that he was going to teach his opponent “a few old-fashioned lessons about character,” mentioning Mr. Bush’s drunk-driving incidents [sic], business practices and Vietnam-era Air National Guard service, using the words “coward,” “drunk,” “crooked” and “disgrace.”

Writing that imaginary speech and others like it must have had Dr. Westen’s amygdala flashing like a pinball jackpot. Ultimately what led Dr. Westen to write about others’ political passion was his own. “I couldn’t stand where the country was going,” he said. “It’s written from the passionate point of view of a father thinking about his kids.”
Our first thought? Maybe the professor should drop the passion and just go back to some basic research. In fairness, we’re dealing with Cohen’s account of that passage from Westen’s book, not with Westen’s book itself. But as Cohen tells it, Westen’s advice isn’t just bad. The professor’s advice is embarrassing.

In this passage, Westen explains what Gore should have said late in that crucial first debate, when Jim Lehrer threw Bush a big, lazy softball, hoping he’d belt it out of the park. Here is the remarkable question which triggered that debate’s final segment:
LEHRER (10/3/00): Governor Bush, are there issues of character that distinguish you from Vice President Gore?
Lehrer had thrown Bush a big, fat pitch—a question drawn straight from the Bush talking-points. And omigod! When Bush didn’t slander Gore hard enough, Lehrer just kept egging him on. Here was his second set of questions for Bush in this segment:
LEHRER: So, Governor, what are you saying when you mention the fund-raising scandals or the fund-raising charges that involved Vice President Gore? What are saying that the voters should take from that that's relevant to this election?

BUSH: I just think they ought to factor it in when they make their decision in the voting booth. And do a better job—

LEHRER: In what way?

BUSH: Pardon me?

LEHRER: In what way?
Poor Jim! It almost killed him when he saw that Bush wasn’t slandering Gore hard enough. And eight days later, an amazing thing happened; incredibly, Lehrer finished Bush and Gore’s second debate the same way! Here’s the question the great man chose to finish up that forum:
LEHRER (10/11/00): Last question, for you, Governor—and this flows out some, flows somewhat out of the Boston debate. You, your running mate, your campaign officials have charged that Vice President Gore exaggerates, embellishes and stretches the facts, etc. Are you—are you, do you believe these are serious issues? This is a serious issue that the voters should use in deciding which one of you two men to vote for on November 7th?
Like the rest of his utterly criminal cohort, Lehrer just knew that Gore lacked character, and he was working extremely hard to make sure that the voters agreed. Lehrer showed amazingly bad judgment when he ended Debate One with that Bush-friendly softball. When he did the same thing eight days later, he showed us the shape of the press corps’ role in putting George Bush where he is.

But have no fear! Seven years later, along comes a passionate professor, apparently typing his pensees from Mars. (Again, we’re dealing with Cohen’s account of Westen’s book, not with the book itself.) The professor knows what Gore should have said—but he doesn’t seem to be aware of the campaign’s most basic chronology! Gore should have “mention[ed] Mr. Bush’s drunk-driving incidents,” Cohen writes, describing Westen’s advice. But uh-oh! As far as we know, there was only one drunk-driving incident, and it didn’t come to light until several weeks after this first debate—until the weekend before the election. The professor says Gore should have called Bush a “drunk”—based on an incident that hadn’t yet been reported.

God bless all us hopeless Dems and our endlessly brilliant leaders!

In fact, Gore’s response to this mugging by Lehrer was pretty good, even judged by Westen’s principles. The professor thinks Dems should appeal to feeling. Although he didn’t call Bush a drunk, Gore’s first answer did that:
GORE: Well, I think we ought to attack our country's problems, not attack each other. I want to spend my time making this country even better than it is, not trying to make you ought to be a bad person. You may want to focus on scandals; I want to focus on results.

As I said a couple of months ago, I stand here as my own man, and I want you to see me for who I really am. Tipper and I have been married for 30 years. We became grandparents a year and a half ago; we've got four children. I have devoted 24 years of my life to public service.

And I've said this before and I'll say it again: If you entrust me with the presidency, I may not be the most exciting politician, but I will work hard for you every day, I will fight for middle class families and working men and women, and I will never let you down.
It was late in the exchange, after Lehrer goaded Bush, when Gore made the statement Cohen quotes: “Look, Governor Bush, you have attacked my character and credibility and I am not going to respond in kind. I think we ought to focus on the problems and not attack each other...” By the way: In saying “I am not going to respond in kind,” Gore was attacking Bush’s character!

According to Cohen, the professor thinks Gore would have done better if he’d called Bush a “drunk” and a “coward.” This kind of foolishness drives a good deal of uninformed chatter on the web, but it flies in the face of the basic reality that was driving Campaign 2000. One can only imagine the caterwauling in the national press if Gore had uttered such thoroughly unprecedented insults—even if we omit the suggested insult about the unknown DUI.

How nutty do Dem professors get? According to Westen, Gore should have called Bush a “drunk”—based on an incident that was still unknown. And he should have called Bush “crooked” based on his business practices. But which business practices does Westen mean? The Harken matter, which the nation’s press had worked so hard to avoid mentioning? Omigod! In the twenty months of Campaign 2000, the New York Times mentioned Harken twice (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/02). If Gore had challenged Bush’s business practices, few voters would have known what he was talking about—and the press would have savaged him for it.

Meanwhile, Gore was supposed to call Bush a “coward” based on his National Guard service? In fact, few voters had heard much about that either; as with Harken, our big news orgs had broken their backs to avoid exploring the questions which had surfaced about Bush’s service. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/6/03—part 2 of a four-part report on this subject.) Meanwhile, a string of narratives were out and about, alleging that Gore got special treatment when he served in Vietnam. Should Gore have called Bush a “coward” that night? It feels very good to say so now. But doing so would have been dumb-beyond-dumb—so dumb as to beggar the imagination.

The professor’s amygdala may start firing when he imagines such a response. But good God! Unless Cohen is massively wrong, Westen hasn’t even researched the basic DUI chronology—and he shows no sign of understanding the dynamic that drove this entire campaign. He thinks Gore should have launched extremely unusual insults—about incidents the press corps had failed to report! This might have made the professor feel good. It strikes us as a very shaky prescription for political conduct.

There may be good advice in Westen’s book, but that passage from Cohen is really a doozy. We liberals! It’s fun—and it’s easy—to thunder hard, to imagine what our Big Pols should have said. But someone should give this professor a clue: A candidate has to frame his speech to fit within the prevailing discourse. As we may recall from refreshing ourselves about Lehrer’s remarkable closing questions, the prevailing discourse was very heavily tilted against Gore in October 2000. Gore understood this at the time. Amazingly—but all too plainly—the party’s eggheads still don’t.

We Democrats! Seven years later, our most brilliant leaders seem utterly clueless about Campaign 2000. Cohen describes some pretty salons where Big Dems sit and applaud brilliant Westen. In fact, the professor seems to lack the first clue—but then, so do many Big Democrats.

Special report: There they go again!


PART ONE—TOO FAIR AND BALANCED: Give her credit—at least she was trying to cover an issue. It was Robin Toner, on the Times front page, and omigod! She was writing on health care! But we’ll have to admit it—we began to wonder as we read her opening paragraph:
TONER (7/6/07): There is no better measure of the power of the health care issue than this: Sixteen months before Election Day, presidential candidates in both parties are promising to overhaul the system and cover more—if not all—of the 44.8 million people without insurance.
“In both parties” was the phrase that surprised us. We knew that several major Dems had come forward with serious health plans. But had presidential candidates “in both parties” really made such major proposals? As she continued, Toner sketched the general difference between the two parties—both of whose candidates “are promising to overhaul the [health care] system,” of course:
TONER (continuing directly): Their approaches are very different, reflecting longstanding divisions between the parties on the role of government versus the private market in addressing the affordability and availability of health insurance. Republicans, by and large, promise to expand coverage by using a variety of tax incentives to empower consumers to buy it themselves, from private insurers. Conservatives warn, repeatedly, of Democrats edging toward the slippery slope of “government-controlled health insurance,” as former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York puts it, and promote the innovation and choice offered by private insurers.

The major Democratic candidates propose strengthening the private-employer-based system, through which most working families get their coverage.But many Democrats also see a strong role for government, including, in some plans, new requirements that individuals obtain insurance and that employers provide it, along with substantial new government spending to subsidize coverage for people who cannot afford it.
Was Toner being even-handed? We noticed that conservatives were allowed to “warn, repeatedly” about vile Dems, with no reciprocal courtesy granted. But by paragraph 4, we just couldn’t hide it. By now, we found Toner’s treatment of this topic to be weirdly fair-and-balanced:
TONER (continuing directly): Still, while they argue over solutions, both parties acknowledge the problems and their political urgency. Republicans, whose primaries usually turn on other issues, often wait until the general election to roll out detailed health plans; this time they are plunging into the debate far earlier. Democrats are competing furiously among themselves over who has the bigger, better plan to control costs and to approach universal coverage, a striking change from the party’s wariness on the issue a decade ago after the collapse of the Clintons’ health care initiative.
Huh! Republicans seem to care about this issue just as much as Democrats do—but for some reason they “often wait until the general election to roll out detailed health plans.” But hold on! That was then, and this is now, according to Toner’s presentation. “This time, they are plunging into the [health care] debate far earlier,” she was telling the nation. And now, our analysts simply said, “Whoa!” They were flatly puzzled by Toner’s odd framework.

To our ear, Toner was drawing a “moral equivalence” between the two parties on the subject of health care. But are Republicans really “promising to overhaul the system” in anything like the way Dems are? So far, we’d have to say that we haven’t seen it—and that the Times can’t seem to explain it. Indeed, our puzzlement grew when we looked at a graphic which accompanied Toner’s report.

Toner was being fair and balanced; indeed, she seemed to be injecting fairness and balance where no balance yet exists. There they go again, we incomparably said, thinking of the Times’ past coverage.

TOMORROW—PART 2: We mordantly chuckled at what Rudy said—and wondered again about Toner.