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BORKING GORE! The press has new, pleasing tales about Campaign 2000. Be careful about these slick stories:


BORKING GORE: Tomorrow, we’ll finish our journey to the wild, tribal lands. But in the mainstream press corps’ established regions, writers have been cogitatin’ on the Democratic race for 2004. Who should Dems pick? We don’t have a clue. But on Tuesday, we were very much struck by E. J. Dionne’s account of Election 2000.

“Democrats can’t seem to get over arguing about what went wrong during the 2000 campaign,” Dionne wrote. Disputing Joe Lieberman’s recent comments, he noted that Gore’s “people versus the powerful” message bumped his numbers after the convention. Here’s what went wrong, Dionne says:

DIONNE: Where Gore went wrong was in missing the second half of his message, which a Gore campaign insider described to me in detail at the Los Angeles convention. The idea was first to use populism to rally core Democrats, mark out real differences with Bush and also take some distance from Bill Clinton’s scandals. Then, in the campaign’s final month, Gore would embrace the economic successes of the Clinton presidency and ask voters if they wanted to take the risk of putting Bush in the White House.
Why didn’t Gore follow through on this program? Dionne recites a standard press view, one which is hardening into firm fact. “Gore was so angered by Clinton’s very real failures that he never took full advantage of Clinton’s successes,” Dionne says. “There is little to learn here about populism vs. its opposite, but much to learn about the Democrats’ self-created demons.”

Let’s stop to note: Dionne is mind-reading. He states Gore’s motive with perfect certainty, never saying how he knows what’s true. But in the process, he recites a conventional story, one the press corps increasingly loves. Gore lost because of a “self-created demon,” he says. Gore was so angry at Clinton that he weirdly refused to do the thing which would have won him the race.

Of course, anything is possible when you talk about motives, which is why pundits love them so much. When pundits mind-read the motives of pols, there’s no way to prove that they’re wrong. Pundits can say whatever they like; the press corps can even concoct a pleasing Group Story. You can even turn Gore into raging King Lear. Poets have long penned such tales.

But note the way this pleasing new script conflicts with an older press dogma. According to that previous script, Al Gore was raised from Day One to be president—in fact, Al Gore was willing to do and say anything in order to win that grand prize. Gore’s bio didn’t quite fit this tale, but all throughout Campaign 2000, scripted pundits recited it anyway, happily parroting the Official Approved Tale. Now we’re handed a newer script—one that flies in the face of that story. In this new script, Al Gore—“creating his own demons”—vainly refused to do the one thing that would have won him his long-pursued prize!

This story is convenient for the press corps, of course, because it takes their conduct out of the picture. We thought of that enduring press strategy when we read a dispatch by Josh Marshall just a few days ago:

MARSHALL: In 2000 no one doubted that Al Gore was experienced and competent. But it almost ended up being a liability. People just never warmed to him. And they liked George W. Bush. Right now, who you’d rather hang with at the barbecue just doesn’t seem quite as important. Competence and experience does.
“People just never warmed to Gore,” Marshall says, offering no thoughts as to why that happened. Of course, the fact that the press borked Gore for twenty straight months will seldom be mentioned in the press corps’ narrations. In these renditions, the press corps itself plays absolutely no role; their effect of events is completely disappeared. In the case of Campaign 2000, the press corps is removing itself from the turrible tale as it concocts its group story about Gore.

Be careful when you encounter that story. Trust us: This press corps never tells you the truth when its own conduct is part of the tale. Do you really think that Ambitious Al weirdly refused to acknowledge Vile Bill? If you believe that, we have a bridge to sell you. It’s a bridge to the thirty-first century.

At any rate, don’t forget the two approved tales the Washington press has now told you. The two stories plainly self-contradict. But your press corps has sworn to each one:

OFFICIAL PRESS CORPS STORY #1: Al Gore will do and say anything to win.
OFFICIAL PRESS CORPS STORY #2: Al Gore refused to do the one thing which would have won the election.
Neither story made much sense. Your press corps, of course, swore to both.

HOW THE PRESS CORPS SELLS YOU ITS STORIES: “People just never warmed to [Gore],” Marshall writes. “And they liked George W. Bush.” Any chance that the press played a role in that process? Take the first Bush-Gore debate, the event which decided the election. Six different networks took instant polls. Gore won every single poll—and then your press corps got busy. They decided that Gore’s very-troubling sighs were the evening’s extremely important Top Story. For the next several days, they played loops of Gore sighing (with the volume cranked), and the polls, they were quickly a-changin’. Meanwhile, the corps focused on trivial errors by Gore—and ignored a string of major Bush howlers. Bush misstated his own drug plan; misstated his own budget plan; and crazily said that Gore had outspent him. But forget about Candidate Bush’s budget plan. The press flogged that school desk in Florida.

The press corps’ performance was so astounding that several pundits actually said so. Tucker Carlson and Margaret Carlson appeared on Inside Politics the next day. “I was there, so I didn’t hear [the commentary] last night,” Margaret Carlson said, “and I was amazed to find out that our colleagues all said that it was a draw.” Tucker Carlson, a conservative, was surprised by that too. His comments were truly remarkable:

TUCKER CARLSON (10/4/00): I mean, you know, and it’s interesting—I mean, there is this sense in which Bush is benefiting from something, and I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it’s the low expectations of the people covering him. You know, he didn’t drool or pass out on stage or anything, so he’s getting credit for that. But there is this kind of interesting reluctance on the part of the press to pass judgment on it. I think a lot of people—they don’t, necessarily, break down along ideological lines—believe that, you know, maybe Bush didn’t do as good a job as he might have. And yet, the coverage does not reflect that at all. It’s interesting.
According to Carlson, a major insider, your press corps wasn’t saying what it thought. On Hardball, Chris Matthews and Christopher Hitchens made the same observation. Hitchens—long a virulent Clinton-Gore critic—said the press corps was “determined to avoid” charges of “liberal bias.” Matthews—who had trashed and slandered Gore since March 1999—also said that pundits just weren’t being truthful:
MATTHEWS (10/4/00): I couldn’t believe the number of people who chickened out last night. It was clear to me—and I’m no fan of either of these guys entirely, and I can certainly say that about the one who I thought won last night, that’s Al Gore—I thought he cleaned the other guy’s clock, and I said so last night. All four national polls agreed with that…I don’t understand why people are afraid to say so.
Comments like these—so rare in the press corps—disappeared quickly, of course. Don’t expect to see them today, as the press tidies up its strange conduct. When press corps insiders tell the story today, “people just never warmed to Gore,” and by contrast, those “people” liked Bush. When press corps insiders discuss this today, there’s no word on how it all happened.

WHERE WAS FRANK? Did Frank Bruni’s coverage reflect what he thought? In his book, Ambling Into History, he recalls his thoughts as he watched Debate I:

BRUNI (page 187): The skills that led to great debating were not ones that Bush naturally possessed, and his three subsequent debate performances made this clear. By any objective analysis, Bush was at best mediocre in the first debate, in Boston…In all of [the debates], he was vague. A stutter sometimes crept into his voice. An eerie blankness occasionally spread across his features. He made a few ridiculous statements…I remember watching the first debate from one of the seats inside the auditorium and thinking that Bush was in the process of losing the presidency.
Bruni thought that Bush was so bad that he “was in the process of losing the presidency!” But did Bruni’s report in the Times reflect that? Sorry. The next day, Bruni started with a four-paragraph passage about what a big *sshole Gore had been. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/18/02.

Tucker Carlson was right as rain. And try to remember what actually happened when pundits clean up this rank story.

TOMORROW: Borking Gore, Part II: Where was Bill?