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PRESCRIPTION FOR PALAVER! Pundits base sweeping judgments on total trivia. Remember Gore’s troubling polo shirts?


SEPTEMBER 11: We love the use of the word “pretend” in Ileana Schinder’s letter this morning. More and more, pretending seems to drive our public discourse. We strongly endorse Schinder’s suggestion—that we go out in search of what’s real.

WAVING THE BLOODY POLO SHIRT: That’s right, folks. According to Michael Crowley, John Kerry “evinces a distinctly self-indulgent streak” because he likes to play the guitar. And not only that—Kerry’s biography “suggests an almost lifelong grooming for power” because he went to Yale. Crowley made these puzzling claims in his profile of Kerry for the New Republic. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/9/02.

And Michael Crowley wasn’t alone in taking weird pot-shots at Kerry. Last month, the New York Times’ Bill Keller joined in, sneering at Kerry’s Vietnam service because he took home movies in Nam. Four weeks later, Keller seemed to say that his statements about those meaningless movies had turned out to be factually bogus (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/10/02). So it goes as our major publications get ready for Campaign 2004.

Do we plan to put up with this nonsense again? Are we going to stand around while pundits clown through another election? Crowley’s profile—and Keller’s putdown—strongly evoke the oddball coverage of Candidate Gore back in Campaign 2000. How do our modern pundits behave when they “plow through a crowd of Democrats?” The pattern is becoming rather clear:

  1. They offer sweeping judgments about “character flaws,” generally based on bizarre forms of reasoning.
  2. Their “evidence” rarely comes from the pol’s career, and rarely involves his policy stands. More often, the pundits base their sweeping judgments on trivia from the pol’s private life.
  3. The “evidence” is preferably decades old.
  4. The “judgments” don’t have to make any known sense.
  5. The “facts” involved don’t have to be accurate.
  6. Nothing is too trivial to obsess on.
So it went through Campaign 2000. Will we accept this again?

Meanwhile, just how silly was the 2000 coverage? The opening of Crowley’s profile reminds us—and help us see that modern pundits often write novels, not news. As he opens, Crowley describes two Dems on the trail. We highlight two small bits of trivia—trivia which are mercifully treated as same:

CROWLEY (pgh 1): It is the comic beauty of presidential politics that someone like John Kerry, a Boston aristocrat and U.S. senator known for self-important statesmanship, is forced to spend his Friday night in this downtown Columbia municipal parking lot. Local Representative James Clyburn has assembled 200 people on the oil-stained first level of a multistory garage to gorge on greasy whitefish with Wonder Bread served on paper plates. R&B music blares, and, while the acoustics are horrendous, the beer-swilling crowd happily grooves as the deep fryer sizzles away. Wearing a light-blue cotton shirt tucked into khaki pants, Kerry glad-hands his way through the crowd, his six-foot-five-inch frame easily located by the head of thick salt-and-pepper hair that floats above the throng…

But there is intrigue afoot. North Carolina Senator John Edwards, one of Kerry’s chief rivals for the 2004 nomination, has arrived, looking sharp and at ease in a red golf shirt. A buzz goes through the crowd. Edwards is the man of the moment, having just been dubbed “the next Bill Clinton” by The New Yorker and “a perfect politician” by Vanity Fair.

Kerry wears a light blue shirt and khaki pants; Edwards wears a red golf shirt. There isn’t the slightest sign—not a hint; not a clue—that Crowley finds this strange or significant. The hopefuls’ outfits occasion no comment. Nor is there any reason why they should. Major White House hopefuls have campaigned in such clothing for many years, through many campaign cycles.

But in Campaign 2000, pundits pretended to be disturbed when Gore showed up in such clothing. For many pundits, Gore’s polo shirts and khaki pants somehow exposed his strange “character flaws.” In TNR, Crowley drew absurd conclusions from the fact that Kerry likes to play the guitar. But in Campaign 2000, the absurd conclusions about “character flaws” often were drawn from Gore’s clothing.

Next week, we plan to do a five-part series on this subject—a series designed to let you see how thoroughly pundits will fake and dissemble. But how absurd was the press corps’ conduct when it obsessed about Gore’s clothes? Now we see: What was endlessly clucked at with Candidate Gore occasions no comment with Edwards or Kerry. A different script is being drawn; this time, the nonsense involves guitars and home movies. What everyone pretended to find surprising now passes with no hint of interest.

NOBODY DID IT BETTER: No one was more obsessed with Gore’s clothing than NBC’s vacuous Brian Williams, now Tom Brokaw’s anointed successor. Gore was “wearing polo shirts twenty-four hours a day,” he complained on his October 6, 1999 program. (Williams anchored a nightly, hour-long show on MSNBC, The News with Brian Williams). The polo shirts “don’t always look natural on him,” he grumbled two nights later. On and on the grousing went. Plainly, Williams thought Gore was wearing the shirts in some sort of effort to fool female voters; he repeatedly asked his guests when Gore’s clever strategy would “all start becoming so transparent [that] no one is fooled” (October 6) or (October 8) whether the strategy would “become absolutely transparent when they go out into the hinterlands and try to sell it?” Incredibly, Williams raised the question of Gore’s polo shirts on five separate occasions in one week alone, from October 4 through October 11. And his obsession continued when Newsweek’s Bill Turque appeared on his show four months later. Deeply troubled, Williams asked Turque, a Gore biographer, why Gore would wear such strange shirts:

WILLIAMS (2/9/00): He has become the first vice president to campaign in kind of three-button sweaters and polo shirts, though we’re seeing him in a rare moment in a suit on the screen right now. [Oops.] What in his personality, when an adviser came to him and said, “Ditch the suits,” what aspect of his personality said, “You know what? You’re right. They’re gone. Here I go.”
For the record, Gore never campaigned in a “three-button sweater.” Williams had his Official Press Talking-Points confused—he was supposed to feign concern about Gore’s three-button suits (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/14/02) At any rate, confronted with a ludicrous question, Turque knew the Preferred Press Reply:
TURQUE (continuing directly): I think the aspect was a willingness to do whatever it took to survive. And that has been a thread throughout his career, his willingness to reinvent, if you will, himself and to take on whatever coloration he needed to, tactically and strategically, to survive.
Gore was willing to do whatever it takes. Why, he’d even wear polo shirts—even that! Kerry’s “character flaw?” He owns a guitar. Gore’s “character flaw?” He wore polo shirts.

The pundits flogged Gore’s shirts for a year. Now, in Crowley’s description of Kerry and Edwards, we see how fake those colloquies were. Remember, though, this is part of a pattern: Your pundits draw scripted judgments about “character flaws” based on utterly ludicrous trivia. They’ve elected one president playing this game. As we prepared to let our public discourse be mocked in this way once again?

TOMORROW: The Boston Globe is “usually dependable?” Why on earth would Bill Keller say that?