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15 February 2000

Our current howler (part II): Doing whatever it takes

Synopsis: Newsweek’s Bill Turque does-what-it-takes to generate an exciting charge against Gore. (Do NOT miss today’s HOWLER postscript!)

Commentary by Brian Williams, Bill Turque
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 2/9/00

The Education of Al Gore
Bill Turque, Newsweek, 2/14/00

In N.H., Gore's Warm-Up Act
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 3/28/99

The Unbuttoning of Al Gore: Act 1
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 6/15/99

Meet the New Veep: That's Al, Folks!
Periscope, Newsweek, 10/25/99

What Kind of Democrats Are They?
Nancy Gibbs, Time, 11/1/99

Gore Unleashes on Bradley
Karen Tumulty, Time, 11/1/99

Commentary by Brian Williams, Howard Fineman
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 11/1/99

We always enjoy watching Brian Williams discuss Vice President Gore. Why? Any time the VP is discussed, Williams brings it back to the clothes. If a President Gore ever announced World War III, Williams would report what the POTUS was wearing. Others discuss Gore's wardrobe for spin. With Williams, you really feel that he means it.

Last Wednesday night, Newsweek's Bill Turque was on The News, discussing his upcoming Gore bio. Turque was telling the latest hot tale about drugs. Williams interrupted with this:

WILLIAMS: 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."

That's what the fashion-man actually said. Turque, a professional, was ready:

TURQUE: 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 will do whatever it takes. He'll even wear polo shirts! And in case the viewer missed Turque's key point, the on-message pundit said it again. The pair wrapped their session like this:

WILLIAMS (continuing directly): In a few seconds we have remaining, when someone asks you who he is, Al Gore, what's the collection of attributes, what's your answer?

TURQUE: A warrior. A guy who, despite the Dudley Do-Right demeanor, will do just about whatever it takes to win.

Gore will do whatever it takes. It's become a standard press message.

In fact, we've never seen Gore in a "three-button sweater;" Williams seems to be thinking of the three-button suits that had the press in a tizzy this fall. But readers may notice something about Turque's account; it's the same account Maureen Dowd reported about Governor Bush in her column this Sunday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/14/00). Saying a hopeful will-do-what-it-takes? It's the current way to slam hopefuls whom pundits don't favor. Rules of evidence? In the course of making her attack on Bush's character, Dowd gave no examples—none at all—of anything Bush has ever done wrong. Turque, more conscientious, explains what Gore will do—he'll even campaign in a sweater!

People who care about the public discourse ought to be repelled by this—repelled by pundits who use major platforms to smear important hopefuls. The charge made by Turque is a serious charge, and should not be tossed about quite so lightly. But just how hard will today's pundit spin to convince us that hopefuls will do-what-it-takes? Turque gives an example in his current Newsweek report that his editors should be ashamed of.

Turque's Newsweek piece excerpts Inventing Gore, his upcoming Gore biography. Here is Turque's astounding account of how Al Gore—doing-whatever-it-took—introduced race into the '88 campaign:

TURQUE (in Newsweek): When Gore entered Congress in 1977, he brought a heightened sense of self-preservation, and a willingness to do whatever it took to survive—even if it meant playing the race card. His dying gasp as a presidential candidate in the 1988 New York primary was an attempt to use a series of violent incidents involving inmates in a Massachusetts prison-furlough program to discredit front-runner Michael Dukakis. Gore never mentioned the program's most notorious alumnus, Willie Horton, nor the fact that he was black. He didn't have to. His audience was in New York City, where white fears about crime often had a black face. Gore's meaning was plain: Dukakis wasn't just soft on crime, he was soft on blacks who committed crime. (Turque's emphasis)

It is simply astonishing that reasoning like this will be offered to support two very serious charges—that Gore will do-whatever-it-takes, and that he has "played the race card" in past elections. Gore's "meaning was plain?" That surprises us—we find no commentators in the wake of this New York debate who stated that this was somehow Gore's meaning. And we doubt that Turque would defend the Massachusetts plan; it granted furloughs to convicted murderers serving life terms without any hope of parole. To say that Gore should not have brought this up is to say that hopefuls should never critique other hopefuls. Many in this year's silly Manners Police seem to hold this remarkable view—although we doubt that, if they were directly asked, they'd actually stand up and say it.

Who has "done-what-it-takes" in this case? Turque has, to peddle his magazine! Any candidate can be convicted of any charge if "reasoning" like this holds sway. It's almost better to smear in the way Dowd does—without even pretending to offer examples—than to smear a hopeful with reasoning like this, which hauls common sense and simple fairness to the ashbin.

Maybe Bill Turque should stick to the clothes—should stick to mindless chit-chat on sweaters. Race is something that actually counts. Bill Turque does-what-it-takes here to sell it.


Tomorrow: Do character attacks have to make any sense? Not if you write for the Standard.

Doing what it takes: A study of the press corps' obsession with Al Gore's clothes would make a fascinating volume. Let's talk about the shedding of those famous blue suits. On March 28, as Gore made an early New Hampshire appearance, Ceci Connolly discussed the veep's wardrobe:

CONNOLLY: [A]fter listening to a casually dressed, off-the-cuff Gore field questions for half an hour, [Jim] Craig reached for a Gore 2000 pledge sheet and signed up...Though he still has trouble spaning the emotional spectrum as convincingly as Clinton, Gore rolled out many other theatrical accoutrements today, from wardrobe (tan slacks, V-neck sweater) to scenery (neon-filled diner) to props (dubbed "real people" by political handlers).

In short, back in March—when Gore was far ahead in the polls—he was already campaigning in casual clothing. But by June 15, Katharine Seelye was peddling what had by then become a standard press line. At another New Hampshire event, she saw Gore dressed down. But by now the press corps knew why:

SEELYE: Al Gore is walking up the path to a home here where 40 people have gathered to listen to his pitch. He has shed his blue suit (as per President Clinton's instructions) for a green polo shirt, khakis and cowboy boots. Spotting his host, who is wearing a tie and sports jacket, Mr. Gore calls out, "I hope I'm not too informal!"

That may be wishful thinking. Even in his casual, earth-tone clothes, Al Gore seems pressed and starched.

By now the pundits knew where Gore's suit had gone. Clinton had told him to ditch it. Seelye already has noted that Gore is in earth tones, though she doesn't yet know who should get credit for that.

At any rate, Gore was campaigning in casual clothing long before the Bradley advance of late summer. But all year long, pundits couldn't resist the fun of saying that Gore had just now "ditched the suits." In its 10/25 edition, for example, Newsweek did a "Periscope" pictorial lay-out of Gore. It showed Gore outside his new Nashville headquarters; here's some of what the unsigned text said:

NEWSWEEK: Responding to Bill Bradley's nomination surge, Al Gore rejiggered his campaign. Advisers left the Beltway for Nashville; suits made way for more casual garb...

Veep Style Along with lifting weights to buff up, Gore's gone to an earth-tone wardrobe featuring lots of olive.

Connolly had described him dressing casually in March. Seelye had described him wearing earth tones in June. The next week, in a Gore-Bradley profile, Time showed a picture of Gore in New Hampshire, with the following caption:

TIME: Battling to come back in New Hampshire, Gore is shedding the suits.

In the text of the article, Karen Tumulty said this:

TUMULTY: It was a different Gore campaign—and a different Al Gore—that New Hampshire voters saw rolling through their state last week...Gone were the crisp navy suits, replaced by khaki pants hemmed short enough to display at least 6 in. of his shiny cowboy boots.

In sum, the press corps so enjoyed this story that they just kept repeating the story all year. They repeatedly gave new explanations for the wardrobe "change" that Connolly had described back in March.

Meanwhile, when did Gore really "ditch the suits" and decide to do-what-it-takes to win? According to Newsweek's appalled Howard Fineman, he had done this some twelve years before! Fineman appeared on The News in November, when the Naomi Wolf flap was red hot:

WILLIAMS: The latest to come to the fore, as you know, Naomi Wolf, the feminist author, apparently is to Al Gore's clothing selection what the astrologer was to Nancy Reagan...

FINEMAN: ...The fact is, Al Gore has been changing his clothes and his persona in public ever since I've known him, which goes back 15 years, Brian. I covered his last presidential campaign in 1988. One day he was in the conservative blue suit, the next he was playing lumberjack at the VFW hall in New Hampshire.

Fineman offered the same observation on the 11/3 Hardball. Why would it be odd to dress formally in Washington and casually in New Hampshire? No one ever tried to explain that. But as Fineman continued to talk with Williams, the doctor was very much IN:

FINEMAN (continuing directly from above): ...the VFW hall in New Hampshire. This is a guy who, because of his upbringing and his attitude toward politics and maybe something about his life story, just doesn't seem always to be of one piece, doesn't really always know who he wants to be in public.

Fineman's obsession with Al Gore's wardrobe is a topic for Fineman's psychiatrist to ponder. But any citizen should be repelled when journalists play the shrink on TV. At any rate, on this occasion, Fineman told Williams, in some detail, that Gore has campaigned in casual clothing at least since 1988. Williams, however, understands press corps spin. Last week, he was still asking Turque to explain why Gore "ditched the suits" in this year's campaign. And Turque, understanding the latest Gore spin, gave the current answer—Gore will do-what-it-takes.

In the course of a year of press corps spinning, the story has gone from Clinton-made-him-do-it to Naomi-made-him-do-it to he-doesn't-know-who-he-is to he-will-do-what-it-takes. The press corps still hasn't bothered to explain the ongoing Gore-Bradley health plan debate. But they have thoroughly spun and dissembled on this trivial fare. Citizens should be repelled and disgusted.

Al Hunt recently said that the celebrity press corps is cynical toward Gore. But we've been reporting their conduct all year. Yo, Al—Al Hunt! Where ya been?