Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler title Graphic
Caveat lector

29 March 2000

Our current howler (part II): Conundrums along the Potomac

Synopsis: Puzzled scribes at the New York Times were struggling to limn new conundrums.

The education of Al Gore
Editorial, The Washington Times, 3/25/00

Despite Calling for Halt, Gore Chases Soft Money
Don Van Natta and John Broder, The New York Times, 3/9/00

Gore to Embrace an Overhaul Of campaign Finance System
Richard Berke and Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 3/12/00

Gore gathers Endorsements In Bradley's Old Territory
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 3/22/00

Gore, Mum on reform, Raises $700,000
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 3/23/00

Campaign Briefing
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 3/24/00

Gore Goes to Bush Country to Raise Cash for Democrats
Richard Oppel, The New York Times, 3/25/00

Roger Simon was in a funk, upset with "dim bulbs" Bush and Gore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/28/00). How in the world did we ever get stuck with such a couple of dimwits? To be honest, we were a little surprised that a guy from the press would think that George and Al were slow. Just think of all the puzzling work from the corps itself—on the streets where Simon makes his living.

Take a recent editorial in the Washington Times. The paper-wasting its time with utter trivia—was trying to figure why Gore's college grades got better in his junior year. The paper selectively quoted from Bill Turque's new biography of Gore:

THE WASHINGTON TIMES: "The English student who plodded through Chaucer and pulled a string of Cs started getting As and Bs..." But as Mr. Turque also notes, it was at the beginning of Mr. Gore's junior year that "the Vietnam war's shadow lengthened."

In his book, Turque seems to suggest that Gore became more involved in his studies when he shifted his major from English to government. But that wasn't mentioned in the editorial. The seers at the Times knew much better:

THE WASHINGTON TIMES (continuing directly): This is when grade inflation really took off. Not only had the Johnson administration announced an end to graduate school deferments, but the U.S. military presence in Vietnam had dramatically increased...Flunking out of undergraduate school meant a visit to the local draft board. Rabidly anti-war professors, who dominated political science faculties across the nation, began handing out Cs for breathing, thus ratcheting up the entire grading scale. This surely explains part of Mr. Gore's academic improvement.

Simon—whose sector produces work of this type—hardly need focus on Bush and Gore to puzzle over human limitations.

Indeed, if Simon wants to do some tutoring work, we suggest he stay within his profession. There's a group of scribes at the New York Times who have been having some big problems lately. There's a nagging conundrum that's wracking their minds—a puzzling problem that's plaguing their sleep. It keeps popping up, again and again. We'll let two Timesmen explain it:

VAN NATTA AND BRODER (3/9, paragraph 1): A day after Vice President Al Gore challenged Gov. George W. Bush to a mutual halt in raising the unlimited campaign donations known as soft money, Gore aides were launching a program to help the Democrats raise $35 million in such funds over the next few months.

The article's headline limned the pair's concern. "Despite calling for halt," the headline said, "Gore chases soft money."

Gore had long explained the theory; though he would prefer to eliminate soft money in the campaign, he would not do so unilaterally. This concept is about as confusing as ham-on-rye, but it's been puzzling Times reporters for weeks now. On March 12, two more Timesfolk reported an interview, in which Gore tried to sketch the tricky concept:

BERKE AND SEELYE (3/12): Mr. Gore sought to validate his own position by saying of [Governor Jesse] Ventura: "He's probably the best known advocate of reform among the independents of this nation. And he makes the obvious point: That there's no inconsistency whatsoever in calling for a ban on soft money and playing by the rules as they exist...

Translation: This stuff is so simple even pro wrestlers get it. Gore continued to explain:

BERKE AND SEELYE (continuing directly): "It's the same thing as arms control—you can be for arms control without being for unilateral disarmament."

Cool and clear as a mountain spring—but confusion lingered on at the Times. In recent days, you could barely read poor Katharine Seelye without seeing her utter frustration:

SEELYE (3/22): In addition to today's [fund-raising] events, the vice president plans to pick up money later this week in Cincinnati, Detroit and Houston...But his activities are somewhat incongruous, coming as he has begun to portray himself as an apostle of reform, chastened by his zealous fund-raising in 1996.

The next day, Seelye went there again:

SEELYE (3/23, paragraph 1): Perhaps it was best not to call attention to the incongruity. Vice President Al Gore has been trumpeting his "passion" for overhauling the campaign finance system even while scooping up money and emerging from the primary states as the richest candidate in the race.

Of course, that last fact was only true because Bush had spent his much larger war-chest. Whatever. The next day, Seelye pondered again:

SEELYE (3/24): In a bit of unfortunate timing for the Gore campaign, Vice President Al Gore was raising hundreds of thousands of dollars yesterday at three events just as his Republican rival, George W. Bush of Texas, called him "an obstacle to reform."

To state the obvious, Gore could never raise any money at all if he could only do it on days when the GOP didn't tweak him. But by the next day, the tireless Seelye had lured another scribe to her cause:

OPPEL (3/25): Mr. Gore, who has called for an overhaul of campaign finance laws and challenged Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, to mutually halt raising large, unregulated donations of "soft money," has shown no sign of letting up his own prodigious fund-raising.

The Timesmen can't seem to get over it! And Oppel copied a deft Seelye trick. It's the thing you do to show that them pols ain't regular peepul like we'uns:

OPPEL: At a later dinner...33 people expected to donate $15,000 each were to dine on crabmeat parfait, quail stuffed with squash, and pecan pie.

Reprinting menus with fancy dishes is a way of telling readers that the pols think they're different. Seelye had included the pointless info herself only three days before:

SEELYE (3/22): About 30 people ("solicitors" in campaign finance jargon) brought $5,000 each and lunched on sesame-seared salmon and pistachio mousse with the vice president at small tables set up in the Wallachs' living room.

"Solicitors" doesn't sound good either, so it can't hurt to throw that in too.

Is it surprising that the Times was having so much trouble understanding why Gore would be out raising money? Hardly. Only a short time before, the paper had been completely confused when Bush didn't politely adopt John McCain's campaign finance plans (links below). And all last year, scribes had struggled with another puzzling concept—how Gore could claim to support Clinton's policies without approving of the Lewinsky assignation. Please don't make us go back for the cites. Brows were furrowed for months over that one.

Back to Simon. We're going to get off this negativity kick—we don't want to natter too much ourselves. In fact, we chatted with Simon at a recent event, and we find him a delightful, droll fellow. But before the press corps starts calling the hopefuls "dim bulbs," they might want to analyze those from their own sector. Simon might feel better about the hopefuls' smarts if he sees how the Big Mac types function.


Tomorrow: Fineman sees McCain post-Bora.

Friday: (Anthony) Lewis gets it right.

Visit our incomparable archives: The Times was stunned when Governor Bush didn't adopt the McCain finance plan. See THE DAILY HOWLER 3/16/00, 3/17/00, 3/20/00, 3/21/00 (postscripts).

Overstatements on underspending: By the way, there is no story the press corps got more wrong than the alleged "frugality" of the Bush campaign. Dan Balz pointed it out in the Post on October 3, when quarterly records showed that the Bush campaign was spending at a record clip:

BALZ: But after proclaiming itself a frugal beer-and-peanuts operation, Bush's campaign also was revealed as perhaps the biggest-spending presidential campaign in history.

There's nothing wrong with that. But it hadn't just been the Bush campaign that had declared its operations super-frugal. So had the press corps, all summer long. At the Times, the silly spin was still going on six weeks after the release of Balz's numbers. On November 17, Jim Yardley described a gathering of major Bush fund-raisers:

YARDLEY: For a campaign rolling in money, a gathering of its biggest rainmakers might be reason for extravagance. And though some of the bellhops pocketed nice tips, excess was hard to find...[T]he thriftiness theme was appreciated, even by an audience accustomed to corporate jets. In a briefing this morning, officials said they had kept salaries down so that no Bush campaign employees were among the 40 highest paid staff members for any of the presidential campaigns.

Even after the campaign's big spending was a matter of record, the Times was still pushing old spin.

But then, the Times had gotten this wrong all along. A week before release of the numbers Balz described, a page-one story by Van Natta and Broder described the various camps' spending: "The [Gore] campaign is spending at a much faster clip than that of Mr. Bradley or the Republican front-runner, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, [Gore] aides said." A week later, the numbers came out. The Gore aides had been totally wrong; so had the page-one Times story.

The most striking effort to push the "frugality" tale was a pair of Post articles in mid-July by Ceci Connolly and Susan Glasser. At the time, the Gore campaign had spent $8.2 million; the Bush campaign had spent $7.2 million. (Gore had been campaigning longer.) But—without ever reporting those actual figures—the scribes reported that "Gore has spent far more than Bradley or Bush." They presented a variety of images showing how frugal the Bush camp had been, and describing the Gore campaign's "massive" spending (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/19/99). In two consecutive page-one stories, the scribes never cited the actual pair of numbers. The torrent of spin was astounding.

Given the past coverage, it's ironic that The Veep is now temporarily left with more cash on hand than The Dub. Sadly, though, it's not surprising to see Seelye, on 3/23, spin Gore's status as "richest candidate" against him.