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30 March 1999

Our current howler (part I): Love that story!

Synopsis: Time barely mentioned Gore’s Love Story comment. But Maureen Dowd somehow spied a dark motive.

Can Al Bare His Soul?
Eric Pooley and Karen Tumulty, Time, 12/15/97

Is Ollie Allie?
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 12/13/97

Is Janet Jenny?
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 12/17/97

Who’s Sorry Now
Frank Rich, The New York Times, 12/16/97

In December 1997, as part of a seven-page profile of Vice President Gore, Karen Tumulty and Eric Pooley mentioned a remark by the VP. The remark had been about old times--and the big smash-hit blockbuster Love Story:
POOLEY AND TUMULTY: Around midnight, after a three-city tour of Texas last month, the Vice President came wandering back to the press compartment of Air Force Two. Sliding in behind a table with the two reporters covering him that day, he picked slices of fruit from their plates and spent two hours swapping opinions about movies and telling stories about old chums like Erich Segal, who, Gore said, used Al and Tipper as models for the uptight preppy and his free-spirited girl friend in Love Story; and Gore’s Harvard roommate Tommy Lee Jones, who played the roommate of the Gore-like character in the movie version of Segal’s book...
In the lengthy article, that’s the sum total of writing about the Love Story remark, although the writers did say this in the same paragraph:
POOLEY AND TUMULTY: Then [Gore] moved on, grabbing a cocktail napkin to diagram a new system for making Internet connections via satellite.
Amazingly, no one managed to gin up a scandal from Gore’s Internet comments that night.

Later, it would turn out that Time’s report was slightly inaccurate; Tumulty told the New York Times that Gore actually said he had seen a newspaper article saying that he and his wife had been the models (see tomorrow’s DAILY HOWLER). And all agreed that such an article had appeared in the Nashville press. It seems that Tumulty and Pooley had crafted a slightly simpler narration, omitting Gore’s reference to the newspaper piece. And indeed, one can hardly blame them if they failed to foresee the mischief their brief reference might cause.

Because the writers themselves attached little significance to the VP’s comment. They tossed it off as a minor aside in a long article about larger matters. They betrayed no sense that they were somehow being spun, or that Gore had a motive in making his remark--a passing comment made late at night in the course of a two-hour conversation.

But a thousand miles away, in Washington, D.C., Maureen Dowd had a good ear for motive. She hadn’t been on the plane, of course, so she couldn’t know what was actually said; and she had no apparent way to judge the vice president’s tone of voice or intention.

But in a column published after the Time report, Dowd hailed “the week’s most stunning revelation,” and after summarizing what Time had (inaccurately) reported, she offered this assessment:

DOWD: It’s somewhat suspicious that Mr. Gore has chosen this moment to drop the news--unknown even to many close friends and aides. Does he think, going into 2000, that this will give him a romantic glow, or a romantic afterglow? It reminds me of Jackie Kennedy whispering in Teddy White’s ear about “Camelot.”
Of course, things can remind us of other things, but that doesn’t mean they’re connected. And the fact that Dowd was reminded of Jackie O/K doesn’t mean Gore had a motive in making his remark. But in the world of gossip-pundits like Dowd, if something enters your head, you just sit down and type it. By the next week, Dowd and her Times op-ed colleague Frank Rich just knew why Gore made his remark.

“It may seem odd that I keep writing about the most treacly book and movie in modern times,” Dowd wrote, in one of the rare moments in the life of her column when she verges on self-understanding. In fact, in a world full of serious issues to explore, her choice of topics wasn’t odd, it was sad. But four days had passed since she’d last limned Love Story, and now she was tackling the topic again. And now she seemed completely sure why the VP had made his remark:

DOWD: First the vice president, to warm up his image, planted the notion that he and Tipper were the models for Oliver Barrett IV and Jennifer Cavilleri.
There’s wasn’t a word to explain how she knew this, but Frank Rich was completely sure too:
RICH: What’s bizarre, if not all too revealing, about Al Gore’s now inoperative boast to reporters on Air Force Two that he and his wife, Tipper, were the basis for the hero and heroine of “Love Story” is not that he inflated his past but that he would think that being likened to the insufferable preppy Harvard hockey player Oliver Barrett IV was something to brag about in the first place.
Rich hadn’t been on the plane either, of course, but he knew exactly what Gore had intended. In the course of his column, Rich described Gore’s remark as an “effort to overcompensate for his public stiffness;” described it as a “fib” and as “prevaricating;” and said it showed the “disingenuousness” that is the vice president’s “real character problem.”

We often ask, at THE DAILY HOWLER, if college freshmen could possibly get by with work as bad as that of the press corps; and one can only hope that no college freshman could get away with arrant nonsense like this. Neither Rich nor Dowd had been on the plane; neither had heard the VP’s remark; neither had any apparent way to judge the vice president’s motives. One would hope a college teaching assistant would tell a freshman what most college students would already know--that assessing motive is a delicate task, especially when one doesn’t know what was said to begin with.

In fact, by the time Dowd and Rich wrote this last pair of columns, the Times had (incredibly) published a lengthy news story, exploring the very serious Love Story issue. And it became clear in that article, by Melinda Henneberger, that what Gore had actually said was somewhat different from what Time originally reported. (It was also now clear that what Gore said was true.) But none of that bothered the Times’ rapt pundits, as they dreamily typed their impressions of Al. The truth is, they simply loved that story. It was too good to be untrue.

Tomorrow: On December 14, Henneberger reported what Gore really said. But she buried it deep in her story.