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31 March 2000

Our current howler (part IV): Press party

Synopsis: Welcoming McCain back from Bora-Bora, Howard Fineman found welcome relief.

Bush, Gore can't win media primary
Howard Fineman,, 3/24/00

Toting the Merit Badges of a Boy Scout Candidate
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, 3/17/00

Inventing Al Gore
Bill Turque, Houghton Mifflin, 2000

How negative can pundits get when crossed? Some of the pundits can get pretty negative, as reviews of Turque's book sometimes showed. Predictably, Michiko Kakutani was Queen of Mean discussing Gore's loathsome enlistment:

KAKUTANI: Mr. Gore's zigzagging on issues is a recurrent theme in Mr. Turque's biography, a book that, despite its judicious tone, draws an often damning picture of the vice president as a hypocrite, driven by a curious mixture of duty, loyalty, and cold political calculus. This is a man, Mr. Turque writes, who believed the Vietnam War was wrong but enlisted in 1969 to protect his father's political career and guarantee his own viability within the system.

Pundits love to spin. Turque never "wrote" that final phrase—from President Clinton's famous 1969 letter to his draft board—but Kakutani types it in, spinning up what Turque did say. And pundits love to edit. Here is what Turque actually wrote about Gore's reasons for enlisting:

TURQUE: By the spring of 1969, Gore's decision appeared locked in place, anchored by conviction, self-sacrificing loyalty, and political calculation.

The "conviction" to which Turque refers seems to be "Gore's ethical concerns" (Turque's phrase) that someone else from Carthage would go in his place if he avoided the draft. Typically, Kakutani omits this admirable motive from Turque's list of three, mentioning only the last two. So are readers of the New York Time reliably misinformed by "reviewers." By the way, Turque himself is speculating when he suggests that Gore enlisted in part to protect a future political career. Did Gore enlist for that reason? Richard Neustadt, Gore's professor at Harvard, and Steve Armistead, Gore's friend in Tennessee, both say they told Gore that he should take that into consideration. But Turque quotes no one saying that Gore ever stated that view or said that was his motive. Turque's speculation becomes Kakutani's hard spin as she uses Clinton's words rather than Turque's—and as she sends Turque's statement about Gore's ethical concerns straight down the memory hole. Kakutani would call this "lying" from a pol she disfavored. (For a previous review of Kakutani's work, see links in postscript, below.)

But as we've seen, after Super Tuesday, the pundits were mad at the hopefuls. And the pundits were mad at those voters! Scribes had lectured the voters for months, helpfully telling them who to elect (Bill and John). When the willful voters chose to do something else, pundits began to act out. But how about a happy ending? Howard Fineman took relief—where else?—in the office of Senator McCain. He described it on MSNBC's dotcom:

FINEMAN: I hadn't intended to interview John McCain. He was back from Bora Bora—"tanned, rested and bored," an aide said...My plan was to stop by his Senate office, and say a quick hello. Maybe I'd get a quote or two to use that night on MSNBC's "Hardball" with Chris Matthews.

Fineman's lead sketched a morality tale—good intentions overwhelmed by desire. Fraternization being what it is, you can imagine what actually happened:

FINEMAN (continuing directly): I ended up spending an hour and a half with him.

None of what follows is Senator McCain's fault—though we will have to cringe at one thing the saint said. But we think that citizens should be concerned at the next thing the Newsweek scribe told us:

FINEMAN (continuing directly): Seeing McCain reminded me why he was the nominee of what I call The NMPA—The National Media Party of America—and why neither Bush nor Al Gore will ever get the title.

Was Fineman joking? In an excess of fairness, we'll assume that he was—though little in his piece really says so. But in our view, citizens should be concerned by his comment about the national "Press Party." All through the primaries, scribes had described it—The Swoon they'd taken on the Straight Talk Express. They'd described the laughs, the doughnuts and fun—and they'd also discussed something else. Nancy Gibbs, in Time, had said something odd—when Senator McCain says strange things, she said, admiring scribes "take him off the record" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/15/99). She was describing the state of our Press Corps 2000—a corps which held different hopefuls to completely different standards, and thought the practice was so unremarkable they were willing to write all about it.

And why did the pundits like McCain so much? Dear readers, let the groveling begin. After McCain took Fineman and two others "inside his mind and emotions," the senator made our analysts squirm as he sent Fineman off with these words:

FINEMAN: "I know it's not appropriate for me to say this," he said to me as we were leaving, "but I really like you guys. I enjoyed your company and respect the job you do."

Gag us! Right now! With a spoon! We'd written before about the silly routine where McCain tells the scribes just how bright they all are (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/16/99). But Fineman's explanation of how it all felt was something we felt we should bring you:

FINEMAN (continuing directly): Reporters aren't as weird as you (or they) might think. We like people who like us, or who at least make our jobs seem rewarding, noble and fun.

Reporters aren't as weird as we think? Apparently they aren't as professional, either. Fineman portrays a press corps wildly over-mingling—and prepared to respond, like other good friends, to tasty treats and a pat on the head. "Unlike any candidate I've covered over the years," Fineman said, "[McCain] seemed not only to tolerate our presence, but to hunger for it." Avert your eyes, dear readers and friends. You're reading about a self-debased press corps. You're also reading, as we limn McCain's "hunger," a bit of Victorian pulp fiction.

We took the analysts to Washington today, to show them off to Brian Lamb, down at C-SPAN. We burst with pride as the King of Dispassion said hello—without stating his views! As a result, our incomparable youngsters didn't get the time they usually do to work on this story. But scribes shouldn't be a political party—and reporting shouldn't be about scribes feeling good. Fineman—without question—is a smart, savvy scribe. But something is wrong with our current press culture. "Bush and Gore are both wary" of the press, Fineman said. Fineman's readers should be a bit "wary," also.


Monday: Sorry, folks. C-SPAN was followed by an interview with Cox newspapers. Time has been rather short today. Stories we still hope to cover:

(Anthony) Lewis gets it right
Sequel to "When pundits agree"

Coming after that? Memory Lane—a HOWLER retrospective. Complaints about GWB having friends overnight takes us back to that old Lincoln Bedroom!

Final note: New readers might want to walk down our own Memory Lane. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/7/99: "The 21-year-old-intern (and other urban legends)." It's a retrospective on our incomparable first year. Care to read-all-about-it? Click here.

Visit our incomparable archives: We discussed press corps coverage of Senator McCain in mid-December and again post-New Hampshire. See THE DAILY HOWLER 12/14/99, 12/15/99 and 12/16/99. And scroll back through our "Current articles" to find our later string of reports (starting Feb. 21).

Regarding Kakutani: we discussed her remarkable review of five hopefuls’ books in a four-parter back in December. We thought it was one of the most heavily-spun pieces we saw all year. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/29/99, 11/30/99, 12/1/99, 12/2/99.