1 April 1999
Our current howler (part III): The love story must go on
Synopsis: A week after Henneberger described what had happened, This Weeks gang didnt seem to have heard.
Commentary by Cokie Roberts et al.
This Week, ABC, 12/21/97
Author of Love Story Disputes Gore Story (Hint: Tipper Wasnt Jenny)
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 12/14/97
U.S. Auto Makers Showing Interest in Fuel Efficiency
Keith Bradsher, The New York Times, 1/5/98
Auto Industry Reaches Surprising Consensus: It Needs New Engines
Rebecca Blumenstein, The Wall Street Journal, 1/5/98
Anyone who read Melinda Hennebergers story could have seen the facts weve sketched out (see yesterdays DAILY HOWLER, 3/31/99). According to the two journalists on Air Force II, Gore said hed read a newspaper story saying he and Tipper were the Love Story role models. And everyone agreed that there had been such a story, in the Nashville Tennessean, during Segals book tour.
Yep. The New York Times headline was plainly wrong--in Hennebergers article, Segal agreed with what Gore had said. The Tennessean reporter just exaggerated, Segal said. He made it out to be the local-hero angle. (For the record, Segal also stated that the Oliver Barrett character was partly based on Gore, though one is embarrassed to think that such silly disputes can be a part of our national discourse.)
But in this press corps, its one of the rules: a great story must go on. And this story had everything the press corps loves--completely pointless subject matter, and allegations of character flaws! It was perfect! And so it was that, a full week after Hennebergers article appeared, This Weeks gang discussed the dispute. And none of the pundits seemed to have read a single word Henneberger had written.
Why was topic being discussed? Cokie Roberts explained it:
ROBERTS: Well, Al Gore and Love Story really has been the talk of the town this week.
Only George Stephanopoulos seemed to see the oddness of that statement. I think this says a lot more about the media than it does about Al Gore, he said. Poor George! He couldnt help it. He hadnt been in the press corps long, and he still had a whole lot to learn of its morés. Of course it told us all about the press. But in the press corps, you dont ever say it!
Anyway, there he sat, poor lonely Bob Squier, being polite on behalf of the vice president. One can only imagine what pols must say, after sitting through sessions like this. The gang fell on the smiling rep, eager to learn what the VP was up to. And in the course of a lengthy discussion with Squier, none of the pundits gave any sign that they had read a word Henneberger said.
Cokie Roberts kicked off the scrum with a mistaken voice-over:
ROBERTS: It all began innocuously enough. In a long Time magazine profile of Al Gore, writer Karen Tumulty described a conversation on Air Force II. Gore was, quote, telling stories about old chums like Erich Segal, who, Gore said, used Al and Tipper as models for the uptight preppie and his free-spirited girl friend in Love Story.
And that, of course, is what Tumulty had said, in her original story in Time. But in Hennebergers piece dissecting the flap, Tumulty said her account in Time was slightly inaccurate. She told Henneberger that Gore had actually referred to a story which claimed he and Tipper inspired Segals work. Here is Tumulty, as quoted by Henneberger: He said all I know is thats what [Segal] told reporters in Tennessee.
So Roberts voice-over was wrong right off, but it was wrong in familiar fashion. It kept alive the more exciting story--the version the press corps just loved. The actual story was simply too boring--in fact, it wasnt a story at all. So, seven days after the Times reported what Gore really said, This Weeks viewers were treated instead to an inaccurate, but more lively, story.
When the questioning started, Roberts just knew. She just knew that Gore had a slick motive:
ROBERTS: Welcome now to Bob Squier, adviser to Vice President Gore. So why did he do this?
The possibility that Gore hadnt done anything at all didnt seem to be on This Weeks table. Squier tried treating the flap as a joke, but Roberts demanded an answer:
ROBERTS: Im not saying youre not taking this seriously, and the question I have, though, is why, why the vice president is seeming to try to reinvent his image. Hes done a perfectly good job of trying to be stiff Al Gore.
In the course of the session, Squier tried explaining about the newspaper article; he tried saying its certainly not a case of his trying to somehow change his image. But none of it mattered to his host. Her closing remark, in the roundtable portion:
ROBERTS: I really do think that hes--he might as well just be who he is and not try to be somebody else. It never works to try to be somebody else.
Not with this gang of sharpies around. Youd have to be crazy to try something like that.
Sometimes, even Squier seemed unprepared; at one point, he seemed to suggest that Gore wasnt the model for the Barrett character, though Segal had said the opposite. But the striking performance was that of the panel; each knew what the incident meant. Bill Kristol, of course, saw Gores character flaws; Gore had embellished on the truth due to vanity. But though all of them knew what the incident meant, none of them showed the slightest sign that they knew what the VP had said.
And so the incident became Washington lore--Gore had embellished Love Story. In the past few weeks, spinners have raised the issue again, warning about Gores tawdry character. The truth of the matter was in Hennebergers story, obscured by a headline that was plainly false. But on This Week, the facts had to play second fiddle. This press corps lives for error and conflict. In this press corps, such a show must go on.
Willful thinking: God bless him! There was George Will, emitting his spin, rolling his eyes at the veep:
WILL: What is the biggest problem he has coming up? Is it small episodes like this or the fact that he doesnt like cars and the internal combustion engine and other things that Americans like?
The VP was downright un-American. Boy, did George ever nail him! But two weeks later GMs John Smith said this, right on page one of the Times:
BRADSHER: No car company will be able to thrive in the 21st century if it relies solely on internal combustion engines, said John F. Smith, Jr., GMs chairman and chief executive.
The Wall Street Journal (page one) said this:
BLUMENSTEIN: Time is starting to run out for the internal-combustion engine...We need to press very hard to increase fuel economy and lower emissions of carbon dioxide, says John F. Smith of General Motors Corp. He predicts a slow phase-off of the internal-combustion engine in 20 to 30 years.
Will had really made some news. It wasnt just Gore who doesnt like cars. Neither does the head of GM!
Discourse on motive: We note again, what we pointed out yesterday: neither Tumulty nor Berke, the two scribes on the flight, seemed to think they were being spun about Love Story. Tumulty barely mentioned the remark in her lengthy Time piece, and Berke never wrote about it. It was other journalists--journalists who werent there--who somehow had managed to discern Gores motive. In doing so, they engaged in journalism as bad as it gets--the journalism of savants and mind-readers.