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5 April 1999

The Howler profile (part II): Confident men

Synopsis: Kelly and Kristol knew something important: no one looks anything up.

Farmer Al
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 3/24/99

Commentary by Bruce Morton
Inside Politics, CNN, 3/19/99

Gore Exhorts Core Democrats to ‘Stand With Me’
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 3/21/99

In Iowa, Bradley’s ‘Bold’ Agenda Places Gore on Defensive
Thomas B. Edsall, The Washington Post, 3/22/99

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

We’ve tried to be fair about “Farmer Al,” Michael Kelly’s piece on the “farm chore” topic. But we can’t see how to read the column, except as a part of the silly effort to deny that Gore did all those chores. As we’ve shown you, the Weekly Standard called Gore’s remarks “preposterous;” the RNC said Gore was “shoveling it” about the chores. And major scribes were pushing this line (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/25/99, for our review of Bruce Morton’s reporting). “Farmer Al” appeared in the midst of all this, and it mocked Gore’s alleged fancy life in D.C. It seemed to fit right into the RNC line: Gore says he did all this work on the farm, but he really grew up here in splendor.

It’s amazing to see the degree of dissembling folks know they can get away with. In 1987, Kelly had written a profile of Candidate Gore, describing the very experiences he now seemed to deny (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/3/99); and the Weekly Standard went even farther in “Internet Al, Down on the Farm.” In calling Gore’s comments about the farm “preposterous,” the Standard quoted a 1994 New Yorker profile which described the Gores’ D.C. apartment. (Six rooms for four people! Imagine!) What the Standard didn’t tell you: the paragraph immediately preceding the one they quoted described Gore’s life on the farm in detail, describing and explaining those very same chores that the Standard said couldn’t have happened (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/29/99, for our report on this stunning deception).

Here’s what we were struck by in these columns, dear readers. It was the utter confidence of Kelly and Kristol--their utter confidence that, in this Washington press corps, no one checks anything out! How else to explain the Standard’s conduct, citing a text to prove its case, knowing that, if the text were read, it actually did just the opposite? Amazing.

Yep. In our view, it takes a lot of gall, to call someone a liar on a basis like that. And it really takes a sad-sack press corps to stand by without saying a word.

But the Standard knew that no one would even say “Boo,” and sure enough, nobody did. You know what we’ve told you before, dear readers: this press corps just loves getting spun! Gore’s farm history had been profiled for the past dozen years; many writers had detailed this part of Gore’s life. But even though Gore’s Tennessee roots were well known; and even though the Standard’s citation refuted its claim; even then, major journalists got busy, obediently typing up the new spin.

Bruce Morton’s report on Inside Politics must have set some sort of new standard. Morton didn’t dispute the things Gore said; he just repeated them, in a skeptical manner:

MORTON: Then there were Gore’s comments to the Des Moines Register. My father taught me how to clear out hog waste with a shovel and a hoe. He taught me how to clear land with a double-headed ax. How to plow a steep hillside with a team of mules. Well, Gore is a city kid, father a senator. He grew up in Washington, went to St. Alban’s, a well-known private school here, and then to Harvard. Summers at the family farm yes, but mules and double-blade axes? What he meant, a spokesman said, was the fact that he spent his summers working on the family farm.

Actually, what he probably “meant” was that his father taught him how to clear land with a double-bladed ax. He probably “meant” the things that he said--and Morton nowhere disputes them. But with a tone of voice that was clear to viewers--and posing a question he didn’t bother to answer--Morton plainly conveyed the sense that something was wrong with Gore’s statement.

Meanwhile, major print journalists passed on the new spin--although some seemed to sense there were problems. Ceci Connolly used a puzzling adjective to describe what was wrong with Gore’s comment:

CONNOLLY (3/21): But critics say the latest Gore gaffe fit a pattern of personal puffery. Remember, they noted, in 1997 when Gore suggested he and his wife Tipper were the models for Erich Segal’s teary “Love Story”? And last week, Gore was lampooned for his gauzy recollections of days on the family’s Tennessee farm...

We’re not quite sure what “gauzy” means here, but Tom Edsall picked out another odd word to convey what was wrong with Gore’s comments:

EDSALL: [Bradley’s] critique prompted the vice president to defend his populist credentials as a country boy who learned how to “clean out hog waste with a shovel” and “plow a steep hillside with a team of mules”--episodic farm experiences ridiculed by the Republican National Committee and the influential Des Moines Register.

Not simply “gauzy,” Gore was now “episodic.” Connolly tried again a week later:

CONNOLLY (3/28): [Gore] was ridiculed for claiming he invented the Internet, then for offering a Norman Rockwell-style account of his boyhood summers on a Tennessee farm.

But of course, Gore wasn’t being criticized for gauzy, episodic, or Norman Rockwell-style accounts. Gore was being “ridiculed” by his critics for lying. His account was “preposterous,” the Standard had said; the RNC’s Jim Nicholson said Gore was “shoveling it.” Morton’s report ran under the heading “Tall Tales?” (Note the question mark. The guy never quits.) Gore had not been accused of “gauzy recollections;” Gore’s recollections were being called false--although you’d never know it from Connolly and Edsall, who obediently bruited the GOP line, while putting a gentler face on it.

What was the real story in this whole inane episode? Major journalists were making things up! A major journal--the Standard--made a serious charge, and its own source revealed that the charge was false! And the RNC was faxing out claims that flew in the face of twelve years of reporting. You’d think that that would count as news, when major players behave in that manner. But the Standard was right in its confident guess that it could say what it liked to the mainstream press corps. Its preposterous conduct went completely unchallenged. That’s right. You can now call a public figure a liar, citing texts which show that your claim is untrue. And no one in this sad-sack press corps will say even one word about it.

Does the press corps ever check up on itself? Two scribes believed that the answer was no. They went ahead and dissembled on Gore. And it looks like they had the corps’ measure.

Tomorrow: Twelve years worth of profiles disputed the spin that the press corps was happily typing.