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7 April 1999

Smile-a-while: Kelly, green with envy

Synopsis: Michael Kelly just can’t get over the size of those six great big rooms.

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

The Son Also Rises
Gail Sheehy, Vanity Fair, 3/88

Gore: ‘His wife, his public life, it’s all just been perfect’
Michael Kelly, The Baltimore Sun, 12/13/87

Michael Kelly just can’t get over the size of those six great big rooms. You know--those six big rooms the Gores lived in, in the ’60s, when they were staying in Washington? In “Farmer Al,” poor Kelly describes the incredible size of the Gore’s D.C. spread. He just can’t believe the privilege of it! Here--let Kelly describe it:

KELLY (1999): Al ran through the vast apartment. The Gore farmhouse occupied six big rooms on the top floor of the Fairfax [Hotel], and Al was proud of that; there weren’t many farm families in Washington whose penthouses boasted views of sunrise and sunset.

Kelly, of course, is determined to show that Al Gore was a child of privilege. So he wants to stress the incredible size of the apartment in which he was raised. You recall--the way Kevin Phillips described, in Gail Sheehy’s ’88 piece:

SHEEHY: The first hint of Republican nervousness over the young senator from Tennessee surfaced when G.O.P. strategist Kevin Phillips warned that his party had better begin to cut Gore down by “describing him as a spoiled rich kid from St. Albans...”

Gore’s ’88 campaign didn’t get all that far; but now the plan had gone into action. Kelly got busy assuring Post readers how privileged the young man had been.

Meanwhile, we can’t quite see how Kelly knows the size of those six great big rooms. We doubt that Kelly spent a whole lot of time at the Gores’ sprawling, six-room Ponderosa. But even back in ’87, when he did his profile of Candidate Gore, Kelly spent a lot of time surveying those six giant rooms. In his interview, Gore described a “small apartment.” So Kelly began to grill Mom:

KELLY (1987): Actually, the mother says, it wasn’t so awful. “We had a large living room, a large dining room, three bedrooms and a good-sized kitchen and his cousins had the house next door with a big yard to play in.”

In 1999--given new demands from Jim Nicholson--that “small” apartment that “wasn’t so awful” had become a “vast” place with six “big” rooms. Even the bedrooms now were “big,” according to Kelly’s refreshed recollection.

But “Farmer Al” doesn’t describe just the homestead; it also describes how young Al behaved. It describes the young man’s arrogant attitude, when he was still just a schoolboy:

KELLY (1999): As he called for the elevator boy to hold the door, Al heard the cock crow. He smiled. It was a Gore point of pride to make the morning elevator by the cock’s first crow. Senator Al kept a cock handy, right there in the hallway, for just that purpose, and damned annoying it was to the other patrons of the Fairfax. Al shrugged. The Gore clan owned the hotel, so to heck with them

Phew! What an absolute brat! And again, we we’ll try not to bore you with ghosts from the past, but it’s odd to find Kelly painting this picture, because his ’87 profile said something quite different. In ’87, Kelly described a 9-year-old boy who was embarrassed by his father’s prominence (who later refused to let his father makes speeches in his first campaign). And here is what Kelly said, back then, about that “elevator boy:”

KELLY (1987): [Gore] was also unusually inquisitive. When he was 17 he made friends, of a sort, with a black teen-ager named Jerome Powell, also 17, who worked as an elevator operator in the Fairfax Hotel. Young Al got in the habit of asking young Jerome questions about life on the other side of the Washington tracks...The two young men stayed in touch and last week, at a $500-a-plate Gore fund-raiser at Washington’s elegant Mayflower hotel, Powell, now a professional singer, entertained the crowd.

Twelve years later, what Kelly recalled was Gore bossing Powell around.

But that’s because Kelly’s absurd “Farmer Al” is all about propaganda. It’s all about spreading that unpleasant image that Phillips described twelve years back. It’s about creating unpleasant images, in a column too slick to stand up and make statements. It’s about the silly, attack-mode press culture which our current age still abides.

Michael Kelly, discussing a family of four, called a six-room apartment “vast.” But this is the kind of abject nonsense that hobbles our political discourse.

In his own words: Sometimes a writer just shows us his soul:

KELLY (1987): The problem with Mr. Gore, if it is a problem, is simply that he’s always been so good at whatever he did, so ambitious, so competitive, so sure of himself, that his presence sometimes makes lesser mortals feel, well, lesser.

Self-knowledge--we always advise it.

Tomorrow: Ignoring the nonsense, the bullroar and blather, the New York Times (pretty much) got it right!