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22 April 1999

Our current howler (part III): Morning stretch

Synopsis: Ceci Connolly said Gore was stretching the rules. She seemed to be stretching the language.

The Gore Machine
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post Magazine, 4/4/99

Gore, Bush Are Ahead Of Field in Cash Crops
Susan B. Glasser and Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 4/1/99

There is one moment in “The Gore Machine” where Ceci Connolly almost puts things into perspective--where she takes the “unprecedented sums” the Gore “machine” is collecting, and places them in a broader context. She refers to “that magic $55 million mark” for which Gore “will even solicit contributions over the Internet:”

CONNOLLY: It’s an unprecedented sum in American politics, though the kind of figure that seems increasingly common in our turbocharged economy. It may buy a presidential nomination but, curiously, it could barely buy the services of a good center fielder for five years.

Indeed. Connolly echoes statements made by Newt Gingrich, who has argued that Americans spend relatively little on campaigns in the context of the broader economy. But in the setting of “The Gore Machine,” this remark is a lone respite from hype. Throughout the article, Connolly is amazed by the sums involved, and by Gore’s astonishing skills at amassing them. At one point, she speaks of two Gore aides:

CONNOLLY: [Peter] Knight--with help from Terry McAuliffe--is amassing the largest campaign treasury in history for his friend the vice president.

But Connolly’s presentation is hard to square with the Bush campaign’s plan to raise much more--a goal she herself had described three days earlier in the Post (see postscript). And Gore is “setting records” for a candidate receiving matching funds only because the FEC made minor inflation adjustments to its 1996 spending limits (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/21/99). Is there something gained when a top writer like Connolly acts out amazement at what in fact is mundane? There’s nothing much gained for clarity and insight--though a non-story starts to feel a lot hotter.

But the biggest problem with “The Gore Machine” is its suggestion that Gore is doing something wrong--an insinuation that appears throughout the article, although Connolly makes no such direct statement. Throughout the article, Connolly’s language suggests that the business of fund-raising is tawdry by its very nature. When she interviews former congressman Mel Levine, he is “sitting in his Los Angeles office, hustling for Al Gore.” (He’s also “dialing for dollars.”) A rather unattractive description for a public figure who is shown doing absolutely nothing wrong, but it reflects the language used throughout to portray the whole business of fund-raising. Connolly talks about the ’96 campaign “servicing” donors; she describes Gore “squirreling away” his GELAC account. And early on, she offers this description of Gore’s approach to fund-raising:

CONNOLLY: Friends and colleagues describe him as focused, driven, disciplined, and seemingly inured to the seamy side of the business--a professional fund-raiser’s dream. [Our emphasis]

Maybe friends did use those terms, though no one is directly quoted. But surely even such artless friends would have been surprised by this construction, early on:

CONNOLLY: [W]hile the vice president’s game plan this year is virtually the same as Lamar Alexander’s or Elizabeth Dole’s or George W. Bush’s, his fund-raising machine is bigger, tougher, faster. By the end of the year, Gore’s team hopes to stretch federal fund-raising rules as far as possible to collect an unprecedented $55 million.

But they aren’t just hoping to stretch the rules. Here’s something else they’re up to:

CONNOLLY: The arcane fund-raising rules drawn up in the aftermath of Watergate have been stretched beyond all recognition and could well be revised after the next election. But so long as these rules are in place, Al Gore will exploit them.

Later on, Connolly returns to her first construction:

CONNOLLY: Gore, partly for image reasons and partly because he would like to collect up to $16 million in matching funds next year, has decided to play within the [matching fund] system. But he is stretching the rules as far as he can. Here’s how he plans to get to $55 million...

And it is remarkable to see Connolly’s explication of the way that Gore is “stretching the rules as far as he can”--an image she has, by this time, extended over half of her article. Immediately after the last passage quoted, Connolly lists the FEC spending limits for next year’s primary elections. (These are the same three categories of permitted spending we listed in THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/21/99.) As we have discussed, the three categories of primary spending, plus the GELAC fund, add up to $54.9 million. And apparently, the fact Gore hopes to meet that limit--hopes to spend what the FEC allows--that is what Connolly has in mind when she says he is “stretching” campaign rules.

If we want to talk about people “stretching” things, can we talk about stretching the language? It’s hard to imagine an area of life where this construction would occur in normal discourse. When one drives 65 on an interstate highway, does one say that one is “stretching” the speed limit? If a donor gives the maximum $1000 to a candidate, is that donor also “stretching the rules?” It’s a remarkable (and revealing) use of language, when a candidate is accused of “stretching” rules simply because he’s observing them. How far below the limit should a candidate stay, to avoid “exploiting” the rules in this manner?

Connolly describes no one, in any campaign, stretching any of the rules she describes. To us, that sounds like early good news--and a story that the press corps may not like.

Tomorrow: As Connolly revisits the’96 campaign, we offer free advice to the press corps.

A stretch: Connolly says that Gore “is amassing the largest campaign treasury in history.” But three days earlier, she wrote this, with Susan Glasser:

GLASSER AND CONNOLLY: Bush’s campaign has mapped out an ambitious fund-raising plan to collect as much as $32 million by the end of 1999. Advisers say he is considering opting out of the presidential public financing system, which would enable him to spend unlimited amounts of money next year but would mean forgoing about $15 million in matching funds.

How can Gore be amassing “the largest campaign treasury in history” if Bush is amassing one that is larger? Remember--with matching funds, Gore’s “bigger, tougher” fund-raising “machine” will be raising only $31 million for primary spending. It makes no sense for Bush to forgo federal funds unless he plans to raise at least $50 million.