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26 April 1999

The Howler retrospective: Right from the start

Synopsis: Bob Zelnick showed up to play some hardball. And sure enough, we were right from the start!

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Bob Zelnick
Hardball, CNBC, 4/23/99

Gore: A Political Life
Bob Zelnick, Regnery Publishing, 1999

Is Gore inevitable in 2000?
Jeffrey Hart, The Washington Times, 4/3/99

Forebodings beyond reality
Donald Lambro, The Washington Times, 3/25/99

Last Friday night, Gore biographer Bob Zelnick showed up to play some hardball. And sure enough, when the chatter turned to life on the farm, it was shown we were right from the start. We thought some learning might occur if we simply reprinted the colloquy:

ZELNICK: There’s a lot of people that knew Al very well when he was down on the farm and in St. Alban’s--

MATTHEWS: Throwing up hay and slopping the hogs. Actually in your book you do defend him on that--


MATTHEWS: He really did slop the hogs, he really did throw the hay, he really did work on, where he had to work that tough, plow on the side of the hillside. It was a tricky job but he did it every summer. So that’s not a fair knock on him. He’s had some experience like that.

ZELNICK: No. I think that contrary to some of his other boasts, that, that--

MATTHEWS: He didn’t invent the Internet, but he did work on the farm.

ZELNICK: He did.

And so we see the point we made, over the course of the past five weeks: virtually every Gore profile of the past dozen years described Gore’s experiences on the farm. Zelnick himself made the hillside plowing the central metaphor of Gore’s life. His Regnery book ends with the image of young Gore out on that hillside:

ZELNICK (Gore: A Political Life): And he knows we here he must do that work to meet the expectations set for him, just as he had to fulfill the educational aspirations of his father, or plow the dangerous hillside on the Carthage farm.

Yep--every major profile had described the farm experiences, the ones which Zelnick described in detail. They’re hardly a reason to vote for Gore. But, by all accounts, they are the stuff of his real life experience.

But in the spring of 1999, the RNC was spinning. They wanted to drag Gore’s image down, and so Jim Nicholson took to his fax, saying Gore was “shoveling it” when he described his experiences on the farm. Twelve years worth of profiles all said otherwise, but remember--this celebrity press corps just loves getting spun. The scribes took Nicholson’s spin, and quickly began typing it up.

Please note: over the past several weeks, both Michael Kelly and the editors of “Scrapbook” have explained that THE HOWLER misunderstood what they said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/12/99). But Chris Matthews understood perfectly well what the campaign of spin had been saying. Gore had received an “unfair knock,” Matthews says, because he really had done those chores on the farm. Matthews had understood the thrust of the silly campaign--even if Kelly and the Scrapbook gang had been drawn in, unaware and unknowing.

But a major question is left unanswered by Zelnick’s exchange with Matthews. How is it that the press corps ran to repeat what Nicholson said? Again, twelve years worth of profiles--written by this very same press corps--all had said that Nicholson was wrong. But from CNN’s Bruce Morton to a New York Times editorial, major press outlets obediently ran to type up the plainly false spin.

We’ve told you before, and we say it again: this press corps just loves getting spun. They simply love to run to their desks, and type up whatever they’re handed. It doesn’t seem to matter how false it is, or how much of the corps’ own work contradicts it. The pundits rush to get it in print--and it pollutes the public discourse.

Make no mistake--the notion that Gore lied (embellished/invented/ exaggerated/“boasted”) about farm chores will remain a part of his talk show bio. And we’re waiting to see even one word of comment, from within this truth-loving celebrity press corps, about all those journalists who jumped on the spreader when they were handed this silly, false tale.

Always read as much as you can: For those who couldn’t quite get the gist of the spin, here’s ol’ reliable, shoveling it hard in the Times:

HART: Mr. Gore was reported as follows about growing up as the son of Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee: “He taught me to clean out hog waste with a shovel and how to clear land with a two-bladed ax. He taught me how to plow a steep hillside with a team of mules. He taught me how to take up hay all day long in the hot sun.” Al Gore as Johnny Appleseed.

Now the fact is that Al Gore grew up in D.C., at the Fairfax Hotel on Embassy Row, attended exclusive Washington private schools and then went on to the hog waste and mule teams of Harvard College. [This ended Hart’s discussion of the topic.]

On March 25, Donald Lambro had included Gore’s account of the chores in a three-paragraph introductory section in which he referred to “the deeply dishonest side of Al Gore,” his “dark side that seems to be appearing with greater frequency,” and his “powers of demagoguery.” Lambro and Hart understood the spin’s message, if Kelly and Scrapbook did not.

Visit our incomparable archives: For our first review of the silly “farm chores” spin, see “Who’s shoveling now,” 3/25/99.

For the first installment of our three-part review of the Standard, see “Standard practice,” 3/25/99.

That Scrapbook gang is just so misunderstood! See “Parsing a scrappy retort,” 4/12/99.

We discussed this absurd but damaging spin in repeated editions of THE DAILY HOWLER. See our listings, starting March 25.