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2 May 2000

Our current howler (part IV): Have it your way

Synopsis: Given the standards of the press, you can count "panders" any way that you want.

Gore Supporting Residency Status for Cuban Child
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 3/31/00

Profile in political pandering
Arianna Huffington, The Washington Times, 4/5/00

How to Overthrow the Government
Arianna Huffington, ReganBooks, 2000

Gore and McCain Discuss Campaign Finance Changes
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 5/2/00

The fact that Bush and Gore have the same stand on Elian was clearly stated by reporters on March 31. The day before, Gore announced he supported legal residency status for Elian and his (Cuban) family. Here is Katharine Seelye's report:

SEELYE: The vice president's statement...brings Mr. Gore into line with the position outlined in January by Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, his Republican rival for the presidency, who said then that he supported citizenship for Elian.

"I'm glad the vice president now supports legal residency for Elian," Mr.Bush said today.

Like Bush, Gore had long supported resolving the case in Florida's family courts. Gore's support for the newly-introduced Mack-Smith-Graham Senate proposal brought the hopefuls into near-complete concord.

But the fact that Bush and Gore hold the same position is almost never voiced by our pundits. And the Cook-Rothenberg session of April 24 was an absolute press corps classic (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/1/00). First, Cook trashed Gore for his motives on Elian—while flatly misstating Gore's position. Then, Rothenberg praised Bush for taking a "reasonable position"—and described a stand which Gore had held for five months! Bush and Gore had the same position (a fact which the pundits completely obscured). But only Gore had horrible motives. No one made the slightest effort to explain how they knew either pol's state of mind.

Can two hopefuls take the very same stand, and only one hopeful be insincere? Of course. When two kids say they believe in Santa, one of those kids can be lying. But, while pundits have widely accused Gore of a pander, they have rarely explain how they know that is true. They have rarely explained why Bush, who holds the same position, isn't shopping for Cuban votes too. In so doing, they have produced the latest groaning press corps debacle. Two hopefuls take the very same stand. One is trashed—no explanation.

And just how empty can the argument get? Look at a column by Arianna Huffington from the April 5 Washington Times. As the bell rings, she's pulling no punches:

HUFFINGTON (paragraph 1): When the people who like Al Gore try to explain why, they typically wax lyrical about his competence. But it is this very competence, combined with an utter lack of core principles he'd be unwilling to jettison in his pursuit of the presidency, that makes the vice president such a frightening specimen of the modern politician Candidatus No-Shameus. Over the course of Campaign 2000 alone, Mr. Gore has shown himself to be a political shape-shifter of unsurpassed skill—a sure-fire first-ballot inductee into the Panderers' Hall of Fame.

Phew! That was some pretty tough stuff! Tough words, from a charming lady. Surely one would expect they'd be explained and supported by careful argument. Surely, someone appalled by another's cheap words would be especially careful to back what she said. But there is no attempt, at any point, to explain how Huffington knows Gore is insincere. Nor is there any mention of Governor Bush, who holds the same position.

No explanations! Not even one! What we did get was very tough language, all built on the theme of the "pander." Paragraph 2: We're told that Gore's stand is "unambiguously craven." Paragraph 3: Arianna asks how so "competent and practiced a panderer as Mr. Gore could make such a miscalculation?" (Maxine Waters and other Dems were upset.) Paragraph 4: We get the answer: "Mr. Gore has been so used to pandering with no consequences" that he never expected the reaction. No word on how Huffington knows that. Paragraph 5: "The week that ended with Mr. Gore pandering to the Cuban-American voting bloc" began with him offering a campaign finance plan. That too is insincere, we are told. Paragraph 6: Gore is not "your average, run-of-the-mill panderer." Not at all—he's an "all-pro." And, after discussing her objections to Gore's reform plan, Huffington ends with a flourish:

HUFFINGTON (10): Maxine [Waters] and Granny D aren't buying it—and neither is any sentient being. The Great Panderer has finally overplayed his heavy hand.

Wow! That was pretty tough stuff! So what's wrong with Gore's campaign finance plan, the other example of Gore's tawdry conduct? Not much, if you go by this column. First, Huffington pens the required comment that Gore "is still working overtime raising soft money." If you're still awake after that narcotic, she complains that the plan doesn't cover presidential elections. Of course, Gore's plan is specifically devised for congressional races; Gore has endorsed the McCain-Feingold bill, which covers White House contests. (This is the level of pseudo-argument accepted by editors nationwide.) There are perhaps some tiny crumbs of content swimming in Huffington's remarkably thin gruel. But for the most part, her column is a screed built around simple name-calling about the vice president's mental states and motives. And how does she know that Gore has pandered? Because Maxine Waters says that he has! This now passes for "evidence" when celebrity scribes have to fill weekly space, per their contracts.

Huffington's column is notably lacking in all normal signs of an argument. Why is it so extreme in its name-calling? We restate an incomparable hypothesis (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/30/00). When pundits decide they'll all say the same thing, there's only way they can top one another—by reciting the soundbite in more extreme ways. And by now, almost every pundit worth his salt has declared that GorePanderedOnElian. Few have bothered to offer evidence, or explained how they knew that Gore was insincere. Few have even mentioned Bush's position or motive (we accuse Bush of no bad motives). But what did they put in the place of argument? They got louder and louder as days went by. You'd probably want distractions, too, if you were dishing out drivel like this.

Yep. Gore's pandering only got more and more vile as the days (and reciting) went by. Tony Blankley talked about Gore's "conspicuously cynical endorsement of the Miami Cuban position" (no word about Bush's motives). To Walter Shapiro, it was a "craven capitulation to Cuban-American voters." Mary McGrory said that Gore "did a full grovel." Molly Ivins: "Gore's pander on the issue is simply disgusting." By April 8, Frank Rich had reached a new level. Loudly braying in the Times, Rich referred to "Gore's craven act of political child abuse." None of these writers tried to explain how they knew what Gore's motives were. As we've noted, Michael Barone recently said something novel; he claimed that Gore's position on Elian comported with values and outlooks Gore has long held (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/28/00). Is that true? We don't have the slightest idea—but none of the writers argued the matter. A tabloid talker ignored Barone. Mostly, the pundits got louder—and dumber.

For us, Tom Friedman's piece suggested a possible source for some of the scribes' big excitement:

FRIEDMAN: It was sickening—there's no other word for it—to see Vice President Al Gore, someone I actually respected, intervening in this case...And for what? In order to chase a few cheap votes by right-wing Cubans in Florida.

In some cases, Friedman's rude, dismissive language about Cuban-Americans may hint at the source of the venom. But that starts to take us to pundits' motives. We only note that Friedman presents no evidence to support the excited assertions he makes.

At any rate, the press corps' endless, sing-song yapping showed us the corps at its worst. We saw the endless desire to recite approved scripts; these people simply can't be embarrassed. (As we've stated: Given human nature, observed through the ages, this sameness of judgement cannot occur absent some group dynamic.) We saw their instinctive avoidance of argument—the very concept of evidence seems foreign. We saw the corps' undying love of subjectivity—motive is easier to argue than fact. And we saw the way the corps gets louder and louder as one of their frenzies rolls on.

And we saw one other thing, readers—we saw the press corps' love of the negative. It's especially odd from this crowd. You may recall the way they brayed and complained about negative campaigning from primary hopefuls. Indeed, one overwrought writer was wringing her hands over our poor, sick, abused public discourse:

HUFFINGTON (How to Overthow, page 92): American politics is becoming a sewer, the stench of which is driving countless voters away from the political process. Every campaign season, we worry that the negative ads will start earlier and get uglier. And every campaign season these fears are confirmed.

Even when they're not negative, campaign ads are still just a well-dressed version of the degraded, vapid display modern campaigns have become. When Al Gore and Bill Bradley rolled out their "positive" ads last November, both camps immediately cried foul over their contents If this is the high road, what's it going to look like when desperation sets in and someone decides to go negative?

Yo! Arianna! Buy a clue! It's going to look like your column! We remind our readers, as they read this passage: There's no way to overstate how addled—and negative—our celebrity press corps has become.

One last note, in closing. By now, some of you are nervously wondering if we're going to say what those "three panders" are—the "three panders" referred to on the contents page of the incomparable DAILY HOWLER. We're on the last day of our story cycle, and the "three panders" have not yet been named. You're thinking that it may slip our mind. You don't want to count them yourselves.

We think that you've asked a fair question. The fact is, when we started the current story-cycle, there were three "panders" we did have in mind. Here are the three alleged, imaginable or postulated "panders" we thought of as we titled our screed:

1) Gore-on-Elian
2) Bush-on-gays
3) McCain-on-the-flag

We were planning to contrast the way these "panders" had been written about by the press. But then we decided that we had nothing new to say about McCain-on-the-flag (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/19/00 and 4/20/00). But we decided to leave our title alone—after all, what diff does it make? When we require no evidence for yelling out "pander"—when CNN pundits don't have to get simple facts right—you can count up your panders any way that you like! So what are the "panders" to which we refer? Some of you may go with this:

1) Gore-on-Elian
2) Bush-on-gays
3) Bush-on-Elian

Some of you might prefer these:

1) Gore-on-Elian
2) Bush-on-gays
3) Graham-on-the-raid (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/1/00)

Some of you may enjoy this pleasing construct:

1) Bush-on-Elian
2) Bush-on-gays
3) Press corps-on-Gore

That's right, folks. Given the ways of our hopeless press corps, you can count 'em any way that you like.


Tomorrow: One-day wonder! We may examine the one endless pander. Or we may watch Ceci Connolly go New Mexican.

Maybe you had to be there: You could really devote a daily web site to the work of Connolly and Seelye. This morning, Seelye shows the ways a reporter can state her views in the course of an apparent news story. Seelye is discussing the way Vice President Gore visited with Senator McCain this past Sunday:

SEELYE: Mr. Gore has said the McCain-Feingold proposal to eliminate so-called soft money from campaigns would be his No. 1 domestic initiative, a move some critics suspect is an effort to inoculate himself against criticism that his own fund-raising has been too aggressive. The Sunday session thus struck some as an effort by Mr. Gore to bask in Mr. McCain's credibility on the issue, or what the political columnist Mark Shields calls "innocence by association."

Of course, "some critics suspect" the earth is flat. By the standard of what "some critics suspect," anything can enter news stories. Seelye pens these highlighted notes because Times guidelines don't allow her to write, "Al Gore is a phony." If the Times is going to print these comical efforts, the paper should simply revise its rules and let "reporters" openly state their views as a given news story proceeds.

Seelye ends her piece with another three-card monte:

SEELYE: But the biggest laugh [on a plane ride to Boston] came when Mr. Gore referred to a "bit part" that he had played in a well-received video that President Clinton had made to show at the annual White House correspondents' dinner on Saturday night.

A reporter on the plane remembered that Mr. Gore had made a brief appearance in the video but said, "I've forgotten what it was," inadvertently summarizing Mr. Gore's longtime difficulty in establishing himself outside Mr. Clinton's shadow. [End of article]

If you can make any sense of that anecdote, you're a far better reader than we. But it does let Seelye state the point we have highlighted. Again—readers of the Times would be better served if the paper allowed "Kit" to make open comments. Why keep pretending that these anecdotes exist to transmit significant facts?