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14 May 2001

Smile-a-while: Tonal vision

Synopsis: We couldn’t help chuckling at one of the ways Candidate Bush changed the tone here in Washington.

I Have a Nickname!!!
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 4/29/01

Alec Klein, The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, 10/29/94

UPI, The Los Angeles Times, 12/18/87

Bush pledges to run ‘campaign of ideas,’ vows to return fire
Ralph Z. Hallow, The Washington Times, 4/27/00

We knew it! We knew that if we just kept reading that bright Maureen Dowd, our diligence would one day pay off. On April 29, Dowd was cagily playing it dumb, seeming to waste her readers’ time by bragging about her nickname from Bush. (Bush’s name for the pundit is "Cobra.") But just when she almost had lulled us to sleep, we startled awake, reading this:

DOWD: His team overreacts to his father’s failings. Karl Rove, a.k.a. "Boy Genius," in W.’s nickname lexicon, is so assiduous about buttering up the right, which grew disillusioned with Bush pere, that he has alienated swing voters and Republican suburban women on the environment and abortion.

Lee Atwater, the bad-boy strategist for Bush Sr. who was a mentor to Mr. Rove, aimed to keep the right happy, but he never bowed and scraped to "extra-chromosome conservatives," as he and his boss called them.

Say what? Lee Atwater and President Bush the Elder used to refer to "extra-chromosome conservatives?" Our analysts came right out of their chairs as they bit down on Dowd’s hidden nugget.

If you followed last year’s election slanders, you may know why we shot up in our seats. Way back in October 1994, Vice President Gore had said something naughty while campaigning for Chuck Robb in Virginia. On October 27 of that year, Nancy Reagan slammed Robb’s opponent, Oliver North, saying that North "has a great deal of trouble separating fact from fantasy," and saying that North "lied to my husband and lied about my husband" in his Iran-contra dealings. President Reagan didn’t return phone calls about what she said. At the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Alec Klein took it from there:

KLEIN (10/29/94): Gore did not share the former president’s reticence on Friday.

North "is banking on the fact that he can raise enough money from the extreme right wing—the extra-chromosome right wing—to come in and buy enough advertising to just overwhelm the truth with blatant falsehoods [about Robb]," Gore said.

But there were complaints about part of Gore’s statement:

KLEIN: The vice president later apologized for his reference to Down syndrome, a genetic condition characterized by an extra chromosome.

"The phrase ‘extra chromosome’ is insensitive and inappropriate and I regret using it," Gore said in a statement issued from Air Force Two, en route from Washington to Chicago. "I did not intend it in the way some heard it, but that is no excuse, and I apologize."

That was Gore’s entire history with the phrase. But followers of Hannity & Colmes and the Washington Times will know that the incident was flogged all last year as the perfect example of Gore’s lack of character. So here’s where the humor gets started. What other VP once had to apologize for referring to the extra-chromosome right? Thanks to "Cobra’s" magical pan-pipe, we now rose up out of our baskets and, scanning search engines, found this:

LOS ANGELES TIMES/UPI (12/18/87): Vice President George Bush has apologized to a mother of a girl with Down’s syndrome for his use of the phrase "the extra-chromosome set" to refer to conservatives who oppose the recently signed arms-control treaty, a newspaper reported Thursday.

The phrase had drawn fire from Kathleen Mulligan of Methuen, Mass., and other parents of children with Down’s syndrome, a condition involving mental and physical handicaps caused by an extra chromosome.

Mulligan told the Boston Herald that she had received a telephone apology Wednesday from the GOP presidential candidate.

She said Bush told her: "‘Mrs. Mulligan, I’m calling you to apologize for the statement I made last week.’"

Bush made the remark in a television interview Friday to refer to a group of conservatives who oppose the treaty to eliminate land-based intermediate-range nuclear missiles. He told Mulligan he was unaware that the term "extra-chromosome set" referred to those with Down’s syndrome.

Further checking seems to suggest that this phrase has been common in political circles. Indeed, Lee Atwater is quoted using the phrase in the past, and so, by gorry, is that same Nancy Reagan! Indeed, as recently as February 6, 2000, former RNC chair Rich Bond was quoted saying that John McCain had "Ross Perot’s outsider message without Perot’s extra chromosomes." Bond served up a similar formulation on FNC’s 2/14/00 Special Report. And while we’re at it, can we state what is obvious? Obviously, we don’t think that Bond was trying to refer to Down’s syndrome. And—duhhhh—neither was Gore in 1994, or Bush seven years before that.

For the record, no one had too much of a cow when VP Bush used the naughty expression. Like Gore, Bush said he hadn’t realized how the phrase might be taken, and that was allowed to be that. Bush made the remark on December 11, and apologized for offending on December 17. In current Lexis-Nexis files, the Los Angeles Times is the only paper that even bothered reporting the flap, and according to a Lexis search, the remark was never mentioned all during the next year’s campaigning. But by the time Gore ran in 1999-2000, the tone in Washington quite clearly had changed. Gore’s six-year-old stumble was endlessly flogged by the ever vigilant (and fair and balanced) Sean Hannity.

But luckily, we finally had a candidate who was determined to do something about it! That hopeful, of course, was George W. Bush, who ran for president saying that he would be changing the tone down in Washington. As the primary season came to an end, the press corps was praising Bush for his nice, polite ways, while slamming Gore for being so negative. That’s why we couldn’t help chuckling a tad when our research turned up a comical moment. On April 27, 2000, Ralph Z. Hallow of the Washington Times reported one of Bush’s efforts to clean up that vile public discourse:

HALLOW (4/27/00): Bush participated in three discussions with female leaders on bringing "compassion and responsibility" to education.

Last night, he also went after Mr. Gore’s reputation as a dirty fighter.

"My opponent is an integral part of an administration that has waged the same old Washington blame game," he said. "He speaks of the ‘extra chromosome right wing.’ Anyone who disagrees with him is labeled ‘risky’ or ‘radical’ or ‘reckless’…

"But it does not have to be this way," Mr. Bush said. "We are not all the same. I will set a different tone. I will restore civility and respect to our national politics."

Gore "speaks of the extra chromosome right wing?" Bush, suggesting that Gore says this stuff all the time, was either lying or misinformed (bad staff work). And he forgot to mention that Gore’s one stumble had been matched by a parallel goof by his father. Was Bush aware of his father’s mishap? We can’t tell you that for sure. But when the miscue occurred in 1987, George W. Bush was living in Washington, working full-time on his father’s campaign. It’s hard to believe that Candidate Bush didn’t know that his father had said it.

"I will change the tone," Bush said. To do so, he brought up a single, six-year-old statement and pretended that Gore spoke that way all the time. During this period, by the way, the Washington Post’s Terry Neal occasionally did something very naughty; knees almost perceptibly knocking, he timidly offered the thought that Bush himself was being quite negative when he said things of this kind. But Neal was almost alone in this insight. The rest of the press typed the tale just as scripted; Gore was nasty, negative, naughty, Bush was above all that mess.

So do you see why we try not to miss Maureen Dowd? She spells these affairs out so clearly!

Next: More HOWLER History! We couldn’t help chuckling at the way the "Capital Gang" reviewed the two hopefuls’ convention speeches.


The occasional update (5/14/01)

Simon never said: As we’ve noted, little fuss was made about VP Bush’s blunder back in 1987. The times were a bit more sensible. But that doesn’t mean that major scribes were unaware of the pointless incident. Here, for example, was Roger Simon, in the Baltimore Sun, seven years later:

SIMON (11/7/94): They never learn: On Dec. 11, 1987, Vice President George Bush refers to conservatives who oppose a new arms-control treaty as "the extra-chromosome set."

Within days, he is forced to apologize to Down syndrome families.

On Oct. 28 of this year, Vice President Al Gore says that Oliver North "is banking on the fact that he can raise enough money from the extreme right wing—the extra-chromosome right wing."

Within hours, Gore is forced to apologize to Down syndrome families.

C’mon guys, clean up your acts. I knew politicians were running out of ideas, but I didn’t know they were running out of insults, too.

Simon’s comment was tongue-in-cheek. But seven years later, he still knew that VP Bush had made the same flub as VP Gore.

So here’s our question: How come no one made this point during 1999 and 2000? By then, Simon was a lead political reporter for U.S. News, writing about the election. But neither Simon nor anyone else raised this whimsical point during the campaign, when Candidate Gore was hammered for his lack of character in making the "extra chromosome" comment. No one stepped forward and pointed out the rich history behind the pointless remark.

Why, oh why, didn’t Simon say? In the particular case, of course, we don’t know. But we have noted, again and again, that our scribes just love to type Approved Scripts. And in the Official Approved Script for Election 2000, Candidate Bush was changing the tone, and Candidate Gore was a "ruthless" campaigner who "would do and say anything to win."

That’s right, folks. Sometimes scribes say nothing while pols are hammered in ways that the scribes know are bogus. We first noted the unfortunate conduct in the egregious case of the farm chores (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/30/99). Why, oh why, don’t our scribes speak up? Surely, there must be a noble motive. Luckily, we can revisit the words of the Post’s John Harris, in his recent examination of the press:

HARRIS: Reporters and editors do not work like commentators. There are no newsroom deliberations about how "soft" or "mean" to be on a president. And we aim to make our own judgments about what’s important, rather than respond in Pavlovian fashion to whatever ideologues or interest groups are inveighing about.

There you have it! Those fiercely independent scribes make their own Olympian judgments, rather than speak up, in "Pavlovian" fashion, when public figures are being trashed in ways that are hypocritical, misleading and unfair.


You don’t get to complain if you don’t vote tomorrow
Roger Simon, The Baltimore Sun, 11/7/94

Mr. Bush Catches a Washington Break
John Harris, The Washington Post, 5/6/01