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25 May 2000

Our current howler (part III): Love that Story!

Synopsis: The Love Story tale has been wrong for three years. So why won’t the press corps correct it?

Gore record scrutinized for veracity
Walter Robinson and Ann Scales, The Boston Globe, 1/28/00

Can Al Bare His Soul?
Eric Pooley and Karen Tumulty, Time, 12/15/97

Author of 'Love Story' Disputes Gore Story (Hint: Tipper Wasn't Jenny)
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 12/14/97

Who's Sorry Now?
Frank Rich, The New York Times, 12/16/97

Robinson and Scales were pounding away, "scrutinizing" Gore's "veracity" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/24/00). After fumbling what Gore had said on abortion, they played a familiar refrain:

ROBINSON AND SCALES: He has also said that he and his wife, Tipper, were the models for the movie "Love Story," only to be contradicted by author Erich Segal.

Robinson and Scales were repeating a standard part of iconic Gore Lore. You've heard it said a million times. (1) Gore claimed that he and his wife inspired Love Story. (2) Author Erich Segal contradicted what he said.

Unfortunately, this two-part tale is flatly wrong, on the record—both parts of the story are demonstrably wrong, and have been, on the record, for years. Back in December 1997, when this pointless incident first came to light, Melinda Henneberger did a lengthy article on the topic for the New York Times. She interviewed Erich Segal, Love Story's author; she interviewed Karen Tumulty and Richard Berke, the two journalists present for Gore's remark on the subject. Had Gore stretched the truth, and been contradicted? Sorry. As is quite clear from what Henneberger reported, everyone agreed that the trivial things which Gore had said were in fact perfectly accurate. And Segal agreed with every word Gore had said. Yet, three years later, this incident is still being cited, day after day, as the standard proof that Gore stretches truth. Few incidents better display the destructive pathology—and the love of sheer trivia—which now grip our troubled press corps.

Background: In November 1997, Gore was returning from a three-day trip to Texas on Air Force Two. Tumulty and Berke were present on the plane (Tumulty was working on a profile for Time.) Around midnight, according to Tumulty's profile, Gore came back to the press compartment and spent two hours "swapping opinions about movies and telling stories about old chums." The two "old chums" which the profile mentioned: Erich Segal, author of Love Story, and Gore's college roommate, Tommy Lee Jones, who played Ryan O'Neal's roommate in the Love Story movie.

That's right, kids. Erich Segal was an old friend of Gore's. He had known Gore and Jones when Gore was a Harvard student—when Segal, a young visiting prof, was slaving away writing Love Story.

At any rate, it was in this Time profile that Love Story surfaced. In a seven-page article, Time devoted one sentence to what Gore had said on the subject, although Tumulty and Berke would later tell Henneberger that Gore had actually said something slightly different. According to Time, Gore said that Segal "used Al and Tipper as models for the uptight preppy and his free-spirited girlfriend in Love Story." So was born the silly story that has—incredibly and foolishly—helped define presidential politics over the course of the past fourteen months.

Had Segal used the Gores as models? Partly yes and partly no, but Gore hadn't made the claim to begin with. Segal told Henneberger that Gore had been one of two models for the Oliver Barrett part (Jones had been the other model), but Tipper had not figured in the characterization of Barrett's girl friend, Jenny Cavilleri. Had the story ended there—with Gore half right and Gore half wrong—it would be incredible to think that this pointless event could have gotten ten seconds attention. But in fact, Tumulty and Berke told Henneberger that Time had slightly misstated what Gore had said. What had Gore actually told the scribes? Henneberger quoted Tumulty:

HENNEBERGER (paragraph 22): "He said Segal had told some reporters in Tennessee that it was based on him and Tipper," Ms. Tumulty said. "He said all I know is that's what he told reporters in Tennessee."

Gore had said that he'd seen a newspaper article quoting Segal on the subject. And there had been such an article, Segal said, in the Nashville Tennessean:

HENNEBERGER (15): [A] reporter for The Nashville Tennessean who knew that Mr. Gore and the author were friends had asked if there was not a little bit of Al Gore in Oliver Barrett. Mr. Segal said yes, there was, but the reporter "just exaggerated," Mr. Segal said. "He made it out to be the local-hero angle."

So someone had "exaggerated," all right, but it was a reporter for the Tennessean, not Gore. What Gore had said on the plane was perfectly accurate—there had been a story which quoted Segal saying Gore and his wife were the models. And listen to Segal as he "contradicts" Gore:

HENNEBERGER (18): "Al attributed it to the newspaper, he talked about the newspaper," Mr. Segal said at another point in the interview. "They conveniently omitted that part. Time thought it was more piquant to leave that out..."

Does that sound like Segal is "contradicting" Gore? More than two years after Henneberger's piece—given more than two years to nail down their facts—Robinson and Scales, like many others, misstated what Segal had said.

Tumulty has stressed to us how trivial and fleeting Gore's remarks were; "at most, three sentences in a two-and-a-half hour conversation," is how she recently put it. Indeed, Tumulty devoted one sentence to the matter; Berke never wrote about it at all. So how in the world did so pointless a matter turn into a 3-year cause celebre? It happened because Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, reading Gore's mind from a thousand miles away, wrote columns interpreting Gore's motive for the fleeting comment. Gore had said that he and Tipper were the models, they declared, to make himself seem more exciting.

Dowd and Rich hadn't been present for the conversation. They hadn't been able to gauge Gore's demeanor. They didn't have a transcript or tape. Indeed, they were working off a single sentence—in which Gore was slightly misquoted! But Rich and Dowd, in a trio of columns, explored Gore's motives for his remark. In particular, Rich's exceptionally aggressive, 12/16 piece is one of the most striking example of grisly journalism we've covered here at THE HOWLER. Rich said Gore was "boasting," "bragging," "inflating his past," making an "effort to overcompensate for his public stiffness by casting himself as the role model for Ollie," being "disingenuous," displaying his "character problem," and "prevaricating." Never mind that Segal had already stated that Gore was a "role model for Ollie" (Rich's column appeared in the Times two days after Henneberger's article). In fact, never mind the facts at all—that's what Rich did, and it's what the press corps has done for more than two years at this point.

Just out of curiosity, where did the press corps get the idea that Segal contradicted Gore? It's clear from reading Henneberger's report that Segal did no such thing. In part, it came from the hazy writing that opened Henneberger's lengthy piece. The article bore a tangy banner headline: "Author of 'Love Story' Disputes Gore Story (Hint: Tipper Wasn't Jenny)." One would think that Segal had disputed something. And it's true—Segal had disputed something. He just hadn't disputed something Gore said:

HENNEBERGER (paragraph 1): Erich Segal, author of the weeper "Love Story," said today that only the family baggage of the romantic hero in the novel was inspired by a young Al Gore.

(2) Mr. Segal knocked down recent reports, based on comments by the Vice President, that Mr. Gore and his wife, Tipper, were the models for the young lovers in the 1970 book and the subsequent movie starring Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw.

(3) Those reports were half-true, Mr. Segal said...

Henneberger didn't say that Segal disputed Gore. Henneberger, a professional writer, carefully stated that Segal disputed "recent reports" which were "based on" Gore's comments. She later made it more precise: "Segal said he had been 'befuddled' by the report, which was published in Time magazine." It was the Time report which Segal disputed—and Henneberger's article eventually made it clear that the Time report had misquoted Gore. But one had to read all the way down to paragraph 22 to find Tumulty's account of what Gore had really said. One had to read down to paragraph 18 to find Segal defending Gore's comment.

If future generations are lucky, historians will look back with utter amazement that so absurd an incident could have become a major affair—that newspapers wasted their time on such an event, and continued to misstate simple facts over the course of several years. Gore said he saw a newspaper story. Everyone agrees that there was such a story. Segal "contradicted" nothing Gore said. But more than two years later, this silly story is still being cited by the Globe as a sign that Gore has a character problem. The character problem may belong to the press corps, as we'll see revealed quite clearly tomorrow when we review a more troubling event.


Tomorrow: Some in the press corps were pushing the chores. Accuracy soon bought the farm.

Good question: Yesterday, we challenged Robinson and Scales' critique of Gore on federal funding (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/24/00). We received a reader's e-mail:

READER E-MAIL: Be fair. The [1984] civil rights amendment which defined a fetus as a human being from the moment of conception would have had more far-reaching effects than merely to cut off federal funding for some abortions. It would have been a big lever for anti-choice activists to use in court. The majority in Roe declined to define a fetus as a human life from the moment of conception because they said there was no precedent or concrete expression by the elected legislature supporting that notion. The amendment would have changed that part of Roe's rationale.

We have no idea what could have resulted from the 1984 amendment. Our point was this—Robinson and Scales themselves described the 1984 vote as a vote on federal funding. And they implied that this contradicted what Gore had said at a debate two nights before—although Gore specifically said at the debate that he had voted against federal funding. Why did their argument seem to make sense? Because they omitted that part of what Gore had said. Their argument: Gore said he always supported Roe v. Wade. But in 1984 he cast a vote whose "effect would have been to end federal funding."

It was a hopeless presentation, especially when attacking a pol's character. If R & S made a different presentation, we'd have been all ears. The 1984 vote is often cited by Gore opponents, usually with little background provided. More helpfully, Robin Toner offered this account in the 2/25 New York Times:

TONER: [Gore] did cast a vote in 1984 that is often cited by his critics as a repudiation of Roe...Mr. Siljander [the amendment's author] said then that his intent was to "deny federal funds to any institution performing abortions" and asserted it was "consistent with current federal policy, which prohibits the use of other federal funds to directly or indirectly pay for abortions." But lawmakers who supported abortion rights warned that it could have sweeping implications.

The amendment failed, by a vote of 219-to-186. Mr. Gore was one of 74 Democrats who voted for it. He and his allies insisted it was a funding vote. A Naral news release from the time also described it as a funding issue. But it noted, "Some members, however, construed the amendment as a vote on the constitutional question of when life begins, although its passage would not have outlawed abortions in this country."

We would have cheered if the Globe had published an article exploring these matters. We have persistently expressed agnosticism on technical issues, and called for more exploration of facts (on the Dem health debate, for example). But that isn't what the Globe did. Robinson and Scales penned a misleading account of what Gore had said at the Dem debate. It was a hopeless presentation. By contrast, we'd love to see more presentations like Toner's, and like the one we received from our mailer.

In her piece, Toner struggles at times with the conceptual question of what it means to be "pro-choice." She seems to think that a pol's personal disapproval of abortion implies that the pol is not pro-choice; we think this is plainly false. She does present this comment by NARAL's Kate Michelman (who is, of course, a Gore supporter). The comment is one of the article's strongest presentations in support of Gore's stance at the debate:

TONER: Ms. Michelman, the president of Naral, said she saw Mr. Gore during that era as "someone who cast votes we disagreed with." But she added, "He never co-sponsored any of the 120 or so constitutional amendments that were consistently around Congress. He never signed on to, he never spoke on behalf of, any of those, ever."

Given (lots of) accurate info, voters can make up their minds for themselves. In our view, the Globe's presentation badly fumbled the facts, right from its opening paragraph.