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26 May 2000

Our current howler (part IV): Farm team

Synopsis: No one corrected the farm chores deception, raising a question: Why not?

Gore makes his candidacy official
David Yepsen, The Des Moines Register, 3/16/99

Inventing Al Gore
Bill Turque, Houghton Mifflin, 2000

Commentary by Bruce Morton
Inside Politics, CNN, 3/19/99

Al Gore's mission
Editorial, The Washington Times, 6/17/99

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

White House doesn't require an Ivy League education, but...
Michael Medved, USA Today, 4/15/99

Internet Al, Down on the Farm
Editorial, The Weekly Standard, 3/29/99

Gore's Dilemma
Peter Boyer, The New Yorker, 11/28/94

In Iowa, Bradley's 'Bold' Agenda Places Gore on Defensive
Thomas Edsall, The Washington Post, 3/22/99


You can hardly blame poor Robinson and Scales for repeating the tried-and-true Love Story soundbite. The treasured tale had been repeated, over and over, since the RNC began to campaign against Gore in the wake of the Clinton impeachment. In March 1999, the RNC began to flog a set of minor incidents which were said to impugn Gore's troubling character. The RNC mocked Gore's comment on "inventing the Internet," and revived the hibernating Love Story nonsense. To complete the time-honored rule of three, one more topic was added—the "farm chores."

No recent incident has raised so many issues about character—that of the Washington press corps. For three solid months, Gore was called a liar in major publications for a remark about youthful experiences on his family's farm. The accuracy of Gore's comments was well-known to the press corps; many profiles had described the part of Gore's upbringing which he had mentioned. But no one in the press ever spoke up to challenge the remarkable attacks. The modern press corps' puzzling pathology was played out in a most striking manner.

Background: In March of last year, Gore was interviewed by David Yepsen, the respected political reporter for the Des Moines Register. Yepsen mentioned some criticisms of Gore being offered by his Dem rival, Bill Bradley. Bradley "has been telling audiences in Iowa that he is not sure Gore can win against Republicans," Yepsen reported. And that wasn't all he had said:

YEPSEN: Bradley, who played in the National Basketball Association before serving in the Senate, has also said he has broader life experiences than Gore.

According to Yepsen's article, Gore responded by describing a series of his own life experiences, including service in Vietnam and his early career as a journalist. Gore then said, according to Yepsen, that Bradley's comment "may also refer to the fact that Gore's father was a U.S. senator." Gore mentioned the lessons he said he had learned from his father's courage on civil rights and Vietnam. Then Gore described some youthful experiences:

YEPSEN: "I'll tell you something else he taught me. He taught me how to clean out hog waste with a shovel and a hose. He taught me how to clear land with a single-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 and then, after a dinner break, go over and help the neighbors take up hay before the rain came and spoiled it on the ground.

"I wonder if Senator Bradley has had any of those life experiences?"

Is the NBA preparation for life in the White House? If not, it's hard to see how Bradley's experiences were a whole lot broader than Gore's—unless Bradley was referring to Gore's early life as the son of a pol. Bradley had spent ten years in the NBA, 18 in the Senate, and two years post-Senate, largely preparing his run. Gore had spent two years in the army, five years as a journalist, then 22 years in political office. Gore came to Washington as a congressman in 1977; Bradley arrived in the Senate two years later. But at any rate, there could be little doubt about the accuracy of Gore's description of his early farm experiences. Beginning in 1987, a series of national profiles had described his experiences on the family farm in Tennessee. Gore's father had made him work hard, the profiles said, to teach him the value of work.

Two recent biographies have described the chores in substantial detail:

BILL TURQUE: For parts of virtually every summer through high school, Gore worked with the farmhands and was often assigned an extra project assigned by his father...Even the local kids, who might have enjoyed watching a city slicker sweat some, were appalled at how hard Gore was worked. "It was horrendous," said one woman who knew him well as a teenager.

Bob Zelnick, whose bio appeared in the spring of 1999, made the farm chores the central metaphor of Gore's life, closing his book with a final image of Gore plowing the farm's "dangerous hillsides." As of spring 1999, any number of sources had described this part of Gore's youth in substantial detail. It would be completely absurd to deny it: Many members of the Washington press corps were fully aware of these profiles.

But in the aftermath of the Yepsen article, Gore's honesty was widely attacked. Three days after the article appeared, Bruce Morton offered a commentary on CNN's Inside Politics which suggested that Gore's remark on the chores was somehow inaccurate. And the farm chores were already being linked, by Morton and others, to Love Story and the Internet:

MORTON: Then there was Love Story. Gore once claimed the two characters in the movie Love Story were based on his wife Tipper and himself. The author said, "News to me," and Gore backed off.

Charitably put, Morton didn't know what he was talking about. But Morton's was an early version of a three-pronged critique being faxed from the RNC. Three months later, in mid-June, the Washington Times was still offering it:

THE WASHINGTON TIMES: Mr. Gore also has taken credit for the Internet. And he has claimed that he and his then-girlfriend, Tipper, who later became his wife, provided the inspiration to author Erich Segal for the couple in "Love Story," an assertion Mr. Segal emphatically denied.

That of course was baldly false. But then, so was the implication peddled here:

THE WASHINGTON TIMES: Then there was Mr. Gore reminiscing about plowing the fields of Tennessee as a young boy, when in reality he grew up in a luxurious downtown Washington hotel and attended exclusive private schools during his father's tenure in the Senate.

In the three months bridged by these presentations, Gore was repeatedly called a liar—or worse—for what he had said on the chores. Donald Lambro said that "the deeply dishonest side of Al Gore" was on display when "in a Midwest campaign speech, this millionaire's son...told farmers how he had hosed hog waste and plowed 'steep hillsides' with a team of mules in the fields of Tennessee." (Lambro couldn't even get the source of the comment right. For the record, Gore's father did not acquire wealth until well after the period in question.) In USA Today, Michael Medved said Gore's account of the chores showed that he had a "delusional view of himself." And the Weekly Standard, in a "Scrapbook" editorial, said Gore's account of the chores was "preposterous," in a presentation that was truly remarkable for the doctored "evidence" that helped make its case.

The Standard quoted from a 1994 profile of Gore, by Peter Boyer in the New Yorker. The passage concerned the "elegant" hotel in which young Gore had grown up. We think you should get the full impact:

THE WEEKLY STANDARD (paragraph 1): You probably thought you knew Al Gore's life story by now. As told in the New Yorker a few years back, the outlines are these: "Gore was a son of politics, a child of Washington, where his father served for thirty-two years as a congressman and a senator. The family residence was an apartment in the elegant Fairfax Hotel, which was owned by a Gore cousin..."

The portrait continued, but you get the picture. The Standard went on to quote Gore's remarks to Yepsen on the farm chores, calling his statement "preposterous." The editorial voiced approval for "one of [Jim] Nicholson's many Gore-related press releases last week," which ridiculed the notion of "Gore's hog-raising career."

But if one takes a look at the full Boyer profile, one gets a taste of the full-scale deception that sometimes drove the attacks on Gore's character. Because, in the paragraph immediately preceding the one the Standard quoted, Boyer described an interesting subject. You guessed it—Boyer described the very farm chores which the Standard's editorial derided:

BOYER: ...That sense is embedded in the family lore, such as the time when Al's father, believing that a boy needed to know the rigors of real work, asked his son, then a teen-ager, to plow a field with a particularly treacherous slope. Pauline Gore warned that the task, requiring the use of an unwieldy hillside plow, was too much to ask of the boy, and she and her husband argued about it...

This paragraph immediately preceded Boyer's paragraph about the hotel. Ironically, it described the very chore—plowing the hillside—which the Standard denounced as "preposterous." And this wasn't the only attack on the chores which bordered on outright deception. In the Washington Post, Michael Kelly wrote an influential column, "Farmer Al," which ridiculed the notion of the Gore chores. But Kelly himself, twelve years earlier, had profiled Gore for the Baltimore Sun. In that profile, Kelly included a full description of the farm chores which he now mocked and derided.

Remarkable, isn't it? For three months, a three-part attack on Gore's character unfolded, driven by releases from RNC headquarters. In mid-June, Gore did an hour-long interview on 20/20 to coincide with the official start of his campaign; Diane Sawyer challenged Gore with a pop quiz on farm chores in the program's third minute. But Gore's youthful experiences on the farm had long been described by the Washington press corps. And Bob Zelnick's critical bio, which appeared two months before, had described the farm chores in detail.

For three solid months, this attack went on. Many in the press corps surely knew it was false. But no one in the press corps so much as said "Boo." We can't help but wonder: Why is that?

 

Next week: When the press corps' wise men-and-women won't enter the fray, our public discourse is ceded to spinners.

Standards: Why in the world did the Weekly Standard present such doctored "evidence?" The Standard—in an editorial which ridiculed Gore's account of the chores—quoted a passage from Boyer's profile describing Gore's youthful Washington residence. But the paragraph which immediately preceded the one they quote described the farm chores in some detail.

Such selective presentation—on so pointless a topic—is little short of astonishing. But the doctoring was likely done by Jim Nicholson, at the RNC. On March 22—as the attack on Gore's character first began to unfold—the Post's Thomas Edsall did a report from Iowa. He described the RNC faxing the very material which the Standard then hopelessly used:

EDSALL: In addition to boasting to the [Des Moines] Register of his talents shoveling hog manure and plowing hillsides with a mule team, Gore declared that his dad taught him "how to clear land with a double-bladed ax...How to take up hay all day long in the hot sun." Gore then wondered "if Senator Bradley has had any of those life experiences."

Although Gore's family owned a working farm in Carthage, Tenn., Gore set himself up for a counter-attack, not by Bradley but by the Republican National Committee. The RNC quickly found and widely distributed a quote from a 1994 New Yorker article, just the kind of material that will serve Bradley best if it becomes public currency without Bradley's participation.

In the next paragraph, Edsall quoted the very passage from the Boyer piece that the Standard used in its opening paragraph. Somehow we doubt that the RNC also faxed the passage describing the chores.

Edsall's article displays the general approach the press corps took to this matter. In Edsall's telling, Gore somehow "set himself up" for the RNC attack by "boasting" about his experiences. Edsall—in a hopeless display—doesn't mention that Gore's statement was widely known to be accurate, or that the RNC material was baldly misleading. This presentation began a striking, year-long press corps narration. In it, Gore is described as negative and dishonest, while faxes like this by the RNC are accepted without any comment.