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30 May 2000

Our current howler (part I): The suitors

Synopsis: Penelope’s suitors defiled once-great halls. So with some in today’s troubled press corps.

Inventing Al Gore
Bill Turque, Houghton Mifflin, 2000

The Odyssey of Homer
Translated by Richmond Lattimore, Harper & Row, 1965

Amazing, isn't it? Such an episode defies comprehension. For three solid months, Gore's character was trashed, in the most aggressive ways, for what he had said about those meaningless farm chores. Gore was called "deeply dishonest" and "delusional" for what he had said; his story was called "preposterous" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/26/00). The RNC—one of our most important political institutions—sent out numerous faxes on the subject, trashing Gore's character again and again. In the period in which the attacks went on, Gore's "unfavorables" were sharply affected, going from 26 to 43, according to CNN/Time (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/99). Our electoral politics are deeply affected when the press corps embarks on such frenzies.

And what makes this episode so remarkable? The part of Gore's life which he had briefly described was a well-established part of his bio—written about, again and again, by this same Washington press corps. Biographical profiles, from 1987 on, had described this part of Gore's life. More remarkable still, just as the "farm chores" flap began, Bob Zelnick's critical bio of Gore appeared, and it described the farm chores in detail. Indeed, Zelnick made the chores the central metaphor of Gore's life, returning to them in the book's closing passage.

Zelnick's book was officially released on March 29, 1999. Reviews began to appear on that date. All over the press corps, major reviewers (and other pundits) were reading Zelnick's account of the chores. Yet no one in the press corps—no one; not a soul—spoke up about the simultaneous frenzy, in which Gore was openly trashed as a liar for briefly describing this part of his life.

No one so much as said a word. Not Al Hunt or E.J. Dionne on the sensible left; not Tod Lindberg or Paul Gigot on the sensible right; no one voiced a word of concern about the bizarre feeding frenzy. And as always, when elders step back from their caretaker role, lesser elements take control of the culture. To name one, Michael Kelly published an influential column in the Washington Post mocking the very idea of the chores. But Kelly himself had described the chores in substantial detail in a 1987 Gore profile (for the Baltimore Sun).

So it goes when the press corps' elders signal that anything goes.

Is it possible that journalists simply didn't know the facts behind this remarkable episode? Some scribes surely didn't know—hadn't read the string of biographical profiles, didn't read the Zelnick book. But many other scribes quite plainly did know, or would very shortly find out. But even when publications offered profiles in which Gore's farm chores were described, no one so much as said a word about the earlier episode. For example, respected reporter Kenneth Walsh did a profile of Gore in the August 9 U.S. News; he described the farm chores in some detail, as profilers of Gore had routinely done before RNC faxes defined an altered story (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/30/99). But Walsh didn't offer a word of comment about the earlier attacks on Gore's character. And when Newsweek's Bill Turque released his major Gore bio, it included this intriguing passage:

TURQUE: While many of Little Al's classmates were packed off to summer camp when school let out, he headed for the family's eight-hundred-acre tobacco and cattle farm about two and a half miles east of Carthage, Tennessee. The trips were less vacations than character-building boot camps designed by Albert Gore [Sr.] to give his privilege-softened son a taste of his own struggles in Possum Hollow. Ironically, Al Gore's Republican antagonists have seized on his recollections of the hard work he did on the farm as another bogus tale about his life. In fact, Gore was up at dawn tending to livestock and hosing out hog parlors...

Turque is right, as far as he goes; RNC faxes were plainly the original source of the farm chores debacle. But it wasn't just "Gore's Republican antagonists" who played active parts in the episode. Major journalists, all over the press corps, also "seized on [Gore's] another bogus tale about his life." Turque's selective remark reflects the Washington press corps' treasured rule—pundits don't comment on pundits.

Turque and Newsweek said nothing—not a word—when the farm chores debacle was under way. U.S. News stood silent as well; Walsh's profile eventually stated the facts, but didn't mention the three-month reign of error. What does it mean—when the public can be baldly misled about a major public figure, and the entire press corps stands silently by? Again—when major journalists refuse to speak, lesser elements take over the discourse. A press culture in which the farm chores debacle could pass without comment is a culture where anything goes.

This striking incident grimly defines our press corps' troubling pathology. What happens when elders refuse to speak up, even in the face of so howling an onslaught? The public discourse is put in the hands of the suitors, lazing about absent Odysseus' great halls. Wild claims will be made; strange things will be said; traditional standards will go out the window. This week, we close our report with a final look at the kind of work which the corps now turns out.


Tomorrow: The campaign's dispatches were "scurrilous," the journalist said. He also said this: He hadn't read them.

Notes from the gray-eyed goddess Athene: Our advisers assured us over the weekend: Professor Lattimore has it just about right as he renders Athene's reaction to the suitors. They crowded Odysseus' halls in his absence, disrespecting his wife and his son. Visiting young Telemachus, the disconsolate son, Athene looked with disfavor upon their behavior. "How insolently they seem to swagger about in their feasting all through the house" she remarked. "A serious man who came in among them would well be scandalized, seeing such disgraceful behavior." Athene didn't pull her punches, heaping scorn on the suitors' behavior. So too, we think, with much of the work being done by our puzzling press corps.