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30 May 2001

Our current howler (part II): New and improved

Synopsis: Transcripts exist of the Bush-Gore debate. Greenfield improved them a tad.

Oh Waiter! One Order of Crow!
Jeff Greenfield, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001

Let’s review Jeff Greenfield’s account of that first Bush-Gore debate:

GREENFIELD (page 193): The vice president, a veteran of forty debates during his political career, the man who had demolished Ross Perot on a free-trade debate on Larry King Live, the man with a sharp instinct for the political kill, lost all three debates. He lost them not because George W. Bush was especially impressive, but because Gore managed— in every one of the debates— to ram home the impression that he was precisely the smug, condescending politician of the stereotype who would in fact say anything to be president. [Greenfield’s emphases]

From there, Greenfield zeroes in on the first debate. If you "read the bloodless transcript," he says, "you might well judge Gore the winner on points." Gore slammed Bush’s tax cut and prescription drug plans, he says, "and in general showed a much better grasp of federal policy." How then did Gore blow the debate? Greenfield says you must look at the tape, not that bloodless transcript:

GREENFIELD (page 194): Watch a tape of the debate, and a very different picture emerges. Gore repeatedly interrupts, demands more time to explain himself, behaves like the smartest kid in class impatiently insisting on correcting everyone else’s mistakes. He rolls his eyes, shakes his head, and sighs audibly, if not theatrically.

This is the Standard Press Account of the first Bush-Gore debate. According to this now-iconic portrait, citizens were appalled by Gore’s conduct. It’s intriguing to note that Greenfield himself said nothing resembling this on CNN in real time; in fact, we’ll look at Greenfield’s actual comments in tomorrow’s HOWLER. Nor did network focus groups tend to complain; CNN’s focus group, for example, said nothing about Gore’s horrid conduct. And Greenfield has one more awkward point to explain; Gore won every instant poll that night, polls taken right after viewers watched his disgraceful conduct. Here is the best Greenfield can do at making that fact go away:

GREENFIELD (page 194): Yes, the instant polls showed a narrow Gore victory. But it was the kind of victory the villainous wrestler scores with a questionable chokehold. A lot of voters were saying, "Yeah, he won— but I don’t like that guy."

Let’s say it again: on CNN, Greenfield and his colleagues interviewed a brace of voters in a focus group after the debate. No one— including Greenfield— said anything dimly resembling what "a lot of voters" were supposedly saying.

But these points will all come later. After describing Gore’s gruesome conduct, Greenfield seeks to give us a taste of how bad the whole thing was. For starters, he offers this account of the way Gore kept interrupting:

GREENFIELD (page 194): At one point, moderator Jim Lehrer attempted to wrap up an argument on prescription drugs. Gore was like the terrier who would not let go of the bone.

"Jim, if I could respond."

"Just quick, and then we need to move on."

A moment later, Lehrer tries again:

"Excuse me, gentlemen."

"Jim, can I— can I make one other point?"

These are the first excerpts which Greenfield provides. Unfortunately, his account is baldly misleading, sometime false. Greenfield has simply misstated the transcript in service to Press Corps Reality.

First example: The discussion of prescription drugs was the evening’s longest, lasting slightly more than ten minutes. But the first exchange which Greenfield quotes does not come from that discussion. Lehrer was not "trying to wrap up an argument on prescription drugs" when he said, "Just quick, then we need to move on." That exchange occurred during the previous question, and Gore’s request— "Jim, if I could respond"— was a normal part of the debate’s ebb and flow. Lehrer showed no sign at all of being bothered by Gore’s request.

Why did Greenfield falsely say that this was part of the description on prescription drugs? He wants you to think that Gore was constantly interrupting. In fact, he couldn’t find enough examples during the lengthy discussion on drugs, so he takes an exchange from an earlier question and pretends that it happened here.

Second: During the debate on prescription drugs, Lehrer did say, "Excuse me, gentlemen." But as the transcript and tape make perfectly clear, he was cutting off Bush when he said it, not Gore. There was nothing inappropriate about Bush’s conduct. But it was Bush who was interrupted by Lehrer, not Gore.

By the way, did this second statement by Lehrer really come "moments later?" In fact, more than eight minutes elapsed between the two statements by Lehrer which Greenfield quotes in his book.

Third: Clearly, Greenfield gives the idea that Gore was the debate’s Mr. Big Mouth. On the tape, he "repeatedly interrupts, demands more time" and "impatiently insist[s] on correcting everyone else’s mistakes." Poor Bush! To hear Greenfield tell it, you’d think that Bush couldn’t get in a word in edgewise. So what was the actual word-count of the prescription drug discussion, the one which Greenfield singles out? Bush spoke 1091 words in the discussion, and Gore spoke 682. In fact, when Lehrer said, "Excuse me, gentlemen," Bush had spoken 791 words and Gore had spoken 478— and Bush was starting another comment, at which point Lehrer cut him off. As we’ll see, the fact that Bush spoke more words at this debate was publicly reported in real time; surely, Greenfield has heard it. But he has an Official Story to tell, and like a good pundit, knows he must tell it.

Tomorrow we’ll look at what Greenfield said on the actual night of the debate. We’ll see that Greenfield said nothing whatever suggesting that Gore had been bossy or rude. In fact, it was Bush whose conduct may have strayed just a tad, according to Greenfield in real time. Tomorrow, we’ll get a better look at how stories can change when scribes try to clamber on message.

Next: What did Greenfield say at the time? At the time, it was Bush who had erred.


Transcript (5/30/01)

And now for what actually happened: What follows is the CNN transcript of the ten-minute exchange on prescription drugs. (Note: When Lehrer says the discussion has lasted "almost five minutes," it has actually gone on for more than eight.) No transcript can give a perfect account, since the three men talked over one another a few times. But CNN’s transcript is the most faithful available. Count the words (or just count the lines) if you think that Gore commandeered this discussion. And note well— the first exchange which Greenfield quoted does not occur in this segment. The truth is, Greenfield couldn’t find enough interruptions by Gore in this segment, so he went and found language somewhere else.

LEHRER: Governor Bush, you have questioned— this is a companion question to the question I asked Vice President Gore.


LEHRER: You have questioned whether Vice President Gore has demonstrated the leadership qualities necessary to be president of the United States. What do you mean by that?

BUSH: Well, here’s what I've said: I’ve said, Jim, I’ve said that eight years ago they campaigned on prescription drugs for seniors, and four years ago they campaigned on getting prescription drugs for seniors, and now they’re campaigning on getting prescription drugs for seniors. It seems like they can’t get it done.

Now they may blame other folks, but it's time to get somebody in Washington who's going to work with both Republicans and Democrats to get some positive things done when it comes to our seniors.

And so what I’ve said is, is there’s been some missed opportunities. They’ve had a chance. They've had a chance to form consensus. I’ve got a plan on Medicare, for example, that's a two-stage plan that says we’re going to have immediate help for seniors in what I call "Immediate Helping Hand," a $48 billion program.

But I also want to say to seniors, "If you’re happy with Medicare the way it is, fine, you can stay in the program. But we’re going to give you additional choices just like they give federal employees in the federal employee health plan." Federal employees have got a variety of choices from which to choose, so should seniors.

And my point has been, as opposed to politicizing an issue like Medicare— in other words, holding it up as an issue, hoping somebody bites and then try to clobber them over the head with it for political purposes— this year, in the year 2000, it’s time to say, "Let’s get it done once and for all." And that’s what I have been critical about the administration for.

Same with Social Security. I think there was a good opportunity to bring Republicans and Democrats together to reform the Social Security system so the seniors will never go without. Those on Social Security today will have their promise made.

But also to give younger workers the option, at their choice, of being able to manage some of their own money in the private sectors to make sure there’s a Social Security system around tomorrow. There’s a lot of young workers at our rallies we go to, that when they hear that I’m going to trust them, at their option, to be able to manage, under certain guidelines, some of their own money to get a better rate of return so that they'll have a retirement plan in the future, they begin to nod their heads. And they want a different attitude in Washington.

LEHRER: One minute rebuttal, Vice President Gore.

GORE: Well, Jim, under my plan, all seniors will get prescription drugs under Medicare. The governor has described Medicare as a government HMO; it’s not. And let me explain the difference.

Under the Medicare prescription drug proposal I’m making, here’s how it works: You go to your own doctor and your doctor chooses your prescription, and no HMO or insurance company can take those choices away from you. Then you go to your own pharmacy, you fill the prescription and Medicare pays half the cost. If you’re in a very poor family or you have very high costs, Medicare will pay all the costs— a $25 premium and much better benefits than you can possibly find in the private sector.

Now here’s the contrast. Ninety-five percent of all seniors would get no help whatsoever, under my opponent’s plan, for the first four or five years.

Now, one thing I don’t understand, Jim, is, why is it that the wealthiest 1 percent get their tax cuts the first year, but 95 percent of seniors have to wait four to five years before they get a single penny.

LEHRER: Governor?

BUSH: I guess my answer to that is, the man’s running on Mediscare, trying to frighten people in the voting booth. That's just not the way I think, and I that’s just not my intentions. That’s not my plan.

I want all seniors to have prescription drugs and Medicare. We need to reform Medicare. There have been opportunity to do so, but this administration has failed to do it.

And so seniors are going to have not only a Medicare plan where the poor seniors will have their prescriptions paid for, but there will be a variety of options.

The current system today has meant a lot for a lot of seniors, and I really appreciate the intentions of the current system. And as I mentioned, if you’re happy with the system, you can stay in it.

But there’s a lot of procedures that have not kept up in Medicare with the current times. There's no prescription drug benefits, there’s no drug therapies, there's no preventing medicines, there’s no vision care.

I mean, we need to have a modern system to help seniors. And the idea of supporting a federally controlled, 132,000-page document bureaucracy as being a compassionate way for seniors is— and the only compassionate source of care for seniors, is just not my vision.

I believe we ought to give seniors more options. I believe we ought to make the system work better. But I know this: I know it's going to require a different kind of leader to go to Washington to say to both Republicans and Democrats, "Let’s come together."

You’ve had your chance, Vice President. You’ve been there for eight years and nothing has been done.

And my point is is that my plan not only trusts seniors with options, my plan sets aside $3.4 trillion for Medicare over the next 10 years. My plan also says it’s going to require a new approach in Washington, D.C.

It’s going to require somebody who can work across the partisan divide.

GORE: If I could respond to that, Jim, under my plan, I will put Medicare in an iron-clad lockbox and prevent the money from being used for anything other than Medicare. The governor has declined to endorse that idea, even though the Republican as well as Democratic leaders of Congress have endorsed it.

I'd be interested to see if he would this evening say that he would put Medicare in a lockbox. I don't think he will, because under his plan, if you work out the numbers, $100 billion comes out of Medicare just for the wealthiest 1 percent in the tax cut.

Now here is the difference: Some people who say the word "reform" actually mean cuts. Under the governor's plan, if you kept the same fee-for-service that you have now under Medicare, your premiums would go up by between 18 and 47 percent. And that's the study of the congressional plan that he's modeled his proposal on by the Medicare actuaries.

Let me just give you one quick example: There's a man here tonight named George McKinney from Milwaukee. He's 70 years old, he has high blood pressure, his wife has heart trouble. They have income of $25,000 a year. They cannot pay for their prescription drugs. And so they're some of the ones that go to Canada regularly in order to get their prescription drugs.

Under my plan, half of their costs would be paid right away. Under Governor Bush’s plan, they would get not one penny for four to five years, and then they would be forced to go into an HMO or to an insurance company and ask them for coverage, but there would be no limit on the premiums or the deductibles or any other terms and conditions.

BUSH: I cannot let this go by, the old-style Washington politics, of "We’re going to scare you in the voting booth."

Under my plan, the man gets immediate help with prescription drugs. It’s called "Immediate Helping Hand." Instead of squabbling and finger-pointing, he gets immediate help.

Let me say something. Now, I understand— excuse me—

LEHRER: All right, excuse me, gentlemen—

GORE: Jim, can I—


LEHRER: — minutes is up, but we’ll finish that.

GORE: Can I make one other point? They get $25,000 a year income. That makes them ineligible.

BUSH: Look, this is the man who’s got great numbers. He talks about numbers. I'm beginning to think, not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator.


It's fuzzy math. It's to scare them, trying to scare people in the voting booth.

Under my tax plan, that he continues to criticize, I set a third. You know, the federal government should take more of that— no more than a third of anybody's check. But I also dropped the bottom rate from 15 percent to 10 percent, because, by far, the vast majority of the help goes to the people at the bottom end of the economic ladder.

If you're a family of four in Massachusetts making $50,000, you get a 50 percent cut in the federal income taxes you pay. It's from $4,000 to about $2,000.

Now, the difference in our plans is, I want that $2,000 to go to you.

LEHRER: All right. Let me— hold on.

BUSH: And the vice president would like to be spending the $2,000 on your behalf.

LEHRER: One quick thing, gentlemen. These are your rules. I'm doing my best. We're way over the three and a half minutes. I have no problems with it, but we wanted— do you want to have a quick response, and we'll move on. We're already almost five minutes on this, all right?

GORE: Yes. It's just clear— you can go to the web site and look. If you make more than $25,000 a year, you don't get a penny of help under the Bush prescription drug proposal for at least four to five years. And then you're pushed into a Medicare— into an HMO or an insurance company plan, and there's no limit on the premiums or the deductibles or any of the conditions. And the insurance companies say that it won't work and they won't offer these plans.

LEHRER: Let me ask you both this, and we'll move on, on this subject. As a practical matter, both of you want to bring prescription drugs to seniors, correct?

BUSH: Correct.

GORE: Correct, but the difference is— the difference is I want to bring it to 100 percent, and he brings it only to 5 percent.

LEHRER: All right. All right. All right.

BUSH: That's just— that's just— that's just totally false.

LEHRER: All right. What difference does it make how—

BUSH: Wait a minute. It's just totally false for him to stand up here and say that.

Let me make sure the seniors hear me loud and clear. They've had their chance to get something done. I'm going to work with both Republicans and Democrats to reform the system. All seniors will be covered. All poor seniors will have their prescription drugs paid for. In the meantime— in the meantime, we're going to have a plan to help poor seniors. And "in the meantime" could be one year or two years.

GORE: Let me— let me call your attention to the key word there. He said all "poor" seniors.

BUSH: No. Wait a minute, all seniors are covered under prescription drugs in my plan.

GORE: In the first year? In the first year?

BUSH: If we can get it done in the first year, you bet. Yours is phased in in eight years.

GORE: No. No. No. No. It's a two-phase plan, Jim. And for the first four years— it takes a year to pass it. And for the first four years, only the poor are covered. Middle class seniors, like George McKinney and his wife, are not covered for four to five years.

LEHRER: I've got an idea.


LEHRER: You have any more to say about this, you can say it in your closing statement, so we'll move on, OK?

New question, Vice President Gore, how would you contrast your approach to preventing future— future oil price and supply problems like we have now to the approach of Governor Bush?