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31 May 2000

Our current howler (part II): Weisberg recumbent

Synopsis: Jacob Weisberg, recumbent, don’t read much no more. It’s part of what’s wrong with our discourse.

Dilemma of the Ruthless Democrat
Jacob Weisberg, Slate, 4/25/00

Gore and Bradley Debate
Jacob Weisberg, Slate, 10/27/99

Where does our public discourse end up when the elders signal that anything goes? It ends up with Jacob Weisberg, recumbent, remarking on unread campaign e-mails. In late April, Weisberg listed ten headlines from e-mailed statements which he'd received from the Gore campaign. The e-mails were "still in my in-box waiting to be read," he remarked. Some were dated from a full week before. But then he served up this assessment:

WEISBERG (4/25): I have a pretty good guess what I'll conclude when I get around to wading through these statements. Some of Gore's criticisms [of Bush] will rate as legitimate, others as somewhat unfair and distorted, and still others as scurrilous...

"Scurrilous" used to be a pretty tough word to use about a public figure. We chuckled to see the word employed here, about messages not yet even read. And we noted that two of the statements which Weisberg listed dealt with Texas education topics. One of them carried this headline:

GORE STATEMENT: Required Reading: Education Experts: "Texas Miracle" is a Myth. Washington Post Reports Growing Corps of Skeptics Believe That Bush's Record on Education Is Less Than Miraculous

According to Weisberg, that message came in on Friday, April 20. The previous day—Thursday, April 19, Weisberg said—the Gore camp had sent out this message:

GORE STATEMENT: Required Reading: Reformer With Results? Texas Teachers Don't Think So

As we have noted, the public interest would be greatly served if reporters explored the testing issues covered in the Washington Post piece (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/19/00). But Weisberg, recumbent, hadn't done any reading. He preferred to "guess" at what he'll "conclude"—if he ever reads the Gore statements, of course.

Weisberg is a smart, respected scribe, which makes this column more of a marker—a marker of the lazy standards now marbled all through our troubled press corps. Indeed, "scurrilous" was the least of the terms the drowsing pundit ascribed to Gore; Gore was also called "brutal," "cold-blooded," "nasty," "ruthless," and "remorseless," with a "killer instinct." Needless to say—the press corps has rules—he was also a "panderer," who will "do anything to win." We were especially struck by the following passage, which rang bells from the not-distant past. Gore had "grossly distorted" Bill Bradley's record in the primaries, Weisberg complained at one point:

WEISBERG (4/25): If you know Gore, you know he'll do essentially the same thing to Bush: rip into his flesh like a crazed weasel while grinning and promising never to make a "negative personal attack" against an opponent.

Weisberg, too tired to read his e-mails, is also too lazy to coin new invective. The last time we visited the sleepy-eyed scribe, he was limning the first Dem debate:

WEISBERG (10/27): Gore arrived on stage like some sort of feral animal who had been locked in a small cage and fed on nothing but focus groups for several days. Upon release, he began to scamper furiously in every direction at once. Assuming his stool 20 minutes before showtime, he volunteered to take extra questions from the audience. At the end of the hour-long non-debate, he promised to stay and answer even more. As of this writing (10:30 p.m.) he's still at it, sitting on the edge of the stage with his wife, talking about human rights in Africa and offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico with a few dozen New Hampshireites.

October's "feral animal" was now April's "crazed weasel." Weisberg's startling imagery was unchanged, and so was his basic complaint. In April, he complains of press releases he's too lazy to read. Back in October, his lament was the same; he expressed the press corps' fashionable boredom, rolling his eyes at the very idea of communication between public and candidate.

This is writing from a public nightmare—rude, aggressive, haughty, incompetent, bored to the soul by the discourse itself. Like much of current press corps writing, this is writing done by a writer who is determined not to write about much. As with Peter Keating's piece in George, Weisberg matches a hyperbolic level of rhetoric with a studied refusal to do any analysis; in the two previous articles to which Weisberg links readers, he does the barest, most meager job of justifying his name-calling rant. Did Gore "grossly distort" Bradley's record, the charge that drives the Weisberg tirade? The January 31 Slate piece to which Weisberg links discusses Gore's attack on Bradley's 1993 flood-relief votes; it's the only alleged distortion on which Weisberg writes, and he doesn't say much about that. Where extended argument might have appeared, Weisberg fills in with more invective, this time from Bradley, whose complaints against Gore Weisberg quotes without pretense of critique. And Weisberg, in his April piece, offers silly hyperbole about Governor Bush, too. "Bush has his own hereditary ruthless streak," Weisberg says, introducing another exciting theme that would later show up in Keating's article (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/16/00). The silliest elements are always recycled, as we'll explore in more detail tomorrow.

How can it be, that this is the way our smart writers now conduct our discourse? It would be hard to overstate the utter worthlessness of Weisberg's attempt to "argue" his case. His April piece is built around his list of the ten Gore e-mails he hasn't read. After listing the headlines—with the statements unread—Weisberg gives his central critique:

WEISBERG (4/25): Some of Gore's criticisms will rate as legitimate, others as somewhat unfair, and still others as scurrilous. But sustaining his case on any one of these issues is much less important to the Gore campaign than the overall effect of the ceaseless barrage. In issuing several accusations a day...Gore is betting that he can seize the upper hand and keep Bush on the defensive.

No! What hopeful would want to do that? Weisberg enlightens us further:

WEISBERG (4/25, continuing directly): If the tactic feels familiar, it's because it's what Gore always does. He used the same sort of pepper spray on Bill Bradley in the primaries, leaving him gasping for air...

Oddly, given his own approach, Weisberg is troubled by Gore's negativity. But just how silly is Weisberg's central claim—the claim that there is something unusually negative about these Gore e-mails? We took a look at the Bush web site. Here were a few of the headlines there on the day of Weisberg's complaint:

Thursday, April 20: Setting the Record Straight, New Poll Highlights Gore's Failure to Enhance Gun Laws

Friday, April 21: The Week in Review: Bush Pushes Policy; Gore Plays Politics

Monday, April 24: We Knew It Was Bound to Happen...Al Gore Gears Up the Attack Machine

Tuesday, April 25: Bush Focuses on Bipartisan Solutions While Al Gore Exaggerates and Distorts

We find the overwrought attack language of our campaigns silly, too. But for the record, those were the headlines the Bush camp was pushing as Weisberg declaimed about Gore's.

How can it be that this sort of work is now done at the top of our troubled press corps? We're not sure, but tomorrow we'll see how this lazy, inept work networks on.


Tomorrow: Weisberg's rant was sampled by Keating. But then, the silly stuff always gets networked on.

The Daily update: For today's Daily update, click here.