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1 June 2001

Our current howler (part IV): Who was right?

Synopsis: Gore corrected Bush because Bush was wrong. Six months later, Jeff Greenfield won’t say it.

The Voters Respond: A CNN and 'TIME' Town Meeting
CNN, 10/3/00

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

All over the country, folks were complaining about Al Gore’s horrid conduct. All over the country—except, of course, at CNN’s focus group, which Greenfield sat and watched. Here, for example, was one of the twenty-two voters interviewed post-debate—none of whom mentioned the horrid conduct to which they had just been subjected:

KATIE SNOOK (ph), AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Katie Snook and I’m from Tampa.

WOLF BLITZER: Move the microphone a little close to your mouth. Thank you.

SNOOK: And I have not decided yet. I would like to listen more. The only thing: I lean a little bit more towards Gore.

BLITZER: Tell us why.

SNOOK: Because I liked the way he presented himself. And he made many things clearer to me than Bush did, although I have never been a Democrat.

BLITZER: All right. We’re going to get back. And we’re going to talk a little bit more. We have a lot more to talk about, including education, which is going to be a big issue.

So what debate had Katie Snook been watching? Not the one described by Greenfield, politely bringing his book in line with the press corps’ Official Account. After watching Gore misbehave the whole night, Snook "liked the way he presented himself!" But then, there was also Bill Meyer:

BILL MEYER (ph), AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Bill Meyer, and I agree with (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that we do need a little bit more time to decide where we’re going with this. But as far as trust goes, George Bush, I have a tendency to trust him. I was in Texas for 15 years. I knew him as a governor, moved over to Florida three years ago, and I’ve seen him do what he said he was going to do.

On the other hand, I think it was a bit of a cheap shot for him to take at, at Al Gore in the end, linking him with Clinton. I know they’re two different people and he is indeed his own man.

I am still undecided quite a bit.

Meyer was also way off message—leaning to Bush, yet unimpressed with the "cheap shot" he took at Gore. But don’t be misled—few voters in the CNN group said anything at all about either pol’s conduct; unlike our utterly vacuous press corps, they talked about things that really matter. But none of the twenty-two people interviewed said a word about Gore’s alleged conduct. The disgraceful conduct which Greenfield describes went strangely unnoticed that night.

And why didn’t voters describe Gore’s conduct? Could it be that the conduct didn’t exist—that Greenfield’s wildly hyperbolic portrait is an after-the-fact construction, gimmicked up by the hapless press corps in the days and hours after the event? In real time, Greenfield himself didn’t mention Gore’s conduct—the conduct he now decries so harshly. And in the part of his book where he slams Gore’s behavior, Greenfield baldly misrepresents the debate’s simple transcript (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/30/01). Simply put, Greenfield tells you things that aren’t true. But they help you believe his account.

Alas! So it goes when our celebrity press corps tells you the stories it likes. We have seen this conduct again and again—all through the election, for example. But there is one other aspect of Greenfield’s account that simply must be mentioned here too. And that takes us back to Oh Waiter!’s description of Gore at the first debate.

In an earlier HOWLER, we gave you part of Greenfield’s excerpts from the debate (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/30/01). Now we reprint his full set of clips:

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?"

A moment later, as he and Bush continue, Bush tried to defend his plan:

"All seniors are covered under prescription drugs in my plan?"

"In the first year? In the first year?"

"If we can get I done in the first year, you be. Yours is phased in in eight years."

"No. No. No. No. It’s a two-phase-plan, Jim."

Forget the fact that Gore’s makeup looked like it had been the work of a student of mortuary science. Any undecided voter who was wary of electing a big-government know-it-all to the White House had his worst fears confirmed in that first debate. 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."

Greenfield’s closing paragraph is disgraceful. He starts with another Standard Press Jibe—Gore’s makeup didn’t look right that evening. This, of course, has nothing to do with the central claim—the claim that Gore interrupted too much—but Greenfield throws it in all thew same, saying that we should "forget" it. He then claims that undecided voters saw that Gore was really a "big-government know-it-all." This explains how Gore supposedly lost the election in this debate—even though he won every post-debate poll.

By his own account, Greenfield is discussing Bush and Gore’s debate on prescription drugs, which lasted ten solid minutes. During that discussion, Gore actually spoke far less than Bush—and Bush "interrupted" every bit as much as Gore, as a review of the transcript plainly shows (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/31/01). (Bush also spoke more words in the debate as a whole, as was discussed in major venues in real time.) And was it only Gore who "corrected" his rival? Greenfield is rather selective in his recollections. Example: at one point during this ten-minute battle, Bush spoke these widely-quoted words:

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.

Earlier—in his second statement of the entire night—Bush had accused Gore of using "phony numbers," and he maintained that critique throughout the debate, not excluding this ten-minute segment. But the Official Press Story omits that fact, so Greenfield doesn’t mention it either. According to his recitation, it was Gore who corrected Bush all night, acting like "the smartest kid in class." In fact, the discussion of prescription drugs was one of the great battles royales in TV debate history. Bush and Gore challenged each others’ statements throughout the entire encounter.

And wouldn’t you know it? Obsessed as he is with Gore’s deportment, Greenfield forgets to say if Gore was right when he "corrected" his poor, misused rival. Of course, there is a very good reason for Greenfield’s omission; he omits this point because it was almost wholly ignored in Official Press Accounts of the debate. Weird, isn’t it? Bush and Gore battled for ten solid minutes, in one of the most extended such sessions in presidential debate history. Bush as much as called Gore a liar; Gore said that Bush didn’t know his own plan. ("It’s just clear—you can go to the [Bush] web site and look," Gore said at one point in the skirmish.) Easily, this was one of the most dramatic encounters in the history of presidential debates. And most papers did what Greenfield does here—they simply never said who was right! It was hard to learn who was right in the press; it’s impossible to find out from Greenfield.

In our view, there was an obvious reason for that silence. The press didn’t tell you who was right because, by the time of the first debate, they were deep in the bag for Bush—and Bush was dramatically, crazily wrong about his own prescription drug plan (by all accounts, one of the issues in which voters were taking the most interest). Repeatedly, Bush misstated his own plan, attacking Gore’s character in the process. Gore said that seniors earning more than 25 grand would get no help from Bush’s plan for four or five years; Bush insisted that all senior citizens, not just the poor, got "instant help" under his plan. About this, Bush was clearly wrong, as that visit to his web site would have shown. But Bush accused Gore of "fuzzy math" when he correctly described the Bush plan; he said that Gore was "running on MediScare, trying to frighten people in the voting booth." Greenfield isn’t troubled by Bush’s conduct in making these inaccurate charges, because the press corps’ Standard Account didn’t focus on Bush’s deportment. It was Gore whose behavior was scored—and it’s Gore whom the obedient Greenfield sets his sights on here, even talking about his vile make-up.

Some major journalists did report that Bush had been wrong on this matter. For example, Glenn Kessler said so in the Washington Post the next day (late editions only, not reprinted in the next day’s early editions); Ron Brownstein said so in the Los Angeles Times. You could even learn the truth on CNN, if you watched all day and listened very carefully. Brooks Jackson, Inside Politics, next day:

JACKSON: Gore said Bush’s prescription drug plan would at first give not one penny to a couple make $25,000 a year. And this time, Bush bruised the truth when he denied it.

BUSH (on videotape): Under my plan, the man gets immediate help with prescription drugs.

JACKSON: Wrong, unless the man spends $6,000 a year on prescriptions.

The overall discussion had lasted a solid ten minutes. The New York Times never reported who was right and who was wrong in its central dispute, and pundits ran as fast as they could to declare that Bush had committed no gaffes, and that Gore had been rude and quite naughty.

Now Jeff Greenfield says that too. Incredibly, six months after the Bush-Gore debate, he still doesn’t tell you who was right—though he savages Gore for "correcting" Bush. To Greenfield, when a candidate makes a baldly false statement, the other guy should just listen politely. But then, Greenfield’s new book makes it patently clear—in the press corps’ current, dysfunctional culture, you’re allowed to spin and dissemble as much as you like if it helps you to tell Approved Tales.

Is it wrong to correct an inaccurate statement? Greenfield assures us it is. Is it wrong to call someone a liar when he’s actually right? To Greenfield, that seems to be A-OK—but then, the press corps has an Approved Story to sell. And Greenfield sticks to that story.

Tomorrow: A few did mention Gore’s naughty conduct. It’s intriguing to note who they were.


The occasional update (6/1/01)

Gaffe-free living: Pundits ran as fast as they could to say Bush had committed no gaffes. In fact, Bush not only bungled his prescription drug plan, virtually calling Gore a liar in the process; in his very first statement of the evening, he grossly misstated his budget plan too:

BUSH: Well, we do come from different places. And I come from West Texas. I’ve been a governor. Governor is the chief executive officer and learns how to set agendas, and I think you’re going to find the difference reflected in our budgets.

I want to take one-half of the surplus and dedicate it to Social Security, one-quarter of the surplus for important projects, and I want to send one-quarter of the surplus back to the people who pay the bills.
I want everybody who pays taxes to have their tax rates cut.

Those were Bush’s first words at the debate. The description of his budget proposal was wildly inaccurate. According to the Bush campaign’s own numbers—undisputed—he was actually proposing $1.3 trillion in tax cuts, and only $470 billion in new spending. (At the time, "one quarter of the surplus" was $1.15 trillion.) Bush’s tax cut was three times the size of his new spending. He told viewers that the two were equal. (Post-election, Bush stopped one bit of fudging; he began describing the tax cut as $1.6 trillion, as he probably should have done all along.)

Why did Bush engage in such apparent dissembling? Gore was arguing that Bush’s tax cut took so much of the surplus that it left little money for important new projects. Bush’s answer—a standard, inaccurate part of his stump speech—served nicely to blunt that charge.

The inaccuracy of Bush’s statement was hardly a secret. By the time of the first debate, Paul Krugman had written three separate op-ed columns in the New York Times dissecting this groaning misstatement. But Bush’s misstatement was almost never mentioned in reviews of the debate; Bush was allowed his opening whopper. And Bush was allowed the stunning gaffe about his own prescription drug plan, and allowed to accuse Gore of "phony numbers" and "fuzzy math" in the process. By October, the celebrity press had its script set in stone, and mere reality was shoved to the side.

Here, by the way, was Mara Liasson, critiquing Bush for Fox post-debate:

LIASSON: I thought Bush did seem more relaxed. And I also thought that Bush was able to explain his tax cut plan in a pretty coherent way. I thought that [issue] was a draw, if not a Bush advantage.

First and most important, needless to say, was the claim that Bush "seemed more relaxed." But Liasson called Bush’s explanation of his tax cut "pretty coherent." She failed to mention something else—that the explanation was palpably wrong.