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Caveat lector

18 June 2001

Our current howler (part I): Mother Theresa

Synopsis: We knew enough to check Sammon’s source. Free people should see what we found.

At Any Cost
Bill Sammon, Regnery Publishing, 2001

In Florida, Drawing The Battle Lines
David Von Drehle, Ellen Nakashima, Susan Schmidt and Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 1/29/01

When last we looked in on poor outraged Bill Sammon, he was pretending that loudmouth talker Chris Matthews had supported Gore in the 2000 campaign (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/11/01). We were critiquing a passage from Sammon’s new book which had been excerpted in the Washington Times. And we made a note to explore the full text when it became available at leading bookstores nationwide.

Is it possible? Is it possible that Sammon—a high-placed member of the Washington press corps—could possibly think that Hardball host Matthews pulled for Gore in the last campaign? Assuming that Sammon is not insane, the notion is absurd on its face. Well, Sammon’s book is now in the stores, and it’s found on the best-seller lists as well. And in it, Sammon does what he likes to do best—he lies to abused readers about Gore. As it turns out, the passage about Matthews was just a taste of the dissembling—no, the lying—to come.

Consider one overwrought passage. In it, poor Bill Sammon is outraged again, this time concerning Gore’s behavior as he planned for the Florida recount. In the immediate aftermath of Election Day, Gore "had stepped to the brink of the abyss," Sammon tells us. "National turmoil be damned," Sammon writes. "Something much more important was on the line—[Gore’s] political career:"

SAMMON (page 90): Gore was so upfront about putting his own skin above the national interest that, according to the Washington Post, he sat his senior aides

down and drew them a picture. Literally. On an easel of butcher paper in the dining room of this residence at he Naval Observatory in Washington, Gore drew four concentric circles to represent his priorities. He and Lieberman occupied the innermost circle. The next circle was reserved for big supporters like CIO president John Sweeney, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, and abortion advocate Kate Michelman. The Democratic Party was third in Gore’s circle of priorities. Finally, in the very last circle, Gore placed the country. The man who was seeking to lead the United States of America into the new millenium placed the national interest not first, not second, not even third. In Al Gore’s hierarchy of priorities, the nation came dead last.

It sounded bad—real bad. But just in case readers couldn’t figure that out, Sammon threw in some high irony:

SAMMON (continuing directly): Americans, alas, are a corny lot. They still like to think that their presidents place the national interest above their own. They would find it difficult to imagine men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan drawing four concentric circles and explaining that their own hides were more important than the national interest. But Al Gore wasn’t like those other leaders. He was looking out for Number One, plain and simple.

By this point, Sammon was just on page 91. Trust us—his portrait of Gore becomes less flattering as his dissembling exposition rattles on.

Luckily, we learned a key fact long ago—we learned that you can’t trust Bill Sammon. And so we found the Washington Post article to which the irate scribe refers. It was a lengthy piece, published on January 29; in it, four reporters described the situation in Florida right after Election Day. Deep in their piece, the writers described a meeting at Gore’s vice presidential residence; the meeting took place on Saturday, November 12, immediately after the election. How did the scribes portray the meeting? Here is the actual Post report—the one Sammon cites as his source:

VON DREHLE/NAKASHIMA/SCHMIDT/CONNOLLY: The meeting was in the dining room. Gore’s wife, Tipper, snapped pictures and offered food. Gore occupied a central chair, beside two easels that held giant pads of paper.

At one point, he drew a series of concentric circles to remind everyone of his circles of responsibility. At his innermost circle, he had responsibilities to himself and to Lieberman, then he moved outward through his closest supporters, Democrats as a whole and, in the largest circle, the country. He could not make critical decisions, he explained, without considering the larger context.

That is the entire discussion of the Four Circles—the total basis for Sammon’s portrait. And, as readers of English can plainly see, the reporters’ account doesn’t dimly resemble the portrait which Sammon gins up. Indeed, in the Post’s brief portrait of this event, Gore’s posture was exactly the opposite of the one the outraged Sammon describes. What was Gore actually telling his "advisers?" According to the Post, he was "reminding" them of his responsibilities—telling them that he couldn’t make decisions about Florida without reference to the national interest. There is absolutely nothing in this report to support the ugly claim Sammon makes—the claim that the "upfront" Gore told his senior aides that "the national interest came last."

What exactly should free people do about character assassins like Sammon? About journalists who take $28 from thousands of people, then lie in their readers’ faces? What do we do about dissemblers like Sammon, who conjure tales to make people think that public officials are deeply corrupt? How do we deal with dissemblers like Sammon, who so profoundly corrupt our public discourse?

This episode is just a minor taste of the nonsense that litters this book. And one thing that free people ought to do is stop being polite about Sammon. In his acknowledgments, the baby-faced All-Star piously poses, thanking his wife and children—Brittany, Brooke, Ben, Billy and Blair—for putting up with Daddy’s absence as Daddy compiled his rank deceptions. And he piously thanks his mother, Theresa, who "provided daily prayers that were much appreciated."

Spare us. What should free people do about Sammon? On that we have no final view. But maybe Theresa should pray for insight into how her son got to be so corrupt.

Next: The opening chapter of Sammon’s book is a textbook in deception and slander.


The occasional update (6/18/01)

Delete the women and children: Liars like Sammon are good with details. He told his readers that Gore’s Four Circles were drawn for his "senior aides." But the Post’s source report gave more detail:

VON DREHLE/NAKASHIMA/SCHMIDT/CONNOLLY (continuing directly from above): The revolving group talked for five hours—Gore and Tipper and daughters Karenna and Kristin, Lieberman, Daley, Christopher, Nides, campaign consultant Carter Eskew and Gore’s brother-in-law, Frank Hunger.

So it wasn’t just professional pols, like Eskew and Daley. Gore also drew those nasty circles for his wife and two of his daughters. Tipper, the Post said, was "snapping pictures," and offering food all around.

Why is it? Why is it that Sammon—enjoying the luxury of a book-length format—provides less detail than his newspaper source? Here’s why: In Sammon’s portrait, Gore’s conduct had to be diabolical; after all, he was being "upfront about putting his own skin above the national interest." It would have strained credulity to picture Gore making this presentation to his wife and his children. So Sammon got strategically vague, and his readers got what they paid for—a tale.

Cleaning up the language: Dissemblers like Sammon are quite good with language. What was Gore laying out when he drew those four circles? Remember, Sammon’s only source is that Post report. So it’s funny how one key phrase changed:

THE WASHINGTON POST: At one point, he drew a series of concentric circles to remind everyone of his circles of responsibility.

SAMMON’S BOOK: On an easel of butcher paper in the dining room of his residence, Gore drew four concentric circles to represent his priorities.

Huh! Why did Sammon say "priorities" instead of "circles of responsibility?" Here’s why: It’s because Sammon didn’t want his readers thinking that Gore had reminded everyone of his responsibilities, which is what his source report actually said. In fact, he wants you to think exactly the opposite—that Gore was despicably "putting the nation last." And so his source’s key word—"responsibility"—won a quick trip to the memory hole, and Sammon’s readers were handed a book which said things they would very much like.