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25 June 2001

Our current howler (part IV): Seeing no evil

Synopsis: Bill Sammon wrote an indefensible book. And Big Pundits know not to say so.

At Any Cost
Bill Sammon, Regnery Publishing, 2001

Commentary by Bill Sammon, Roger Simon
Washington Journal, C-SPAN, 5/18/01

Commentary by Mark Shields, Al Hunt, Robert Novak, Margaret Carlson
The Capital Gang, CNN, 6/16/01


What happened at the networks on Election Night? Every American should want to find out. The nets’ bungling in Florida reached new heights, and Sammon shows us more in At Any Cost; pundits offered speculations about an array of states which turned out to be wildly inaccurate (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/21/01). And Sammon’s anecdotal evidence suggests another possibility—the networks may have awarded states to Gore more quickly than to Bush. Every American has a stake in learning what really happened.

But you won’t learn what happened in At Any Cost, because the book doesn’t offer the slightest sign that Sammon ever tried to find out. Did the nets award states to Gore more quickly? Sammon ticks off alleged horror stories, but he never offers a comprehensive list of all the states and the times they were called. Since only Eastern and Central states are really relevant to his thesis, this is a notable omission.

More significantly, there is no sign that Sammon ever tried to learn how the networks called specific states. Sammon complains about delayed calls in Georgia, North Carolina, and Alabama, for example. But there is no sign that he ever asked network officials why they called these states as they did. And Sammon’s own book suggests one possible reason for the delays in states Bush won. If GOP voters were less inclined to speak with exit pollsters—Sammon says this has been the case for years—then exit polls would tend to favor Gore, making it hard to call states for Bush until actual votes could be counted. Again, this possibility is plainly implied by Sammon’s own work. But it doesn’t seem to have entered his head.

Can the networks explain their calls? Sammon doesn’t seem to have asked. Traditionally, this is the procedure to follow if you don’t really want to get answers to insinuative questions.

So let’s review the carnage found in those parts of this book we’ve examined. In his chapter-length prologue, Sammon baldly misrepresents one of the campaign’s dumbest stories—the flap about Gore’s New Hampshire canoe ride (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/19/01). What is the point of Sammon’s story? Misleading his readers at every turn, Sammon discovers that "Gore would do anything to win, no matter how ugly it got."

In Chapter 2, Sammon looks at Election Night, offering wildly contradictory accounts of the way the networks called the states (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/21/01). He repeatedly says that the networks’ "Democratic bias" accounts for their "inexplicable" calls. But then he shows us Bush’s own cousin calling Florida for Fox exactly as the other nets did—and he shows no sign of having asked why the nets called other states as they did.

A bit later, Sammon enjoys a bit of pure slander; he baldly misrepresents a WashPost account of Gore’s conduct in the first week post-election (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/18/01). And when Gore finally makes his concession statement, Sammon indulges in his book’s wildest fantasy, irately pretending—with a straight face—that Chris Matthews shilled for Gore all along! Hay-yo! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/11/01) In short, this is one of the silliest books that ever came down the pike—filled with dissembling and simple nonsense. But in all likelihood, you’ve likely never heard a peep of protest, even as At Any Cost became a New York Times best-seller.

Why is that? We chuckled a bit when Sammon appeared on C-SPAN’S Washington Journal, sharing a ninety-minute slot with fellow author Roger Simon. Simon was discussing his own election book, Divided We Stand; occasionally, he chided Sammon for some of the odder claims made in At Any Cost. But open criticism of conservative spinners is verboten in our cowering press corps. At one point, Sammon assured a skeptical caller that he was wonderfully open-minded about Gore. "If Bush had done some of these political tactics I think I’d have been just as critical," Sammon said. "It doesn’t matter to me if it’s a Democrat or a Republican." Sammon’s comment strained credulity, but Simon managed to take it in stride. Asked to comment on Sammon’s remark, he said, "Bill’s book is obviously one with a point of view. But Bill is known in the industry as being a fair reporter."

He is? If you think that’s how mainstream reporters think of Sammon, we’ve got a bridge to the thirty-first century we’ll sell you. But the Code of Silence which rules our press corps requires polite comment like Simon’s. Result? It is almost impossible for spinners like Sammon to say something so odd that it will ever evoke comment. Sammon’s book is driven by slanders and laughable howlers, and it recently sat on the New York Times best-seller charts. But not a word is being spoken about the oddball things Sammon says—just as nothing was said in real time about his canoe trip reporting. (Except in the regional press; see postscript.)

At THE HOWLER, we’re looking for One Honest Pundit; we’re waiting to see one scribe complain about Sammon’s repulsive dissembling. We’re waiting to hear one "Outrage of the week;" we’re waiting to see even one word of censure. But today, remaining silent in the face of deception is one of the press corps’ principal missions. Mainstream pundits would rather die than be accused of "liberal bias," and tired old duffers like those limned below will be silent about Sammon’s work.

Visit our incomparable archives: In real time, RNC spinning on Gore’s canoe ride was largely ignored by the major papers. But two little rags in New Hampshire and Vermont performed as real newspapers should. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/29/99, 8/2/99.

 

Smile-a-while (6/25/01)

Cocoon, the talk show: America’s most visible early retirees were in rare form on June 16. We refer, of course, to that "capital gang;" on that date, we couldn’t help chuckling as the gang discussed an enjoyable topic. Marjorie Williams had churned some fresh ’babble about Clinton and Gore for Vanity Fare. And as the gang discussed her piece, they perfectly voiced the Conventional Wisdom—helping show why pundits like Sammon are free to write anything they like.

Host Mark Shields kicked off the fun. In "Scenes From A Marriage," Williams had said that "The split between Clinton and Gore presents itself as everything from a personal spat to an ideological divide," he noted. "Al Hunt, whatever happened to the strongest relationship ever between a president and a vice president?"

Having received the perfect set-up, Hunt was ready with the perfect statement of the press corps’ Conventional Wisdom:

HUNT: Look, some of this is endemic, particularly if the vice president loses the presidential race. But this one, I think, has achieved new levels of bitterness. Clinton, basically, complains that if Gore had run a half-decent campaign he would have been elected. Gore says if Clinton hadn’t engaged in those terrible personal indiscretions that he, Gore, would have won.

You know what, Mark? They’re both right. I mean, the fact of the matter, without Monica Lewinsky, Al Gore even running a bad campaign would have won. And I would say that it wasn’t Bill Clinton or Monica Lewinsky who showed up at those debates, where Al Gore was incapable of separating Clinton’s personal problems with the popularity of the Clinton-Gore policy.

I think most—many Democrats today would—their fondest wish is that both of them would just kind of go away for a while.

As on-message pundits have been saying since January 20, Hunt wishes that "both [Clinton and Gore] would just kind of go away for a while," as if they and not Williams had written the piece. (On-message pundits will voice Standard Bites, no matter how poorly they fit given facts.) And earlier, Hunt had voiced another Approved Bite—when Bill slams Al and Al slams Bill, it turns out that both men are right! (Har, har.) Scripted pundits always enjoy a good laugh when their tribunes recite this Standard Line, and all the panel shared a smile as Hunt did the honors this week.

Now it was on to Bob Novak. Was Gore to blame for losing the race? Novak offered another Standard Story:

NOVAK: Sure he was to blame. He ran a terrible campaign, and Clinton didn’t help. Al’s exactly right on that. But Al didn’t quite answer your question. Whatever happened to this wonderful—and I would say that the press were conned on this. The news media took it at face value. And there was very little reporting even during the campaign that [Clinton and Gore] were at each other’s throats. They really didn’t—they kept it pretty quiet. They didn’t pick it up until after the election.


According to Novak, the press were "conned" about Al’s pique with Bill. But why was there "little reporting" of a possible Clinton-Gore rift? Because the mainstream press played a different game during the past election. The press corps was busy tying Gore to Clinton, and repeatedly downplayed suggestions of discord, whenever they surfaced in the campaign. Doing otherwise would have spoiled their Morality Play—Gore Had Sold His Soul To Clinton—and it would have risked creating sympathy for Gore, making him Bill’s Biggest Victim. Pundits are free to speculate about Gore’s rancor now—now that the election is over.

Meanwhile, will pundits say anything to fulfill Approved Scripts? Listen to Margaret Carlson:

SHIELDS: Margaret, I had to turn in favor of Bill Clinton when I found out that Al Gore, one of the first things he did when they were going to get on the bus together, was to—

CARLSON: Take away the Milky Ways!

SHIELDS: —take away Clinton’s Milky Ways. He wanted to give him health food…

CARLSON: …While he was taking away his Milky Ways, you know, Al Gore is on the treadmill, but he gains weight and Bill Clinton, you know, was slim. The guy just couldn’t catch a break.

Bored with meatier speculations, the gang took a Milky Way break. (By the way, Williams’ article is sourced like a bad rock star bio. Who gave her the dope on the Milky Ways? "Someone who was on the bus." Oh.) But there is nothing in the Williams piece about Gore gaining weight in the ’96 campaign, and the press corps endlessly noted how slim he was during the 2000 race. "Gore just couldn’t catch a break?" The break he couldn’t catch in 1999-2000 involved the way his "buffed" physique was spun; frequently, the fact that Gore had slimmed himself down was presented as an emblem of his phoniness. But mocking comments about Gore gaining weight have been de rigeur since inaugural day, so Carlson jams the nitwit theme into her comments on Calories Past.

How does this relate to Sammon? The high-profile tribunes who sit on his panel should serve as guardians of our discourse. But as they reliably recite their Standard Canned Spin, there is one thing of which we can all be sure; they will never—never, on pain of death; nevernever say a word about the work of the Sammons. Overfed and overpaid; endlessly pleased with their station in life; these early retirees know their role, and their role is to mouth Standard Soundbites. Sammon can spin to his heart’s content—Mark, Al and Margaret are perfectly safe. Sammon knows one thing as he types; this "capital gang" can be trusted.