Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler title Graphic
Caveat lector

29 June 1999

Our current howler (part I): They’re ba-a-ack

Synopsis: Diane Sawyer grilled Gore on the night of his speech. Incredibly, those farm chores were back.

Commentary by Margaret Carlson
Inside Politics, CNN, 6/16/99

Commentary by Brian Williams
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 6/16/99

Backstage at the opening
Roger Simon, U.S. News, 6/28/99

Commentary by Diane Sawyer
20/20, ABC, 6/16/99

"George W. has had a great three days," Margaret Carlson told Bernie on Inside Politics. "[He] has been running, what, for three days now and we've declared him to have the nomination wrapped up."

Carlson was speaking a matter of hours after Al Gore's announcement speech in Carthage, Tennessee. Shaw asked her if the Gore event would eclipse the glowing Bush coverage.

"Everybody gets their announcement day," she replied-but she was thinking of a distant era. That night, Brian Williams took to the air, giving the VP his day:

WILLIAMS: Political advance men and women will be handicapping today's announcement and its pitfalls for some time. Little things that took on huge importance, like the camera platform that was too low, so Gore's actual announcement was hidden from view of most cameras by his own people holding up his own signs. There was the occasional sentence that came out backwards, there were the AIDS activists who blew whistles marring the early part of the speech, and all the while, amid a speech on home, family values and children, the doubt, even among some Democrats privately, about their once anointed one.

By the way, we replayed the tape of the VP's speech, searching for sentences that "came out backwards." No luck. Maybe we had been distracted by what Roger Simon had spotted:

SIMON (paragraph one): Al Gore stands in the sheltering shadow of a giant maple in the square of his boyhood hometown, two thirds of the way through one of the best speeches of his life. He's belting it out, bringing it home, when he feels-a tickle.

What had distracted the hometown hopeful? Simon pulled no punches:

SIMON (paragraph two): Which turns to a trickle, a trickle of sweat, which he cannot avoid wiping away from his upper lip. This happens during nearly every speech, inside or outside, air conditioned or not, and he just can't help it, reaching out quickly with his left hand and executing a backhand swipe. It can happen four of five times in a 20-minute speech, but he has been trying so hard to avoid it during this speech, the speech in which he announces that he wants to be president of the United States. To no avail. Al Gore may have the heart and soul of a moderate Democrat, but his sweat glands are positively Nixonian.

Williams was so impressed with Simon's insights that, after billboarding "some great writing by journalist and author Roger Simon," he read the above passage, in its entirety, on his June 21 show. "It turns out that Al Gore has a physical attribute, and it turns out to be a trickle of sweat," Williams intoned, before reading about the annoying effluvients. He also read the parts of Simon's article which dealt with (what else) the huge importance of those troubling camera angles.

It may seem hard to believe that major journalists could focus on such trivia-and offer such schoolyard denigration. It was especially amusing to see such nonsense from Williams, who two days before had staged his silly interview with Eric Pooley about Gov. Bush's matchless charms (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/17/99). But the scribes helped us see that some in the corps were no longer observing Carlson's old-country courtesy. To Williams and Simon, a kick-off speech now presented an excuse for deep-dish trivialization-touched off a search for utterly meaningless flaws, whose "huge importance" could be spun on the air.

But of all the scribes who didn't seem to have heard about Carlson's traditional rules of deportment, the analysts were most struck by Diane Sawyer's gruesome interview with Gore on announcement night. What a journalist! Sawyer's lifetime scoop came when Marla Maples said that sex with The Donald was the best she'd ever had. Recently, Sawyer created a flap by secretly taping staff conversations, which she strangely had somehow planned to air. Perhaps we all get what we deserve when we let such celebrities go anywhere near a presidential campaign; but there she was, interviewing the Gores on the night of the big kick-off speech.

In interviewing Gore, she was sitting with a man who had been vice president of the United States for the past six years; had written a best-seller making serious ecological claims; had played a major diplomatic role in the Kosovo negotiations, just concluded; and had been accused of misconduct in 1996 fund-raising. What was the first thing that Sawyer discussed? You've got it. Here she was, three minutes in, asking about those farm chores:

SAWYER: All right. My cousins are all tobacco farmers and cattle farmers. I have a test for you. Ready for a pop quiz?

GORE: Aaah.

SAWYER: How many plants of tobacco can you have per acre?

Sawyer was reinventing the farm chores flap, one of the most embarrassing (and disgraceful) bits of recent press history. Starting in March, the press corps, responding to GOP faxes, had begun to peddle an angry tale-that Gore had not really grown up on a farm, and hadn't really done the chores he had discussed in a newspaper interview. They had done this in the face of twelve years worth of their own Gore profiles, all of which described Gore's life in Tennessee, and most of which discussed the very chores which now had become so suspect. They had done this at the very same time that Bob Zelnick's Gore bio was being published, in which Zelnick used the Tennessee chores as the central metaphor of Gore's entire life. In the aftermath of a series of Hotline submissions, and in the aftermath of Zelnick's widespread interviews, the press corps had slowly come to heel and had stopped promoting the gong-show-like flap. But here was Sawyer, down from New York, wading back through the muck and the mire.

Sweat on the lip and mud on the boots-this was the stuff of the celebrity press corps. Sawyer's interview was an embarrassing, distressing performance-if we think our public discourse really matters.


Tomorrow: A brief history of the farm chores flap, with a look at why the flap had disappeared.