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30 June 1999

Our current howler (part II): Revival meeting

Synopsis: The farm chore hoohah had gone away until Diane Sawyer revived it.

Gore makes his candidacy official
Roger Yepsen, The Des Moines Register, 3/16/99

Commentary by Michelle Laxalt, Bob Zelnick
Newsmaker, United Broadcasting Network, 5/10/99

On March 15-a fateful day-Roger Yepsen of the Des Moines Register interviewed Vice President Gore as Gore kicked off his Iowa campaign. In the course of the interview, described in the Register the next day, Yepsen asked Gore to comment on Bill Bradley's claim that he "had broader life experiences than Gore."

Gore discussed his life experiences outside Washington, mentioning his service in Vietnam, his work as a journalist, and his brief career as a home builder. According to Yepsen, Gore raised a further point about Sen. Bradley's comment:

YEPSEN: Gore said Bradley may also refer to the fact that Gore's father was a U.S. senator. He said his father "taught me the importance of courage" in standing up for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.

"I'll tell you something else he taught me. He taught me how to clean out hog waste with a shovel and a hose. He taught me how to clear land with a double-bladed ax. He taught me how to clear a steep hillside with a team of mules. He taught me how to take up hay all day long in the hot sun and then, after a dinner break, go over and help the neighbors take up hay before the rain came and spoiled it on the ground.

"I wonder if Senator Bradley has had any of those life experiences?"

Meanwhile, off in much-despised Washington, Jim Nicholson was languishing at RNC headquarters, looking for new things to spin. He had just spent a year trying to persuade Congress that it should install Al Gore as president. Now, with the Clinton impeachment trial over and done, he was looking for ways to persuade the public it shouldn't elect Gore to the post. By all accounts, Nicholson seized on the farm chores remark as a way to spin Gore as a fantasist and deceiver-as a kid raised up in a fancy hotel who was trying to deceive folks about where he was from.

By any objective or rational assessment, this spin should have been hard to sell. Over the previous twelve years, the Washington press corps had published profiles of Gore, all of which mentioned his Tennessee background, and most of which mentioned the very same chores that Gore had described to Yepsen. Gore's dad had been a Tennessee populist, the profiles said, who had wanted his son to know the value of work. Repeatedly, the press corps had described the very same chores that Nicholson said hadn't occurred.

It got even worse: as Nicholson began to blast-fax his spin, Bob Zelnick was publishing his new Regnery bio, in which Zelnick made the much-described chores the central metaphor of Gore's entire life! Rationally, it would have been hard to imagine that the RNC could sell its new spin to the Washington press corps-a spin that flew in the face of Gore's established life story, which the press corps itself had described.

But you know what we've told you so often, dear readers-this press corps just loves being spun! Soon, the press corps was doing one of the things it does best-was happily retyping the new, silly spin-and the farm chores remark was linked to Love Story to suggest there was somethin' bad wrong with Gore. Starting with a gruesome CNN broadcast by Bruce Morton (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/5/99), continuing through aggressive columns by Michael Kelly and the Weekly Standard, the post-impeachment press came alive, engaging in its favorite activity-producing groaning, cookie cutter reports, all designed to spin the public in the direction the corps knew was best.

This was the theme to which Sawyer returned in her interview with Gore on 20/20, when she surprised the vice president, three minutes into the show, with a "pop quiz" on selected farm topics. It's no surprise that someone who was willing to revive such a topic couldn't even come up with a quiz that made sense; Sawyer asked Gore the current price of cattle, as if he had claimed to be an active stock trader. But Sawyer's quiz had the predictable result-it revived the dormant farm chores flap. The Washington Times, for example, reprinted the transcript of Sawyer's quiz on its op-ed page on June 18, two days after the Sawyers broadcast. The farm chores, at least for a while, were now back, as we'll see in more detail tomorrow.

And why was it necessary to "revive" the chores? Because the farm chores theme had essentially disappeared in the weeks leading up to the broadcast. Incredibly, evidence suggests the flap may have collapsed under the weight of the actual facts! Here at the incomparable DAILY HOWLER, we had engaged in a three-day exchange with Michael Kelly, published in National Journal's Hotline, which explored the fact that Kelly-who wrote a scathing attack on Gore's remark-had written about the very same chores in a profile some twelve years before. We published an essay in the Hotline a few weeks later, discussing the farm chores flap in detail; meanwhile, Zelnick, off on his book tour, frequently mentioned the awkward fact that what Gore had told Yepsen was accurate. Here, for example, is what Zelnick said in an interview in which we took part:

LAXALT: Mr. Zelnick, when you were writing your book, did you find in the vice president's character that he tends to exaggerate situations a little bit much? I'm talking in particular about claims that Love Story was created on him, that he did farm chores as a kid, that he created the Internet

ZELNICK: There's a number of things there. First of all, I think Bob [Somerby] is right about the farm chores. Everything that I found indicates that on school vacations and over the summer his father set forth a pretty arduous group of tasks for him. He knows how to farm, I don't think there's any question about that.

Even for a press corps highly tolerant of counterfactual spin, it was getting a bit hard to sustain the hoohah. In the weeks leading up to the formal Gore kick-off, the farm chores remark had dropped off the screen as a topic for excited press comment.

Then, down from New York where they don't read the Hotline-down from her perch at the top of the news chain-down to Tennessee descended Diane Sawyer, with her pop quiz on farm life for Gore. On Olympus, the gods of the press corps must have cringed when they saw Sawyer reciting her list of questions. Briefly, she brought the farm chores back into vogue-and revealed the rot at the heart of our discourse.

Tomorrow: We take a look at Sawyer's quiz-and at the revival of this whole silly mess.