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2 July 1999

Our current howler (part IV): The wages of spin? Lack of depth

Synopsis: If we thought our public discourse mattered, we wouldn’t hand it over to a guy like Jim Nicholson.

Level With America, Mr. Vice President (paid ad)
Jim Nicholson, USA Today, 6/16/99

Al Gore’s mission
Editorial, The Washington Times, 6/17/99

Commentary by Charles McCord
Imus in the Morning, MSNBC, 6/17/99

Up to Speed
Dana Milbank, The New Republic, 7/12/99

Does America's public discourse matter? If we actually thought it did, we wouldn't turn it over to a guy like Jim Nicholson. On June 16-Gore's "day," said Margaret Carlson-the RNC head penned an open letter. In part, his remarks went like this:

NICHOLSON: Dear Mr. Vice President: Welcome to the race for the presidency. This can be a real opportunity for you to level with the American people and explain[w]hy you want to eliminate the automobile as we know it-motorists and autoworkers particularly need to know.

Nicholson was engaging in one of his favorite gong shows-the pretense that Gore, in Earth in the Balance, had called for getting rid of cars. Gore, of course, had actually said it "should be possible" to "eliminate the internal combustion engine"-to replace the IC with cleaner technology. And, as we've reported to you several times, the heads of the Big 3 now agree: the IC engine is on the way out (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/29/99 and 5/24/99).

In short, Gore was right when he claimed, in Earth, that the IC could likely be replaced. The news was reported on page one of both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times on January 5, 1998.

But because our press corps suffers fools very gladly, and because Jim Nicholson loves to spin, the RNC head is free to publish silly letters-confident that no assault on our discourse, no matter how foolish, will ever be corrected or condemned.

And it was to this brainless fellow that our discourse was handed when Diane Sawyer sat down with Al Gore June 16-when she grinningly unveiled her silly pop quiz, resurrecting the "farm chores" nonsense. Back in March, Nicholson had begun faxing out absurd complaints about Gore's remarks to Roger Yepsen-remarks in which Gore described experiences on his family's farm that the Washington press corps had described for twelve years.

There was no way on earth that the Washington press corps could have failed to know how silly it was-could have failed to know that the youthful chores were a part of Gore's well-known life history. But the celebrity press corps just loves getting spun-and the corps has decided Clinton's guy must go down. And so there began one of the most embarrassing episodes in recent press history, in which scribes who simply had to know better eagerly typed up Nicholson's spin, pretending that Gore was some sort of strange creature who was now inventing odd claims about his youth.

But on the day of Gore's Launch, the dim party head wasn't content with just publishing a letter. He took his gong show to the streets of D.C., driving a mule-drawn wagon to the Washington hotel where Gore had lived with his family, in a six-room apartment, when he was a boy. The buffoonery was featured by several newspapers in their coverage of the Gore kick-off speech, and some sad scribes got over-excited, and began claiming again that Gore lied:

WASHINGTON TIMES (6/17): Then there was Mr. Gore reminiscing about plowing the fields of Tennessee as a boy, when in reality he grew up in a luxurious downtown Washington hotel and attended exclusive private schools during his father's tenure in the Senate.

Charles McCord said this on Imus:

MCCORD (6/17): "New horizons," the theme of Gore's presidential campaign. He kicked it off in his home town of Carthage, Tennessee. Some Republicans, though, parked a banner-covered wagon out in front of a Washington, D.C., hotel, saying, No, that was Gore's real home as a youth, though the vice president did tell Diane Sawyer last night his fondest and warmest memories were of the summers spent in the storied hills of Tennessee, rather than the room-serviced environs of the Embassy Row Fairfax Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Well, actually, what Gore had said was that there wasn't room service, but it was close enough for America's public discourse. Nicholson also staged a "birthday party" honoring Love Story author Erich Segal, which led Bernie Shaw to air a false report about that other numbskull flap (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/21/99).

And so it goes when the public discourse is handed over to a guy like Jim Nicholson-when Diane Sawyer comes to Tennessee with a silly "pop quiz" in her head. Weeks after even the Washington press corps had given up on the silly charade, there was Sawyer, reviving the spin that Nicholson had ginned up in March. If nothing actually turned on her conduct, we guess it would have been merely comical-there was Sawyer, sitting on the Gores' farm, asking questions to see if Gore ever did any farm chores! As if to add an air of rudeness to the otherwise overpowering sense of the surreal, Sawyer had involved her family in the grilling-her farmer cousins had sent in questions, she said, and she even had one from her mom. Predictably, her quiz wouldn't have made any sense had there been a viable question about Gore's history-she inexplicably asked Gore the current price of cattle, as if he had claimed to be a trader in the yards. And incredibly, soon after the Sawyer embarrassment, another major journalist pitched himself in the stew; Dana Milbank, TNR's man-on-Gore, inexplicably typed this up last week:

MILBANK: Yes, there were a couple of lapses into the old ways on the announcement tour. In Iowa City, Gore, who shrewdly avoided reading a list of acknowledgements in Carthage, felt it necessary to thank a local fellow from 4-H. "I was in the 4-H club and raised beef cattle," he began, creating a momentary worry that we would hear another yarn about his youth as a farmer on the fertile plains of Massachusetts Avenue.

It's hard to account for such writing. On 20/20, during Sawyer's quiz, ABC had literally shown photos of young Gore posing at fairs with his bulls! You might think that would have told even Sawyer that she was on shaky ground in disputing the chores; but how to explain the benighted Milbank, who seems to think the press has veto power over what life experiences a candidate can discuss. (Milbank described the same episode on C-SPAN last week, again suggesting, against all evidence, that Gore was lying when he mentioned 4-H.)

Does it matter if scribes behave in this way? Only if America's public discourse matters. In the time since Jim Nicholson devised his spin, Gore's approval ratings have dropped substantially; according to CNN/Time, his "favorable/unfavorables" were 58/26 in late January, and stood at 48/43 on June 10. If it matters who serves as president of the United States, then negative spin by the press corps does matter. In March, Jim Nicholson devised a bit of spin so absurd it's amazing that he dared bring it forward. But it fit right in with other silly spin-his nonsense about internal combustion, for example-and maybe Nicholson has been an insider so long that he knows what to expect from our sad, sorry press corps.


Spelling out the obvious: It's news when America's party chairmen spread claims that are false or misleading. Therefore, Nicholson's letter on internal combustion was news. But it's hardly surprising that the press didn't know it. Having phonied along with the farm chores so long, why on earth would they speak up on this?