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5 July 2000

Our current howler: It never ends

Synopsis: We welcome you back from a holiday weekend. And no, it never ends.

The Tale of Two Gores: A Primer on the Fund-Raising Inquiry
Don Van Natta and David Johnston, The New York Times, 7/5/00

Gore Campaign Takes Crises in Stride, Focuses on Theme
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 7/5/00

We welcome you back from the holiday weekend, and no, it never ends. This morning, Don Van Natta and David Johnston are all mixed up again. "Two very different Al Gores seemed to be present" at the April 18 interview with Robert Conrad, they tell us. The scribes present a chilling example of the deeply disturbing affair:

VAN NATTA AND JOHNSTON (paragraphs 2-3): At the outset [of the interview], Mr. Gore remembered with precision how long he had served as vice president and as a senator from Tennessee...But later in the April 18 interview, Mr. Gore said he did not know whether the now-infamous luncheon that he attended at a Buddhist temple in California was a fund-raising event.

Note the apparent reasoning. Because Gore knows how long he has been in office, he's supposed to know details of all other matters. The presentation makes no sense at all. But the writers quickly top it:

VAN NATTA AND JOHNSTON (4): Law enforcement officials said that Mr. Gore was so meticulous in his recall of some matters (at one point describing himself as a "stickler to a fault" who sometimes corrected the grammar of his campaign letters) that they doubted his vague responses about his campaign finance activities.

Why would any newspaper publish such drivel? At one point in his interview, Gore noted a misspelled word in a thank-you letter as a sign that he had not personally read it; he was a "stickler to a fault," he stated, about having such errors corrected. To Van Natta and Johnston, this insistence on correcting spelling errors somehow becomes an example of Gore being "meticulous in his recall of some matters," and it plausibly raises questions about the fact that he didn't remember certain (unspecified) events. Do you see the connection? Gore routinely tells aides to correct misspellings; so it's suspicious that he doesn't have total recall of events. The one thing has nothing to do with the other, but it's par for the course to meet such nonsense in the routinely bizarre New York Times. In any normal occupation, employees would be quickly fired for presenting work as strange as this. But at the Times, this kind of work is the norm. If future generations are lucky, historians will ask, again and again, why we allowed such nonsense to persist—why we allowed our public discourse to be hijacked in such a manner.

Meanwhile, turn if you will to Ceci Connolly, grinding away in this morning's Post. Connolly pens her three millionth recent overview piece on how the Gore campaign has been functioning. Early on, she offers this:

CONNOLLY (paragraph 5): The vice president still trails in most polls and political analysts say he has yet to lock in on a compelling, coherent message. His performance on the stump is inconsistent, and some find his new "progress and prosperity" slogan clunky.

"Some" people—we aren't told who—find a campaign slogan "clunky!" Of course, "some" people think the earth is flat, but we don't normally report their views in major papers. Who are these worried people? How on earth could this possibly matter? No effort is made to say. But Connolly soon tops even herself in the production of absolute nonsense. "For much of Campaign 2000," she explains, "the rap on the Gore team has been that it works out of a bunker, especially the candidate himself." She follows with what look like three examples. And no, we're not making this up:

CONNOLLY (11): In a carefully orchestrated presidential campaign, the real test often comes in handling the unexpected, managing the would-be crises. For much of Campaign 2000, the rap on the Gore team was that it worked out of a bunker, especially the candidate himself.

(12) When independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr released his impeachment report on Clinton, Gore laid low on a family vacation in Hawaii. His response three years ago to questions surrounding his aggressive fundraising was to declare repeatedly there was "no controlling authority." And earlier this year, despite a resounding nomination victory, the vice president went 60 days without holding a news conference.

The Rule of Three is a mighty rule; Connolly may have felt she needed three examples to demonstrate the tendency she asserts. But the first two examples she cites in this passage didn't happen during the 2000 campaign; Starr released his report in 1998, and Gore's "no controlling legal authority" press conference occurred in March 1997. And only two of the three examples even support her claim in a general way; in the case of "no controlling legal authority," Gore has been repetitiously slammed by mainstream pundits for speaking with the press corps too quickly. He rushed to hold a press conference, critics say, before he had command of the facts. What editor at the Washington Post could possibly put such tripe into print? One key point becomes clear in this: In our modern press corps, all a writer needs in the appearance of an argument. Examples which completely contradict the writer's theme are OK—just so long as they take up space, and create the illusion that a case has been offered.

Where on earth—except in the Washington Post—is work like this ever permitted? Could engineering firms ever clown like this? Let's say it: If engineers built bridges the way the press corps writes stories, all our cars would be sitting in the Chesapeake Bay. Again: If future generations are lucky, historians will puzzle long and hard at our tolerance for utter nonsense like this. Why did we allow our public discourse to be controlled by such poseurs? It's hard to believe, but if future generations are lucky, Ceci Connolly will long be remembered.

The press corps' commitment: Let's summarize a few of the "arguments" that appear just today in these papers:

  1. Times: If you know how long you've been in office, you should be able to recall anything else.
  2. Times: If you make your staff correct spelling mistakes, you should be able to recall all past events.
  3. Post: A hasty press conference conducted three years ago shows that you tend to work out of a bunker.

Anywhere else, arguments like these would be cause for commitment. Why in the world do we tolerate this at the top of our national discourse?


The Daily update (7/5/00)

Endless no-nos: We also loved Connolly's now-standard account of Gore's position on Elian Gonzalez:

CONNOLLY (2): Instead of tamping down a potential brush fire, Gore's out-of-the-blue support for granting the Cuban boy residency only served to spritz gasoline on an already hot situation.

"Out-of-the-blue" is the key spin here. Spinners now routinely present Gore's March 30 residency announcement as "sudden," "puzzling" and a "flip-flop" (Translation: an insincere change of position). In fact, Gore's announcement wasn't "out-of-the-blue" at all; Gore was announcing support for a bipartisan Senate bill that had been introduced just one day before. And why had the Senate bill been offered? Because the INS was suddenly on the verge of returning Elian to Cuba; Senate sponsors said that permanent residency was the only way to get the boy's case heard in family court. Gore had supported the use of family court all along, in various statements and forums (see the January 16 Iowa "black-brown" debate, for example). In short, Gore was announcing support for a new Senate bill, offered in quick response to a new INS position. But that isn't what Connolly's readers are told. Here is her opening paragraph:

CONNOLLY (1): When the public fury over Elian Gonzalez reached a peak in late March, Al Gore's handlers decided the vice president could not remain silent. With great haste they typed a three-paragraph statement, e-mailed it to reporters and disappeared.

(Note that "Gore's handlers" decide, not Gore himself. Connolly never stops spinning.) According to Connolly, Gore was responding to "a peak in public fury." No other factor is recalled. That is a highly selective account of what was actually happening on March 30. But then, what do you expect from a writer like Connolly, who—incredibly—presents a rapid-response press conference in March 1997 as an example of the Gore campaign's tendency to "work out of a bunker?" It doesn't matter what you think of Gore. It doesn't matter what you think of Bush. Such bizarre presentations—let's say it again—are an insult to the public discourse.