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12 July 2000

Our current howler (part II): Where’s the beef?

Synopsis: Fallows reports one clear-cut lie. Oops! It was told about Gore.

An Acquired Taste
James Fallows, The Atlantic Monthly, 7/00

According to Fallows, debates have "displayed the least attractive aspects of [Gore's] campaigning style." Indeed, we're told at various points in his Atlantic piece that Gore is brutal, ruthless, lethal, and mean. He is "willing to fight with whatever tools are necessary," "manifestly willing to lie for convenience," and "willing to bend the rules and stretch the truth if necessary." "He has learned to destroy his opponents in debates," and "leaves his victims feeling not just defeated but battered." Yikes! No wonder Michael Kelly, Atlantic's idealistic new editor, felt compelled to order the cover art—a picture of Gore with a fang in his mouth. The article is called "An Acquired Taste."

And it's hardly surprising when Fallows begins with a case of lying in a Gore debate. What is surprising is who is at fault; Fallows, critiquing the 1992 vice presidential debate, describes Dan Quayle lying about Gore! According to Fallows, Quayle had planned to focus his arguments on Candidate Clinton rather than Gore. At one point, Quayle "even turned an argument about Gore's recently published book about the environment into a slam against Clinton:"

FALLOWS: Quayle claimed, falsely, that Gore had said in his book Earth in the Balance that U.S. taxpayers should spend $100 billion yearly to fix environmental problems in the rest of the world: "It's in your book, on page 304!" What that page actually says is that the United States should try to enlist Europe and Japan in a Marshall Plan-like effort to protect the world environment—and that if the United States made a commitment equivalent to its commitment under the original Marshall Plan, the cost would come to $100 billion...

Maybe Quayle just misunderstood the point. Nope. Not according to Fallows:

FALLOWS (continuing directly): ("Everyone understood it was a stretch," [adviser] Kenneth Adelman says now about the Quayle camp's thinking. "But on balance it seemed justified. And it had the advantage of suggesting that he had read the whole book and could remember the page number.") When Gore, spluttering, denied the charge (without specifying why it was wrong), Quayle looked with a "Can you believe it?" expression at the moderator, Hal Bruno, of ABC News. "You know, Hal," Quayle said, "I wanted to bring the Gore book tonight." Why? "Because I figured he was going to 'pull a Bill Clinton' on me, and he has."

Yikes! Is Fallows' account on the money? On that, we don't have a view. But if it is, it represents an early example of a grisly art form we noted all throughout 1998—an example of (in this case) a Clinton critic deliberately lying to "prove" that you can't trust Al Gore!

The 1992 debate is the first of five which Fallows explores in this article. Given Fallows' introductory portrait of Gore, it seems a bit odd—and it gives a taste of what is to come—when Fallows immediately gives an example of somebody lying about Gore. Indeed, the oddball logic of this first example is enhanced by the author's sense of ease with Quayle's conduct. In his opening passages, Fallows rails at how brutal, dishonest, destructive, and mean Gore has proven to be in debates. But moments later, here's how Fallows discusses the Quayle camp's debate prep:

FALLOWS: The other tactic was intended to take advantage of a little-understood truth about political debates: no matter what the rules are, there really are no rules. Quayle should do whatever was necessary to attack, confuse, disconcert, and even insult Gore. The immediate point was to make Gore look bad; the larger goals were to establish Quayle as a vigorous figure, not the famous "deer in the headlights" of the 1988 debacle with Bentsen, and to prevent Gore from doing anything to repulse the onslaught against Clinton.

Was the lying just an example of the fact that "there are no rules?" Fallows never expresses any concern about the lying he attributes to Quayle. And he never expresses any concern about the surprising idea that "there are no rules." Fallows has just spent the better part of several pages denouncing Gore's conduct in debates. But in his first example, he notes a "little-understood truth;" there are really no rules in these forums! Fallows records this fact without any comment, after pages of railing about Gore.

Is Fallows being held a prisoner in the bowels of the Atlantic? Is this passage a desperate, winking sign that all is not well at the newly revamped monthly? Probably not, but in his detailed description of the Quayle fray, Fallows describes no behavior on Gore's part that could conceivably be described as misconduct. In Fallows' description, Quayle and Gore had similar strategies; Quayle wanted to "to attack Bill Clinton, through Gore, on what the team had identified as Clinton's greatest vulnerabilities: character, veracity, and trustworthiness." Gore, meanwhile, "stuck to the agreed-on script, which called for emphasizing [economic] issues and for casting George Bush as passive and out of touch." In other words, each debater hoped to focus on the weaknesses of the opposing head of ticket. According to Fallows, Quayle emerged the victor in the clash—but he asserts no misconduct by Gore.

Indeed, in two more of these five debates, Fallows doesn't even seem to allege any conduct that conforms to his portrait of Gore. In Gore's 1996 debate with Jack Kemp, for example, here is the extent of Gore's trickery:

FALLOWS: Even before [Gore's] Debate Camp began, Dan Pink and other aides had reviewed hours of tapes of Kemp giving his stump speech, and they felt they had identified the areas that would require specific planning and preparation. Although Kemp could sometimes be glib and underprepared, at his best he had a jock bravado that audiences loved. Gore needed to find a way to overcome that charm and block those metaphors. In a late-afternoon discussion Karenna Gore proposed that in his comments at the beginning of the debate her father should offer Kemp a deal: if Kemp would hold off on the gridiron allusions, he would agree not to deploy his amusing stories about chlorofluorocarbons. Gore's delivery should be self-deprecatory and deadpan.

In other words, he should start with a joke! And the ruthless plan was put into practice. Here's Fallows' account of Gore's opening that night, following a clumsy statement by Kemp. All deletions and bracketed comments are as they appear in Fallows' article:

FALLOWS: Gore [very polite, not interrupting, but knowing exactly what he has to say and how long he has to say it]: "I'd like to thank the people of St. Petersburg for being such wonderful hosts...And I would like to thank Jack Kemp for the answer that he just gave. [No kidding!] I think we have an opportunity tonight to have a positive debate about this country's future. I'd like to start by offering you a deal, Jack. If you won't use stories, I won't tell any of my warm and humorous stories about...chlorofluorocarbon abatement." [Deliberately wooden expression, delayed small laugh from crowd, but does the job. Only two football references in the rest of the debate.]

According to Fallows, Gore won the debate with a disciplined performance, while Kemp was sloppy and unaggressive. But Fallows alleges no conduct by Gore that in any way matches his vampiric portrait. In fact—as in the Quayle debate—Fallows doesn't seem to allege any wrongdoing by Gore in the Kemp clash at all.

Yep. By some fluke of nature, the brutal, ruthless, deceptive "killer" somehow sat through two whole debates without engaging in any misconduct whatever. And the 1993 NAFTA debate with Ross Perot doesn't seem much different. According to Fallows, Gore had decided to use a "needling" debate style that is common in the House of Representatives. According to Fallows, the Gore team decided that the best way to debate Perot (in the comfortable Larry King setting) was to try to "make him mad." "[Gore advisers] Simon, Neel, Quinn and others pooled ideas about the best way to make Perot lose his composure," Fallows writes. The Gore team decided that Gore should interrupt and press Perot in minor ways. "Gore is an expert at knowing how to do that," Mike Synar, a Gore adviser, says in the Fallows piece. "He is very good at the annoying offhand comment."

Do "annoying offhand comments" in debate now get you pictured as a vampire on magazine covers? Apparently. Fallows describes one last-minute idea; Gore somehow decided to needle Perot with a picture of Reed Smoot and Willis Hawley, patriarchs of the disastrous 1930 Smoot-Hawley Act. "Gore knew that Perot would not be able to stand being compared to Reed Smoot and Willis Hawley," Fallows mysteriously writes.

Apparently, Gore is a mind-reader. Fallows never explains how Gore could have known that this would be the one thing Perot couldn't stand. At any rate, on the day of the event, Gore obtained a photo of the starch-collared pair, which he presented to Perot during the forum. Here is the Fallows account:

FALLOWS: Thirty seconds later, as Perot paused for breath, Gore was saying, "Okay, can I respond now?"—further flustering Perot and launching the next attack. "We've had a test of [Perot's] theory," Gore began. Perot squawked, and Larry King asked, "When?" Gore continued, employing a super-slow and pedantic style of emphasis that is irritating in itself. "In 1930, when the proposal by Mr....Smoot and Mr....Hawley was to raise tariffs across the board to protect our workers. And I brought some pictures too. This is a picture of Mr. Smoot and Mr....Hawley. They look like pretty good...fellas. They sounded reasonable at the time. A lot of people...believed them. The Congress passed bill. He [gesturing at Perot] wants to raise tariffs on...Mexico."

At this point it seemed only fitting—practically polite—to give Perot an attractive remembrance of his intellectual heritage. Gore offered the framed photograph with a thin smile. Perot took it, glowered at it, and slammed it face-down on the desk. The debate still had seventy-five minutes to run, but the competitive part was over. By giving in to anger, Perot had defeated himself. "The only surprise was how well Perot lived up to our expectations," Elaine Kamarck told me. "He got mad and stayed mad."

According to Fallows, that was the end of Perot in the debate. That was also the end of Gore's needling conduct. In sum, Fallows notes that Gore interrupted Perot (a few times) with "annoying offhand comments;" spoke in a slow way that is "irritating in itself;" and gave Perot a picture of Smoot and Hawley. That is the extent of the vampiric conduct with which the brutal Gore left Perot "feeling not just defeated but battered," to cite Fallows' opening portrait. Poor Fallows! If this is really the kind of thing that makes him want to assail the behavior of those rough, manly hopefuls, maybe he would be better off down in a basement, held safe from the unruly world.

At any rate, in Fallows' account of the three Gore debates from 1992-1996, needling Perot with a Smoot-Hawley photo is the extent of Gore's alleged misconduct. Incredibly, given his opening portrait, Fallows never accuses Gore of lying at all, although he does show us Gore being lied about. Where is "the most lethal debater in politics," the "ruthless combatant who will say whatever it takes to win," the one who "leaves opponents not just beaten but brutalized?" Fallows can't seem to find him in the 1990s. And when he tries to find him back in 1988, he makes us wonder just who it is who is willing to say "what it takes."

Tomorrow: Gore may have "wholly invented [an] accusation," Fallows says. But then we did some research.


The Daily update (7/12/00)

Bimbo eruptions: It happened again. This time, fashion maven Brian Williams was chatting with the Post's Anne Gerhart. Gerhart was discussing her profile of Tipper Gore. Williams wanted some background:

WILLIAMS: Her husband, as you know, has been under fire and has been kind of searching for direction, he has been through, kind of, make-overs, there's the whole polo shirt thing that goes on to this day, he is very close to accusations that he lacks a center because of all the advice that comes in that he's taken. How has she weathered all of this? A lot of it has been bad news for the campaign.

And it's been bad news for our public discourse. Surely no one will say that Williams lacks a center; he just can't stop talking about clothes (links below). His repetitive reference to "the whole polo shirt thing" is a familiar but endless embarrassment. And the very same night, a tabloid talker was talking clothes too. He mentioned, as he watched some tape, that Gore was "back in this suit again." But the talker, who spoke with Gordon Liddy, had a menacing subtext:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well he goes from being this sort of Mr. Wizard guy, teaching us all like we just arrived from another country, where they speak a different language and he's talking to us in this little baby talk, and then he switches this [unintelligible], this sort of screaming tub-thumping lefty as if he hates everything that's going on in this country. I don't, I don't—there he is, back in this suit again! He got rid of all those olive colors, those earth tones of his...

"As if he hates everything that's going on in this country?" The talker continued:

MATTHEWS: But isn't it fair to say—You've got a lot of conservatives who listen to you on your radio network across the country, 20 million you mentioned. Do they hate Clinton more, or Gore more? Or Hillary? Put them—

Liddy had enough sense to be troubled by the talker's language:

LIDDY: Well, I, uh, "hate"—I would say—

MATTHEWS: "Despise!"

Liddy said his listeners "despise" Bill, but that wasn't good enough. "Who's #1 on the hit list?" the talker brightly asked him.

In 1999, as you may recall, this talker almost got a journalist killed. He egged Kathleen Willey into making an allegation on the air—an allegation which turned out to be totally false—and a viewer of the talker's show later showed up in the accused scribe's garage, threatening guests with a shotgun (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/20/99). (The armed viewer, you may recall, was mentally ill, giving a glimpse of the talker's demographic.) We said it at the time: NBC is irresponsible in leaving this reckless man on the air. At any rate, we hope Chris' money is spending real good; when he says that a public figure "hates everything that's going on in this country" and hectors Liddy about how much the pol is "hated" and where the pol stands on the "hit list," he engages in reprehensible, dangerous conduct. NBC stands indicted again; there is absolutely no reason on earth to allow such bad judgment to be aired.

By the way, as any viewer will surely have noticed, the talker himself has been wearing "earth-toned" suits for the past several weeks. Guess what, kids—they're in fashion! (Some people knew that last fall.) But the talker—wearing earth tones himself—pointed out their dread significance last night. We pose a question to NBC: Why doesn't this clown just get fired?

Commentary by Brian Williams
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 7/10/00

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, MSNBC, 7/10/00

Visit our incomparable archives: Last October, Williams discussed polo shirts for a week. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/11/99. For an overview of the press corps' treatment of the Gore wardrobe, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/15/00 (postscript). We think the 2/15 report is very much worth reviewing.