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21 July 2000

Our current howler (part IV): Dotting his i’s

Synopsis: In 1998, a Jacoby column showed how far the corps’ standards have fallen.

Boston columnist: Suspension was 'overreaction' to 'oversight'
Interview with Jeff Jacoby, The Washington Times, 7/18/00

Commentary by Jeff Jacoby
Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Channel, 7/18/00

Gore's incendiary fulminations
Jeff Jacoby, The Washington Times, 7/29/98

The Real Al Gore
Tucker Carlson, The Weekly Standard, 5/19/97

Letter to the editor
George Phillips, The Weekly Standard, 6/2/97

In an interview with the Washington Times, Jeff Jacoby showered praise on his own high standards:

JACOBY (Washington Times): I believe in crossing ethical t's and dotting ethical i's. But I don't think I should be held to an impossibly high standard.

That night, he uttered similar words of praise when he appeared on Hannity & Colmes:

JACOBY (Hannity & Colmes): [F]rom my first day on the job, I have been extraordinarily careful to look over my shoulder, knowing that people are looking over it for me. I'm careful not to make mistakes, careful to double-check and triple-check what I write, knowing that if a mistake shows up, people are going to pounce.

In fact, his May 11 piece in the Boston Globe showed our modern press at its worst (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/20/00). It was filled with inventive paraphrase and aggressive spin, and it recycled same-old-same-old themes—themes heard a thousand times before. Worst of all, it was utterly reckless in its negativity. Gore had made a totally standard assessment of his father's career on civil rights. Many observers, from all points on the spectrum, have said exactly what Gore said. But Jacoby's readers were never told that, and Gore was called a "bare-faced liar" for saying what others have routinely said.

At THE HOWLER, we don't normally read the Globe; we offer no general view about Jacoby's column. One effort did catch our eye, however—a Jacoby piece in the Washington Times on July 29, 1998. The column was about—what else?—what a Big Liar Al Gore really is. As it turns out, there's just nothing the guy won't lie about! This is what caught our attention:

JACOBY (7/29/98) (paragraph 2): Occasionally Gore's smug self-righteousness goes too far. At the 1996 Democratic National Convention, he described his sister's death from cancer 12 years earlier. Her "nearly unbearable pain," he said, turned him into an enemy of the tobacco industry, and at her very deathbed he vowed: "Until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the danger of smoking."

Gore had said he attended his sister's death. Jacoby was puzzled by that:

JACOBY (7/29/98) (3): As for that dramatic deathbed scene, it was hard to see when he could have found the time to squeeze it in: On the day his sister died, records showed, he was busy talking politics with a reporter from the UPI and addressing the Kiwanis Club in Knoxville. Today that convention speech, far from demonstrating the depths of Gore's compassion and conviction, has come to be seen as manipulative and dishonest.

In short, Jacoby suggested that Gore had lied about attending his sister's death.

It's ironic that so personal an attack is made in this column—a column which goes on to complain about Gore's "incivility." It's especially odd to see such an assault built around such shabby "evidence." How long was Gore's speech to the Kiwanis Club, after all? Did he address the poor group all day long? And at what time of day did "records show" that Gore had made his address? Jacoby implies that Gore couldn't have attended his sister's death because he also made a speech that day. We've noted this kind of "logic" before. It comes to us straight from Neptune.

We noted this column when it appeared because we had seen this insinuation made earlier. It had first been made by Tucker Carlson, in an aggressive Weekly Standard piece. The lengthy article, "The Real Al Gore," had appeared on May 19, 1997. Carlson's presentation of this event was even more insinuative than Jacoby's:

CARLSON: The day [his sister] died must have been a very busy one for Al Gore, for at some point during the same day, July 11, 1984, he also found time to give a speech before the Kiwanis Club in Knoxville, across the state from his sister's deathbed. He also squeezed in an interview with a wire-service reporter. Whether he managed to do these things before or after his sister's last words to him isn't clear, since Gore didn't mention her in the UPI interview he gave. Instead, he criticized his opponent in that year's Senate race, Victor Ashe, and talked about the specifics of their upcoming televised debates.

We like Carlson, but this is just smarmy—surely the low point in his career. Note the utter lack of coherence in the sentence we have highlighted. (Gore didn't mention his sister to the UPI, so "it isn't clear" when the interview happened. Oh.) Carlson says Gore gave his speech "at some point" that day; there's no indication why Carlson didn't just find out when it occurred. The strange constructions of this passage raised plain warning flags.

Two weeks later, the Weekly Standard published a letter from Gore's former driver, George J. Phillips. Phillips described Carlson's "implication" as "inexcusable," and related what had actually occurred:

PHILLIPS: [The event] is clear in my memory, however, because I was [Gore's] advance person and driver during the campaign. He was in East Tennessee when he was notified that his sister had taken a turn for the worse. He immediately returned to the hospital in Nashville to be with her. He arrived late in the afternoon and she died that night.

Phillips described the general conduct of Gore's campaign:

PHILLIPS: She had been sick for some time and was in and out of the Vanderbilt Hospital for a period of months and also stayed in her parents' home in Carthage, Tennessee. Al made time to visit with her often in the hospital and when she was in Carthage. We would drive from one end of the state to the other to get back to Nashville or Carthage so he could spend time with her. When I was too tired to drive, he would.

"His commitment to her was that of a loving brother," Phillips wrote, "and for Carlson to imply otherwise is despicable."

Equally hideous was Carlson's "response." "Inexcusable or not," Carlson wrote, "Al Gore was campaigning on the day of his sister's death, as records of both his interview and his speech that day make clear." We think it's amazing that the Standard would publish so absurdly nonresponsive a "response." Carlson's comments are completely irrelevant to Phillips' point. "I regret the error" would surely have sufficed.

We'll stress again that we like Tucker Carlson, and we don't think this episode reflects his subsequent work. But this remarkable episode does show the depths to which modern attack journalism sometimes takes us. Carlson's was the first, full-blown "attack piece" on Gore's character. (Many have followed.) In our modern press culture, when scribes are determined to tear down pols' character, it can lead them to write grisly things.

Back to the point: Jeff Jacoby, most careful of scribes, repeated this anecdote some thirteen months later. Boston Globe readers were exposed to winking, leering insinuations—insinuations that made no sense on their face, and that had long been known to be false. We're willing to assume that Jacoby, despite his triple-checking, simply hadn't seen the letter from Phillips. But surely his editors could have seen the ridiculous "logic" that drove his leering insinuation. Why this ugly passage appeared in the Globe is something its editors should consider.

Tearing down the reputations of public figure is now "considered sport" within the press corps. We think Jacoby should be more restrained when he heaps public praise on his methods.

POSTSCRIPT—More from SpinWorld: For the record, Gore did not say, in his 1996 speech, that he made his vow "at [his sister's] very deathbed." The vow which Jacoby quotes was made in the present tense. How do we know that? We double-checked. Jacoby, like so many scribes, inadvertently improved the real story.


The Daily update (7/21/00)

Let's play oddball: We strongly recommend Marjorie Williams' piece in this morning's Post. In her tone, Williams takes us back to the late days of March, when whining pundits assailed Bush and Gore, angered by their wins on Super Tuesday. This morning, Williams tells us how dumb both pols have been this week in responding to a question raised by Tim Russert. Gore gave "a dumber answer than Bush," Williams says. But both hopefuls are double-d dumb.

Williams gives a masterful display of the press corps' overwhelming self-affection. As she herself suggests throughout, this episode was caused by a silly question Russert asked Gore on this week's Meet the Press. Russert asked about an obscure law under which a pregnant inmate can't be executed. Here's how Williams portrays it:

WILLIAMS (paragraph 1): One thing we learned in Sunday's "Meet the Press" interview with Vice President Al Gore is that it is possible for a journalist to be too well-prepared for an interview. Midway through the talk, the famously gladiatorial Tim Russert pitched Gore a true oddball, a question so weird, so trivial, so July that it brought on the loopiest debate of the campaign so far: Should pregnant women be candidates for execution? [Williams' emphasis on "July"]

According to Williams, Russert's "oddball" question was "weird" and "trivial." But you know the law. Journalists pander to other Big Journalists—it's one of their glaring character flaws—so Williams says the loopy question shows that Russert was "too well-prepared!" Of course! Meanwhile, she extends no such mercy to Bush and Gore; she savages them for the answers they gave to Russert's off-the-wall question! Believe it or not, Williams wrote this about Gore's real-time answer:

WILLIAMS (3): This is apparently not a problem that has ever come up in the real world—among other reasons, because shuffling a woman from conviction to the date of execution takes at least 12 times longer than making a baby. Even so, Gore was able to flub the question, telling Russert that he wasn't familiar with the law and was going to have to think about it. No doubt he smelled a variant of the logical trap that opponents of abortion rights and the death penalty like to spring on those who support one but oppose the other.

Perfect! Gore had been asked a question that was "weird" and "trivial" (and completely obscure). And Williams, pandering for all she's worth, doesn't mention something else. Russert had also managed to misstate the question; he first called the pregnancy law "legislation," giving the impression that he was referring to a pending bill. In all the confusion, Gore simply said that he would have to think about the matter. That response is scored by Williams as a case of "flubbing an answer." (She makes it clear soon thereafter that Bush gave a "dumb answer" too. He also engaged in "faux gravity.")

Williams' overweening pride—and her incomprehension—are on display throughout. She displays so sense of knowing why a pol would be careful around such an odd question, one involving such delicate subjects. Here's what the pols should have said:

WILLIAMS: It would probably be too much to expect either candidate to say the truth: Geez, Tim, that's a pointless little question. That law is just a bit of pandering Congress did, to look less bloodthirsty; this has never come up and it never will, so let's talk about something important.

Is it possible that Williams really doesn't know what happens to pols who say things like that? Meanwhile, though she describes Russert's question as weird, trivial, oddball, and silly, the ensuing conversation is Bush and Gore's fault:

WILLIAMS: The entire conversation resembles nothing so much as a late-night bull session between a circle of college sophomores. The candidates' willingness to gallop off after these abstractions would be funny, if it weren't such a perfect distillation of the cant and nervousness that male pols bring to the whole spectrum of issues affecting reproductive rights, and especially of the way the presidential campaign has avoided the issue of the death penalty.

The dumb-ass question came from a scribe. But the "conversation" is whose fault? The pols! Of course!! We all know the rules: It's pols who are "dumb." Scribes are just "too well-prepared."

We expect to offer more about Russert's interview next week. In the meantime, Williams' column routinely persuades us that, given our human limitations, pundits should avoid all judgments of character, unless they're absolutely unavoidable.

The Madonna Exception
Marjorie Williams, The Washington Post, 7/21/00