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14 August 2001

Our current howler (part III): Send in the clowns

Synopsis: On Sunday morning, various scribes embarrassed themselves with ruminations about Gore’s vexing beard. (PLUS: Dowd wrong again!)

Commentary by Jeff Greenfield, Pat Mitchell
Greenfield At Large, CNN, 8/10/01

Commentary by Brit Hume, Ceci Connolly
Fox News Sunday, Fox News Channel, 8/12/01

Commentary by Andrea Mitchell, John Podesta
Meet the Press, NBC, 8/12/01

Commentary by Brit Hume, Bill Sammon
Special Report, Fox News Sunday, 8/13/01

If you couldn’t actually experience this press corps, you’d swear that it couldn’t exist. You’d swear that there couldn’t be a group so committed to vacuous discourse. On Friday night’s Greenfield At Large, for example, host Jeff Greenfield cut Al Gore a break. Greenfield noted the oddness of all the recent yakking about Gore’s very disturbing new beard. But give a gander to what his guest, Pat Mitchell, offered up in reply:

GREENFIELD: Al Gore leaves the stage gracefully, is about to come back after six months, and what do we talk about?

MITCHELL: He’s got a beard.

GREENFIELD: He’s got a beard.

MITCHELL: I didn’t think we talked about it enough. I expect there will be a whole lot more articles about why the beard. Is this going to help him become more presidential?

Greenfield understood that the beard talk was silly. But Mitchell had another view; she said we haven’t discussed it enough—said we haven’t spent enough time figuring out its deepest meanings! And who exactly is Pat Mitchell? Pat Mitchell, according to Greenfield, is "president and CEO of Public Broadcasting Services!" That’s right, folks—she heads PBS! Amazing, isn’t it, that claptrap like this now comes from our highest press circles!

But if it’s clownlike amusement that you crave, this press corps simply never disappoints. All the buffoons took their turns bearding Gore this past Sunday morning. On Fox, Brit Hume kicked things off with a touch of class, although it’s sad he felt he had to mention the silly subject of Gore’s beard at all. Hume was responding to Tony Snow’s loaded question about "the newest Al Gore:"

HUME: I like the beard. I thought he looked great. I think he looks relaxed. He looks like he’s ready to go. And I think he has chosen just the right course since the election was over.

But Ceci Connolly was also there. She made a predictable contribution:

CONNOLLY: Looks like he’s ready to go, but go where? [Pause for laughter] Back to Europe with his backpack?

It’s amazing to think that the Washington Post is willing to be represented this way. But then, here’s how Andrea Mitchell clowned as Russert’s sub on Meet the Press:

MITCHELL: And, John Podesta, we’ve seen the return of Al Gore this weekend in Nashville looking a little bit different, in fact. This is a very different Al Gore. But what about all of these reports that Al Gore and Bill Clinton have to make up? I don’t know if Naomi Wolf had anything to do with the new Al Gore…

The previous Sunday, Maureen Dowd had mentioned earth tones and alphas, but had strangely failed to work in Wolf (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/11/01). Mitchell completed the hat trick. Meanwhile, when Podesta tried to make an actual point, Mitchell shut him down with more clowning:

PODESTA: And I’ll tell you something. I think that we kind of missed that lockbox that he talked about so much during the course of the campaign, because it looks like we’re digging deep into the Medicare—

MITCHELL: Well, maybe the beard should go into the lockbox! Thank you all. Thank you all very much. We have to leave it there.

She’ll be at The Laugh Hut all week. Of course, in a rational world, Mitchell herself would be thrown in a cage, then carted around as a sideshow amusement. Indeed, the buffoonism of the Mitchells and Connollys ought to be catalogued by the Smithsonian, to let future, more highly evolved generations gape at our primitive morés.

Will Gore run for prez in 2004? Pundits pretend to list the pros and the cons, but they all omit a major factor; as soon as Gore reappears on the scene, the press corps starts in with its clowning. For twenty straight months in the last election, the press corps talked about "invented the Internet," Love Story and earth tones, showing off their matchless skills at buffoonism and group propaganda. If Gore starts running again, their clowning will too. And, as you had your last election stolen away, your next one will be stolen too.

How foolish was the last election? We’ll take a look back in our next HOWLER. But make no mistake—this press corps’ capacity for sheer stupidity seems to have no limit. Here was the hapless Bill Sammon, for example, on Monday night’s Special Report:

SAMMON: I like the beard too, but it’s amazing how much cosmic significance we read into Al Gore’s different appearances. I mean, it’s—it’s—

HUME: Well, it’s all we’ve got to work with at the moment.

SAMMON: Well, no, but, I mean, it’s not just—it’s not just now. I mean, remember first it was the blue suit, then it was—you know, he always wore the blue suit. Then he went to the earth tones, and that was a huge story. And, and, you know, then, you know, there was the debate, the debate makeup. And then after he lost, it was the weight gain we talked about.

And, and now it’s the beard. He—there, there is an identity crisis there. But I do think it shows that he’s relaxed, he’s not taking himself so seriously, he’s not so stiff, and he’s OK with that. I think it’s a healthy sign.

Sanmon notes the way the press corps obsesses on absurd, pointless trivia. But Dr. Sammon gives the "identity crisis" to—who else?—Al Gore!

Don’t misunderstand this group for a second. Don’t be fooled by its members’ celebrity, or polish. The sheer stupidity of our press corps is an inexhaustible resource. Sadly, if Al Gore runs for prez again, the corps’ sheer stupidity—and zest for propaganda—will be with us every step of the way.

Next: The 2000 election—lost, stolen and strayed.

With this group, less is more: We won’t waste your time with more examples of major scribes embarrassing themselves. But we note this—of this week’s five major Sunday shows, only CBS’ half-hour-long Face the Nation didn’t discuss the Gore beard.

What does that mean? Maybe nets like NBC should consider a possibility. Maybe their major pundits—like Andrea Mitchell—simply don’t have an hour in them. In January, Mitchell actually wasted time counting hand towels on Air Force One; four were missing, she told Tom Brokaw. With pundits prepared to stoop to that, less is more—much more.

Meanwhile, one final note about Maureen Dowd and her gang of "Ken dolls." See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/11/01, although you remember the passage in question:

DOWD: Does Mr. Gore really think that all the Ken dolls—John Edwards, Evan Bayh, John Kerry—much less his eager ex-protege, Joe Lieberman, will simply step aside and say, "Oh, O.K., Al, you go again"? Does he think he’ll get a green light from Tom Daschle, the clever, potent Senate majority leader who de-pom-pommed Mississippi cheerleader Trent Lott?

As we pointed out, Lieberman has said, again and again, that he will step aside if Gore runs again. An alert reader reminds us of something else; Bayh has also "stepped aside," announcing back on June 15 that he won’t seek the White House next time. Apparently they don’t break in on Maury Povich when silly Ken dolls make statements like this, so Dowd—compulsively focussed on the distant race—hadn’t heard about that drop-out, either. Get the feeling that Dowd discusses a lot of things she doesn’t know diddly about?


The occasional update (8/14/01)

Off the list: Looking for honest brokers in the SS debate? You can probably forget Bruce Bartlett. In Monday’s Washington Times, Bartlett says he’s pleased by "the vitriol" displayed by enemies of privatization. "After all," he writes, "if the political chances of privatization were dim, then opponents wouldn’t waste their time devising ever more shrill arguments against it." This brought him to his actual target—New York Times columnist Paul Krugman:

BARTLETT: Thus I view economist Paul Krugman’s ill-tempered blast at the Social Security Commission’s recent report as a sign of progress. Writing in the New York Times, where he is the resident blowhard, Mr. Krugman ridicules a comment made by commission member Thomas Saving that the Social Security Trust Fund does nothing to ensure the payment of future Social Security benefits. "He’s just plain wrong," says Mr. Krugman, without offering any explanation for why.

According to Bartlett, Krugman has done two things. First, Krugman has said that Saving is "just plain wrong" in saying that "the SS Trust Fund does nothing to ensure the payment of future SS benefits." Second, Krugman hasn’t "offered any explanation" for his slam.

Is Bartlett working in good faith? Here is the passage in question, from Krugman’s August 8 column:

KRUGMAN: Is [Saving] saying that last year’s Social Security surplus did not enhance the government’s future ability to pay benefits? If so, he’s just plain wrong. Last year the government paid off more than $200 billion in debt to the public, largely because of the Social Security surplus. And lower debt implies lower future interest payments, which means that the government can pay more in benefits without raising taxes or cutting other spending.

According to Krugman, what is "just plain wrong?" Saving is "just plain wrong" if he’s saying "that last year’s SS surplus did not enhance the government’s future ability to pay benefits." Krugman then quite specifically explains why that specific view would be wrong. In short, Krugman didn’t say what Bartlett alleges, and he did specifically explain his statement. Readers of the Washington Times have no way to know this, of course.

Bartlett starts by kvetching about all the vitriol. Then, after calling Krugman a "resident blowhard," he baldly misstates what Krugman said. Bartlett is capable of doing better. But a lot is at stake in the SS debate, and he may simply choose other routes.

Signs of progress
Bruce Bartlett, The Washington Times, 8/13/01

Nothing for Something
Paul Krugman, The New York Times, 8/8/01