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23 August 2001

Smile-a-while: Even called him stupid!

Synopsis: "Style" slams Hoover for trashing Gore Senior. But how did &"Style" deal with the son?

Hoover’s FBI, Taking Aim At Al Gore Sr.
Joe Stephens, The Washington Post, 8/23/01

After Six Years in Suspended Animation and With an Election Right Around the Corner, Al Gore Shows No Sign of Stirring From THE BIG SLEEPY
Kevin Merida, The Washington Post, 6/7/99

In Love For Their Country; For Al and Tipper Gore, The Honeymoon Never Ended
Lloyd Grove, The Washington Post, 6/14/99

Al Gore Gets Jiggy; Talking Policy, Veep Morphs Into a Giddy Wonk
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 6/23/99

In Race for 2000, a Tortoise and Hare Start; Media Portray Gore Hobbled by Baggage and Running Out of Points Behind Bush
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 6/25/99

We couldn’t help chuckling at this morning’s "Style" piece concerning the FBI and Gore Senior. "Now it can be told," Joe Stephens writes. "J. Edgar Hoover waged a decade-long war of enmity against the late Sen. Albert Gore Sr." According to Stephens, on one occasion, in 1954, Gore "groused to a colleague on the Senate floor that the FBI was spreading loose gossip about a friend." As it turned out, Stephens shows, Gore was right, but his remark led to years of enmity from J. Edgar Hoover. Gore’s FBI files, which have just been released, revealed the extent of J’s fury:

STEPHENS: For years, the former FBI director and his underlings stalked the seven-term congressman and three-term senator. Flannel-suited agents monitored his speeches, issued vicious critiques of his activities, blacklisted him, called him stupid, spewed memos and bile about him. Hated him. It was a fury that raged from cocktail receptions to civic club dinners to private Capitol Hill standoffs.

The "Syle" section’s sentiments in this matter were clear. To "Style," the lengthy episode clearly revealed the crackpot tendencies of the late, loopy Hoover.

But here at THE HOWLER, we had to chuckle at the "Style" section’s new set of scruples. In fact, when Stephens described Hoover’s treatment of Senior, it sounded like a description of "Style’s" silly treatment of Al Senior’s son! Ah yes! When Junior kicked off his White House campaign, "Style" responded in full crackpot fashion. "Spewed bile?" "Called him stupid?" Ran a lengthy "war of enmity?" Go back with us, readers, and see if you howl at this section’s reinvented decorum.

Gore’s formal announcement of his campaign took place on June 16, 1999. In "Style," the run-up began on Monday, June 7, with a lengthy profile by Kevin Merida. The piece ran atop the section’s page one, accompanied by a large photo of Gore. The article’s openly mocking tone was expressed in the photo’s caption. "Maybe the nicest thing you can say about the vice president is that he’s remarkably lifelike," it remarkably said. And the profile carried a lengthy headline: "After Six Years in Suspended Animation," it said, "Al Gore Shows No Sign of Stirring From THE BIG SLEEPY." "THE BIG SLEEPY"—the profile’s key conceit—appeared in massive, multi-digit-point type.

Merida began with a definition of "boring" which covered four paragraphs and 113 words. "To bore is to attack the sense with a fusillade of sameness, to weary the world with blandness," he wrote. Having completed his own long-winded disquisition, Merida started paragraph five like this: "Which brings us to Al Gore, the highest-ranking boring man in the land…the vanilla pudding of the species." There followed a 2500-word essay on Gore’s dismal dullness. At one point, Merida expressed the disdain for substance that would characterize the 2000 campaign coverage:

MERIDA: Part of Gore’s reputation as Wooden Man Walking comes from the geeklike enthusiasm with which he embraces subjects such as reinventing government, suburban sprawl and ozone depletion. Add to that his sometimes awkward use of language—"controlling legal authority"—the clipped cadence, the robotic moves onstage, and you’ve got the package.

Merida expressed a standard "Style" outlook; he was peeved that a candidate would care about issues. (He was also robotically typing up "the package" of negative soundbites on Gore.) Did you think Al Gore had a one-track mind? The word "boring" or one of its various forms turned up in this article 41 times. "Dull" appeared nine times beyond that. Merida quoted "expert" after "expert," trying to determine just what made Gore so hopelessly dull. Meanwhile, the earnest scribe pondered a philosophical problem: Was Gore really boring, or was it just a cruel stereotype? According to Merida, it made no difference. "Maybe this knock is unfair, maybe it’s dead on," the scribe mused. "Doesn’t matter. Gore can’t change the knock. For now all he can do is cope with it."

Obviously, Gore couldn’t likely "change the knock" if writers like Merida kept churning these profiles. And sure enough—one week later, the "Style" section tackled the topic of boredom again. This time, Lloyd Grove did the honors, ostensibly writing about the Gores’ happy marriage. Here’s how the piece started out:

GROVE: Tipper Gore offers two anecdotes about her husband as fresh and compelling evidence that he is not a stuffed shirt.

There followed a 1900-word piece, in which the Gores tried to argue that Gore wasn’t boring. (One photo caption caught the tone: "Al Gore a stuffed shirt? ‘I think it’s ridiculous,’ wife Tipper says.") To give an idea of the profile’s subject matter, the entire first section was solely concerned with whether Gore can really play the harmonica. And for those who love J. Edgar’s soul, the piece featured a pair of insinuative heads. The Gores were "In Love For Their Country," the lead headline said. The inside headline: "Al and Tipper; Wedded to Politics." Nothing in the article remotely explained what the suggestive pair of headlines might mean.

On June 23, "Style" ran Part Three of its Tedium Triptych, this time written by Ceci Connolly, the Post’s daily Gore reporter. By the summer of 2000, the Financial Times would be saying of Connolly that she was "hostile to the [Gore] campaign, doing little to hide [her] contempt for the candidate and his team," and this remarkable profile gave an early example of the odd tone she was prepared to adopt toward the veep. Connolly reported direct from Nashville, where the Gores had conducted their eighth annual "Family Reunion" symposium, a two-day forum on issues confronting American families. (One sense that most reporters at "Style" have long since been disowned by theirs.) Some major newspapers, lacking "Style’s" insight, actually filed serious reports on the conference; for example, the Los Angeles Times highlighted familiar proposals that originated at earlier "Reunion" events. But Connolly, on page one of "Style," stressed how deadly the whole thing had been. It doesn’t take much to bore writers at "Style," and Connolly had the ‘tude down cold. The sessions took place at Vanderbilt University, "in a hall teeming with do-gooders," she wrote. Her portrait became the third in "Style’s" series on how preternaturally boring Gore was.

"For two days here at Vanderbilt University," Connolly wrote, "the man best known for his statue imitation finally appeared to relax in public." According to Connolly, "It was the weight of the conference that seemed to relax Gore," who was more commonly "programmed to the point of seeming robotic." (The conference had turned Gore into "a giddy wonk," the article’s lead headline said.) Connolly said that Gore "temporarily shed his stiff-guy armor and displayed a long-rumored human side." At one point, "he even giggled like a girl," she wrote. (And we assure you, no—we’re not making that up. Connolly actually wrote that sentence, and an editor at "Style" said, "Let’s print it.") Moving right along, Connolly described the conference as "a down-in-the weeds policy summit that only a man with a steel-trap brain and a steel rear end would describe as fun." According to Connolly, Gore "was positively wallowing in the sheer density" of the conference, "while his aides struggled to stay awake." Connolly’s sardonic tone extended from start to finish. Early on, she described Gore responding to citizen participants "in his best talk-show-host baritone;" she called Tipper Gore "his blond co-host." In her final two paragraphs, the fairy tale ended. Connolly said that Gore stiffened right up again when the conference finally came to an end:

CONNOLLY: Almost as magically as the relaxed Gore appeared here, though, there were signs the spell was wearing off. At a closing news conference with a handful of reporters, Gore whipped out his cue cards and started reading word for word, slowly. . .enunciating . . . every . . . syllable.

Would he at least spontaneously field a few questions? Nope. Not on the cards.

Meanwhile, midway through the piece, Connolly—without a hint of irony—said this about Gore’s early campaign:

CONNOLLY: One week into his presidential campaign, Gore is battling a serious image problem.

What a surprise! Like Merida, Connolly betrayed no sense that articles like the one she was writing might be a cause of that "image problem." Her statement came right before she said that Gore was "programmed to the point of seeming robotic," and right after she said that Gore was "wallowing in the density" of the forum.

Junior kicked off his campaign June 16. Within a period of seventeen days, "Style" wrote three separate profiles of the hopeless hopeful, stressing how stunningly boring he was. We couldn’t help but recall "Style’s" work when we read Stephens’ rant about Hoover. The crackpot tendencies which flowered in Hoover derive from the gene pool our race shares in common. This morning, "Style" kicks Hoover for his naughty ways. But "Style" had fewer problems with vile propaganda when Junior’s turn came on the stage.

What came next: Within a few days, the Post’s Howard Kurtz raised the first questions about the odd coverage Gore was receiving. "The harsh coverage and punditry about Gore threaten to become a self-fulfilling process," Kurtz wrote, in the very "Style" section where the profiles had appeared. He chided "the media’s theater critics," who were offering nit-picking critiques of Gore’s performance. And what explained the corps’ "harsh coverage?" Writing in the careful way that can sometimes make his work maddening, Kurtz quoted a pair of major journalists, letting them hang themselves with their comments. Each scribe seemed to say that Gore was being trashed as payback for Clinton. The Chicago Tribune’s Jim Warren seemed insouciant. "We’re sort of bored with Clinton, and many of us think Clinton’s a moral scum," Warren said, "and probably subconsciously, at a minimum, we taint Gore by virtue of his association." But Roger Simon of U.S. News made a truly remarkable statement:

KURTZ: Roger Simon, chief political writer for U.S. News & World Report, defended the focus on Lewinsky: "It’s still the story that has shaped our time. We want to hear [Gore] say what a terrible reprobate the president was, while defending his record. We’re going to make him jump through the hoops. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that."

Really? In a truly stunning remark, Simon said the press corps was going to make Gore "jump through hoops" until he said things they wanted to hear. Simon didn’t think there was "anything wrong with that." To Simon, there was nothing wrong with reporters putting hopefuls through hoops until they expressed the corps’ viewpoint.

Earlier in the week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/01), we made a fairly obvious statement. We said it’s odd to say that a candidate who gained fifteen points in the course of a campaign "ran the worst campaign in presidential history." We would think the oddness of that judgement would be fairly clear on its face. But many of you wrote to swear that Gore had, in fact, run a horrid campaign—and you rattled off various Press Corps Spin-Points in the course of defending this claim. In truth, we were a bit surprised to see how many Dems are deeply sunk in Press Corps Reality. Be careful—from Day One right up to the end, the press corps did make Gore "jump through hoops." Be careful—based on some missives we got this week, some of you may have jumped through them too.


The occasional update (8/23/01)

Let’s play kickball: We know, we know! Some of the readers don’t care for Brit Hume because the Fox host leans conservative. And some of you are annoyed by the way he lands on poor Juan every Sunday morning. But Hume is a smart, experienced newsman; he simply dwarfs the loser crew Fox throws on his program and makes him call "all-stars." Tuesday night, we chuckled as the long-suffering host took his minions to school once again.

The query was being widely posed—what Key Questions should Chung ask Condit? On Special Report, the problems began when Hume turned to Juan Williams and innocently said, "Juan, what’s your idea of a question that has to be asked?" The hapless scribe leaped to the task:

WILLIAMS: Well, you’d say, "Why did you lie to the police until the third interview and, therefore, obstruct"—

Uh-oh! The Chief had to break in right there. There is, of course, no evidence yet that Condit ever lied to police. Making up facts is now pure cable culture—but it only works well, Juan, when Condit’s not present! Williams showcased his vacuous ways when Brit asked the obvious question:

HUME (continuing directly): Did he, did he—do we know that he did that?

WILLIAMS: Well—well, according to all reports, he did not acknowledge that he had an affair with Chandra Levy until the third interview with the District of Columbia police.

Let’s translate—that was a "No." Speaking like a second-grade school marm, Hume then explained How Things Work:

HUME (continuing directly): Does that question risk—you know, might it be better to say, "Why did you not tell the police that you had an affair until later?" If he, if he quibbles with the word "lie," you’re into an argument.

Williams now played the Chris Farley part, skulking and hanging his head as he answered. "If he wants to quibble, then I hope that I would have a follow-up," the panelist pouted. "But I—it seems to me the point is that he’s on the—he’s on the spot for not having cooperated with an investigation into this young woman who is missing and possibly dead." At this point, Hume authored a Note to self: Never criticize public school teachers because they love social promotion.

Now it was on to the WashTimes’ Bill Sammon, whose problems are different from Juan’s. After a lengthy dollop of stalling and padding—"I agree blunt is better than touchy fuzzy feely," Sammon said—Teacher demanded an answer:

HUME: So what—so what’s your top question?

SAMMON: The basic, the first basic question is what happened to Chandra Levy? I mean—

Jeez! Condit would never have prepped up on that one! Brit, though, foresaw a slight problem:

HUME: Well, if he says, "I don’t know," then where do you go?

SAMMON: Then you say, "What was your relationship with him?" [sic] and if he wiggles on that, you say, "Were you having an affair with her?"

Oh. At this point, one last all-star could hold it no longer—Jeff Birnbaum, unbidden, broke in on his pal. But when tough-talking Birnbaum blurted out a blunt question, Hume had to rein him in too:

BIRNBAUM: I have—I think the question that has to be asked—and it’s just very blunt—is "Did you kill Chandra Levy?" I think a lot of people—

HUME: You have to ask it, that question, that way?

As viewers of Special Report will know, Birnbaum is famous for changing his views at the slightest hint of disapproval from others. He heeled now to Master’s command:

HUME: "Did you have anything to do with her disappearance?" isn’t good enough?

BIRNBAUM: That’s one way to do it, but I think that would be one thing that would—I think you need to get Condit off his message, which is what he’s going to try to deliver, and that’s one way to do it. Another would be, "Do you know what could have happened?" or "Do you have anything"—

HUME: "Do you know anything about what did happen?"

BIRNBAUM: —"about her disappearance?"

HUME: Right. Any knowledge of her disappearance.

Within his usual fifteen seconds, Birnbaum said just what Hume wanted him to. But the back-peddling pundit had one last gnarled bone to drop in the dirt at Hume’s feet:

BIRNBAUM: Or to ask—ask things that are slightly off the beaten path, like, "Why did you insist that your girlfriends not carry ID?" Something like that.

That "fact," of course, is unproven too. Poor Hume! Finally the bell for recess rang, and he sent his stars off to the watering holes where our scribes learn their strange games of kickball.

Commentary by Brit Hume, Juan Williams, Bill Sammon, Jeff Birnbaum
Special Report,
Fox News Channel, 8/22/01