Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler title Graphic
Caveat lector

6 October 2000

Our current howler (part IV): They’re ba-a-ack

Synopsis: Dissembling freely about (gasp!) the farm chores, John Leo puts the pitchfork to democracy.

Gore's Embellishments Persist
Calvin Woodward, The Associated Press, 10/5/00

The Al Gore quiz
John Leo, U.S. News, 10/9/00

Inventing Al Gore
Bill Turque, Houghton Mifflin, 2000

There simply can't be an easier job than being a Washington journalist. Under the current rules of the game, any time you have nothing to say, you can type up the "Gore embellishes" story. You throw together some jumbled version of favorite alleged misstatements by Gore. On October 5, for example, the AP's Calvin Woodward sampled the genre. Early on, he offered this:

WOODWARD: Whether claiming to have been an inspiration for a "Love Story" character years ago or recently recalling the strains of a childhood song that wasn't written until he was grown, Gore has tended to go off track on peripheral things.

Woodward's passage is simply astonishing. Author Erich Segal told the New York Times (three years ago!) that Gore was a model for the Love Story character. Woodward's implication that Gore embellished this simply flies in the face of reality. And Gore has explained that the "childhood song" remark was a joke (made to a labor audience that is plainly heard laughing on the videotape). Woodward doesn't even mention that, to let readers judge the facts for themselves. When the Washington press corps tells treasured old tales, they tend to serve up "novelized" news—stories in which favorite tales are shaped to be pleasing and simple-minded. The Gore embellishment story is one of their favorites. As Woodward does, they'll routinely embellish the facts themselves, just to keep stories lively and pleasing.

But John Leo's column in this week's U.S. News really went back to first principles. The column is called "The Al Gore quiz;" it's subtitled, "Test your skills against the candidate's flip-flops." But Leo doesn't deal in flip-flops. Written in a mock quiz style, the column offers this early passage:

Speaking of "Look for the Union Label," Al Gore says he recalls his mother singing him to sleep with that song, though it was not written until Gore was 27. Explain.
—Union ditties are so catchy that many Democratic politicians can recall loving them before they were written, particularly in election years.
—If some 27-year-olds still need lullabies, who are we to judge?
—It was a simple mistake. His mother actually sang him a quite similar song by Britney Spears.

Gore "says he recalls his mother singing him to sleep with that song?" He also says the remark was a joke. But Leo's readers don't learn that, either. Anywhere else, this is known as dissembling. In the press corps, it's called an "easy column."

In fact, Leo's column presents familiar examples of Gore allegedly making things up. Many of Leo's items massage basic facts, but his last item took the cake. In it, Leo revives a claim that was so utterly bogus that even the press corps stopped reciting it. But dissembling seems to come easy to Leo. Here is his remarkable passage:

Campaigning in Iowa, Gore depicted himself as Farmer Al. "I lived on a farm," he said. "[My father] taught me how to clean out hog waste...He taught me how to clear land with a double-bladed ax...He taught me how to take up hay all day long in the hot sun and then, after a dinner break, go over and help the neighbors take up hay before the rain came and spoiled it on the ground." Didn't Gore grow up in Washington, living in the Fairfax Hotel, and going to a fancy private school, then Harvard? Explain.
—Gore did not mean to imply that he grew up on a farm in Washington. There are no farms in D.C.
—Maybe he spends vacations on his family's farm now and then.
—Commuting from the Fairfax Hotel to a Tennessee farm isn't easy. It takes a lot of commitment. You have to work with the hogs all morning, attend school in D.C. in the afternoon, then go all the way back to the farm again before the hay spoils. Then there's the tobacco crop to worry about. Nothing but headaches. Maybe he should give up the rustic life.

In this passage, Leo recalls a press corps flap that blew up in March 1999 (that's when Gore was "campaigning in Iowa"). Various pundits implied or said that Gore's account of the farm chores had to be false, because everyone knew he had actually grown up in D.C. Gore was called "deeply dishonest" (Donald Lambro, Washington Times) and "delusional" (Michael Medved, USA Today). The Weekly Standard called Gore's account "preposterous." But since that time, three biographies of Gore have appeared, and they all describe the youthful farm chores. Bob Zelnick, writing for the conservative publisher Regnery, made the chores the central metaphor of Gore's life. Bill Turque gave this account:

TURQUE: While many of Little Al's classmates were packed off to summer camp when school let out, he headed for the family's eight-hundred-acre tobacco and cattle farm about two and a half miles east of Carthage, Tennessee. The trips were less vacations than character-building boot camps designed by Albert Gore [Sr.] to give his privilege-softened son a taste of his own struggles in Possum Hollow. Ironically, Al Gore's Republican antagonists have seized on his recollections of the hard work he did on the farm as another bogus tale about his life. In fact, Gore was up at dawn tending to livestock and hosing out hog parlors...

Leo now joins the "antagonists" Turque mentions. Turque describes the chores further:

TURQUE: Even the local kids who might have enjoyed watching a city slicker sweat some, were appalled at how Gore was worked. "It was horrendous," said one woman who knew him well as a teenager. Friends and family members who visited Little Al from Washington and got put to work thought twice about returning. "Al's father would just work the dickens out of him," said Mark Gore..."Up at dawn, very serious work for a kid. I went down there a couple of times and I said, 'Uh-uh.'"

So what exactly was Leo's point is reworking this long-discarded story? Like Michael Kelly in March 1999, Leo gives himself deniability; due to his enjoyable "quiz show" formats, he makes no declarative statements whatever, and could offer any number of dodges about what this item's point really was. But in truth, Leo displays the extraordinarily dishonest conduct routinely engaged in by our most worthless pundits. Surely Leo must know the truth about these chores; he also must know how this passage will read. It is remarkable that Leo questions the character of others when he dissembles so freely himself.

At present, there are many serious topics in the political mix for a serious scribe to explore. Or a columnist could examine a hopeful's "character"—if he were willing to do so with honest examples, explained in a respectable way. But Leo displays the central problem currently dogging our public discourse. The Washington press corps is an unaccountable elite, and it's filled with people who dissemble and lie. We're tired—bone tired—of wasting your time with reexaminations of these tired old topics. But the truth is, Leo's column is a public disgrace—an assault on our hapless democracy.


No excuses: It isn't as if U.S. News doesn't know the facts. Senior writer Kenneth Walsh described the chores in August 1999!

WALSH: "Anything his daddy told him to do, he did," recalls [Mattie Lucy] Payne. "He was a child who always listened to his parents, never talked back to them. He was a sweet boy." Even as an adolescent, when his father would make him do tough chores on the 250-acre family farm in Carthage during the summer, young Al rarely complained. His father insisted that he work alongside the hands, baling hay, herding some of the family's 600 head of Black Angus cattle, mucking out hog bins, harvesting tobacco. Once his father ordered him to clear a wooded field with a small hand ax, a job that took all summer.

But "antagonists" like to novelize news. Leo had a far better story.

Fathers and Sons,
Kenneth Walsh, U.S. News & World Report, 8/9/99