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12 October 1999

Our current howler (part II): Clothes make the man

Synopsis: The press corps’ vacuous coverage of Gore insults the public interest.

Leading Environmentalists Put Support and Money Behind Gore
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 10/8/99

Commentary by John Fund, Katrina vanden Heuvel
Hardball, CNBC, 9/24/99

Bradley’s New Gains
E.J. Dionne Jr., The Washington Post, 9/24/99

Commentary by Brian Williams, Howard Fineman
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 10/11/99

Memo to Gore: Express Yourself!
Seven contributors, The New York Times, 10/11/99

Is the press corps being unfair to Gore? It's a difficult type of question to answer (more to come). And signs suggest that some in the press corps don't take the concern all that seriously. Last week, for example, Katharine Seelye reported an event in which some environmentalists expressed their support for Gore. They were responding, Seelye said, to Bill Bradley's endorsement by the environmental group Friends of the Earth. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke out for Gore; Seelye seemed to give his comments a novel interpretation:

SEELYE: "That [endorsement] was among the events that brought us together," Mr. Kennedy said, citing these others: "Gore's getting a raw deal in the press, that George W.'s getting a free ride and sometimes your friends have to stand up when there's a lot of momentum against you." The reference was to polls showing that Mr. Bush is running even, if not ahead, of the Vice President in crucial states like New York and New Hampshire and that Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the Republican front-runner, maintains a solid lead over both nationally.

Was Kennedy thinking of recent polls when he said Gore was getting "a raw deal in the press?" The notion struck us as quite a stretch, but it seemed to be Seelye's interpretation. In fact, a number of pundits have recently suggested that Gore has been getting an unfair ride from the press, including the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, whom we quoted in yesterday's HOWLER (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/11/99). Here, for example, was conservative John Fund, talking about the Bradley-Gore race as he played some recent Hardball:

FUND: Earnest idealistic liberals are all in Bradley's corner. Also the media, which I think has some buyer's remorse for not looking closely at Clinton in 1992.

Was Gore being punished for Clinton's sins? Katrina vanden Heuvel seconded Fund:

VANDEN HEUVEL: You know, I don't often agree with John Fund, but it is interesting this week to watch the press coverage. I think there is, among the press corps, a Clinton fatigue and a Clinton backlash that they are now taking out on Gore.

Such judgments are easy to make, and quite hard to prove, as we'll discuss in more detail later this week.

But one judgment can be made, quite easily, about the Gore campaign coverage. The fact that Gore coverage is remarkably trivial would be rather hard to dispute. How vacuous is the corps' treatment of Gore? Just think back to Dionne's recent column. This is how the sensible scribe portrayed the ongoing coverage:

DIONNE: The Gore camp also has reason to complain that national political commentary treats the vice president with about as much respect as the Russian economy. If he wears a suit, he's a stiff guy in a suit. If he wears an open shirt, he's a stiff guy in a suit faking it...To paraphrase an old Chicago political joke, if Gore walked on water, the headlines the next day would read: "Gore can't swim."

Dionne, of course, is a respected Post columnist, who has written well-received books on politics and policy matters. And what examples did he cite about the Gore coverage? Examples concerning the vice president's alleged stiffness and the kinds of outfits he wears! This has become the thin, rancid gruel on which our public discourse is feeding—the kind of standard by which Candidate Gore is routinely judged by the vacuous press.

Just how silly is this coverage? Take a moment to give some thought to the politician Dionne is discussing. In 1992, Gore published the best-selling Earth in the Balance. The book was described by biographer Bob Zelnick:

ZELNICK: As a work of psychological self-revelation, it is better than Richard Nixon's Six Crises; as a policy blueprint by someone on the cusp of supreme political power in this country it is sui generis.

Since the time of its publication, Earth in the Balance has generated substantial controversy; Zelnick disputes many of its major points. But the book has been at the center of the country's environmental debates since the day it first appeared—and is likely the most aggressive book on public policy ever published by a sitting office-holder.

In a rational world, one would have imagined that Gore's candidacy might have served an important purpose for the country—might have served, for example, to focus debate on the important matters explored in this book. Instead, the press corps rarely misses a chance to discuss Gore's public manner and wardrobe—often misstating facts, as we saw yesterday, to improve on the actual news. To read the work of this vacuous crew, one would think we were looking for a jester-in-chief, or conducting a search for Ralph Lauren's next model. To date, the press corps coverage of the Gore campaign has been an insult to the nation's interests. Which matters more, Gore's clothes or his mind? There was Brian Williams again last night, intrigued with fashion issues:

WILLIAMS: Let's talk appearances here. He stands up at a weekend joint appearance and challenges his rival to debate. You and I have said this last week he's trying to ditch the suits and the appearance and all of this...

Empathetic Howard Fineman seemed to know how Brian felt:

FINEMAN: I mean, he's already gone through seven or eight changes of clothing here.

Given such commentary, a bright observer like Dionne is left complaining that Gore's wardrobe has been unfairly treated!

But if the coverage of Gore is empty and thin, does it follow that the coverage is unbalanced? Dionne suggests that, to the carping critics, everything Gore does is automatically wrong, and a comic example of this syndrome was acted out over the weekend. Richard Berke had written a page-one story for Saturday's New York Times reviewing the Gore campaign to date. Brian Williams—upset that polo shirts didn't look "natural" on Gore (see yesterday's HOWLER)—previewed Berke's report Friday night. As usual, the handsome anchor vastly overstated the tone and substance of the Berke report, and Berke's story provided a comic example of the silly syndrome which Dionne had lamented.


Tomorrow: When Dowd reviewed Berke, Gore was danged if he did. And he also was danged if he didn't.

Life of Brian: Last night, handsome anchor Brian Williams was facing a major problem. He had to report good news for Gore—the pending endorsement of the AFL-CIO. What to do? Here's the way the Adonis-like tribune kicked off the nettlesome segment:

WILLIAMS: A big endorsement from big labor for Vice President Al Gore. Now, while anticipated over the past several days, it comes at a critical time. But will it help, really, after what Gore woke up to in the New York Times over the past three days?

Wow! Gore must have been reading some horrible stuff, to offset the long-sought endorsement! In the segment, Williams mentioned only one newspaper story. He spoke to Howard Fineman:

WILLIAMS: These have been tough times as you know for [Gore]. The New York Times devoted this smiley-face graphic and half the op-ed page above the fold today—"Memo to Gore: Express Yourself," a very close-to-patronizing series of people's opinions on how he can save the race...It gets rough.

There were six serious opinions expressed in the piece, plus a spoof from comedian Al Franken. We thought you might want to get the flavor of those embarrassing opinions about Gore.

Mario Cuomo penned this "rough" treatment:

CUOMO: Few people challenge Vice President Gore's intelligence, personal rectitude and substantive command...Trading issues head to head with any of his opponents—or just on the stump—Al Gore will be charming, compelling and much stronger than he is as President Clinton's "Mr. Vice President."

Nasty stuff. Howard Rubinstein went further, saying this:

RUBINSTEIN: [Gore] must emphasize that we have a sound economy and a content public and that we remain the world's leader. Then he must take credit for it. After all, he helped get us there.

Phew! And it gets even worse than that. Charles Rangel got out the darts:

RANGEL: Bradley is not a serious threat; there's no substance there. He's just a pleasant alternative to those Democrats who want change. But this primary race is a healthy thing. It will rev Al Gore up and test him for the main event.

How could Gore keep reading? Deborah Tannen offered a communicator's analysis:

TANNEN: Al Gore's talents are different [from President Clinton's]. He is warm and personable in private and articulate but formal in public. That's why he excels in debate, because his private style is just right for that setting. But he also needs to find a way to bring his private strengths into the public sphere.

George McGovern said that Bradley "has taken the initiative on issues like health care and campaign finance reform." He also said he would like Gore to commit to "full public financing of Presidential and Congressional elections:"

MCGOVERN: This is the most practical way to end special-interest contributions and to allow the candidates with the most innovative ideas—always Mr. Gore's strong point—to reach the public.

In these short opinion pieces, we hear that Gore is intelligent, honest, substantive, sure to win, warm, personable, and articulate. We also hear that he is partly responsible for the good economy, the happy public, and our standing as world leader. He's innovative with ideas, too. Only one of the six contributors—an ad exec who worked for Jesse Ventura—offered comments that were "rough" or "patronizing." Williams' viewers likely thought the whole piece was a slam. But then, that's what Williams wanted them to think. What he told them was baldly inaccurate.

The notion that this op-ed offsets the AFL-CIO endorsement? It's another example of the ludicrous spin offered nightly by the hunky cable anchor. And it illustrates a basic theme now evident on this troubling program. In dealing with Gore, every bit of news will be undercut and massively spun.