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19 October 1999

Our current howler (part II): Suite reason

Synopsis: Did young Al Gore grow up in a "suite?" A letter to the New York Times helped show why such foolishness matters.

Growing Up in Two Worlds
David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima, The Washington Post, 10/10/99

Gore heads down home
Jennifer Harper, The Washington Times, 6/17/99

‘Restless’ Gore Launches Campaign of ‘Values’
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 6/17/99

Al Gore’s Mission
Editorial, The Washington Times, 6/17/99

Letter to the editor
The New York Times, 7/2/99

Did young Al Gore grow up in a "suite?" The Post's October 10 "biographical story" tells us right away that he did. The first paragraph of the article (see yesterday's DAILY HOWLER) says he lived in "Suite 809" of the Fairfax Hotel, and mentions that the hotel was "on Embassy Row." (It also employs the word "rich.") In fact, the family residence is referred to as "Suite 809" four separate times in the article's early going, although the one childhood friend who mentions the Fairfax calls it "this big old apartment building:"

MARANISS/NAKASHIMA: Sam Williams, a school friend who lived in the suburb of Bethesda, was struck during visits to the Fairfax by his classmate's unusual life: He came to think of Al as "almost political aristocracy" existing "all alone in this big old apartment building."

For the record, Marjorie Williams, in her 3/98 Vanity Fair piece, also called the Gores' residence an "apartment." Bob Zelnick, in his Regnery bio, says the Gores lived in "Apartment 809."

Did young Al Gore grow up in a "suite?" Sadly, such nonsense does matter. On June 16, Al Gore kicked off his White House campaign with a rally and speech in Carthage, Tennessee, but the RNC's chairman, the inventive Jim Nicholson, was directing the press corps' gaze elsewhere. The chairman had got him some ol' rented mules, with which he was entertaining the press corps that day. Jennifer Harper penned the play-by-play in the Washington Times the next morning:

HARPER (6/17): RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson rolled up to Washington's swank Westin Fairfax Hotel in a mule cart yesterday morning to mock Mr. Gore's oft-cited references to his farmhouse upbringing. In political speeches of yore, Mr. Gore has touted the character-building experiences of pigpen mucking and ax-wielding in his Tennessee days.

He had? In "political speeches?" For the record, the silly "farm chores" flap which had then run three months had stemmed from Gore's remarks in a single newspaper interview. Oh well—close enough for newspaper work. Harper continued to type:

HARPER (6/17): "Al Gore is not Daniel Boone," Mr. Nicholson told reporters. "He is a barefoot boy of Embassy Row."

Then, Nicholson's efforts were fully rewarded:

HARPER (6/17): The son of a powerful senator, Mr. Gore spent much of his childhood living in the hotel—called the Ritz-Carlton in those days—in a suite on the eighth floor.

The hotel, of course, was not called the "Ritz Carlton." It was called the "Fairfax," and was not especially "posh," according to the one major writer—Vanity Fair's Williams—who has actually examined the matter (see yesterday's DAILY HOWLER). Dutifully, Harper noted an irrelevant fact. The hotel is "swank" today, she said, showing the kind of analytical skill one comes to expect from the Washington press corps. But Harper was not the only scribe rewarding Jim Nicholson's effort:

CECI CONNOLLY (6/17): Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson today mocked Gore's promotion of his rural roots, riding up to the elegant Washington hotel where Gore grew up in a wagon drawn by a pair of mules. He then led reporters on a tour of the rooms that were once the Gore family residence, what he referred to as the "real Gore homestead."

To Connolly too, what is elegant now surely was elegant then. Those scribes! Only the press corps would spend its time touring through "evidence" that is forty years old, that has undergone successive renovations (the Fairfax, in time, became the Ritz; the Ritz became the Westin). Most perfectly, an editorial in the Washington Times sent the messages Nicholson hoped to convey:

WASHINGTON TIMES (6/17): Mr. Gore hasn't helped himself by offering one faux pas after another...[T]here was Mr. Gore's reminiscences about plowing the fields of Tennessee as a young boy, when in reality he grew up in a luxurious downtown Washington hotel...

"In reality" tells us—falsely, of course—that Gore was dissembling when he described his farm experiences. "Luxurious" sends a second key message—when Gore was a kid, he was rich.

And why exactly should such foolishness matter? Why would Jim Nicholson spend his time renting mules? To create a potent set of images—images that were expressed in a letter to the New York Times in July. Here's the reason why Chairman Nicholson had taken the press on that ride:


To the Editor:

...[N]o matter how decent he is, Al Gore's patrician upbringing has left him unable to connect with the vast majority of Americans.

Raised in a luxury hotel as the child of a senator, Mr. Gore spent his formative years in the rarefied confines of Washington, a place that has nothing in common with other American cities in terms of appearance, demography, industry or life style.

...[V]oters connect with Bill Clinton because he is a quick-thinking poor boy from a broken homeMost of us have no similar feelings of empathy for Mr. Gore's life experience other than a bit of envy over a childhood with room service.

Los Angeles, June 28, 1999

As all political writers (and editors) surely know, American elections are fought and won over silly, potent images like these. And that's the reason why the Washington Post should have understood the stakes involved when it suggested—right in paragraph one—that when Gore was a kid, he grew up rich, living in a fancy hotel (see yesterday's DAILY HOWLER).

We have already quoted the Williams assessment, offered in Vanity Fair last year; again, she said that when Gore was a kid, his parents weren't rich, and the Fairfax was not all that fancy. At THE HOWLER, we can't assess the accuracy of that claim, but we will note that the assessment is apparently shared by David Maraniss, co-author of these Post profiles. As a former college friend of Gore's, we interviewed with Maraniss for the current articles, and we raised the matter of the Williams piece with him at that time. Last week, after perusing the October 10 piece, we spoke with Maraniss by phone (he's a fine fellow), asking his assessment of the Gores' wealth when the VP was a kid. Were the Gores rich? "They weren't rich," Maraniss said—but again, we suspect many readers will get a different impression from reading the October 10 profile.

Let's make one thing clear—here at THE HOWLER, we have total confidence in the fairness and good intentions of Maraniss. We don't intend to imply judgments about the intentions of anyone who worked on this piece.

But in failing to report whether Gore grew up rich, the Post missed the chance to clarify an important matter—a matter that has been widely spun over the past seven months. We'll say it again: if the Post had had its ear to the ground, it would have reported this much-discussed matter. At any rate, in the context of the past seven months of spin, the October 10 article will surely imply things, to many readers, that Maraniss seems to think aren't true. In this way, we think this article showed the remarkable power of conventional wisdom in the work of the press corps—the remarkable power of conventional images to penetrate all that we read.

How powerful is conventional wisdom? It appears in this profile in another way. The authors keep insisting that young Gore was stiff—but comically, their "biographical story" is full of anecdotes that seem to suggest something different.


Tomorrow: The writers keep insisting that young Gore was stiff. Their own reporting seems to say something different.

More life of Brian: The fashion talk continued last night on The News with Brian Williams. Williams touted an upcoming segment:

WILLIAMS: Coming up, what could be wrong with Al Gore's new look in olive-colored clothes...

Oops. Producers aired footage of Gore wearing black. But when he came back, the handsome anchor read a brief item from Newsweek:

WILLIAMS: [Quoting Newsweek] Along with lifting weights to buff up, Gore's gone to an earth-tone wardrobe, featuring lots of olive.

The item didn't say "what could be wrong" with that. But Williams read a second item:

WILLIAMS: [Quoting Newsweek] The press will never drop Gore's "stiff" label. His latest persona ain't casual—it's calculated. And he's just uncool.

Was this item actually a commentary on the press? It didn't seem to occur to Williams. But again we saw the mindless way one anchor approaches the news.