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26 October 1999

Our current howler: Imagine all the people

Synopsis: A column on the Post’s "biographical story" was another tribute to conventional wisdom.

Coolness Isn’t Everything...
David Ignatius, The Washington Post, 10/13/99

Gore: A Political Life
Bob Zelnick, Regnery Publishing, 1999

When the analysts returned from their Erie adventures, we assumed we'd be heading to completely new topics. A week-long look at the New York Times is on our near-term agenda.

But those analysts! They continue to insist that the Gore campaign coverage has been the press event of the year. And we agreed that the Post's "biographical story" brought endless themes into play. The powerful pull of conventional wisdom was larded all through the Post's striking piece. Our four-part look didn't get to some aspects of the article that we thought worth considering. (For full links to our coverage, see postscript.)

But just how silly can the press corps get? Pretty silly, as we learned when the Post's David Ignatius wrote an op-ed on the paper's Gore profile. Ignatius offered personal recollections of Gore that perfectly matched the profile's conventional wisdom. And he showed how trivial a White House campaign can be in the hands of the mainstream press corps.

Ignatius attended St. Albans with Gore (Ignatius was three younger). In his piece, he brings 35-year-old recollections of Gore to the business of selecting a president. Early on, he recalls Gore in high school:

IGNATIUS (paragraph 2): He was three years older than I, but I remember him clearly—making the announcements each day in the school's dark, wood-paneled lunchroom, known forbiddingly as the "Refectory." They were earnest admonitions about school events, delivered in the same half-a-speed-slow twang so familiar to all of us.

Leave aside our doubt that any good can ever come from this sort of process—from trying to say what a hopeful was like when he was still in high school. What struck us most here was Ignatius' assertion that he remembers Gore so "clearly." The Post profile he lauds was filled with recollections of teachers who seemed to have similarly sharp memories. One teacher recalled a remark Gore allegedly made at age ten, forty-one long years ago; this recollection formed the basis for the profile's statement that Gore had a "compulsion to adhere to established order." We're always impressed when mortal souls display such remarkable ability to recall—especially when, as in Ignatius' case, the recollection perfectly aligns with the press corps' conventional wisdom.

As Ignatius' recollection helpfully does—it perfectly reflects press conventions. By the end of his piece, Ignatius says Gore may make a good president. But he starts out peddling that same old story that conventional wisdom, at present, wants sold:

IGNATIUS (5): Cool is the thing Al Gore wasn't. And isn't. It's what hurts him most—that you could never imagine him sneaking a cigarette on the way into school, or wearing tassels on his loafers, or driving that GTO convertible and parking it at Hains Point with his date to "watch the submarine races."

His last sentence, we sense, is a knowing reference to some naughty, very naughty, schoolboy conduct. But perhaps you can guess the problem we have with this thoroughly conventional attempt to "imagine." Though Ignatius can't "imagine" Gore acting up, the Post profile, which he praises as a "meticulous portrait," is full of accounts of Gore misbehaving—of Gore breaking various social conventions, wrecking cars and fighting in the classroom (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/20/99 and 10/21/99). As for Gore's willingness to misbehave with a date, we refer Ignatius to Bob Zelnick's bio:

ZELNICK: By some accounts, Tipper spent enough time in Gore's Dunster House suite at Harvard to pass for part of the furniture. In Coming Apart, his lyrical memoir of the Harvard wars of 1969, Roger Rosenblatt, a senior tutor at Dunster, recalls seeing Gore and Tipper leaving the dorm a full hour after the 11 PM evacuation time for female guests..."We passed each other quickly on the path. I greeted Al and Tipper, 'Good evening, boys.'"

None of this, of course, is any business of someone attempting a serious look at Al Gore. But why can't Ignatius "imagine" young Gore smooching with a date in an imperfect circumstance? Perhaps it's because his own love affair—with conventional wisdom—keeps him from such impure thoughts.

Because Ignatius does show, early on in his piece, that his imagination can be quite formidable. He offers up a striking reaction to a photo that accompanied the Post piece:

IGNATIUS (4): There's a picture that ran with the Post article, showing Al's class prank. From the look of the picture, they've had a few beers. Even Al has a slightly frothy look in his eye as he stands atop the pool table, near a roll of toilet paper that will soon be wrapped around something it shouldn't be.

So here is Gore: standing on furniture, engaged in a prank, looking beered-up to the author. Only in the celebrity press corps could this prove just how square the guy was:

IGNATIUS (4, continuing directly): But Gore isn't the cool guy in the picture—not by miles. That person would be the tall, thin fellow standing in the center, his face almost blank with just the hint of a smirk showing through—the ultimate prep school face.

You see what we've told you for so long, dear readers? Nothing derails treasured stories! We'll admit we've studied this photo with care, trying to share these Ignatius divinations. But for all our efforts, we can't tell who has had a couple of beers, or who has "a slightly frothy look in his eye." But is Ignatius' main point true—that Gore "isn't the cool guy in the picture, not by miles?" To our eye, the handsome young Gore looks like a central player in a high school prank—and the farthest thing on this earth from a nerd. Let's be honest. No one would ever, in a million years, make the judgment Ignatius offers—unless he were eager to come up with a thought that backed up the approved ruling wisdom.

Sadly, Ignatius goes on to make absurd claims about which presidents have and haven't been "cool." And his remark about tasseled loafers being cool isn't the only one that made our cheeks rouge. Bill Bradley, he tells us, is extremely cool because he played basketball for years against "big, black men." Oof. Do you see why we suggest that our pundits stop clowning around, and get themselves back to the basics?

But what is finally appalling about this piece is its remarks about the two leading hopefuls. What happened to George W. Bush in 1986? David Ignatius, still imagining, thinks he knows:

IGNATIUS (10): All George W. Bush had as a young man was his coolness. He wore the tasseled loafers...Indeed, he didn't do much else besides being cool until he awoke in his early forties and realized he had an empty life.

Is that what Bush discovered at forty? He has said the thing that he finally realized was that he was drinking too much (which he stopped). And had he really done nothing but "be cool" by that time? By that time, Bush had also married his wife, and was raising his daughters (they were four). Substantial parts of Bush's real life have been tossed away to make room for this comment. But the ability to toss off such arrogant remarks is the trademark of the celebrity press corps.

And Gore himself, need it be said, will also receive such treatment. Here it is, as Ignatius thinks back to the "man" who made those lunchroom announcements:

IGNATIUS (12): No man has changed less in 35 years than Al Gore. That's why all this talk about reinventing Gore...strikes me as silly. I promise you, the man I watched make those worthy lunchroom announcements in the Refectory 35 years ago is the real Al Gore.

We're sorry, but only the arrogance of this remark can match its utter stupidity. Has Al Gore changed in 35 years? There is no apparent way that Ignatius could know. He admits he didn't know Gore at the time. There is no sign offered that he knows Gore now. He has no way to know how much Gore may have "changed." These facts would occur to almost anyone on earth—except the celebrity press corps.

Ignatius ends with a thought we endorse. "Maybe it's time to stop thinking about this presidential race as if we were 14 years old," he suggests. To us, it's too bad his editors didn't realize this earlier. This space they wasted on this silly cant could have gone to a grown-up discussion.


Earth to Ignatius: "The handlers can restyle [Gore's] hair," Ignatius writes. "But they can't make him cool, because he is not, and never will be, a naughty boy. Al Gore is a good boy." It's embarrassing to read such silly statements about a major White House candidate. And by the way, earth to Ignatius: many Republicans believe that Gore has been very "naughty" in his term as vice president; in fact, many Republicans believe that Gore has engaged in outright misconduct. If Ignatius has a way to shed light on those claims, that would be a real contribution. But there's no sign that Ignatius knows about this, either, despite the sweeping statements he makes. But then, that's pretty much par for the course around here. Say hello to our sad-sack press corps.

Visit our incomparable archives: Enjoy all four parts of our incomparable treatment of the Post's "biographical story:"

When Gore was a kid, were his parents rich? The Post profile seemed to say so. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/18/99.

When Gore was a kid, were his parents rich? Sadly, such nonsense does matter. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/19/99.

When Gore was a kid, was he already stiff? The Post profile wants you to think so. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/20/99.

Charles Krauthammer says scribes should stop acting like shrinks. The Post profile helps us see why. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/21/99.