26 October 1999
Our current howler: Imagine all the people
Synopsis: A column on the Posts "biographical story" was another tribute to conventional wisdom.
Coolness Isnt 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 clearlymaking 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 processfrom 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 recallespecially when, as in Ignatius' case, the recollection
perfectly aligns with the press corps' conventional wisdom.
As Ignatius' recollection helpfully doesit 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 mostthat 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 misbehavingof
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 affairwith conventional wisdomkeeps
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 picturenot 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 throughthe ultimate prep school
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 truethat 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 prankand 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
offersunless 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 earthexcept the celebrity
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
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.