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4 November 1999

Our current howler (part III): Jacob’s patter

Synopsis: Jacob Weisberg said some silly things. So the other kids decided to ape him.

Gore and Bradley Debate
Jacob Weisberg, Slate, 10/27/99

Commentary by David Brooks
The NewsHour, PBS, 10/29/99

Bradley’s Gestalt Therapy
Gail Collins, The New York Times, 10/29/99

Commentary by Brian Williams, Howard Fineman
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 11/2/99

What went on in the press room at the Dem town hall forum? Our incomparable analysts weren't there. But within 48 hours, a uniform view of the Dem event was being expressed by CelebCorps. And, because they all agreed to say the same thing, they fought to say it the silliest way. By Friday night, Gore had been "practically leaping off the stage" (Elizabeth Arnold). By Saturday night, on Capital Gang, he was "Clintonesque" when he got off his chair!

How silly did the rhetoric get? Pretty silly, as we've noted—and it got sillier as the week went along. But one writer in the press room got silly right away—Jacob Weisberg, writing for Slate, in a dispatch the mag posted that evening. Typing rapidly, Weisberg wrote this:

WEISBERG (paragraph 2): Gore arrived on stage like some sort of feral animal who had been locked in a small cage and fed on nothing but focus groups for several days. Upon release, he began to scamper furiously in every direction at once. Assuming his stool 20 minutes before showtime, he volunteered to take extra questions from the audience. At the end of the hour-long non-debate, he promised to stay and answer even more. As of this writing (10:30 p.m.) he's still at it, sitting on the edge of the stage with his wife, talking about human rights in Africa and offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico with a few dozen New Hampshireites.

Weisberg expresses CelebCorps' fashionable boredom with the very notion of political discourse. And, having declared the forum a "show," he continues with his theater review:

WEISBERG (3): Gore came across as a kind of manic political vaudevillian. He oozed empathy from every pore, getting all over every questioner like a cheap suit. First he would ask the person about his circumstances, his family, or his job, in a desparate effort to bond. Then he would respond with an explosion of gesticulation, sympathy and agreement...

Weisberg uses language that is remarkably rude—and might we say, just a bit misleading? Weisberg tells us Gore behaved like a "feral animal" just released from captivity in a cage. But, for the record, in the course of "scampering furiously in every direction at once," Gore did manage to make this remark, in response to his second question (Who should be the decision-maker on health care?):

GORE: I think the decision-maker ought to be the people who are getting the care. That's why I support an HMO patient's bill of rights so that the decisions on specific care are made by doctors and not by faceless bureaucrats who don't have a license to practice medicine and who don't have a right to play God. That's who I think ought to make the decisions. Now I think it's also important that we look ahead and answer exactly how we're going to finance the plan because I paid, obviously, a lot of attention to the answer that was given over here [by Sen. Bradley]. I put out a health care plan that reaches coverage for almost 90% of the American people. It gives coverage to 100% of all children. The cost is $146 billion over ten years, and a prescription drug benefit is provided under Medicare for $118 billion over ten years. Just today, the respected Emory School of Public Health came out with a non-partisan analysis of both my plan and Senator Bradley's and they said that his plan costs $1.2 trillion. That is more than the cost of the entire surplus over the next ten years. We have to look ahead and save some of that surplus for Medicare. If we wipe out Medicaid, and wipe out the chance to save Medicare, and wipe out the surplus, then you might get a few more people in the short run, but you give two thirds of the money to those who already have health care. You're going to hurt, you're going to shred the social safety net. So I think that the cost is way excessive.

We include the full quote for a reason. We think the explanation is remarkably lucid for a feral animal scampering wildly about the stage—and we make a further point, which anyone can confirm by reviewing a tape of the forum. During the course of this detailed answer, the vaudevillian Gore had his left hand in his pants pocket, and gestured normally with his right hand—this being, apparently, the "explosion of gesticulation" Weisberg described to Slate's misled readers. In his next question, Gore continued to make his "desperate efforts to bond." Here was the text of the question:

QUESTION: My name is Bethany Urich, I'm from Claremont, New Hampshire, my question is for Vice President Gore. A few years ago I attended a barbecue at my home town where President Clinton and Newt Gingrich shook hands and promised to make meaningful campaign finance reform. But they didn't keep their promise. Since the process of changing the system remains in the hands of the incumbents, how can the American voter force change in this area? And what would you do specifically to advance real reform?

Note the way the "oozing" hopeful "got all over every questioner:"

GORE: Thank you. Let me take ten seconds to finish my last answer [laughter]. Medicare cannot be an afterthought. The only way to fix Medicare fairly is to set aside 15 to 16% of the surplus to do it now. Otherwise, you're putting Medicare at risk. Senator Bradley said in an interview that he would speak to this issue later on. But if you spend the entire budget surplus on the first campaign promise, then that does not leave money that should be allocated for Medicare. Now—I feel very strongly that we should have campaign finance reform...

In this question, Gore "got all over the questioner" and "oozed empathy" by ignoring her question until he'd finished another. When he did return to the question she'd asked, he didn't address her by her name at any point, or ask about her family or her job. At two points, his left hand did come out of his pocket, and once his right hand rose above shoulder level. No doubt this is the "explosion of gesticulation" which gave upset Weisberg such pause.

These were the answers Gore gave to the second and third questions, when even bored Weisberg was likely still watching. We invite you to compare the answers Gore gave to the image provided Slate readers. The image of the feral animal is hard to square with these detailed, lucid answers. The claim that Gore "got all over every questioner" is, as we've noted before, just not true.

In engaging in hyperbole and outright misstatement, Weisberg forfeited the chance to offer a balanced critique. But despite—or because—of his strange hyperbole, at least one of his images lived on. Reread Weisberg's paragraph 2, and then recall David Brooks:

BROOKS: Al Gore struck me—he took the focus group viagra...Somebody compared him to an animal that has been chained up and they let him loose and he came out oozing compassion.

That "somebody," it turns out, was Jacob Weisberg. Brooks took "focus group," "chained animal," and "oozing compassion" from Weisberg. "Viagra" he thought up himself. Meanwhile, maybe Gail Collins sampled Weisberg too. An unusual phrase popped up in her column:

WEISBERG (6): Gore's problem, I think, is that he has watched Bill Clinton for seven years...When he tries to emulate Clinton's mind-meld, he overdoes it, grossly.

Collins, two days later:

COLLINS: [Gore] tossed in a little Spanish and a long joke, and made endless attempts to create Clintonesque mind-melds with the audience.

But why shouldn't Collins be sampling Weisberg, when David Brooks was sampling her? Brooks, on Gore's "cheap tricks:"

BROOKS: The trick of staying late after the cameras and going on for another ninety minutes, someone said it was like a kid who volunteers for more homework.

That "someone" was apparently Collins:

COLLINS: At the end, he refused to be dragged off-stage...He bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the kid who asks the teacher for more homework.

As time passed, the various pundits seemed to push each other on; by the weekend their critiques of the forum were increasingly hard to reconcile with what actually happened. As we saw yesterday, Collins wrote a Friday piece which heaped ridicule on Gore—though she later told Judy Woodruff that she thought the VP had done well.

Yep. That ol' debbil, peer pressure, was driving them on, until they all happily said the same thing. By Friday night, Gore was an animal practically leaping off the stage. We suggest you watch the tape again—or reread Gore's two quoted answers.


Tomorrow: Al Hunt thought that Gore had won. By Saturday, he took it all back.

Say what? Is there any end to the puzzling comments that have followed last week's town hall forum? Tuesday night, Brian Williams asked Howard Fineman all about Naomi Wolf:

WILLIAMS: The latest to come to the fore, as you know, Naomi Wolf, the feminist author, apparently is to Al Gore's clothing selection what the astrologer was to Nancy Reagan. Where does this—is there a downside, does this carry any downside to it?

Williams was happily back in the saddle, telling us all about clothes. In Fineman's answer, the doctor was "in"—but at THE HOWLER, we were left a bit puzzled:

FINEMAN: The fact is Al Gore has been changing his clothes and his persona in public ever since I've known him, which goes back fifteen years, Brian. I covered his last presidential campaign, in 1988—one day, he was in the conservative blue suit, the next he was playing lumberjack at the VFW Hall. This is a guy who because of, I think, his upbringing and his attitude toward politics and maybe something about his life story just doesn't seem always to be of one piece. He doesn't really always know who he wants to be in public.

Which may be Fineman's problem as well. Here, he begins to play the shrink, although he was brought on the show as a journalist. But can anyone tell us what Fineman means in the part of his statement we have highlighted? The fact that Gore wore a suit one day, but not the next, tells us something about Gore twelve years later?

This statement makes no apparent sense, but it forms the basis of a sweeping diagnosis. Maybe Fineman had something of value to say. The public discourse would be better served if network producers required him to say it.