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12 November 1999

Our current howler (part I): Where’s the rest of them?

Synopsis: We waited for more silly columns on Bush. Six months later, THE HOWLER’s still waiting.

George W. Bush’s Secret of Success
Gwendolyn Parker, The New York Times, 5/28/99


The Pals and Palettes of Al
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 11/10/99

Ah yes! It's well we remember the days of spring, when we came on an op-ed by Gwendolyn Parker, brought to us by the angry analysts shaking their fists in the air. Parker had a great big complaint about Republican hopeful George Bush:

PARKER (paragraph 1): George W. Bush recently revealed that though he believes his name and family may have afforded him opportunities, he thinks his successes in business are the result of "results and performance." To me, it's a telling admission. For in this one instance, George Bush, the son, is telling us we should disbelieve the obvious.

To Parker, it was simply obvious that Bush had been helped by the substantial luck of his birth. After all, Parker knew that despite her own great qualities—and she listed them for us—she too had been helped out in life. She'd been helped along by her Harvard degree, which she also remembered to mention:

PARKER: So I painfully marvel: How can George W. Bush, born into a family whose wealth and power and privilege far outstrip my own, not similarly see the truth about his own life?

Psychiatrizing followed next, as Parker tried to figure why Bush couldn't just tell the truth. After all, look how understanding people are:

PARKER: I wouldn't think less of Governor Bush, if he just admitted that he'd been lucky, certainly very lucky, and left it at that.

Parker isn't just big-hearted, though. She's also deeply thoughtful:

PARKER: But I worry about a Presidential candidate who feels compelled to reform luck and privilege into primarily the sweat of his own brow. I worry particularly about how many American lives he'll need to misinterpret so that he can continue to tell the story he likes top tell about himself.

We thought the column was foolish, and absurdly self-serving—all that was missing was Parker's resumé, she was so busy walking us through her own virtues. But one of those virtues didn't seem to be common sense, we did feel fairly certain of that. We do think there are elements of Gov. Bush's business biography that the press corps has pretty much tended to gloss. But the idea that a hopeful should traipse about describing the head start Daddy gave him—sorry. Too silly. It would have been better if Parker had used her great smarts to write about Bush's life on her own.

The column appeared shortly before the formal kick-off to Gov. Bush's campaign; at the time, the press corps had had great sport with the Gore farm chores flap for two months. We instructed the analysts to start a Bush file, assuming we'd have other columns to critique, along with Parker's. We waited to gather the first sorry batch of silly critiques slamming The Dub. Silly us—we assumed that the gruesome, ongoing coverage of Gore would soon be repeated in the case of Bush.

But surprise of surprises, the Bush file still sits, waiting for other submissions. In truth, the treatment of Bush when he kicked off his campaign was little short of glowing. In early July, we did step forward; the Los Angeles Times published an account of Bush's National Guard service that we thought was a textbook of insinuation and spin. We published four articles criticizing that coverage, arguing that the Times had offered no evidence at all that anything inappropriate had occurred (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/12/99 through 7/15/99).

We also spoke up in August, during the Bush cocaine flap; we argued that we're all better off, on balance, when the press stays away from such topics. And when Dana Milbank penned a treatment of Bush that we simply thought smutty, we wrote a column criticizing that (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/17/99; more on that column to come).

But all in all, the press coverage of Bush has been—as it should be—respectful. Indeed, the New York Times has at times been laugh-out-loud funny in its fawning treatment of Bush. We've been trying to clear space in our schedule to do a series on the Times, especially on the laughable coverage it provided this summer. But as you know, we think the old "double standard" argument is the hardest to make; it's virtually impossible to prove that coverage is unfair. It's easier to demonstrate that coverage is false; we try to stick to that standard in our treatment, and so we've generally stayed away from claims that Bush coverage has been inappropriately positive.

But while coverage of Bush has been largely respectful, such has simply not been the case with Vice President Gore. Indeed, as our Parker-Bush file kept gathering dust, our files on the Gore coverage grew fatter and fatter, until we were finally driven to the conclusion we've voiced before—the press corps story of the year has been the negative coverage of Gore. And we felt that press corps reaction to the Dem town hall forum was the most striking example of that coverage yet. Press reaction, which we've detailed for two weeks, provided a virtual laboratory experiment in those aspects of press culture which we have long critiqued.

But in the past few weeks, a pair of letters from HOWLER readers have raised a point that was troubling us too. Here is one of the letters, received this week, reprinted here in full:

LETTER: I've enjoyed reading your comments over the past few months. Thank you for your observations which I often found to be interesting and eye opening. In my opinion, Gore is fortunate to have the negative press reports so early in the process rather than later. I'm sorry to have to quit visiting your site, but your rantings about how bad Gore is being treated is beginning to sound like whining. There are other candidates than Gore (I like Bradley at this time) who I'm sure receive their fair share of unfair coverage. It just seems lately, you have focused solely on the mistreatment of Gore which has resulted in my wondering if you are biased in your rants. Sort of ironic.

Anyway, thank you again for providing insight on political coverage.

Good luck in the future.

The writer raises timely points about THE HOWLER's coverage. Why so much recent focus on the coverage of Gore? Is it true that other candidates are receiving similar "unfair coverage?" Is it a reflection of "bias" to focus on the treatment of one candidate? We'll take a look at all these questions in our next group of reports.

We do make one immediate critique of our reader's letter, however. No candidate is fortunate to receive unfair coverage, no matter when that coverage occurs. As citizens, we should expect that the press corps be, yes, respectful, and we should also expect that the press corps be competent and professional. We'll offer an overview of all the points this letter raised in our next three reports.


Monday: Are other hopefuls receiving unfair coverage? A note in Dana Milbank's current TNR column suggests that Bush's day may soon come.

Note to our letter writer: We "like Bradley at this time" too—along with a number of candidates. We think there are excellent candidates in both parties, as we have stated before. At the time, for example, we said the Dem town hall forum "featured two smart, experienced pols, responding to very sharp questions." We're not surprised that Democrats watching the forum scored it even (Bradley 39, Gore 38); we thought both hopefuls were impressive. On the Republican side, we think Senator McCain is running a remarkably challenging campaign, and was fabulous at the Republican forum; that Gary Bauer couldn't give a dumb answer if he tried (we don't agree with many of his views); that Steve Forbes is correct to take credit for completely changing GOP tax policy (we don't personally favor a flat tax); and that Governor Bush's electoral success in Texas is astonishing, and speaks for itself. But THE DAILY HOWLER isn't here to evaluate hopefuls; THE DAILY HOWLER evaluates the press. It is not a reflection on Candidate X if candidate Y gets unfair treatment. Indeed, it isn't even a reflection on Candidate Y; the fact that the farm chores flap was a press corps disgrace does not mean that Gore should be president. We don't express a view on that score, other than to say what we've said before—there's a whole range of qualified hopefuls to choose from. But don't tell that to the scribe we limn next:

Not-deep dish: Maureen Dowd—there can be no more question—is the dumbest person living on earth. She finally convinced us with a few early paragraphs in her column of November 10. "So Al and I are dishing about clothes," she begins. And then she reveals a long-held fear—that eventually "a president or vice president would want to hash over something I didn't know much about, like the money supply."

One thing's certain—a prez would have plenty of topics to choose from. The dim scribe took our prize saying this:

DOWD (3): Nah. With this White House, I'm safe. The deeply important issues are sex and clothes.

(4) I ask the vice president about his new color palette. He's in his casual uniform, a blue shirt to bring out his eyes, a heathery brown sweater, khakis and black cowboy boots.

In other words, Dowd asks Gore about his clothes, which proves that clothes are what matters to Gore! The dumbness simply never stops with the Times' tireless trivia-hound.