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22 November 1999

Our current howler (part I): Process servers

Synopsis: Howard Fineman says hopefuls just hate "process" stories. Sally Quinn’s recent piece shows us why.

The outside shooter and the fighting pilot
Howard Fineman, Newsweek, 11/15/99

When He Was Gore, and No More
Sally Quinn, The Washington Post, 11/14/99

Rotten at the Gore
Carl Cannon, George, 11/99

A Gore Daughter Emerges as a Leading Adviser
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 11/20/99

"Inside Politics" column
Greg Pierce, The Washington Times, 11/19/99

In his recent cover piece about "straight shooters" Bradley and McCain, Howard Fineman talked about "process" stories:

FINEMAN: If you are a candidate in the anti-slick era, you don't want to see stories about how you're being handled. There have been almost none about Bradley and McCain, and almost nothing else about Gore and Bush...

He then makes a peculiar claim about the straight-shootin' underdogs, one a number of writers have made:

FINEMAN (continuing directly): The idea in this era is to look independent, even ornery—and to seem to ignore traditional mechanics even while you quietly use them. McCain is polling in New Hampshire, and is advertising heavily there...Bradley's showy obliviousness to fashion is a strategy in and of itself. Campaigning in New Hampshire, he reluctantly bought a pair of shoes. They were as similar as he could find to the ones he was already wearing. They were the first dress shoes Bradley had purchased in a quarter century. How does the world know that? He explained it, at length, to reporters in the room.

Many scribes have made the odd claim which Fineman makes—that the "authenticity" of Bradley and McCain is sometimes a deliberate campaign strategy. Is that true? We don't have the slightest idea—and we don't think this should be the scribes' focus. (We also don't think that a serious writer reports it when a hopeful buys shoes.) We would prefer that writers focus on plainly salient facts, and let readers decide who seems authentic (if they care). We have no faith at all that our hapless scribes—who favor hopefuls who give them nicknames, Fred Barnes says—have the professionalism, the skill, or the basic honesty to sort out such subjective matters.

But we have seen some process stories this week; sure enough, they've generally dealt with Bush and Gore, and one quickly sees why major contenders would rather not read such creations. One also sees how utterly useless these stories generally turn out to be. Grindingly subjective, based on unnamed sources, such stories let the eager scribe write pretty much whatever he likes. As we've noted, our Washington press corps has a hard enough time explaining simple facts about basic, core policies. Letting reporters go off on these behind-the-scenes tangents is an invitation to mayhem and riot.

Take for example a Gore process story recently penned by Sally Quinn in the Post. Her story doesn't deal with Gore's record or proposals—it deals with his accent, his family background, and his clothes. Quinn seems to have memorized every sound-bite currently murmured in Washington's dimmer quarters, and she reads them back to us, packaged in ways that amaze with their incomprehension. One passage starts off like this:

QUINN: Don't duck your background. You are a child of privilege. That's the simple truth. Your father was a senator. You went to St. Albans and Harvard. You are the embodiment of the American dream. Your parents worked hard to give their son a better life. That's what all parents do...

Quinn seems to be scolding a nine-year-old. And she implies that Gore is "ducking his background," in ways she doesn't bother to state. But Gore's first, "biographical" TV ad included footage and text about his father's career; in fact, the ad was criticized for including such material. Quinn's incomprehension picks up steam:

QUINN (continuing directly): There's nothing wrong with who you are. Look at your three biggest rivals, Bush, Bradley and McCain. Not only are they not denying their privileged backgrounds, they are embracing them. McCain is proud of the fact that he is the son and grandson of admirals. [Quinn's emphasis]

Quinn doesn't say how the three are "embracing" their backgrounds, but have you ever heard McCain talk about growing up in Washington and attending an area prep school? And speaking of McCain: is being the son of an admiral, in the current climate, the same as being the son of a senator? Quinn is either deliberately obtuse, or is unaware of the simplest realities. Here's the best part:

QUINN (continuing directly): Tell us the stories about growing up in Washington, about knowing so many of the great leaders of the time. It doesn't mean you can't tell farm stories, too. That's just another part of who you are.

It is? Really! When did that happen? In March, Gore accurately answered a specific question about his life experiences outside Washington. Result? He was ridiculed for his "farm stories" for three solid months—was called "delusional" and "deeply dishonest" by major writers—and Sally Quinn forgot to speak up and straighten the factual record. (Peer pressure.) The question Gore answered, by the way, was based on a claim made by Senator Bradley—that because he, Bradley, had grown up in a small town, he had a more varied life experience that Gore. This is one of the ways that Senator Bradley has "embraced his privilege," as Quinn dimly puts it. Quinn seems to be writing her dispatch from Mars, she seems so unaware of the past year's events.

In this article, Quinn tells Gore what shoes to wear, what staff to hire, what issues to stress, what stories to tell. She plays the shrink in her middle passage, telling us Gore may well be having "some sort of belated midlife crisis" (his father died, plus he just had a grandchild). She offers a bizarre critique of Gore's recent Imus appearance; saying Gore seemed "stilted and over-rehearsed," she seems to be mistakenly reciting the sound-bite from the Dem town hall forum. She saves the best—Naomi Wolf—for last, telling Gore he didn't need Wolf because he already had enough advisers. And then she recites a version of the season's most chic sound-bite:

QUINN: It seems all too clear to me now that Naomi is there to tell you not who you are but who you should be.

Quinn doesn't explain what those words mean, and she doesn't explain how this fact got so "clear." She doesn't explain one other thing—how she got on a first-name basis with "Naomi," a 37-year-old woman who has written three best-sellers, and who is far more accomplished than Quinn. It is the perfect ending to an utterly vacuous article, filled with conventional wisdom and cant. The article shows why most writers should be assigned to paraphrase things the hopefuls say, and not write a single word beyond that.

But what is most comical about Quinn's process story is the way it interacts with two others. In taking us behind-the-scenes to examine-the-process, writers type up contradictory tales there is no way on earth to judge. What's wrong with the way Gore has run his campaign? Pundit Dearest doesn't have any doubt:

QUINN: [I]magine agreeing to allow Coelho to have total control of your campaign. You are the candidate. Would you relinquish that kind of control as president? [Quinn's emphasis]

She is aghast that Gore has given up all control. Meanwhile, Carl Cannon, writing in the current George, also knows what's wrong with Gore:

CANNON: The vice president is a notorious micromanager who wants to be his own campaign boss. This impulse is almost always a mistake—candidates have enough demands on their time.

Meanwhile, Melinda Henneberger agrees with Quinn—Gore does take too much advice. But it isn't Coelho who gives it:

HENNEBERGER: [T]here is a consensus among Mr. Gore's [unnamed] friends that he does prefer advice from members of his family, at least in part because they are so supportive, generally mirroring his own feelings.

..."The rest of us are just interchangeable operatives in this dirty business of politics," said one disaffected former consultant. "When it comes down to the real decisions? It's [daughter] Karenna, [wife] Tipper and his gut..."

See the way it all comes clear when top writers start expounding on process?


Tomorrow: The press corps cares about who told who. They don't care about who is right.

Oh well: In paragraph 14, Quinn says Gore gave Coelho "total control." In the very next paragraph, Quinn says Wolf is telling Gore "who he should be." Elsewhere on earth, that doesn't make sense. But it's close enough for the celebrity press corps.

Same ol' Jim: Last Wednesday night, a tabloid talker didn't know the facts about that Bradley TV ad. (The facts had been explained in three major papers that morning; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/19/99.) By Thursday, RNC chairman Jim Nicholson was pretending that he still didn't know what was what. According to Greg Pierce's "Inside Politics" column, a Nicholson press release on Thursday, November 18 said Bradley had run "a highly misleading ad where [he] pretends he's Marcus Welby with a jump shot:"

PIERCE: "Trouble is, it was the Republican Congress that passed the legislation, in 1993—and Mrs. Drumm's baby was born in 1993, two years before Bradley even introduced his version of the bill," the Republican National Committee said in a press release..."The ad is misleading, and every independent reviewer has said so."

But every independent reviewer also explained what Nicholson pretended not to know—that Drumm was referring to her third child, not her second (the second child was born in 1993). This is the same dishonest faxing Nicholson engaged in last spring, concerning the farm chores nonsense. But CelebCorps liked the feel of that charade, and eagerly played along with it, month after month. Nor are they going to say anything about Nicholson's buffoonism now. To CelebCorps, that would be impolite.