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26 November 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Seduced and abandoned

Synopsis: Margaret Carlson just couldn’t believe that Ol’ Authentic would spend time planning ads.

Bradley’s game
Matt Bai, Newsweek, 11/15/99

Buffing Up for the Granite State
Mary McGrory, The Washington Post, 11/18/99

The Branding of Bill Bradley
Margaret Carlson, Time, 11/22/99

The Aura of the Aura
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times Magazine, 6/27/99

Who Doesn’t Want to Be a Millionaire?
Frank Rich, The New York Times, 11/20/99

Send In More Clowns
Frank Rich, The New York Times, 10/24/99

Bradley Is in Full Control, and Some Friends Fret
James Dao, The New York Times, 11/21/99

Watching Al Gore swing into action
Roger Simon, U.S. News, 10/25/99

In the pages of Newsweek, there was Bill Bradley, trying on those new shoes in New Hampshire (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/22/99). And Matt Bai's article on the hopeful's authenticity included this cheerful boxed item:

BAI: For Real/Bradley benefits from his air of authenticity: 57% of Democratic primary voters say he's not a typical politician, while 51% say the same thing about Gore.

Not exactly the most significant polling numbers we've ever seen, but hyped up nicely by Newsweek. But then, this was the same issue that showed Gore back ahead by ten points in New Hampshire, yet praised the fast-gaining underdogs (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/16/99). Newsweek enjoys pleasing stories. But by the next week, at the Washington Post, Mary McGrory was worried. Her friend Margaret Carlson was hurting because of what she'd learned about a certain slick campaign:

MCGRORY (paragraph 1): Is Bill Bradley, who's been surging in New Hampshire on the "authenticity" issue, just like all the others? In this week's Time, Margaret Carlson, who got the story from Adweek, tells us the disillusioning news that he may be more Madison Avenue than Main Street.

Say what? Oh yeah. It gets worse:

MCGRORY (2): For 18 months, the above-it-all candidate met on the quiet with a cluster of admen called the "Crystal Group," after his home town, who gave him a personality touchup that turned out to be perfect for the Granite State.

And indeed, Carlson was complaining in the pages of Time, about the secrecy of Bradley's slick meetings. We've told you—once those pundits get going on process, there's nothing they may not dissect:

CARLSON: It's a surprise not that the Crystal Group exists, but that there were such efforts to keep it under wraps. Bradley told TIME recently that he intended to "run a campaign that's not packaged," yet he'd already been meeting with his packagers for more than a year by then.

That dog! Carlson also sounded off about this:

CARLSON: Bradley has shown that he does manage his image, if only by omitting parts of his story. He likes reporters to follow him while he does his own grocery shopping, but gets cranky if anyone comes around when he's taking one of his frequent flights on a corporate jet.

And Carlson was peeved about certain parts of Bradley's recent post-senate sojourn:

CARLSON: He talks about teaching at Stanford University after he left the Senate, but not so much about the hundreds of thousands of dollars he earned as a consultant to J.P. Morgan, or the more than $2.5 million he made giving speeches.

Ceci Connolly, you'll recall, had described these activities in the Post some six months earlier (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/24/99). But Margaret Carlson was thoroughly shocked.

Yep. Some "process" stories have begun to appear about that slick ol' Bradley bunch—about Bradley hangin' out with ad guys, and taking cheap rides on fancy jets. Some of the scribes who had gushed "authentic" were having some big second thoughts! But then, perhaps the scribes were so upset because they'd been so silly to start with. Read paragraph one of Carlson's column:

CARLSON: Bill Bradley is the uncola, the all-natural candidate so pure he would entertain no candidacy before its time. He still drives a battered '84 Oldsmobile, and a few weeks ago he bought new dress shoes to replace a pair he'd owned for 25 years. He doesn't mall-test his ideas. He scolds anyone who presses him on an issue he hasn't thought through. He won't go negative; for that matter, he barely goes positive. The Anti-Clinton, he slicks himself up for no man.

Was Carlson's passage tongue in cheek? We're still not sure—but it reflects the way many scribes had portrayed Bradley. Scads of pundits had called him "authentic," and had recited lightly-spun campaign tales. In May, when the campaign showed up with a grandmother funder, she went straight to page one of the Post. It was all a part of the excellent press pundits said the campaign had received.

Here at THE HOWLER, we entertain no thought that Bill Bradley isn't fit to be president. But by the same token, we always knew that Bradley was a professional politician—did you know that he spent three full terms in the senate?—and we never thought he'd spent the past two years settin' down by the fishin' hole, jest a-thinkin'. We know of no reason—none at all—why Bradley shouldn't be the next president. But the scribes, it long had seemed to us, had busied themselves with what looked like light spin. Is it true, for example, what Carlson said—that Bradley just won't go negative? Melinda Henneberger, writing in June:

HENNBERGER: Making the case against Gore, [Bradley] always says that, unlike the Vice President, "I had a life before and after politics. I went to work like millions of Americans and tried to do the best job at whatever I was doing."

We note the words "against" and "always"—and the oddness of Bradley's presentation. After Oxford, Bradley spent ten years in the NBA; after Harvard, Gore spent seven years as a journalist (in the army and Tennessee). Bradley then spent eighteen years in the Senate (and two years in part preparing to run for president); Gore finished his twenty-second year in office this year. Gore entered the Congress in 1976, Bradley two years later. The notion that there is some qualitative difference between these two adult lives is frankly absurd on its face. Yet scribes have typed it up all year—Bradley's comment led to the farm chores debacle in March—even as they swore up and down that Bradley just won't be critical.

Here at THE HOWLER, our current cycle started with Fineman's claim that there have been no "process" stories written on Bradley. In the past few weeks, such stories have started—and sometimes their authors have adopted a tone of surprise that the Great Authentic would even plan ads. These stories have been silly, but they've followed work that was sillier still, in which the press corps politely peddled light spin. How did Carlson "know" those were Bradley's first new shoes in years? She knew because Bradley had told her (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/22/99). Some scribes haven't noticed an obvious fact—the Bradley camp does in fact sell light spin. And now the scribes act seduced and betrayed—amazed by facts spelled out six months before.

Why do we argue against "process" stories? Against stories telling us who gives who advice; who wears rumpled clothes; who acts how in meetings; who has heart and soul? We argue against them because there's no sign at all that the press corps can figure this sort of thing out—and because they give the corps all kinds of new ways to tell us the stories they like. Why did Bradley keep Crystal Group under wraps? Easy—because Bradley was spinning the press corps! And the fact that Margaret Carlson couldn't tell, all along, that there was a little light spin from the Bradley camp is another good reason why the celebrity press corps should stick to reporting the basics.


From both sides now: The analysts cheered at our state-of-the-art headquarters when Frank Rich's piece from last Saturday was read:

RICH (11/20): The return of the quiz-show craze in the late 90's, Mr. Goodwin added, suggests a parallel between now and the 50's, another prosperous "time of dullness" with "really intense public apathy and little ferment over public issues." And certainly "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" gains intellectual heft when compared with the current political culture's debate over Al Gore's wardrobe.

The analysts cheered to find such a like spirit. We didn't dare show them Rich's piece from last month:

RICH (10/24): Though Mr. Ventura is always condescended to about the feather boas and Mylar tights he wore in the wrestling ring, at least he limited his appearances in contrived costumes to his stints as a paid entertainer; as governor he usually wears street clothes. By contrast, Mr. Gore is now adopting various costumes while vice president, trying to buff his image by throwing off drab Washington duds for snazzier suits (if sans Mylar) as well as chinos and polo shirts. In his search for an "authentic" identity—a journey "from wooden to plastic," in the words of a New York Post headline—the man has morphed into a male model out of a Dockers or Home Depot ad.

We decided to leave well enough alone, with Rich now adopting our incomparable view concerning the hopefuls' wardrobes.


Simon says believe this: Want to see the problem with "process" stories? Read the first two paragraphs of this James Dao story about how Bradley makes his decisions:

DAO (paragraph 1): As he was preparing a major poverty proposal earlier this fall, former Senator Bill Bradley huddled with a small group of top advisers to hash out final details. Several aides expressed concerns about one idea they thought might be overreaching and risky: a sweeping pledge to cut child poverty by half over the coming decade.

(2) Mr. Bradley listened quietly...But when the discussion ended, he spoke up: he would stick with his original decision. Debate over.

To Bradley's supporters, Dao wrote, "that story underscores what they consider a major reason he has pulled close to Vice President Al Gore." Bradley is "controlling the levers of his campaign," and Gore is not, they said. "And the result, they said, is that Mr. Bradley looks like the stronger leader."

This is a classic "process" story, describing how Bradley makes decisions. But it is also a classic bit of spin: Faced with fears from wavering aides, The Candidate stands firm on principle. One problem—how does Dao know the meeting occurred as described? Was Dao present at the meeting, or was it described by Bradley aides? The story never says. And needless to say, Dao never tries to shed light on the one thing that matters—whether Bradley's decision was a good idea.

Roger Simon wrote the same story on Gore after the defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. A Gore ad on the subject quickly appeared; Simon said how it was written:

SIMON: After the speech [in Seattle], Gore shook hands with the workers and then went to a holding room in the union hall and called his message chief, Carter Eskew. Whip up a short script for a 60-second commercial to be filmed that night and aired the next day, Gore told him. Gore also told him what the script should say and then told him to fax him a draft at the Westin Hotel, where he could edit it to his satisfaction. He made clear that he was not asking for Eskew's advice. "He didn't ask Carter what he thought," a senior Gore adviser said. "He mandated Carter to do it."

How does Simon know this is true? He seems to be transcribing what Gore's aides have told him. Simon even ventured inside Gore's mind, telling readers what the hopeful was thinking:

SIMON: Writing, filming, and airing a commercial—his very first of the campaign—in about 12 hours would normally be considered ludicrousGore did not care. Did his father ask aides before he opposed the poll tax? Did his father consult aides before standing up for civil rights. Did his father focus-group his opposition to the Vietnam War? No. The father didn't and neither would the son.

This is simply gruesome writing. And oh yes—was Gore right in his views on the CTBT? Here at THE HOWLER, we don't have a clue. Simon never got into the merits.