1 December 1999
Our current howler (part III): Way between the lines
Synopsis: Are you curious to know what Gores book says? Kakutanis review never tells you.
Between the Lines, Revealing Glimpses Of Five Candidates
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, 11/22/99
Kakutani's review of the five hopefuls' books moves from one
to the other episodically. Her first passage on Gore's Earth
in the Balance starts with this paragraph:
KAKUTANI (paragraph 5): Vice President Al Gore emerges from
"Earth in the Balance" (Plume), his 1992 book about
the environment, as the quintessential A-student who has belatedly
discovered New Age psychobabble. Like his speeches, his book veers
between detailed policy assessments (predictably illustrated with
lots of charts and graphs) and high-decibel outbursts of passion,
between energetically researched historical disquisitions and
loony asides about "inner ecology" and "spiritual
triangulation"asides that may help explain his curious affinity
with his feminist consultant, Naomi Wolf.
Incredibly, this is the clearest statement that Kakutani ever
makes of what Earth in the Balance is about. Although
she spends about 800 words discussing the book, she never makes
the slightest effort to tell readers what Earth actually
says. In the book, Gore asserts that a looming environmental crisis
calls for mobilization of the world's policies and resources.
His argument is easy to state, because he states it rather clearlyour
response to the approaching environmental crisis must become "the
central organizing principle for civilization." Is Gore right
in the science? We don't know, and it would be unfair to expect
Kakutani to judge Earth's technical merit. But Kakutani's
readers don't even know what Gore said, because Kakutani never
bothers to tell them. In the passage quoted, she says Earth
is a "book about the environment." The only other mention
of the environment comes near the end of her article:
KAKUTANI (27): So what else do these books tell us about the
candidates?...That Mr. Gore, sounding a lot like Naomi Wolf (who
once tried to draw parallels between the Holocaust and anorexia),
likes to compare the world's worsening environmental problems
to Hitler's rise in the 1930's.
That is the only other place in her article where Kakutani
mentions the environment. Even a careful reader would have little
idea what the book discusses, because Kakutani spends her time
on peripheral themes. "One of the book's main themes concerns
the mind-body dichotomy and the perils of a 'disembodied intellect,'"
she writes, and she spends substantial parts of her review talking
about that (more tomorrow). Yet the "theme" to which
she refers is clearly secondary; it first appears around page
218 of the 368-page book, and is essentially concluded when Gore
ends the second part of his three-part effort at page 265. Before
Gore says a word on the theme which Kakutani stresses, he spends
over 200 pages making scientific arguments, the general thrust
of which is never described in this peculiar article. People who
read this New York Times piece have no real idea what Gore's book
If there is any explanation for Kakutani's odd treatment, it
comes in her second paragraph:
KAKUTANI (2): Each of the leading candidates for the Democratic
and Republican presidential nominations...is a published author.
And, while the qualities that make a good autobiographical book...are
not exactly associated with politicians in this age of spin, there
are revealing self-portraits to be found between the lines.
"[T]he contenders' own words...provide inadvertent glimpses
of the personalities behind the personas," she writes, suggesting
that she brings a specialized interest to her review of these
books. But she never specifically tells readers the fact that,
while some of these books are essentially autobiographies, Earth
in the Balance is not such a book. She never specifically
tells her readers that she is discussing Earth's secondary
Kakutani wants to find "revealing self-portraits"
of the candidates. In Gore's case, unfortunately, this leads her
to play the unlicensed shrink, as others in recent weeks have
freely done (more tomorrow). But there is one other thing that
animates her treatmentthe love of silly, conventional gossip.
A reader never learns from Kakutani what Gore actually wrote in
his book. But the reader does learn, all too well, what gossips
are saying about him. You will have noticed that each of the passages
quoted above include a reference to Naomi Wolf, for example. Incredibly,
in an 800-word review where she can't find the space to tell readers
what Gore's book says, Kakutani does find time to mention Wolf
twice, and to ponder "earth-toned clothes" in a third,
KAKUTANI (20): Although Mr. Gore writes that he became increasingly
aware of how "easy it is for every politicianmyself includedto
get lost in the forms of personality traits designed to please
and rhetoric designed to convey a tactical impression" this
awareness does not seem to have dampened his enthusiasm for the
sort of image-spinning represented by his recent efforts to act
more relaxed and wear more casual, earth-toned clothes.
Kakutani doesn't know what the book is about, but she has taken
the measure of Gore. Wellshe has almost taken Gore's measure.
To note how tentative her judgments must be, look again at paragraph
5. Do Gore's "loony asides" (more on them tomorrow)
actually explain his "curious affinity with Naomi
Wolf?" Well, noaccording to Kakutani, they "help
explain" the affinity. Well, not even that, dear friendsthey
"may help explain" the connection. It is astonishing
to think that Kakutani believes that such silly deductions can
(or should) be drawn from this bookthat she thinks she should
hunt through this widely-discussed policy book looking for things
that "may help explain" Naomi Wolf's role in the campaign.
That is especially true since there is no evidence in this articlenone
at allsuggesting that Kakutani has any idea what sort of "affinity"
Gore does or doesn't have with Wolf. Kakutani wants to "help
explain" rumor and gossip. Welcome to page one of the Times.
Talk about "this age of spin!" Every passage of Kakutani's
treatment is drenched in silly conventional wisdom (more tomorrow).
This "review" is a tribute to gossip. Tomorrow, we'll
take a look at the incredibly shoddy (and spin-driven) work Kakutani
has done on this book. But the mere fact that so vacuous a treatment
is on one page one of the Times shows the astonishing power of
conventional wisdom. It shows the press corps' remarkable love
affair with the trivialits "affinity" for rumor and
Tomorrow: Did you count the charts and graphs in Gore's
book? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/24/99.) The bizarre technical
incompetence of Kakutani's work typifies the sad New York Times.
Hope you made it: Now that the budget deal has been
officially signed, we hope you survived that government shutdown
that a tabloid talker warned about last month (see THE DAILY HOWLER,
10/27/99). As we told you on October 27, there was never any chancethere
was no chance at allthat a government shutdown would occur.
And the idea that Clinton could to fail to sign a clean CR, and
somehow get it blamed on the Congress? It was a prospect right
out of Fantasia. But a talker needed something exciting,
and he got his viewers all het up. Sadly, even some of the October
24 Sunday shows were wringing their hands about a possible shutdown.
There was never any chance that a shutdown would occur.
Ain't it weird, what some talkers don't know? And we ask you again:
Why, oh why, does NBC put this gruesome talker on the air?