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6 December 1999

Our current howler (part II): Love that story

Synopsis: The press corps loves the Love Story tale. There’s only one problem—it’s wrong.

First ‘Love Story,’ Now Love Canal
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 12/2/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 12/2/99

Author of ‘Love Story’ Disputes Gore Story (Hint: Tipper Wasn’t Jenny)
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 12/14/97

Where does Ceci Connolly get her quotes? Apparently, Katharine Seelye gets her quotes at the very same place. Last Wednesday night on Hardball (12/1), Chris Matthews showed it—Seelye had misquoted Al Gore in that morning's New York Times (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/3/99). Gore had spoken about the 1978 congressional hearings concerning Toone, Tennessee and Love Canal; Matthews played tape of Gore's actual statement, and there it was, clear as a bell—the most exciting part of Seelye's quote was just plain flat-out wrong. But the same bogus quote had appeared in Connolly's Post story, and there it was again the next day, this time anchoring a Connolly piece. In her 12/2 follow-up, Connolly said, in her lead, that Gore had made a "verbal misstep" about Love Canal—as he had done earlier about the movie Love Story, the scribe most emphatically said.

We'll take a look in the next two days at Gore's statement about Toone and Love Canal. But in her 12/2 follow-up story, Connolly was just one of many scribes who compared Love Canal to Love Story.. On Thursday night, the same tabloid talker who cited Seelye's error was "having fun" with Love Story himself. Ten minutes in, he said this:

MATTHEWS (12/2): Well, let's talk about Al Gore and have some fun. We've gone into the serious part of the program now and here's the hilarious part. This is Al Gore in the sort of Zelig condition he finds himself in. You know, the guy who keeps showing up in historic moments in history?

The talker cited Love Story throughout his show. Two minutes after this comment, for example, he asked a guest: "What is it, this Zelig guy who keeps saying I was the main character in Love Story," and he mockingly asked, "[W]ho played Al Gore in the Love Canal story? We know Ryan O'Neal played him in Love Story [laughter]." Just past the halfway point of the show, he promo-ed the fact that he would soon ask two more guests about Love Canal and Love Story; sure enough, speaking with the guests about ten minutes later, he brought up Love Story again. In the discussion, Gore was accused of "delusion" and was said to be living in "fantasy land." On his program the night before, Matthews had said that, in the future, "We will have to talk about the psychological tendencies involved" in Gore's alleged conduct concerning Love Story and Love Canal. Clearly, serious conclusions are being drawn about Gore's alleged comments on Love Story. One might almost imagine that a serious press corps would feel obliged to get basic facts right.

But that is the lingering problem. Pundits have shown an undying love for Love Story—they have brought it up time and again, for two years. But there's one big problem with the Love Story tale—what has been repeatedly alleged is just false. In the Post, Connolly had described Gore as "[t]he man who mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie 'Love Story.'" But the two claims lodged in this statement are both false. For all the press corps' love for this story, the story has been simply wrong for two years. It represents one of the longest-running misstatements of fact in the sad gong show we now call our "public discourse."

The Love Story nonsense began in late 1997—invented by a Maureen Dowd column—and in the aftermath of that piece, Melinda Henneberger wrote a lengthy story on the topic for the Sunday New York Times (12/14/97). No one has ever disputed the facts she reported; pundits have simply preferred to ignore them. But what Henneberger reported, two years ago, contradicts both the things Connolly still says.

First question: Did Gore "inspire Love Story?" As part of her research, Henneberger interviewed Erich Segal, who had known Gore at Harvard while writing Love Story. And sorry, folks, we hate to upset you, but here's Henneberger, on what Segal said:

HENNEBERGER: The character of the preppy Harvard hockey player Oliver Barrett 4th was modeled on both Mr. Gore and his college roommate, the actor Tommy Lee Jones.

According to Segal, Jones had been the model for the "macho athlete with the heart of a poet" part of the character, and Gore had been the model for the young college student with a highly accomplished father to live up to.

So Gore had been a "model" for the part. Parsing pundits will doubtless note: none of this means that Gore "inspired" Love Story. But it also became clear in Henneberger's piece that Gore had made no such claim. Gore's meaningless remarks about Love Story had been made on a long, late-night plane ride, in a conversation with two respected reporters—Rick Berke of the New York Times, and Karen Tumulty of Time. Henneberger interviewed both reporters. Sorry, folks, we hate to disappoint you, but here's Tumulty's account of what Gore said:

HENNEBERGER: "[Gore] said Segal had told some reporters in Tennessee that it was based on him and Tipper," Ms. Tumulty said. "He said all I know is that's what he told reporters in Tennessee."

Berke agreed that Gore attributed the story to reporters in Tennessee. And sure enough, Segal confirmed that there had been such a story, in the Nashville Tennessean. Segal told Henneberger that the reporter "just exaggerated" a bit, playing "the local-hero angle;" for example, Segal said the reporter added Tipper Gore into the mix, though she had not been the model for Love Story's other lead character in the tale, Jenny Cavilleri.

Incredible, isn't it, that this sort of nonsense inspires our press two years later? That on the basis of absolute idiocy like this, a major public figure is called "delusional" on TV, and a reporter who can't even get simple quotes right calls his character into question? Two years later! Welcome to the riot of nonsense and spin we laughingly call our public discourse—and welcome to the world of Ceci Connolly, whose grisly work for the Washington Post has been on this level all year.

But the facts of this story, as reported two years ago, are, sad to say, all too simple. Gore told reporters that he had seen a newspaper story saying he and Tipper were the models for Love Story. That's "all I know," Gore had said. And everyone agrees such a story did exist. In a rational world, that would end the silly tale, but for the record, Segal said that Gore and Jones were the two models for the Ryan O'Neal part. Now read again what Connolly wrote—two years later—and raise a cup to our great public discourse:

CONNOLLY: [Gore] mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie "Love Story."

Say hello to our brilliant celebrity press corps, 1999 style.

Those are the facts about this story, a story the press corps has pimped around for two years. Again this week, Connolly misstates the basic facts, and unlicensed psychiatrists examine Gore's psyche. The facts of this story are simple to state—although they're embarrassing facts for the Washington press corps. But isn't it time that the press corps corrected its errors? Shouldn't these simple facts finally be told?


Tomorrow: The Love Story flap was invented by Dowd. What about the Love Canal story?

Keeping you posted: We have written to principals at the Washington Post, asking the paper to correct Connolly's errors. We'll provide a full record at the end of the week.

Read with care: Those who review Henneberger's 1997 story are advised to proceed with caution. The relevant facts do emerge from her piece, but she manages to spin them substantially. Although Hennberger knew what Gore had actually said—and although she knew that what Gore had said was correct—she began her story pointing out the flaws in what he was alleged to have said. Good thinking! In short, Henneberger made quite a big deal about the fact that Tipper Gore was not Jenny Cavilleri (that's the headline). Only later in her piece did she reveal what she'd learned: Gore never said that she was.

Only in the great New York Times can one expect to see this kind of writing.

Why did Henneberger bury the lead? The Love Story flap had been invented by Maureen Dowd, in one of the dumbest columns of the past several years; we have discussed this in more detail (links below). Just guessing: if we had learned, as Henneberger did, that Dowd's column had been based on bad facts, we wouldn't have wanted to rush that news to the top of our story either. But the facts in Henneberger's story are clear; Gore only said that he had seen a newspaper story, and everyone agrees that the story did exist. On that basis, Gore has been called a crackpot and a liar for the past two years. Say hello to your celebrity press corps.


Visit our incomparable archives: Past reports on this pitiful story:

See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/30/99: Time barely mentioned Gore's Love Story comment. But Maureen Dowd somehow spied a dark motive.

See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/31/99: Melinda Hennberger learned that Gore had been misquoted. She buried it deep in her story.

See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/1/99: A week after Henneberger described what had happened, Sam and Cokie didn't seem to have heard.

See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/2/99: With Love Story back in the news in March, scribes took turns misreporting basic facts.


See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/21/99: The RNC threw a birthday party for Erich Segal (in absentia). Pundits made gifts of misstatements.