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7 December 1999

Our current howler (part III): Digging that canal

Synopsis: Low bridge! Every standard down! Carefully parsing pundits were troubled by Gore’s recent statement on Love Canal.

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

Commentary by Tony Snow
Fox News Sunday, Fox, 6/13/99

Missteps keep Gore from getting a running start
Jill Lawrence, USA Today, 6/16/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 12/1/99

Earth in the Balance
Al Gore, Houghton Mifflin, 1992

Gore: A Political Life
Bob Zelnick, Regnery, 1999

Just to establish the mindset involved in the exciting Love Canal/Love Story scandals, let's recall what Erich Segal said about Ollie Barrett IV:

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.

Yep. That's what Segal told Melinda Henneberger about the Love Story flap. And Henneberger placed this simple fact right smack-dab in the paper of record. You didn't have to read very far to see it; this sentence is from paragraph 3 of her piece. Even Cokie Roberts might have made it that far, based on evidence of her recent news-gathering (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/6/99).

But when the press corps falls in love with a story, the facts will be damned every time. Let's review some of the gem-like prose that emerged from the press corps this spring. Sorry, Tony Snow, you're one of our faves. But in June, it's a fact—you said this:

SNOW: [H]ow does Al Gore explain all these sort of wacky things about I invented the Internet, I was the inspiration for Love Story? I mean, these kind of autobiographical flourishes that he doesn't need and aren't true?

See Henneberger, directly above. Jill Lawrence, in USA Today, three days later:

LAWRENCE: But the vice president, who once claimed inaccurately to have been the model for the hero of the book Love Story, has created some of his own problems.

Yep. All year long, we've cited press comments about how Gore "inaccurately" made this claim, and about how Erich Segal "emphatically denied" it (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/21/99). Why, a certain talker said this just last week:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Let's talk about the "Love" factor here. Here's the guy who said he was the character Ryan O'Neal was based on in Love StoryIt seems to me he's now the guy who created Love Story, he created the Love Canal. I mean, isn't this getting idiotic, Howard? Isn't it getting to be delusionary?

Supporting actor Howard Fineman chuckled. Tamala Edwards looked deeply concerned.

Yep. Over the past eight months of the Love Story nonsense, pundits have repeatedly misstated basic facts. And why have they been inclined to do so? Because this is a story they like. In fact, the whole "Gore-has-a-tendency-to-exaggerate" story has been based on four elements—Love Story, the farm chores, the Internet, Love Canal. Two of these stories—the farm chores and Love Story—are simple intellectual frauds. Now the Love Canal sequel comes along—and it's driven by an invented quote, and by some very slick parsing and paraphrase.

What did Gore say about Love Canal last week? To help put last week's comments in perspective, let's look at Gore's account of this subject in Earth in the Balance. In Earth, of course, Gore had an advantage—he was giving a written, not a spoken, account. We think that passage provides some perspective:

GORE (1992): I carried these concerns [about the environment] with me to Congress, and in 1978 I received a letter from a farm family near Toone, Tennessee about the sickness they felt was caused by pesticide waste dumped next to their land. It turned out they were right: a company from Memphis, seventy-five miles to the west, had bought up the neighboring farm and dumped several million gallons of hazardous waste into trenches that leaked into the water for miles around. As a result, I organized the first congressional hearings on toxic waste and focused on two sites, the small rural community of Toone, Tennessee, and one other recently discovered waste dump at a little place in upstate New York, Love Canal. Subsequently, of course, Love Canal became synonymous with the problem of hazardous chemical waste. Toone didn't, but the family received one of the biggest judgments ever handed down in a lawsuit over damages from toxic waste.

This account has many elements of the story as Gore told it to students last week (text below). But just for the record, there is no apparent dispute about the facts of this case as Gore outlines them in this passage. Gore did hold the first hearings on this subject; they did involve Toone and Love Canal; they did produce significant outcomes. Bob Zelnick, a Gore biographer, has misgivings about those outcomes, but here's his recitation of the facts in the case:

ZELNICK: Gore was also the prime mover behind the so-called "Superfund," a trust fund administered by the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the most urgent toxic waste problems...Gore's committee held fifteen hearings on the problem, rallying public support for action with such high visibility cases as the disposal of chemical pollutants near New York State's Love Canal. The question was: Who should pay for the clean-up in situations that occurred long before passage of the act where the companies involved had violated no federal, state, or local law? Gore was adamant that the companies should pay, rejecting even a 50-50 split with government...

Zelnick's misgivings about Gore's approach and outcomes are discussed in his next several paragraphs.

Zelnick is a critic of Gore on these matters. But can we make a note about Gore's statement last week? If Gore is trying to puff up his role, he has an extremely odd way of doing it. Zelnick—a critic, writing for a conservative publisher—calls Gore "the prime mover behind the Superfund." He describes Gore's committee "rallying support for action" in these cases, and he describes Gore himself insisting that the companies involved pay all costs. Except for the one disputed sentence about Love Canal, Gore's account last week is considerably more modest. He describes what happened after he received the letter from the student in Toone:

GORE (1999): ...I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing. I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. Had the first hearing on that issue and Toone, Tennessee—that was the one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all. We passed a major national law to clean up hazardous dump sites. And we had new efforts to stop the practices that ended up poisoning water around the country. We've still got work to do. But we made a huge difference. And it all happened because one high school student got involved.

If that is an effort to embellish Gore's work, Gore is the least effective self-promoter of all time. He does not describe himself as the Superfund's "prime mover," as Zelnick, a critic, does. Here's what he says on the Superfund:

GORE (1999): We passed a major national law to clean up hazardous waste sites.

Zelnick makes Gore a bigger player than Gore does. In fact, Gore constantly says what "we" were able to do, and his closing point is that it all happened because of someone else—a Tennessee high school student. His account of how Love Canal became part of his hearings is somewhat different from what he wrote in Earth—but people who have actually lived on the planet will know that to be the nature of extemporaneous speech. Note that Gore can also be read, midway through, to say that his committee's work "ended up poisoning water around the country." That is also the nature of extemporaneous speech. Extemporaneous speech often doesn't parse perfectly.

But the celebrity press corps jumped for joy when Gore made these remarks to the high school students, because they had found another statement they could spin into an example of their long-treasured "tendency." Seelye and Connolly got real busy, changing one thing Gore had said; they put a bogus quote in their papers, and it has now gone all over the world (see postscript). Meanwhile, creative paraphrasers got to work, telling the public about the new thing Gore "said." The power to paraphrase is the power to spin. We'll look at this new example tomorrow.


Tomorrow: The power to paraphrase is the power to spin. CelebCorps reports what Gore "said."

For the record: We simply can't stress this strongly enough. The press corps has given four examples of Gore's alleged tendency to embellish—and two of the press corps' four examples are complete intellectual frauds. Pundits have made false statements Love Story all year, and the farm chores was the press corps debacle of the year—simple, unvarnished invention. In fact, it is because even the pundits no longer mention the chores that a new third "example" of Gore's "tendency" was needed. Thanks in part to the work of the Hotline (and thanks to the incomparable DAILY HOWLER), many Washington pundits have now seen the facts of the farm chores described in public forums. It's become hard to keep misstating those facts; in fact, it's been quite a while since we saw anyone mention the chores—although, typical of the press corps' cowardice, you will never see anyone express concern about the fact that this charade ever happened. (Corrections aren't big with the press corps.) So, two of the four Gore "examples" were simply made up. Example 4 is driven by a fraudulent quote. That quote has now gone around the world. But do you begin to pick up an odd pattern?

Around the world: There's that famous old saw about how fast lies travel, and this week's bogus quote is all over the world. "I was the one that started it all"—the words that Gore plainly never spoke—have now been "quoted" in the current U.S. News, and again last night by Brian Williams. (What a surprise. More on that recitation tomorrow.) Meanwhile, for news of the Washington Post's grumbling "correction," see today's incomparable HOWLER EXTRA.