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11 December 2001

Our current howler (part II): Who's changing now?

Synopsis: Fineman praised Bush for "changing attire." But he called Gore a nut when he did it.

The presidency as a family business
Howard Fineman,, 11/27/01

Commentary by Brian Williams, Howard Fineman
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 11/1/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Howard Fineman
Hardball, MSNBC, 11/3/99

Fox Portrays a War of Good and Evil, and Many Applaud
Jim Rutenberg, The New York Times, 12/3/01

Howard Fineman was very impressed when the president changed his attire (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/10/01). He seemed to take it as a sign that The Dub was just right for the office:

FINEMAN (11/27/01): So who are the Bushes, really? Well, they’re the people who produced the fellow who sat with me and my Newsweek colleague, Martha Brant, for his first interview since 9/11. We saw, among other things, a leader who is utterly comfortable in his role. Bush envelops himself in the trappings of office. Maybe that’s because he’s seen it from the inside since his dad served as Reagan’s vice president in the ‘80s. The presidency is a family business.

Dubyah loves to wear the uniform—whatever the correct one happens to be for a particular moment. I counted no fewer than four changes of attire during the day trip we took to Fort Campbell in Kentucky and back. He arrived for our interview in a dark blue Air Force One flight jacket. When he greeted the members of Congress on board, he wore an open-necked shirt. When he had lunch with the troops, he wore a blue blazer. And when he addressed the troops, it was in the flight jacket of the 101st Airborne. He’s a boomer product of the ‘60s—but doesn’t mind ermine robes.

If you’re rational, you may be surprised to see such meaningless conduct used as a signal of Bush’s great mastery. After all, who doesn’t wear dressy clothes to some events, and less formal clothing to others? Indeed, even a casual reader of Fineman’s prose might suspect that he’s reading the work of a courtier. And let’s make it clear—it surely isn’t Bush’s fault that Fineman would engage in such risible pandering. No, our observer wouldn’t dog Bush for this piece; it’s Fineman whom he’d mock as a toady.

But if you followed press coverage of the last election, you know that there’s more to this tale. In that election, pundits repeatedly used pointless observations about utter trivia to offer sweeping conclusions about candidates’ character. One example? The clothing of the various hopefuls was endlessly mined for deep meaning. In particular, pundits routinely used Gore’s clothes to demonstrate the veep’s complete lack of character. Which brings us back to Howard Fineman, and his changing thoughts about changes of attire.

It’s strange that Bush’s "changes of attire" are a sign of the president’s "comfort." Because, back in 1999, Fineman cited this very same conduct as a sure sign that Gore was a nut. Gore, like Bush—like everyone on earth—would sometimes dress in suit and tie, and would sometimes wear less formal clothing. And when he did, there was Fineman, always prepared to tell Chris or Brian that the conduct made Gore a big nut.

Let’s start with the vacuous Brian Williams, obsessed with Al Gore’s polo shirts. As early as September 27, 1999, E.J. Dionne had begun to notice the fashion trashing which Gore was receiving. "If he wears a suit, he’s a stiff guy in a suit," Dionne said, in his Post op-ed column. "If he wears an open shirt, he’s a stiff guy in a suit faking it." And no one was more obsessed with Gore’s clothing than the vacuous Williams. Gore was "wearing polo shirts twenty-four hours a day," he complained on his October 6 MSNBC program. (Williams anchored a nightly, hour-long, misnamed show, The News with Brian Williams). The polo shirts "don’t always look natural on him," he grumbled two nights later. On and on the grousing went. Plainly, Williams thought Gore was wearing the shirts in some sort of effort to fool female voters; he repeatedly asked his guests when Gore’s clever strategy would "all start becoming so transparent [that] no one is fooled" (October 6) or (October 8) whether the strategy would "become absolutely transparent when they go out into the hinterlands and try to sell it?" Incredibly, Williams raised the question of Gore’s polo shirts on five separate occasions in one week alone, from October 4 through October 11 (see today’s "Daily update"). And on that last date, Howard Fineman was there—eager to play a helpful role in the utterly dim-witted trashing:

WILLIAMS (10/11/99): Let’s talk appearances here. [Gore] stands up at a weekend joint appearance and challenges his rival to debate. You and I have said this last week he’s trying to ditch the suits and the appearance and all of this...

Fineman was right there on-message:

FINEMAN: I mean, he’s already gone through seven or eight changes of clothing here.

That doesn’t sound like a compliment, does it? Hang on as things get much, much worse.

By November 1, the Naomi Wolf flap had started, and Fineman was quickly assuring the world that somethin’ was bad wrong with Gore. And how could you tell that something was wrong? Easy—because of the way Gore would change his attire. On November 1—the first full day of the remarkable flap—the press corps decided that the "kooky" Wolf had told Gore he had to wear earth tones. There was no real evidence that this was true, and Wolf unequivocally said it was false. No matter. On November 1, the clothes-obsessed Williams ran with the topic. Fineman was along to play shrink:

WILLIAMS (11/1/99): The latest to come to the fore, as you know, Naomi Wolf, the feminist author, apparently is to Al Gore’s clothing selection what the astrologer was to Nancy Reagan...

FINEMAN: ...The fact is, Al Gore has been changing his clothes and his persona in public ever since I’ve known him, which goes back 15 years, Brian. I covered his last presidential campaign in 1988. One day he was in the conservative blue suit, the next he was playing lumberjack at the VFW hall in New Hampshire. This is a guy who, because of his upbringing and his attitude toward politics and maybe something about his life story, just doesn’t seem always to be of one piece, doesn't really always know who he wants to be in public.

See that? All the way back to 1988, Gore had done what Bush does now—he had worn conservative suits to some events, and casual clothing to others. But now, the president is praised for such masterful conduct; in 1999, Gore was played off as a nut. Everyone who followed Election 2000 knows the spin which Fineman was offering. Al Gore doesn’t know who he is. It was recited over and over by amateur shrinks, all through the inane Wolf brouhaha.

Fineman continued the dimwitted spinning on Hardball two nights later. First, the show’s crackpot host played tape of Gore giving a speech in a suit. Then came tape of Gore in casual dress for a TV interview. This led to a long and ugly discussion about how mixed-up poor Gore must be. The conversation was deranged on its face, but Fineman was hot for the spinning:

MATTHEWS, watching tape of Gore (11/3/99): Obviously, he’s dressed by someone now. He’s—his head’s moving around; he’s got gestures going out here. He said Clinton’s over here, he’s over here, he’s coming in here, a bit like Jackie Mason. This is the new Al. And I don’t, I don’t know if it’s a better Al, but it’s different.

FINEMAN: There have been so many Als, Chris. I mean, I’m—


FINEMAN: I actually covered his ’88 campaign, and he went from the suit to the lumberjack shirt back then.

MATTHEWS: Oh, right.

FINEMAN: But, yes, you, you could see in that answer that he gave this morning—you could see the index card in his head.


FINEMAN: It had four points on it. That was a four-part answer. It was. You could see the parts in it, you know, and you—


FINEMAN: you—you went through them. But that’s the tightrope that he’s on as he tries to keep support of traditional Democrats.

Incredible, isn’t it? Clearly, there were two key things you just couldn’t do. You couldn’t wear any casual clothes—and you couldn’t give four-part answers! To state the obvious, this transcript can only be scored as "deranged." But of course, this is exactly the type of crackpot spinning that drove the 2000 election.

Let’s say it again—all the way back to 1988, Gore had sometimes appeared in casual clothes, and he’d sometimes appeared in blue suits. The conduct itself is utterly meaningless; everyone behaves in this manner. But now, Fineman says it shows Bush’s mastery; then, the conduct showed Gore was a nut. The comfortable courtier has skillfully changed on the subject of change of attire.

Alas! Your children have their birthright stolen by vacuous, brain-dead spinning like Fineman’s. Next, we’ll check out Fineman’s "character " in the case of the bare-faced borrower.

Next: Fineman called Bradley an "authentic" "straight-shooter" with "a life outside politics." But where had we heard it before?

Visit our incomparable archives: We discussed this foolishness in real time. See THE DAILY HOWLER 10/12/99, 11/4/99, and 2/15/00.


The Daily update (12/11/01)

Rip Van Rutenberg: Where in the world has Jim Rutenberg been? In his recent piece about Fox and the war, he offered this dated assessment:

RUTENBERG: Ever since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, the network has become a sort of headquarters for viewers who want their news served up with extra patriotic fervor. In the process, Fox has pushed television news where it has never gone before: to unabashed and vehement support of a war effort, carried in tough-guy declarations often expressing thirst for revenge…The network is encouraging correspondents and writers to tap into their anger and let it play out in a way that reminds some rivals and press critics of the war drumbeat of the old Hearst papers and the ideologically driven British tabloids.

The usual anchor role of delivering the news free of personal opinion has been altered to include occasional asides.

But that anchor role died long ago. For example, consider the astonishing Williams, anchoring The News in October 1999. Here he was on October 4, ranting about Gore’s casual dress:

WILLIAMS (10/4/99): And John [Zogby], what happened to the notion of, "Well, he’s vice president, let’s not forget, he blows into town on Air Force II, he’s got a motorcade, all the trappings of office"—here is a guy taking off his suits, going around more and more in the non-motorcade motorcade, this [showing tape] is the casual sweater look, what’s going on here?

To his credit, Zogby ducked the question. Next victim? Claire Shipman, two nights later:

WILLIAMS (10/6/99): Claire, I don’t know if this is answerable or not—when does this start to become very transparent? The fact is, we’re looking at [Gore] at this event today—he would have been in a suit a month ago. The fact is, American women may very well find campaign efforts aimed at them and they will know it’s part of the pre-announced drive to attract more women. When does that start to backfire in its transparency?

See? Gore’s wardrobe was all about women. Williams raised the same point with Fineman a bit later:

WILLIAMS (10/6/99): Howard, same lead-off question to you as we asked Clare Shipman. Al Gore: when does this all start becoming so transparent [that] no one is fooled—the sudden move to Tennessee, ditching the suits, wearing polo shirts twenty-four hours a day, and now the sudden emphasis on women’s issues.

For the record, Gore had campaigned in casual clothes right from the start of the campaign. A number of major scribes had profiled this fact, as far back as April 4. But now a new spin was blowing up hard—Gore had ditched the suits because Bradley was surging. Plainly, this was factually bogus, but Williams was spinning clothes hard:

WILLIAMS (10/8/99): No disrespect to the campaign intended, but you know we’ve talked on this broadcast and so many others about the fact that he’s wearing these polo shirts that don’t always look natural on him, that he’s trying to chuck his notes, that he is moving the campaign to Tennessee, and now we learn that they’re going to target woman voters. When does that get reported so much that it becomes absolutely transparent when they go out into the hinterlands ands try to sell it?

Remember, this is an anchor speaking—although comments like this would be utterly stupid no matter where they came from. At any rate, Fineman was back on Monday, 10/11, and so was the grumbling about clothes:

WILLIAMS (10/11/99): Let’s talk appearances here. He stands up at a weekend joint appearance and challenges his rival to debate. You and I have said this last week he’s trying to ditch the suits and the appearance and all of this…

And so on—and on and on. Again, Williams wasn’t simply drenched in trivia—his facts were also baldly wrong. But a hot new spin had blown through the corps, and Williams was spinning it hard.

It’s hard to believe that NBC would put such total crap on the air. But someone needs to tell Jim R: when it comes to anchors spewing their "outlook," Fox is still chasing MS.

Visit our incomparable archives: Williams spun some poll numbers blue. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/11/99.

If Williams can read, he tried hard to hide it. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/12/99 (postscript).