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Daily Howler: This cult will strike in Campaign 08. Dems and libs must prepare
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MORE TO COME! This cult will strike in Campaign 08. Dems and libs must prepare: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MAY 18, 2007

THE ONE THING YOU’RE ALLOWED TO HEAR: Too funny! Eric Pooley’s account of Campaign 2000 deserves full treatment; we’ll offer that on Monday. But this excerpt from Pooley’s new (and friendly) profile of Gore deserves your instant attention:
POOLEY (5/16/07): He was never quite the wooden Indian his detractors made him out to be in 2000 (nor did he claim to have invented the Internet), but he did carry himself with a slightly anachronistic Southern formality that was magnified beneath the klieg lights of the campaign. And his fascination with science and technology struck some voters (and other politicians) as weird. "In politics you want to be a half-step ahead," says Elaine Kamarck, his friend and former domestic-policy adviser. "You don't want to be three steps ahead."
Every part of that passage is just plain laugh-out-loud phony. (Related question: Will Elaine Kamarck ever tire of reinforcing the press corps’ narratives?) But note the passage we have highlighted. Al Gore didn’t claim he invented the Internet, Pooley says.

Al Gore never said he invented the Net! As we told you last July, this has become The One Thing You’re Now Allowed To Be Told about Campaign 2000. Last July, it was Michael Grunwald in the Washington Post, stating his cohort’s New Standard Fact about Campaign 2000 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/25/06.) But as we noted at the time, Grunwald forgot to explain a key point: If Gore never said he invented the Net, why did Grunwald’s mainstream colleagues spend two years saying the opposite? In his new profile, Pooley forgets to address that point too. It’s now official: You can be told that Gore never said it. But no one will tell you why you heard different throughout the course of two history-changing years.

By the way: Where did people get the idea that Al Gore said he invented the Internet? Perhaps from a fellow named Eric Pooley, typing in March 2000. Gore had just wrapped up his party’s nomination—and Pooley decided that he would recite his cohort’s Standard Cant:
POOLEY (3/13/00): With Gore riding high, it's worth remembering the slough of despondency he trudged through last summer, when Hillary Clinton's Senate bid was sucking up the headlines and campaign cash. Gore talked about his very real technology accomplishments and managed to call himself the father of the Internet. He smothered his announcement that he was running to become the next President with a clumsy attempt to distance himself from the current one. Even a nice photo op in a canoe became painful, when 170 million gallons of water were released—during a drought—to lift Gore's boat.
Omigod! He even worked in the canoe trip! But there it was, the Standard Claim of a history-changing era: Al Gore managed to called himself the father of the Net!
To his credit, Pooley self-corrected in August 2000 (text Monday)—but very few of his colleagues did. They kept reciting this Standard False Claim until they’d sent Bush to the White House. Clinton’s blow jobs had been very troubling—and his chosen successor just mustn’t succeed! So they spent two years mouthing all manner of tripe. Today, they say it was bogus.

Today, the Standard Story has changed a bit—you’re permitted to know that Gore never said it. What you still can never be told: It was the mainstream press corps which fed you this tale—and sent George Bush to the White House. Somehow, that part keeps slipping their minds as they tell you their new, improved tale: Al Gore never said he invented the Net. We’re not sure how that gained traction.

THERE THEY GO AGAIN: Good God, these people are daft! Again today, on the Times front page, we get a personality tale. This time, the fatuous profile concerns Michelle Obama.

How dumb are the people who write these profiles? Dumb enough to offer this, in which The Cult of the Offhand Comment comes close to striking again:
KANTOR (5/18/07): To female audiences, Mrs. Obama emphasizes her struggle to balance travel, work meetings and homework detail. Last Monday, for instance, Mrs. Obama zoomed out of bed, to the airport, onto a flight to New Hampshire, through two campaign events and a McDonald's drive-through, then back to the Midwest and into her two daughters' waiting arms.

''I wake up every morning wondering how on the earth I am going to pull off that next minor miracle of getting through the day,'' she said at a “Women for Obama” event last month in Chicago...

Such patter draws a contrast with the lives of other presidential contenders, including those of John Edwards, who lives in a 28,000-square-foot mansion; Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor whose remarriage has strained his relations with his children; and Mrs. Clinton, with her past marital trials.

''I think that that sort of statement is all about the Clintons, and it's also designed to resonate with middle-income Americans who have quote unquote normal marriages in which the spouse at home calls the other and asks to bring home a bag of salad,'' said Nancy Beck Young, a history professor who has made a study of first ladies and will teach at the University of Houston this fall.
Amazingly, these people find “experts” who are even dumber than they are. (Or perhaps they quote them strangely.) Obama makes a straight-out-of-the-can remark about the demands on her time she is facing. And the Times finds an “expert” who says this: This is all about the Clintons. To the journos themselves, of course, Obama’s statement lets them mention a favorite fact—John Edwards lives in a very big house. Of course, Elizabeth Edwards also routinely speaks about all the demands on her time. But so what? Journos love that big, fancy house. They live to find ways to discuss it. (By the way—the Obamas’ house cost $1.7 million, in 2005. That’s way beyond most peoples’ cribs.)

Hiss! Hiss-spit! Hiss-spit! Meeee-ow! These people’s inanity never ceases—which is why they should always be discouraged from writing “analytical” profiles. What happens when you let these folk get creative? Just note the kinds of significant details they try to tease out:
KANTOR: Mrs. Obama dislikes politics, friends and family confirmed, but not as much as she dislikes losing. Craig Robinson, her brother and the Brown University men's basketball coach, said his sister did not enjoy organized sports when she was younger because she so hated defeat and even now pouts when a board game does not go her way. His sister is brainy and warm, he said, but also a force to be reckoned with.

''Everyone in the family is afraid of her,'' he said with a smile. Asked if Mr. Obama used a nicotine patch to quit smoking, Mr. Robinson cracked up. “Michelle Obama!'' he said. ''That's one hell of a patch right there!''
The Times interviews Michelle Obama’s brother—and sees it as a chance to learn if Barack is on the patch!

But then, the inanity is constant with this gang—which is why their editors should restrict them to simple, nuts-and-bolts reporting. (The kind of basic, informative work Katherine Seelye provided on Thursday.) But no, they love to showcase their analytical skill—and often, this means that they will showcase the biases of their cohort. For our taste, this profile today is way too catty; there’s a lurking message (Michelle Obama’s a bit of a bitch) which comes straight out of Maureen Dowd’s hiss-spitting profile last month. (We didn’t review it. Click here.) But then, in recent election cycles, Dowd and the rest of her vacuous crew have had lots of problems with potential first ladies—as long as they were Democrats. Might Kantor be showing a bit too much leg in this particular passage?
KANTOR: Even successful first lady auditions can be remembered as political don'ts: take Nancy Reagan (regarded as too adoring of her husband) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (too eager to share his job), to say nothing of spouses of losing candidates, like Judith Steinberg Dean (too absent) and Teresa Heinz Kerry (too outspoken).

Faced with those discouraging precedents, Mrs. Obama, 43, is trying a fresh approach: running as everywoman, a wife, professional, mother, volunteer.
Again, the dumbness is everywhere; Obama is running as “a wife, professional, mother, volunteer,” we’re oddly told—as if she could have chosen to run as a major league baseball player. But note what happened when Kantor recalled those earlier bungled first lady auditions. She had to go back to 1980 to find a Republican her cohort didn’t like. But Big Dem names came flooding forward. In 2004, Kerry’s wife was too outspoken, Dean’s wife not outspoken enough.

But then, potential Democratic first spouses have been trashed pretty good in the past twenty years. Often, as with Obama and Dean, the trashing goes straight back to Dowd. (To recall her trashing of Dean’s troubling wife, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/2/04). Was there nothing wrong with Barbara Bush (too bitchy)? With Honey Alexander (too sweet and too southern)? With Mrs. Pat Buchanan (too submissive)? With Elizabeth Dole (too fake and too scripted)? Actually, the press corps simply luvvvved the wife of Bob Dole back in 1996. They fell on the ground at the GOP Convention, praising her brilliant walk-around outing, which made the whole world think of Oprah. For one short summary of their gushing reactions, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/26/07.

We’re not asserting a bias here—but Kantor’s list is intriguing. And so is the source of much of this bitching. Yes, it was fatuous Dowd who hissed and meowed when Dean’s wife wouldn’t come out on the trail—and it was Dowd who hissed and spat last month about Big Loudmouth Michelle Obama. But then, Dowd has been a destructive, fatuous force in our national life for years. Empty, broken-souled and stupid, she plays Antoinette over all she surveys—and striving scriveners all too often rush to endorse her proposals.

LETTING THE SOCIOS WIN: I’ve sent the analysts out of the room. That accomplished, I’d have to say that Wednesday’s account of that evening at John Ashcroft’s bedside must be the most remarkable thing I’ve ever read in a newspaper. I’ll even suggest that you start with Dana Milbank’s “Washington Sketch,” then move on to Dan Eggen’s front-page news report. If you haven’t read these accounts of this story, I’ll strongly suggest that you do.

Chris Matthews and Digby have both cited a fairly obvious comparison—the hospital scene from The Godfather, when Michael saves his father’s life. No, James Comey didn’t wheel the stricken Ashcroft to an unknown room in a distant ward. But if he’d had a bit more time, who can say that he might not have done so?

This startling comparison duly dispatched, I’ll offer a few observations:

First: Andy Card’s participation here is striking, since he has always been portrayed as the “sane one.” Clearly, that should end.

Second: It no longer makes sense to discuss Gonzalez without speculating about mental illness/dysfunction. I’ve long wondered about possibly sociopathy, going back to his soul-less performance in the Texas death penalty cases. After reading this new story, I would have to say it no longer makes sense to assume anything other than major dysfunction. There is clearly nothing this man won’t do. It had seemed fairly clear before this. It would now be foolish to doubt it.

Finally, I have to mention the press corps angle which came to mind as I read these stories. For this, I go back to a pair of incidents from Campaign 2000—incidents where the American press corps, on the highest levels, refused to perform normal critiques of Gonzalez’s odd-acting boss.

At this point, it also makes sense to wonder about Bush’s psychiatric state. This took me back, on Wednesday evening, to the incident which opened Ambling Into History, Frank Bruni’s intriguing memoir of the 2000 Bush campaign. Bruni started the book with a remarkably odd event—an event his great newspaper, the New York Times, chose not to report.

“It would hard to imagine an incident more somber,” Bruni writes as he starts Chapter 1 of his book. He describes a September 1999 memorial service for seven people who had been shot and killed inside a Fort Worth, Texas church. The memorial service was held at TCU—and Candidate Bush, then Texas governor, attended the service. “Although the outdoor stadium he entered was usually a place of frenetic activity,” Bruni wrote, “it was now a scene of eerie stillness and quiet, its thousands of occupants siting or standing with their heads bowed.”

Except for Governor Bush, that is. Bruni started his book with this incident because Bush’s conduct this day was so odd. According to Bruni, Bush “had made the judicious decision not to speak...but there was a prime center row of seats for him and his intimates. Print reporters, including me, positioned ourselves as close to it as we could.” The scene set, Bruni described how Bush behaved at this somber service:
BRUNI (page 17): Bush saw us as he walked in and sat down; he even nodded in our direction. It was a tiny gesture, nothing wrong with it. But he didn’t leave it at that. As preachers preached and singers sang and a city prayed, Bush turned around from time to time to shoot us little smiles. He scrunched up his forehead, as if to ask us silently what we were up to back there. He wiggled his eyebrows, a wacky and wordless hello. These were his usual merry tics, but this was a discordant setting for them, and it was astonishing that he wasn’t more concerned that one of the television or still camera might catch him mid-twinkle.
“It was astonishing,” Bruni wrote—and his description would get more strange. Indeed, Bush’s behavior seems especially striking, because only a few weeks before this event, Tucker Carlson’s profile of Bush in Talk had raised a number of eyebrows. According to Carlson, Bush had performed a mocking impression of Karla Faye Tucker, a woman then on death row in Texas. According to Carlson, Bush had pictured Tucker begging for her life. In this part of Carlson’s profile, he describes the Texas governor:
CARLSON (9/99): " 'Please,' " Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, " 'don't kill me.' "
After Carlson’s profile appeared, the Bush campaign said Carlson had “misread” Bush. George Will sensibly wrote this in the Post: “[I]t is difficult to imagine anything Bush said that Carlson may have ‘misread’ that could do Bush credit.”

In short, Bush’s interview with Carlson had struck many people as callous. But just a few weeks later, there he was, clowning at a memorial service. Bruni’s description continues:
BRUINI (continuing directly): At one point, when someone near our seat dropped a case of plastic water bottles and caused a clatter, Bush glanced back at us with a teasing, are-you-guys-behaving-yourselves expression, and he kept his amused face pivoted in our direction for an awfully long time. About twenty minutes later, he was at it again. The Rev. Al Meredith, the pastor of Wedgewood Baptist Church, asked if everyone in the audience “wanted to see the spirit of the living God sweep over this land like a wildfire.” Meredith called for raised hands, and he added, “Media, put your notepads down if you’re in on this with us.” Zoom—Bush was looking in our direction, eyebrows up, head cocked, the possibility of laughter on his lips.

I was taken aback, but I was not really surprised.
You can read the book if you want to learn why Bruni wasn’t really surprised by all this. But I was surprised when I first read this (Bruni’s book appeared in 2002). I was surprised to think that Bush had behaved this way just a few weeks after that profile in Talk. But I was also surprised for another reason. I was surprised because I was fairly sure this incident had not been reported.

Sure enough. Using Nexis, I have never found any real-time press reference to this peculiar behavior by Bush. In particular, there was no report in the New York Times, the paper for which Bruni worked.

According to Bruni, “it was astonishing that [Bush] wasn’t more concerned that one of the television or still camera might catch him mid-twinkle.” But why should Bush have been worried about that? These large news orgs covered up for Bush at various times during Campaign 2000. In this same book, for example, Bruni also reports how badly he thought Bush did at his first debate with Al Gore. But you’d never have known it from the next morning’s Times! Bruni began his feature that day with a mocking passage about what a big *sshole Gore had been (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/18/02). He didn’t betray what he actually thought—that Bush had floundered so completely that he likely had blown the election.

No, the press corps didn’t report Bush’s weird behavior at that somber memorial service. But then, nine months later, Bush affirmed a tough death penalty verdict where he simply couldn’t have known that the convicted prisoner was guilty. In that instance, the press corps kept quiet again; it’s clear that they avoided asking how Bush knew the convict was guilty. And on The NewsHour, Mark Shields authored one of the strangest performances I’ve ever seen, calling it “probably the finest moment of Bush’s campaign”—because Bush had appeared “in a suit and tie, with appropriately serious manner,” when he announced that the man would be executed (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/6/02). Of course, after reading Bruni’s account of that memorial service, perhaps we know why Shields was impressed to see Bush just maintain a straight face.

At this point, it’s fairly clear that something is wrong with Gonzalez. To all appearances, the press corps doesn’t quite know what to do about his bizarre, ongoing conduct. But then, Bush himself sent troubling signals during the course of Campaign 2000. But your press corps, troubled by Clinton’s bl*w jobs, decided they just shouldn’t tell. Instead, they kept inventing tales about Gore’s deeply troubling character. Al Gore said he invented the Internet! Today, they’re finally willing to tell you: Sorry, that just wasn’t true.

Special report: The cult of the offhand comment!


READ EACH INSTALLMENT: A powerful cult likes to use offhand comments. Read each thrilling installment:
PART 1: Tenet writes clearly in his new book—and uncovers a threat to our freedoms. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/15/07.

PART 2: When we read George Tenet’s book, we thought of what Tumulty said. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/16/07.

PART 3: Tenet has a very good sense of how they fed Woodward that story. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/17/07.
Now, enjoy our thrilling conclusion. This cult will strike again.

PART 4—MORE TO COME: That shadowy “Cult of the Offhand Comment” has struck in our past two elections. In Campaign 2000, it struck at Gore, disturbed by his (accurate) Love Story comment. Later, it struck at Naomi Wolf; she had said “alpha male” in an offhand remark, and it troubled the cult’s adepts terribly. And through the brilliance of Bob Woodward’s book, it struck at Tenet during Campaign 04; it bruited about a silly tale which made Bush seem like a wise, honest leader—an honest man who’d been led astray by an over-excited white male. That “slam dunk” narrative helped Bush mightily as Campaign 04 unfolded. That why Bush pimped it to Woodward, five times—though we can’t say why The Great Journo bought it.

Almost surely, this cult will strike during Campaign 08. Before we consider how Dems should respond, let’s enjoy a good solid laugh at the silly tales this strange cohort will peddle. This takes us back to Plan of Attack, to another tale the Woodward book told. That’s the tale in which Honest Leader George W. Bush refuses Karl Rove’s worldly plan.

Amazingly, this ludicrous tale was a major part of this book’s promotion. Plan of Attack appeared in April 2004; starting on Sunday, April 18, the Washington Post ran a series of exclusive, front-page excerpts. No, that “slam dunk” episode never really made sense—but the Post ran it on Monday, April 19, high up in its second excerpt. But what did the newspaper run with first? It ran with a silly tale from the ranch in Crawford, where Bush was spending the Christmas holiday in late December 2002/early January 2003.

Honest to God, you just have to laugh when you see such perfect nonsense in print. According to Woodward’s book, Karl Rove foolishly showed up in Crawford, hoping to interest a Wise, Bold Leader in his 04 re-election prospects. “Rove believed in learning from history, and he had been doing in-depth research on how recent Republican presidents had campaigned for re-election,” Woodward wrote on page 254. Needless to say, when Rove presented such thoughts to his Purposeful Leader, he was in for quite a surprise.

Woodward sets the scene below, in a passage reminiscent of a famous book from The Iliad:
WOODWARD (page 253): Rove had with him a PowerPoint presentation on the strategy, themes, timetable and an overview plan to win reelection. The essence of the message for the president was: Pay attention man, it’s coming.

He found some time alone with the president to brief him at his ranch house. Laura Bush was on the couch reading a book, pretending to pay no attention.
As such, Laura Bush was cast as silent Patroclus—and Rove was cast as frightened Odysseus, approaching Achilles (text below). At any rate, Woodward lists the various campaign themes Rove presented to Bush that day. (His presentation started like this: “PERSONA: Strong Leader, Bold Ideas.”) But uh-oh! According to Woodward, Rove then foolishly told this Strong Leader that he should start fund-raising for his re-election “in February or March of this year.” Clearly, that was the dumbest thing Rove could have said! Before him, a Strong Leader stared into space, plainly gripped by a few Bold Ideas. What follows is one of the stupidest narratives ever put into print:
WOODWARD (page 256): “We got a war coming,” Bush told Rove flatly, “and you’re just going to have to wait.” He had decided. It was the president’s version of Pay attention, man, it’s coming. War was the only option now. “The moment is coming,” he said...

“Remember the problem with your dad’s campaign,” Rove replied. “A lot of people said he got started too late.”

“I understand,” Bush said. He had been there. But this was decided and this was the way it was going to be. So the early fund-raising was out. He couldn’t campaign if he was getting ready to start war. Rove’s plan would have to be flexible. “I’ll tell you when I’m comfortable with you starting.”

Oh, nooooooooo, Rove thought. But he knew there was nothing he could do. With war coming, there was no way he was going to try to convince Bush he needed to go to a fund-raiser in Altoona or anywhere for that matter.
Foolish Rove had misread his Strong Leader. His silly plans had been beaten aside. His leader had spoken to him “flatly.” Faced with such a principled man, he knew there could be no dispute.

Slightly edited, that was the anecdote the Post selected for its first excerpt on Sunday, April 18. It sat there on the paper’s front page, showing the world the principled way Bush had swatted this worldly adviser aside. “Oh, nooooooooo,” Rove had thought—but he knew there was no changing this man. The next day, the Post put the “slam dunk” narrative on page one, showing us how this Honest Leader had been fooled by excitable Tenet. How he’d been fooled four months after he himself started misstating intel.

Why did Woodward put that ludicrous narrative into his book—the one in which Rove is batted aside by his leader? We can only guess, but it’s hard to see why Woodward would have thought he actually knew what had transpired at that meeting. It’s obvious that Rove was a key source for Woodward; during this passage, Woodward tells us what Rove “thought,” “knew” and “could see” as he speaks with his Wise Leader. But was Rove a reliable source for this uplifting tale? Who could possibly think that he was? And only two other people seem to have been present that day: Strong Leader Bush himself, and his silent wife Laura.

Why was that nonsense in Woodward’s book? If we had to guess, we’d imagine a deal: The White House gives Woodward extraordinary access—in exchange for a small bit of help. In fact, substantial parts of Plan of Attack were very unflattering to Bush and his team. But Woodward threw in several ludicrous anecdotes, picturing Bush as a Wise Strong Bold Leader. By total coincidence, the Post pimped these anecdotes very hard in its promotion of Woodward’s big book. And soon—speaking of Bush’s re-election—the world was absorbing these hero tales about how strong this Bold Leader had been. The unflattering passages were largely ignored. These hero tales were widely bruited.

The moral to all this is clear. When it suits this cohort’s interests—when it suits this cult’s world view—this gang will repeat all manner of ludicrous tales, and they’ll recite them in unison. They’ll swear that Al Gore said he invented the Net. And that he hired a woman to teach him how to be a man! They’ll even say that Tenet jumped up from a couch and yelled “slam dunk” at a Strong Honest Leader. No, these tales don’t have to make sense—but voters will hear them again and again. And over the course of the past fifteen years, these tales—which once cut against Big Republicans too—are all being aimed at Big Dems.

In Campaigns 2000 and 2004, Dems and liberals tended to stare when the Cult of the Offhand Comment took action. This cult will strike again in 08. Dems need to yell—long and loud.

ONE OF THE WORLD’S OLDEST STORIES: It’s one of the world’s oldest stories—the story Professor Fagles calls “The Embassy to Achilles.” (And we think he has it just about right.) Poor Odysseus! With Ajax, he walks where the battle lines of breakers crash and drag, wondering how he’ll persuade Achilles to turn away from his strong sense of honor. And there, inside Achilles’ tents, Patroclus sits silently by his Strong Leader, much as Laura Bush later did:
Reaching the Myrmidon shelters and their ships,
they found him there, delighting his heart now,
plucking strong and clear on the fine lyre—
beautifully carved, its silver bridge set firm—
he won from the spoils when he razed Eetion’s city.
Achilles was lifting his spirits with it now,
singing the famous deeds of fighting heroes.
Across from him Patroclus sat alone, in silence,
waiting for Aeacus’ son to finish with his song.
Achilles didn’t respond to Odysseus’ entreaties, any more than a later Strong Leader responded to his worldly adviser. Then, as now, a leader gazed off, his silent partner by his side. Oh, nooooooooo, Odysseus must have thought. But he knew there was nothing he could do.

For the record, Bush wasn’t plucking on his lyre. Or at any rate, Rove didn’t say so.