But we liberals, progressives, centrists, and Democrats have no one to blame for this but ourselves. For the past fifteen years, weve stared into air while a joke has been made of our national discourse. Weve let fools like Coulter write comic-strip books—and weve let our leaders be brutally trashed. For years, we simply refused to stand up and complain. Weve earned all the clowning we get.
In the past few weeks, weve returned to a book project which wed set aside in recent years. How did George Bush ever get to the White House? In recent weeks, Bush has appeared on Rolling Stones cover, described (by the estimable Sean Wilentz) as the worst U.S. president ever. So how did he ever get to the White House? With so many people coming to see Bushs tenure as a disaster, weve decided again that the voters deserve to hear that full story fully told.
Today, were taking a bit of a break as this region deals with endless rain waters. But, for all you history buffs, were posting an excerpt from that book—one we reread just last night. This passage describes one part of the way the first Bush-Gore debate was reported. It describes one small part of the endless press clowning which eventually put Bush where he is.
Liberal scribes said barely a word as this clowning sent Bush to the White House. With few exceptions, they stood silent for the trashing of Clinton—and then, stood silent for the trashing of Gore. Today, we watch An Inconvenient Truth and marvel at Campaign 2000s outcome. Below, we record a tiny part of the process which put Bush where he is.
Your press corps made an absolute joke of that first Bush-Gore debate. This excerpt tells only one part of that story. But in real time, this clowning was accepted by our liberal leaders, and theyve known, to this very day, that they mustnt look back at what actually happened. (Its so much safer to blame it on Gore.) Due to their studied, unbroken silence, few Americans have any idea about what happened in Campaign 2000. We hope that all our bright career liberals enjoy the big future salaries theyll earn.
Howler excerpt: Reporting the first debate
WHO WON BUSH AND GORES FIRST DEBATE? Again, theres no perfect way to judge that objectively. But at MSNBC, pundits offered surprising reactions as soon as the session ended. Host Brian Williams turned to Chris Matthews, requesting your assessment of what went on tonight. And Matthews, a long-time, lusty Gore-basher, said Gore had won—overwhelmingly. The vice president had been overpowering, Matthews said. Al Gore was effective in dominating the format. He dominated the time, and I have to say he dominated the debate. Matthews was far less kind to Bush. I dont know whether hes tired tonight, people say he had a cold, Matthews said. But according to Matthews, Bush had repeatedly failed to respond to Gores critiques of his programs. There was a little bit of Michael Dukakis out there tonight, and thats very dangerous in politics, he said. The following night, on his own program, Matthews said that Gore cleaned [Bushs] clock.
Given his endless denigrations of Gore, Matthews assessment was somewhat surprising. But when Williams turned to conservative Peggy Noonan, she made a similar call. Well, Brian, I think Gore dominated from the get-go, to tell you the truth, Noonan said. As he stood and gave his statements, I think he seemed to be a person of greater sophistication, greater stature, greater subtlety. He was in his zone. Bush seemed to me, I must tell you, unfocused, a little bit tired in time, a gentleman who forgets the predicate of the statement. Noonan went on to criticize Gore for being snide, aggressive and haughty, but her overall assessment seemed clear. And Mike Barnicle, no Clinton/Gore helpmate himself, expressed a similar view of the session. Voters were looking at this program tonight as if it was a job interview, he said, and theyre going to hire the person that saw, they saw tonight. One of them was much more dominant than the other—the vice president of the United States. Clearly, MSNBCs panel of pundits thought that Gore had won the debate. As weve seen, Williams, Matthews, Noonan and Barnicle all were long-time Clinton/Gore bashers. But immediately after this first debate, all voiced the judgment that would soon be expressed in those five viewer polls.
But even as these pundits spoke, an alternate view was sweeping the press corps. Gore had done better on points, pundits said, but Bush really won, by exceeding expectations. The judgment is odd, but was widely expressed. On the morning of October 5, for example, Newsweek pundit Jonathan Alter appeared on the Imus program. Who had won the crucial debate? Alter displayed some odd reasoning:
ALTER (10/5/00): Well, you know, I called it for Bush. I just think that he had a very low standard to meet, and he met it.According to Alter, Bush had a very low standard to meet. The Texan had met that very low standard, and therefore had won the debate!
Judged by any normal criterion, this was a puzzling assessment. Who had decided that Candidate Bush—and Bush alone—would be judged by this very low standard? For the record, the answer to this question is clear; the press corps had set this very low standard for Bush, in response to the Bush campaigns pleadings. In the weeks before this first debate, one reporter after another noted that the Bush campaign was trying to lower expectations for the Texans performance. In the October 3 New York Times, for example, Frank Bruni described the strategy: Mr. Gore is a much more experienced debater than Mr. Bush, and Mr. Bushs aides mentioned that several times today, clearly trying to lower expectations for the Texas governor to the point where he was certain to exceed them. This strategy was reported again and again; indeed, it was widely joked about by the day of the forum. In the hour before the debate, for example, Brian Williams spoke with Chris Matthews about those low expectations for Bush. Note: Williams was still on a first-name basis with Bush—the odd approach we first noted in June 1999, when Bush launched his race for the White House:
WILLIAMS (10/3/00): I know you were laughing during Hardball tonight that expectations for George W. could not be managed any lower by his surrogates.Two hours later, Matthews judged that Bush had not provided that spectacular performance. But the Bush camps attempts to lower expectations had been discussed in the press corps for weeks. On October 1, Brit Hume had also joked about it on Fox—and he too cited the drooling standard. According to Hume, the run-up to this first debate helped to beat the expectations down, which are now in the case of George W. Bush so low that if he gets through it without drooling that he will have thought to have done well, or at least better than some expected. In the run-up to this key first debate, pundits offered similar analyses throughout the mainstream press.
MATTHEWS: I believe that they put out a brilliant spin tonight that the man is lucky to be able to get through tonight without drooling, when in fact hes quite capable of doing a spectacular performance tonight.
In short, everyone knew how the Bush campaign had tried to frame the debate. Within the press, there was no dispute—the Bush camp had wanted to lower expectations. And sure enough! Once the crucial debate was finished, the press corps did what it had done during the bulk of Campaign 2000; the press corps ran as fast as it could to reflect this latest Bush spin-point. Alter was hardly alone in saying that Bush had won by meeting a very low standard. For example, on the October 10 Special Report, Mara Liasson—looking ahead to the second debate—expressed the view with perfect clarity:
LIASSON (10/10/00): I dont think [Bush] made a big botch of things in the first debate. He didnt mispronounce words; he just didnt very effectively make a clear, coherent argument for his policies. But otherwise, in the aftermath, he was fine. I think the bar is higher for Gore, theres no doubt about it. Heres a guy who kind of lost for winning. He came out of the debate winning on points and still losing the game.What a remarkable presentation! According to Liasson, Bush didnt make a coherent argument for his policies, and he hadnt argued very effectively. But no matter! According to Liasson, because Bush didnt mispronounce words or make a bit botch of things, he had somehow emerged as the winner! Gore had won the debate on points, but had ended up losing the game. Nor was Liasson afraid to state the strangest part of this standard judgment. The bar is higher for Gore, she said. Theres no doubt about it. In fact, Liasson and Alter were finally acknowledging what had been clear throughout this campaign. Ever since the spring of 1999, the press had maintained a double standard in its coverage of Bush and Gore. At long last, after all the tortured denials, two major pundits just said it.
The bar is higher for Gore, Liasson said, echoing Alters puzzling statement. And make no mistake, some form of this peculiar judgment had been widely voiced in the immediate wake of the October 3 debate. On the morning of October 4, Minneapolis Star-Tribune media reporter Eric Black took a look at what pundits had said about the previous evenings event. The instant analysts were out in force from the minute the debate ended, Black wrote. A quick survey of some of TVs talking heads suggested that the most common perception was that Bush had exceeded commonly held low expectations and, that by not falling apart, he had gained more than Gore. The following morning, October 5, the Washington Posts Howard Kurtz made the same odd observation. The pundits were nearly unanimous, he wrote. George W. Bush didnt mangle his words or screw up his facts, so under the diminished expectations set by the prognosticators themselves, he won the debate. Indeed, in the October 4 Post, TV critic Tom Shales had ridiculed this widespread standard of judgment. As some pundits and commentators saw it, George W. Bush could earn a high score in last nights presidential debate just by failing to make a complete fool of himself, Shales wrote. Its a strange way to define success, but by that standard Bush did indeed pull it off. But then, a number of pundits had correctly predicted the odd way this debate would be scored. On the morning of October 3, columnists in both big Boston dailies had correctly predicted the evenings punditry. In the conservative Boston Herald, Tom Guarino called his shot brilliantly: [A]s he strides onto the UMass-Boston stage before 90 million viewers tonight, expectations for the Republican nominee are so low that anything less than a bloodbath will leave pundits saying Bush won or, at the very least, did better than expected. Guarino overstated the size of the audience, but correctly predicted the state of the punditry. But then, Brian McGrory made the same prediction in that mornings Boston Globe. Now [pundits are] saying that if Bush can just blurt out words like puppy and bunny and remember the White House is in Washington, he will likely exceed all their expectations and be deemed the clear, incontrovertible winner. Fourteen hours later, after the debate, this was just what the pundit corps said.
To state the obvious, its surprising to be told, by major journalists, that one of the candidates in a White House debate is being held to a very low standard. And its odd to hear that he won a debate—or helped himself more—because he didnt mangle his words or screw up his facts, the strange standard Kurtz was correctly reporting. But on the evening of October 3, pundits began applying this framework as soon as the session concluded. Instantly, Liasson voiced the judgment on Fox. I dont think anything happened tonight thats going to drastically change the race, she said, although, given the expectations, you could say Bush won. As things turned out, Liasson was wrong when she said that the debate wouldnt change the race; by the time the pundit corps got through, this debate had transformed the proceedings. But she was singing with the choir about the way you could say that Bush had won, or at least had exceeded expectations. On CNN, a string of pundits expressed some form of this view, with Jeff Greenfield stating the point most clearly: I agree that Gore probably wins on, you know, scoring measures, but if you asked who did better for himself compared to what people expected, this is not a bad showing for the governor. But then, all across the TV dial, almost everyone seemed to know that Bush had exceeded those expectations. At NBC, Andrea Mitchell was brought out to say it: The expectations for George Bush were so low that he obviously exceeded expectations. John Roberts said it on CBS: Theres definitely a sense here tonight that Governor Bush probably did better than most people expected. David Gergen, on ABCs Nightline: I think Bush exceeded expectations. Indeed, when Gergen voiced this view one night later on MSNBC, Brian Williams noted how common the judgment had been. About Bush, you and so many other people today said—our own Lawrence ODonnell last night said that Bush beat the point spread. He played above expectations. And Williams statement was plainly correct. That is what most pundits had said.
By normal standards, this reaction was startling. By most assessments, Gore had substantially outperformed Bush; as noted, he would end up winning all five viewer polls, by an average margin of ten percent. But TV pundits said something more pleasing: Gore may have done somewhat better on points, but Bush had exceeded those low expectations, and therefore had gained more than Gore. And this assessment was hardly confined to TV. Indeed, when the nations newspapers appeared on October 4, this view was offered all over the country. Was Bush being held to a very low standard? Drink in these oddball assessments:
San Francisco Examiner editorial: [W]hether Bush won or lost on points, he was the overall victor because, with lower expectations, he held his own and didnt embarrass himself.What a remarkable set of judgments! According to San Franciscos largest paper, Bush was the overall victor because he didnt embarrass himself! According to the leading pundit in Philadelphias largest paper, Bush may have done better than Gore because he didnt mangle his sentences! But variants of this oddball reasoning appeared in papers across the country, stated by major journalists themselves, and by the experts they quoted. On page one of the San Diego Union-Tribune, for example, George Condon quoted Texas professor Bruce Buchanan. Given expectations, I think Bush comes off a little better because I dont think he was smashed, Buchanan had said. The professors logic was bizarre on its face, but Michael Kramer matched it in the New York Daily News. Kramer said that Bush was the winner, offering this as part of his logic: Bush, although clearly less knowledgeable on most issues spoke in a soothing, conversational tone that helped answer lingering doubts about his ability to be president. Was Bush being held to a very low standard? To Kramer, Bush countered doubts about his qualifications by speaking in a conversational tone! Bush had been clearly less knowledgeable— but soothing! But then, oddball judgments of this type were found all over the press.
Dick Polman, Philadelphia Inquirer: Bush may have done better [than Gore], only because the expectations were so low. He didnt mangle any sentences.
Los Angeles Times editorial: Gore got the edge as a forceful presidential debater. But Bush didnt trip over himself, and for many just tuning in to the race, thats a plus for his campaign.
Robert Novak, Chicago Sun-Times: Bush exceeded expectations. He committed no bloopers and did not leave a lingering controversy.
David Reinhardt, The Oregonian: The Texas governor didnt beat the vice president. But Bush beat the low expectations that had been set for him He avoided saying something stupid or unpresidential.
Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial: Fair play compels commentators to award Bush the win Bush held his own. He won the expectations game. It didnt take much.
Sarah Fritz, St. Petersburg Times: [P]erhaps because expectations were lower for Bush, it was likely that he would be judged to have come away with the advantage.
Cragg Hines, Houston Chronicle: George W. Bush more than met the rock-bottom expectations for his performance which in the weird math of politics should mean he won the night.
Indeed, many papers expressed a strange equivalence, in which Gores superior command of the issues was matched by the way Bush had topped that low bar. Consider the lead editorial in the Charlotte Observer. Certainly Mr. Gore dominated the event, the paper wrote. While the vice presidents command of a wide range of issues was impressive, Mr. Bush at times seemed timid and unfocused, unable to pursue discussions of some issues beyond a couple of key points. But so what? Expectations for Mr. Bush were low from the outset, the paper explained, and to many viewers he exceeded them. The paper never explained a key point; it never explained how it knew, just hours post-debate, that viewers thought Bush had exceeded expectations. But many other major newspapers engaged in this mind-reading act. They told their readers what viewers had thought; they downplayed what viewers had said in those polls; and then they expressed the odd equivalence expressed by the Observer. Had Gore been impressive and Bush unfocused? Was Bush unable to pursue discussions? In the end, it didnt matter, because Bush had surpassed his low bar.
Was Bush being held to a very low standard? An odd double standard was on display throughout the American press corps. In a wide range of upbeat reviews, Bush was praised because he didnt drown in a sea of malapropisms, didnt stumble over his words, avoided saying something stupid and was able to avoid grammatical gaffes. Because he didnt get smashed or embarrass himself, he had somehow done better than Gore! Lawrence ODonnell captured the logic on that weekends McLaughlin Report. Bush won by not getting flattened, he said. ODonnell, of course, appeared on the show as one of its liberal pundits.
Bush had won by not getting flattened. And once again, make no mistake—in expressing this judgment, the press corps was reciting a script which came straight from the Bush camp itself. On October 4, NBCs Campbell Brown explained what Bush spokesmen began to say as soon as the first debate ended:
BROWN (10/4/00): The post-debate spin, Brian, that we are getting from the Bush advisers is that Bush held his own last night. There were no major mistakes. There were no gaffes. And as you well know, prior to the debate, they were working very hard to lower expectations.As Brown noted, Bushs campaign had worked very hard to lower expectations about his performance. And all across the national press, pundits recited a set of odd judgments which captured the Bush campaigns viewpoint.
Indeed, how Bush-friendly was the reaction? On his October 4 radio show, Rush Limbaugh expressed amazement at the way the press scored the previous evenings debate. If you were like me, you were a little stunned that immediately after the debate, the media was all saying George Bush won, Limbaugh said. Limbaugh said that the press corps would turn on Bush in the later debates, a prediction which turned out to be faulty. But Limbaugh wasnt the only conservative who recorded the Bush-friendly pundit reaction. In the October 4 Washington Times, Robert McCain offered a similar observation. Bush may not have won last nights presidential debate, McCain acknowledged, but he won a clear victory in the first round of post-debate media spin. McCain quoted that string of CNN pundits who had said that Bush gained more from the session. He barely mentioned the fact that Gore had won all four of the overnight polls.
Just how odd was the press corps reaction? On the afternoon and evening of October 4, a very unusual event occurred; four major pundits expressed surprise at the way their colleagues reviewed the debate. None of these pundits were Gore admirers—as weve seen, all had tended to trash him during the campaign—but all expressed shock at the press corps assessments. Indeed, they came very close to accusing their colleagues of engaging in outright misconduct. Most strikingly, conservative pundit Tucker Carlson appeared on CNNs Inside Politics, and—despite his personal preference for Bush—challenged the work of his colleagues. Its interesting, Carlson said. I mean, there is this sense in which Bush is benefitting from something, and Im not sure what it is. Maybe its the low expectations of the people covering him But there is this kind of interesting reluctance on the part of the press to pass judgment on it. I think a lot of people—they dont necessarily break down along ideological lines—believe that, you know, maybe Bush didnt do as good a job as he might have. And yet, the coverage doesnt reflect that at all. Its interesting. The coverage doesnt reflect that at all! Carlson came close to making a remarkable charge—pundits werent voicing their actual views. In effect, Carlson was close to saying that the Washington press corps had gone in the tank for George Bush.
And Tucker Carlson was hardly alone in this suggestion. Appearing with him was Times Margaret Carlson; she too expressed surprise at the way the debate had been scored. When I read, this morning, all the commentary—I was there, so I didnt hear it last night—I was amazed to find out that our colleagues all said that it was a draw, she said. Bush answered at least five questions in a faltering, hesitant way, in which he was hoping the bell would ring, she said. Despite that, the pundit said, the media were unable to embrace [Gore] as the winner.
Carlson and Carlson routinely appeared on CNN in a dueling liberal-conservative format. But this day, the pundits agreed; each voiced surprise at the way their colleagues were vouching for Bushs performance. And a few hours later, the pundit corps took a savage beating on Hardball. As weve seen, Gore had been trashed on the program for years. But now, Chris Matthews stated it flatly—the press corps had simply taken a dive when it reviewed the debate:
MATTHEWS (10/4/00): I couldnt believe the number of people who chickened out last night. It was clear to me—and Im no fan of either of these guys entirely, and I can certainly say that about the one who I thought won last night, thats Al Gore—I thought he cleaned the other guys clock. And I said so last night, and all four national polls agreed with that. In fact, the ones with the—the one with the largest sample, which was CBS, found a 14-point spread of those who thought that the vice president really leveled the other guy. I dont understand why people are afraid to say so.Matthews trashed his fellow pundits. Could it be that the punditry class is the only profession in which youre allowed to simply take a pass? he asked. Meanwhile, his guest, Christopher Hitchens, also savaged the pundits. I cant believe what Im reading this morning. I could barely believe much of what I heard last night. The vice president did everything but kiss Governor Bushs wife for him, it seemed to me There was absolutely no contest. Hitchens went on to criticize Gore, of whom, as you know, Im no fan. (For years, Hitchens had been one of the countrys harshest critics of Clinton.) But Carlson, Carlson, Matthews and Hitchens all expressed shock at the tone of the commentary. Lets state the obvious: Given the chummy culture of the Washington press corps, its very rare for major pundits to question the work of their colleagues so frankly. But even as Limbaugh was telling his listeners that he was stunned by the pundit reaction, four major journalists went on TV and said that their colleagues had gone in the tank. The coverage doesnt reflect what they think, Tucker Carlson said. At a later point in this chapter, well examine one striking example. [See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/18/02.]
Hitchens tried to explain the odd coverage; pundits were trying to avoid the charge of liberal bias, he suggested. But Margaret Carlson offered a different thought about why the corps couldnt embrace Gore as the winner, and her explanation takes us to the second stage of the mainstream coverage of this event. The sigh kept Gore from winning the debate, she said, referring to a foolish new flap which was already sweeping the press corps. The media just couldnt bring itself to give it to Gore because of what the sigh symbolizes.
Sadly, even by Wednesday afternoon, Carlsons reference to the sigh needed no explanation. Once the press corps finished saying that Bush had exceeded those low expectations, a second wave of punditry started, built around alleged sighing and lying. For the next week, Gore was battered for alleged bad manners—and he was battered for alleged lies. In short, the press corps reverted to the Gore-bashing themes which had driven its work from the start.
The press corps dysfunction was on display once again. Was it true that Bush didnt embarrass himself—that he hadnt said anything stupid? In fact, during this first debate, Bush made a string of major misstatements. He had baldly misstated his own budget plan. He had grossly misstated his prescription drug offering, embarrassing himself in a lengthy exchange with Gore on this high-profile topic. (You can just look at your web site, Gore said to Bush at one point. Nothing embarrassing? Gore was correcting the Texans plain misstatements about his own drug proposal.) And, in the days which followed the debate, Bush made a string of striking misstatements—misstatements which were clearly designed to obscure the facts about his tax cut proposals. But Bushs misstatements concerned major issues, and the Washington press corps had always loved trivia. As it covered this crucial debate, did the press corps clarify the campaigns major issues? Instead, the press corps clowned and spun. Later, Margaret Carlson explained it. Seeking fun, entertainment and sport, the press zeroed in on those sighs...
EXTRA CREDIT: Here are a few more passages—passages which help flesh out this tragicomic story:
THE CONTRACT WITH FRANK LUNTZ: For the record, the most laughable expression of this theme came from GOP pollster Frank Luntz. A key architect of the 1994 Contract With America, Luntz may have been the decades most important Republican pollster. But on the night of the debate, Luntz was conducting a focus group session with 36 undecided voters on MSNBC. (Incredibly, the network never mentioned his party affiliation—even as he recited, again and again, the GOPs key talking points. No, he had no co-host.) By a split of 19-17, Luntzs undecided voters had said—what else?—that Gore had won the debate. But Luntz applied a different standard; repeatedly, he said that Bush exceeded expectations because a larger number of his 36 voters had originally predicted that Gore would win! Endlessly, Luntz kept reciting this point, as in this exchange with Brian Williams:
WILLIAMS (10/3/00): Frank, any distillation of the debate?In fact, by a narrow majority, Luntzs voters thought Gore had won. But Luntz kept racing past that point, stressing the alternate, Bush-friendly theme. Black and Kurtz (and Williams) were right. All across the TV dial, pundits were saying that Bush had won, or had helped himself more, because hed done better than expected. Even Luntz, a major GOP strategist, was making this statement—unchallenged.
LUNTZ: Yes, Brian. We did see George Bush significantly exceed expectations for how well he did. I want to emphasize, by a narrow margin, they thought Gore won, but they were not expecting Bush to do nearly as well as [he did]. Now we didnt get a chance to go to two segments that I think would help illustrate exactly what happened tonight and why our swing voters felt that Bush exceeded expectations.
EVEN THE COLLEGE KIDS HEARD IT: Bush had won by exceeding expectations! How ubiquitous was this appraisal? On the afternoon of October 4, CNN visited a political science class at Marquette to see how students had judged the debate. Just as the networks cameras came on, Professor John McAdams was asking the class, Who heard the debate interpreted by the media? And sure enough, the first student who spoke told a familiar story:
STUDENT (10/4/00): Everything Ive heard, theyve said Bush has won, again, because a lot of people had such low expectations of him in the first place. Thats just what Ive heard.Even the college kids had heard it! Bush had done better than expected, and therefore had won the debate.
MCADAMS: In other words, theyre saying Bush won, based on the expectations game. He did better than expected.
BUSH CAPS IT OFF: After the three debates were over, Bush appeared on David Lettermans Late Show. There, he became the final pundit to express his campaigns preferred view of the sessions. Alison Mitchell did the reporting, in the next days New York Times:
MITCHELL (10/20/00): Mr. Bush did get in some good lines. Asked whether he thought he had done well in the debate, he said, Well, a lot of folks dont think I can string a sentence together so when I was able to do so, the expectations were so low that all I had to do was say, Hi, Im George W. Bush.Bush was joking—and he got a good laugh. But the real joke in all of this was the press corps absurdly scripted performance. Bush was right; when they saw that he could assemble a sentence, they ran to declare that hed won the debate. The Bush camp had pushed this puzzling framework—and once more, the corps had obliged.