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FINAL NOTES ON A STANDARD STORY! Pundits trash Gore his heinous debates. But it ain’t what they said in real time:


ONE FINAL NOTE: One final note on the corps’ Standard Story. You know the rules for reciting this story (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/14/02). But many pundits add a final point, claiming that Gore blew a sure-fire election with his hapless performance at the debates. In last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan added this point when she offered the Standard Account:

NOONAN: [Lieberman] shares the views of most of the leaders and funders of his party: Mr. Gore is damaged goods, a bad campaigner who wasted the precious patrimony of peace and prosperity, a charm-free zone who took a weird turn in his acceptance speech two years ago this week, abandoning centrist sophistication and embracing Huey Long populism. In the debates with George W. Bush, Mr. Gore seemed like a cross between Frankenstein and Carrot Top.
Noonan offers the Standard Account. Gore wasted “the precious patrimony of peace and prosperity.” She doesn’t mention the Clinton impeachment, or the press corps’ war against Gore. In hammering Gore for his “weird turn” to populism, she doesn’t mention the Nader campaign, and she doesn’t note that Gore’s “weird” speech actually jumped him way up in the polls. But she does cite the Bush-Gore debates, where Gore performed like Carrot Top. This past Monday, a letter to the New York Times also presented these common points. Gore was unable to win “even when the election was handed to him on a silver platter,” the writer said, referring to “the Clinton-Gore administration’s relatively good economic and foreign policy record.” And the writer said that Gore “picked his own pocket—through his performance during the debates.”

Be careful with these Standard Accounts of the Bush-Gore debates. Many pundits have reinvented the views they expressed in real time. The press corps’ coverage of these debates is too complex to be limned in this space. But your press corps loves to reinvent. Accept now a bit of amusement:

HOW BAD WAS GORE IN THOSE DEBATES? How bad was Gore in those debates? The press corps loves the “Frankenstein” theory. One possible reason for this is clear. If Gore blew the election in the debates, that takes the press corps off the hook. It wasn’t their war-on-Gore which turned the election. It was hapless Gore himself, blowing a sure-fire election.

Careful! Many scribes have reinvented their thoughts about those Bush-Gore debates. One such pundit is Hardball’s Chris Matthews. In his ironically-titled book, Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think, Matthews says that Gore “turned in his best performance” in Bush-Gore Debate III. But he says that Gore lost that third debate, along with Debates I and II.

Funny, that doesn’t resemble what he said in real time. On October 3, 2000, MSNBC’s Brian Williams turned to Matthews moments after Bush and Gore’s first debate. Here’s what Matthews said that night, before the press got its story together:

BRIAN WILLIAMS (10/3/00): Chris Matthews, the host of Hardball, is with me here tonight. Chris, your assessment of what went on tonight.

MATTHEWS: Not long ago I saw Al Gore in a marathon—a 26-miler. Tonight was a marathon event. He was in training for tonight, he was overpowering, he had the stamina, he had an encyclopedic ability to talk about an issue for almost hours at a time. George W. Bush came into a format that he tried to avoid, for weeks he tried to avoid this kind of format because it’s not his format. He’s not able to sustain an argument over a long period of time. He can make a quick statement—he’s a sprinter. He can make a statement quickly and concisely. Unfortunately, he cannot dominate the time in the way Al Gore could tonight. Al Gore didn’t sweat, as I thought he might. Al Gore was effective in dominating the format, he dominated the time, and I have to say he dominated the debate.

Say what? In his book, Matthews says that Gore lost every debate. He says the third debate was Gore’s best outing! But things sounded different on October 3, as Matthews lauded Gore’s Debate I performance. Matthews went through three rounds of Q-and-A; he never wavered in his outlook. In his third statement, he discussed Bush’s failure to respond to Gore’s basic charges:
MATTHEWS (10/3/00): I don’t know whether he’s tired tonight, people say he had a cold, people say he goes to bed normally before this time of night, at 9:30—whatever it was, he wasn’t quick enough and acute enough to respond to these charges. There was a little bit of Michael Dukakis out there tonight, and that’s very dangerous in politics.
The next evening, on Hardball, Matthews continued praising Gore’s performance. Gore “cleaned Bush’s clock,” he said. In fact, he even chided his fellow pundits for not being honest about what occurred:
MATTHEWS (10/4/00): I couldn’t believe the number of people who chickened out last night. It was clear to me—and I’m no fan of either of these guys entirely, and I can certainly say that about the one who I thought won last night, that’s Al Gore—I thought he cleaned the other guy’s clock, and I said so last night. All four national polls agreed with that…I don’t understand why people are afraid to say so.
That’s what Matthews said in real time. But in his book, he says that Gore’s best performance was in Debate III, and that he lost all three outings. Remember: Given the rank dysfunction of our modern press corps, intelligent citizens will be very careful when offered the corps’ Treasured Tales.

ET TU, GREENFIELD? The press corps’ coverage of Bush-Gore Debate I deserves reams of attention and study. This was surely one of the strangest events in recent presidential campaign history. Gore entered the debate ahead in all polls. On the evening of the debate, every survey showed the same result; viewers felt Gore won the debate. And, within a matter of days, Gore had dropped behind in the polls, with the press corps conducting a group attack on his allegedly heinous performance.

Again, this remarkable event is too complex for this space. But Jeff Greenfield also seemed to reinvent Debate I in his book, Oh Waiter! One Order of Crow! On the night of that first debate, Greenfield had no complaints about Gore’s performance. Twice, in fact, he said that Bush may have strayed over the line in his attacks against Gore. But in his book, Greenfield brought himself in line with the press corps’ Official Group Story. He compared Gore’s Debate I performance to that of a “villainous wrestler scor[ing] with a questionable chokehold.” According to Greenfield, “A lot of voters were saying, ‘Yeah, he won—but I don’t like that guy.’”

There’s one small problem with this account. On the night of the actual debate, Greenfield and his CNN team interviewed twenty-two voters. None of their comments resembled this statement. None of them criticized Gore’s behavior in any way, shape or form. One of them—who said he leaned toward Bush—criticized Bush for his attacks against Gore. Sadly, we live at a time when our Washington press corps is a deeply compromised elite. Decent citizens must be on their guard when confronted with this tribe’s favorite stories.

(Bush-Gore Debate I is quite complex. But for more detail about Oh Waiter!, see our five-part treatment from May 29 through June 2, 2001.)

TOMORROW: Bush got Berked in March 2000. But the Timesman just won’t stop his spinning.