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FINAL NOTES ON A STANDARD STORY! Pundits trash Gore his heinous debates. But it aint what they said in real time:
THURSDAY, AUGUST 15, 2002
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 Fridays 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 doesnt mention the Clinton impeachment, or the press corps war against Gore. In hammering Gore for his weird turn to populism, she doesnt mention the Nader campaign, and she doesnt note that Gores 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 administrations relatively good economic and foreign policy record. And the writer said that Gore picked his own pocketthrough 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 wasnt 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 Hardballs 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 doesnt resemble what he said in real time. On October 3, 2000, MSNBCs Brian Williams turned to Matthews moments after Bush and Gores first debate. Heres 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.
Say what? In his book, Matthews says that Gore lost every debate. He says the third debate was Gores best outing! But things sounded different on October 3, as Matthews lauded Gores Debate I performance. Matthews went through three rounds of Q-and-A; he never wavered in his outlook. In his third statement, he discussed Bushs failure to respond to Gores basic charges:
MATTHEWS: Not long ago I saw Al Gore in a marathona 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 its not his format. Hes not able to sustain an argument over a long period of time. He can make a quick statementhes 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 didnt 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.
MATTHEWS (10/3/00): I dont know whether hes tired tonight, people say he had a cold, people say he goes to bed normally before this time of night, at 9:30whatever it was, he wasnt quick enough and acute enough to respond to these charges. There was a little bit of Michael Dukakis out there tonight, and thats very dangerous in politics.
The next evening, on Hardball, Matthews continued praising Gores performance. Gore cleaned Bushs clock, he said. In fact, he even chided his fellow pundits for not being honest about what occurred:
MATTHEWS (10/4/00): I couldnt believe the number of people who chickened out last night. It was clear to meand 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 GoreI thought he cleaned the other guys clock, and I said so last night. All four national polls agreed with that
I dont understand why people are afraid to say so.
Thats what Matthews said in real time. But in his book, he says that Gores 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 Gores 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 Gores 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 wonbut I dont like that guy.
Theres 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 Gores behavior in any way, shape or form. One of themwho said he leaned toward Bushcriticized 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 tribes 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 wont stop his spinning.