13 January 2000
Our current howler (part IV): Very old problem
Synopsis: When Chris Matthews corrects spinning, weve really been spun. Once again, he corrects a Post spinner.
New Gore, Old Problem
John Harris, The Washington Post, 1/11/00
Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 1/11/00
Rueful John Harris was shaking his head over the antics of
Stiff Old Al Gore. "New Gore, Old Problem," his page-one
headline said. Harris' story began in a New Hampshire seniors
center where Gore "launched on a story about the film 'Annie
Hall' and a cameo appearance in that movie by media philosopher
HARRIS (paragraph 2): Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), standing
by Gore's side, tilted his head in a quizzical stare. At the side
of the room, anxious aides to the candidate shot each other nervous
glances as if to say: Where on earth is he going with this?
(3) So where was Gore going? It's a bit complicated to explain
here. But he eventually brought the anecdote back to his point:
that his health care plan is superior to Democratic rival Bill
Bradley's. Relieved aides breathed a sigh.
In the worry-wart world of the Washington Post, this was another
example of how Crazy Old Gore just can't be allowed out in public.
But on Tuesday night's Hardball, host Chris Matthews showed
the tape of Gore's performance. (Matthews, present at the event,
had been Gore's interlocutor.) And where had Gore been "going"
with his anecdote? To a big laugh, and a burst of applause! There
they were, right on the tapethe audience laughing and applauding
Gore's punch line. After playing the tape, Matthews said this
about the Post's oddball account:
MATTHEWS: Well, the Washington Post in its true over-serious
self today smacked him around for that very moment, saying he
had lost his train of thought, he had lost the audience. He knew
exactly where he was going. He's trying to connect to a lot of
younger people, not just younger, but everybody goes to the movies.
I mean Annie Hall won an Oscar for best picture...
Matthews went on to tell guest Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, "There's
the Al that I know" about the Gore who told the Annie
Hall story. Matthews contrasted the Gore who told the anecdote
to the stiff/dishonest/maladroit/robotic/earth-toned/doesn't-know-who-he-really-is
Gore he so often invents for daft viewers.
Folks, when a paper's so wrong about Gore that Chris Matthews
corrects it, that paper is crazily wrong. But incredibly, this
is the second time in recent weeks that Matthew has corrected
the Post's Gore coverage (see postscript). Post readers were told
that Crazy Old Gore had launched another one of his trademark
groaners ("old problem"). But there was the tape on
Hardball that night, of an audience applauding and laughing.
Welcome to the world of the Washington Post, in which creative
spinners like author Harris tell you the stories they like. "Gore
is forever flirting with the next faux pas," Harris writes,
"in the tradition of candidates stretching from Ronald Reagan
to Dan Quayle." And it's true: if a performance like the
one Matthews showed somehow qualifies as a page-one faux pas,
then any statement Gore makes, any time, can qualify
as a troubling "faux pas." Any statement by Gore
can be spun in any way that the Post wants to spin it.
Gore "is still grappling with a rhetorical problem,"
Harris writes. We enjoyed the grim irony of another example the
worried Harris soon showcased:
HARRIS (6): Simply put, according to people who have advised
his campaign or analyzed it, candidate Gore seems to have little
intuitive sense of when enough is enough. And so he keeps talking
even when it might be wiser to stop.
(7) The results can be odd. Gore's answer to a question about
his religious beliefs included a peculiar discussion of the respect
to which atheists are entitled...
Apparently Harris finds it odd that unbelievers aren't burned
in the square. But it is especially ironic that a big smart Post
writer would focus on that Gore statement. Readers will recall
that the statement was made at a Nightline town meeting
before Christmas. And what was most striking about Gore's remark?
The fact that Ceci Connolly gave a baldly false account of what
Gore said in the Post the next day (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/18/99).
Baldly false. Connolly and Mike Allen baldly misstated
Gore's remarks on the rights of atheiststhe second time in the
course of two weeks that Connolly invented a comment by Gore.
We sent written inquiries about the Post's odd account to Connolly,
Allen, and editor Maralee Schwartz. But guess what, folks? We
have never received any explanation of the Post's baldly false
Is it true? Can anything be spun as a page-one faux
pas? Let's examine the rest of Harris' paragraph. For clarity,
we include numeration of the four statements that concern the
HARRIS (7): The results can be odd.  Gore's answer to a
question about his religious beliefs included a peculiar discussion
of the respect to which atheists are entitled.  An unexpected
"town meeting" question about a sexual assault allegation
about President Clinton prompted a stammering answer that went
on excruciatingly, and to little clear purpose, for a couple of
minutes.  Campaign policy advisers learned that their candidate
has staked out a new position on medical marijuana after the fact,
when a traveling political aide interrupted a conference call
to report on Gore's surprise utterance.  There have been boastsmost
famously, over his claim to have invented the Internetthat took
laudable aspects of his record and stretched them a bit too far.
Harris lists four "odd results." Gore's remarks on
the rights of atheists took up less than a sentence (see THE DAILY
HOWLER, 12/18/99). Harris calls this a "discussion."
Next, Harris complains about Gore's response to a question about
an alleged rape. Gore was speaking to a persistent questioner,
who was asking about a deeply serious charge. How many "minutes"
is correct in answering so sensitive a question? Does anyone
doubt that Gore would have been scalded if he had given a short,
rehearsed answer? In his third example, Harris is upset that a
candidate for president would dare make a statement without first
telling aides. In his final example, Harris complains that Gore,
in Harris' view, overstated his role in the Internet "a bit."
(Our overall views on this endlessly hyped event have been made
clear many times before.)
In other words, Harris runs to page one of his paper because
a candidate (in his opinion) overstates something "a bit;"
doesn't get permission from aides to speak; thinks atheists should
be allowed to take part in democracy; and because he takes several
minutes to answer a question about a woman's claim that she's
been raped. In a rational world, a page-one story built on "problems"
like this would be seen as the work of the addled. But this is
not a rational worldthis is the world of the Washington press
corps. And what kind of world is that, dear readers? A world in
which a candidate can tell a story and get a big laughand sees
the incident right on page one, lamented as a troubling "old
But then, Harris' problem is an old one too, described for
us first by the ancients. Democracy won't work, the great Socrates
cried, because sophists will create mass confusion. Here in our
exciting, much-hyped new millenium, the Great Greek's vision remains
crystal-clear. When Matthews corrects spinners, we've really been
spun. Twice now, he's corrected Post spinners.
Let's play dodgeball: Readers, maybe you can
get the Post to explain its puzzling coverage of Gore. We have
despaired of getting answers from editor Schwartz, and we've despaired
of trying to interest media critic Howard Kurtz in his own newspaper's
antics. Kurtz is a whiz at letting readers know when some columnist
in Idaho commits indiscretions. But when quotes and stories are
made up at the Post, his curiosity fades like the dew.
Incredibly, that leaves us with Matthews, of all people on
earth, keeping an eye on the Post. For the record, Matthews' prior
correction of the Post came in early December. He reported on
Connolly's first made-up quote (shared with Katharine Seelye of
the New York Times). See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/3/99 and 12/6/99.
Other reports followed that week.