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11 February 2000

The current epilogue: lack of standards

Synopsis: Judy Woodruff said Gore was distorting those nursing home standards. Was she right? The celebs just don’t care.

Commentary by Judy Woodruff
Democratic presidential forum, CNN, 1/26/00

Two Decidedly Different Insurgents
Al Hunt, The Wall Street Journal, 1/27/00

Bradley's Cries of Foul: Fair?
Thomas Edsall and Dan Morgan, The Washington Post, 1/29/00

Dubya Agonistes in Austin
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 2/6/00

Had Gore been distorting the Bradley health plan? Judy Woodruff said that he had. Woodruff, co-moderator of the January 26 New Hampshire Dem debate, said this as part of her remarkable opening exchange with Gore:

WOODRUFF: Mr. Vice President, there have been evidently several distortions of Mr. Bradley's record and I'm going to cite just two of them. You charge, for example, that his health care plan would eliminate federal standards for nursing homes. It would not. Number two, you charge that he in supporting private pilot school voucher programs, which he did, he voted to syphon off money from public education, which is also not the case. Now is this a matter of misinformation, or were you just being political?

This was a follow-up to Woodruff's opening "question," reprinted here in full:

WOODRUFF: The first question goes to Mr. Gore. Most people believe you are an honorable man, but when it comes to electoral politics your critics, including some Democrats, say you will do almost anything to win, including reinventing yourself, using consultants, no matter what their reputation, and running not just a tough but a mean-spirited campaign. Newspaper editorials here in New Hampshire and around the country accuse you of distorting Mr. Bradley's record. Is this really necessary to win your party's nomination?

It would take a volume to explore all the problems with this striking "question." First, the presentation is remarkably compound; Woodruff strings together a long list of charges, giving Gore 60 seconds to respond. Sometimes the charges are stunning in their vagueness; Gore is accused of "reinventing himself," and he's even used consultants! Some of them with bad reputations! Gore has also been accused, Woodruff says, of "doing almost anything to win;" the charge is devastating at the start of a forum, but a little bit hard to pin down. And who has made that last charge, by the way? Gore's "critics"—many of whom have also "charged," of course, that Gore has weird views on internal combustion (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/9/00). And Woodruff says that "newspapers" have accused Gore of "distorting Bradley's record." In this "question" which rapidly turns into a statement, Gore is handed a scatter-shot basket of imprecise charges. And some of these charges are just so silly that they tell us more about the questioner than they could ever say about the man being charged.

"Is this really necessary," Woodruff asks, seeming to assert that the charges are true. But in her follow-up "question," which we reprinted above, she finally did get specific. According to Woodruff, Gore has said that Bradley's plan would eliminate federal nursing home standards; "it would not," she then asserts. It is odd to see a moderator stating her views before the hopeful is asked to state his. But at least Woodruff has raised a specific charge that can be specifically answered.

Woodruff is not the only journalist to raise the question of the nursing home standards. Al Hunt, a close associate of Woodruff's, mentioned the issue the next day:

HUNT: Some of the Gore charges have been duplicitous. For example, along with some legitimate criticisms, he has misrepresented the Bradley health care initiative with such untrue charges as that it would kill federal nursing home standards. In Iowa, he blatantly distorted Mr. Bradley's position on an obscure flood relief measure years ago.

Hunt goes on to quote Bob Kerrey on the flood relief, but never returns to the nursing home matters. He merely asserts that Gore's charge is untrue.

Was Woodruff right in her charge against Gore, made in so critical a setting? We don't know, because no one has tried to examine this in the press. And it's not as if Gore had no reply. This was his answer to Woodruff:

GORE: Well Judy, I disagree again with your characterization. Federal nursing home standards are enforced by the providing of money under the Medicaid program to more than two thirds of all the nursing home patients, who get as much as half of their money from Medicaid. When the federal government says, "Look, you have got to abide by standards," the only thing they have to enforce the standards is by withdrawing money.

Was that a good answer? We don't know, because Woodruff didn't follow up. No one responded to what Gore said, or asked Bradley what he thought. This was the specific example Woodruff gave to support a basket of serious charges. And she made little effort to help viewers know if her charge was on target or off.

No, readers—no one ever asked Senator Bradley what he thought on this substantive matter. But co-moderator Tom Griffith did find time, later on in the show, to ask Bradley to describe the worst thing he ever did at a basketball game, and to ask him if he had ever cried after a really tough loss. The moderators' performance at this important debate was again instructive to us at THE HOWLER. But for us, it threw the press in relief more than the actual hopefuls.

Careful questioning could have helped us learn if Woodruff's accusation was true. Follow-up reporting could have helped us learn if Gore's response had merit. We might have learned—Perish the thought!—that Gore understands this topic better than Woodruff. It wouldn't have been the first time, in these Dem/Rep debates, that a hopeful knew more than a smash-mouth-style moderator.

For the record, we have seen one follow-up on the nursing home standards. It was offered by Thomas Edsall and Dan Morgan of the Washington Post, in the 1/29 "Fact Check" we have previously cited:

EDSALL AND MORGAN: [Gore's] aides also said the vice president had solid grounds for suggesting that Bradley would abandon federal nursing home regulation, despite Bradley's insistence that the Health Care Financing Administration would still enforce the standards. They said Bradley had yet to explain how Washington would assert his authority, since his plan gives states responsibility for long-term care.

That was the closing paragraph of their lengthy piece. It represents the only effort we've seen to follow up on Woodruff's question/accusation.

The press corps says it hates distortions. And it just can't stand the negative stuff. Woodruff said that Gore was lying. Was she right? The celebs don't much care.


Visit our incomparable archives: We recently rapped Tim Russert's knuckles for asserting his views in a Rep debate. For our incomparable scolding of the affable host, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/17/00.

Add-on: We've added a postscript to yesterday's piece. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/10/00.


Losing the Big Mo: It's hard to imagine a justification for Maureen Dowd's addled column last Sunday. Madamoiselle Mean has some Texas-sized fun with her buddy, the embattled George Bush:

DOWD (paragraph 1): Reports are dribbling out of Austin about the Can This Campaign Be Saved pow-wow there this weekend.

(2) W. won't come out of his room.

(3) He's curled up in fetal position clutching that beloved feather pillow he brings with him on the road...

(7) The Establishment puts its ear to the door, straining to catch W.'s muffled whimpers...

Etcetera, and so on.

Dowd—who seems to work about 45 minutes a week—helps us see that Bush is tired and lazy. It's "the long dark night of the front-runner's soul," the queen of the dessicates tells us.

We're not quite sure what's wrong with Dowd's soul that makes her want to write this stuff. But remember—the celebrity pundits are always swearing how much they hate the negative stuff. Read this column, by their strange best-in-show, and tell us why we should ever believe a word that they say on this topic.