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24 March 1999

Our current howler (part I): Love that gore

Synopsis: The corps began flogging a set of Gore scandals. Too bad that they’re wholly made up.

Commentary by Kellyanne Fitzpatrick
Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Channel, 3/22/99

U.S. Auto Makers Showing Interest in Fuel Efficiency
Keith Bradsher, The New York Times, 1/5/98

Auto Industry Reaches Surprising Consensus: It Needs New Engines
Rebecca Blumenstein, The Wall Street Journal, 1/5/98

It’s sad when you know what you’re going to find, even before you go looking. We’d been sitting here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, grinding our teeth all through Hannity & Colmes, when Republican pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick turned loose a sure shot at Al Gore:
FITZPATRICK: People will talk about his lack of pizzazz, his lack of panache, but it goes much deeper than that. People who understand Al Gore are frightened by his policies...When he ran his campaign in ’88, when he wrote his book Earth in the Balance, page 38 talks about recalling the combustion engine. This for a man who never had to drive himself anywhere. So it’s easy for him to say that the car is not important to the rest of us.
And the analysts jumped and ran for to the bookshelf, eager to check out the facts. There’s been a lot of loose talk about Vice President Gore, from a whole lot of pundits sending out lots of spin. But finally, someone had named a page where we could see the bad news for ourselves!

But when the analysts came back to the editorial boardroom, they told us what we’d already guessed. There isn’t a word about the “combustion engine” anywhere near the page Fitzpatrick cited! Like so much about the current Gore debate, that “page 38” had been pulled from thin air. Sadly--just as we had suspected--Fitzpatrick’s page number was completely made up.

But this has been the week of Gore-bashing, and Kellyanne had jumped into the chase. All through the press corps, hard-charging pundits have dissected Gore’s “character flaws.” He lied about Love Story; about life on the farm; he “embellished” the role that he played in the Internet. The pundits clucked and rolled their eyes about the things that the VP had said.

But the problem is, these stories are largely made up, just like Fitzpatrick’s page number. And the character flaws revealed in the discourse have been the press corps’ far more than Al Gore’s. The “scandals” being flogged have almost all been invented--spun from thin air, like that “page 38.” And we’ll inspect all those stories, over the next several days, as we continue our Al Gore report.

But before we do that, let’s get back to Fitzpatrick, and her comments on internal combustion. What about the substance of her claim, quite apart from her phantom page number?

Fitzpatrick’s comments are part of a long-running effort to paint Gore as some sort of a wierdo. But the evidence suggests that his thoughts on this subject are now conventional wisdom within the car biz. What Gore actually said, when he got to the topic, was not that he would “recall” the combustion engine. Here’s what he said (on page 326, for those who like non-fiction cites):

GORE: [I]t ought to be possible to establish a coordinated global program to accomplish the strategic goal of completely eliminating the internal combustion engine over, say, a twenty-five year period.
Again, this statement has been endlessly flogged as a sign that Al Gore is a kook. But clear evidence suggests a startling possibility: Gore just may know what he’s talking about--may even know more than Fitzpatrick! For example, in a page one story on 1/5/98, the New York Times reported that “American auto makers are stepping up their research into cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars.” And when the Times’ Keith Bradsher spoke with John Smith of GM, Bradhser says it went something like this:
BRADSHER: “No car company will be able to thrive in the 21st century if it relies solely on internal combustion engines,” said John F. Smith Jr., G.M.’s chairman and chief executive, adding that the company was stepping up its research spending...
John Smith! That total kook! Meanwhile, here was the Wall Street Journal (page one), reporting the very same story:
BLUMENSTEIN (paragraphs one and two): Time is starting to run out for the internal-combustion engine. No one is saying that pistons and crank shafts...will disappear right away. But auto makers from Tokyo to Stuttgart to Detroit have reached a surprising consensus on an idea deemed heretical not long ago: A fundamental shift in engine technology is needed.
And here was that wild John Smith again:
BLUMENSTEIN: [Smith] predicts a “slow phase-off” of the internal combustion engine in 20 to 30 years...Any auto-maker that doesn’t do so risks being left in the dust.
What Gore said wasn’t on page 38. And it wasn’t all stupid like Kellyanne said. But then, the other Gore “scandals” are pretty much made up too. The “flaws” here belong to the press.

Tomorrow: Love Story? Internet? Life on the farm? We’re still planning tomorrow’s selection. Eventually, we’ll get to them all.

Grading Fitzpatrick’s octane: Let’s review Fitzpatrick’s remarks. It wasn’t on page 38. He didn’t say he’d “recall” the engine. And if “people are frightened” by Al Gore’s policies, the head of GM isn’t among them. Fitzpatrick’s remarks made for an evening of fun. They also made for an assault on our sad public discourse.