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28 March 2000

Our current howler (part I): Simon sez

Synopsis: Roger Simon said the hopefuls were a pair of "dim bulbs." We decided we’d try to find others.

J. Crew vs. Banana Republic
Frank Rich, The New York Times, 3/11/00

Who's the dimmest dim bulb?
Roger Simon, U.S. News, 4/3/00

Americans satisfied with their presidential choices
Richard Benedetto, USA Today, 3/14/00

Bush, Gore Spar on Social Security
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 3/24/00


Poor pundits! Disappointed by those hopeless voters again, they licked their wounds after Super Tuesday. Frank Rich lamented the voters' bad sense in his weekly piece in the Times. Rich "knew the presidential race had lapsed into a coma," he wrote, when he found himself "gravitating toward Katie Couric's televised colonoscopy...instead of the usual chattering political heads on cable." Gore and Bush? They loved focus groups, the scribe loudly sighed. And there was a question the pundit was pondering:

RICH: Whatever happened to Americans' supposed hunger for authenticity and straight talk as an antidote to Bill Clinton? Wasn't that supposed to carry us through the whole election year?

Instead, Rich groaned, "we're stranded with two establishment, tightly scripted, often robotic candidates who are almost as different from one another as J. Crew and Banana Republic." Rich presented a string of strained comparisons, proving that The Dub and The Veep are The Same.

Whatever happened to the voters' "supposed hunger for authenticity?" Frank! We can't believe we have to tell you! The press corps dreamed that one up! Invented inside CelebCorps counsels—never supported by serious evidence—the prevailing myth found its greatest expression on the October 22 Newsweek cover piece. Saint John McCain and then—Saint Bill Bradley were pictured on the cover together. They were "straight-shooting" "authentics," the caption explained, giving full voice to a theory which the mag's Howard Fineman had promoted on the air for many weeks. It was never quite clear that the theory about the hopefuls was true, or that the public cared a fig if it was. But the celebrity press corps persuaded itself—so Rich was hardly alone, among major pundits, in scolding the voters when Super Tuesday was through. Indeed, we've already noted Mary McGrory's remark. According to McGrory, "Thank you, we'd rather be trite," is what the eleven states said on Super Tuesday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/10/00). Then she proceeded, in a future column, to call Governor Bush a sore loser!

At THE HOWLER, we wanted to tip-toe around, respecting the pundits' hurt feelings. We've had our hearts broken once or twice ourselves; we could imagine how upset the scribes felt. But yesterday morning, the analysts came to our door, and we could see that they were upset now too. They thrust upon us Roger Simon's latest piece. "Who's the dimmest dim bulb?" roared the headline.

"It now seems clear that no matter whether George W. Bush or Al Gore wins this November, America is going to get an underachiever at its helm," Simon said. A bit surprised at the basic idea that an "underachiever" could wind up as president, we quickly scanned through Simon's piece, assuming it was penned tongue-in-cheek. But Simon seemed to mean it. He had seen Gore's sophomore year college grades, and the scribe was just plain flat-out mad:

SIMON: As the Washington Post revealed last week...Gore's grades in his sophomore year at Harvard were lower than any semester Bush spent at Yale. Gore got a D, one C minus, two C pluses, and one B minus. As the Post noted, this was the year Gore spent "shooting pool, watching television, eating hamburgers, and occasionally smoking marijuana."

Not only that, but "the vice president [and Simon inserted the requisite Internet joke] never took a single math course in four years" at Harvard! It's no wonder Simon had started his piece with a jab at lazy slacker kids, the kind who waste Mom and Dad's hard-earned money by lolly-gagging their way all through college!

We don't know who put the headline on Simon's piece, but it certainly captured Simon's tone. The pundit really seemed to believe it: We'll be choosing from a couple of dimwits. For example, here's how he followed his "underachiever" remark, which came in paragraph two:

SIMON: Though both men want to be known as the "education" president, a review of their grades reveals they barely got one. We have known for several months that Bush largely partied his way through Yale—in four years, he never got an A—but that is not the bad news. The bad news, as Jay Leno joked, is that Bush may be the smart one.

Should a scribe complaining that hopefuls aren't bright take his talking points directly from Leno? (In fairness, we've noted that Leno is more careful with facts than many scribes. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/10/98.) Whatever. Before long, Simon was reciting familiar examples of the two hopefuls' lack of intelligence:

SIMON: Recent exit polls have shown, however, that some voters are worried about whether Bush has what it takes to run the government, a feeling fueled by the media's fascination with his every gaffe, including such howlers as, "Rarely is the question asked: How is our children learning?"

Of course, the fact that pundits have to keep reciting this "gaffe" suggests that Bush doesn't make others like it (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/22/00, postscript). Simon quickly evened things out with a treasured old chestnut on Gore:

SIMON: On the other hand, Bush never paid anybody $15,000 a month to tell him what color shirts to wear.

Whew! Simon hit the Internet and Naomi Wolf, disappointing with no reference to Love Story. Concerning Bush, he repeated his "Dumbya" riposte; Simon introduced the sally in a June 1999 piece on how dumb the gov is.

But let's put Bush to the side for a moment—until recently, it would have been considered absurd to write an article insisting that Gore is a dummy. This article displays what we've long told you—the scribes will go to any length to tell you the stories they like. And when scribers are hurt, they also get slick, as we see at one point in the scribe's fact-selection. After listing off Gore's slack sophomore grades, Simon scolded with this:

SIMON: Gore did have the potential to do better if he had only applied himself: His verbal SAT was 625 (out of 800) compared with Bush's 566 and Princetonian Bill Bradley's 485.

Of course, Gore's math SAT was 730; that fact doesn't appear in Simon's article. Maybe Simon knew it would be especially strange to put a "dim bulb" appellation atop that.

At any rate, though we think we understand—can feel—Simon's pain, we were also struck by his rank negativity. And we decided that Simon might feel a little better if we put the hopefuls' lack of smarts in perspective. Indeed, many pundits have gnashed their teeth over the lousy selection those dim voters gave. The voters are dim, and the hopefuls are too. But so, on rare occasion, are the pundits!

 

Tomorrow: Puzzled scribes at the New York Times struggle to limn a conundrum.

Brassy tacks: We were a bit surprised when Simon said that the voters are worried by Bush. But let's be fair—let's quote him directly:

SIMON: Recent exit polls have shown, however, that some voters are worried about whether Bush has what it takes to run the government.

We were surprised due to recent press stories. On March 14, USA Today presented a Richard Benedetto story, "Americans satisfied with their presidential choices." Reporting a recent Gallup poll, Benedetto noted that "nearly three in four voters believe there is a candidate running who would make a good president." That number was "significantly higher" than corresponding numbers in 1992 and 1996, Benedetto said. Bush did about as well as Gore in measures related to Simon's assertion:

Has the knowledge to be president? Bush 71%, Gore 77%
Has a vision for the country's future? Bush 68%, Gore 73%
Can manage the government effectively? Bush 64%, Gore 57%

It's hard to find some special concern that Bush doesn't have "what it takes to run the government."

Last Saturday, by the way, Ceci Connolly reported another poll showing voter satisfaction:

CONNOLLY: In contrast to their sentiments during the last two presidential elections, voters say they are generally satisfied—63 percent of those surveyed—with the two nominees. In 1992, 35 percent liked their choices; in 1996, 47 percent were satisfied.

Granted, these numbers show how dim the electorate is. But we couldn't support Simon's thesis.

And then the analysts gave us the answer! It all depends on what the meaning of "some" is! Simon had written that some voters are worried whether Bush "has what it takes to run the government." That statement, of course, would have been true of every hopeful who ever ran for president. It shows how negative the nattering can be when the nabobs are hurt by the voters.