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30 March 2000

Our current howler (part III): Two stories

Synopsis: Marjorie Williams helped us see that the hopefuls are hopeless on character.

Blinded by the Light
Margaret Carlson, Time, 3/27/00

Does Al Gore have a heart?
Marjorie Williams, Salon, 3/7/00

Marjorie Williams, The Washington Post, 3/17/00

Too Peevish to Be President?
Marjorie Williams, The Washington Post, 1/7/00

The Chosen One
Marjorie Williams, Vanity Fair, 2/98

Inventing Al Gore
Bill Turque, Houghton Mifflin, 2000

Let Simon complain that the hopefuls were dumb—many others despaired of their character. Margaret Carlson took an interesting tack, discussing that interview Bush had given to the thoroughly upset New York Times:

CARLSON: [Bush's] tough-guy stance in last week's interview went too far, suggesting that he might not be mature enough to be President...Graceless under no pressure, Bush made a big point of his refusal to follow polls. Fine, but why the hostility?...Aren't polls simply an expression of the will of the people?

For years, Clinton was bashed for living-by-polls. Now, a pundit scrambling for novel complaints had suddenly rediscovered their wisdom.

That's right, folks. To today's upset scribes, everything's wrong with those hopefuls! Some of the nattering about Bush and Gore involved the two candidates' life stories. Marjorie Williams reviewed Bill Turque's new Gore bio. Writing in Salon, she found a good deal not to like:

WILLIAMS (3/7): "Inventing Al Gore" has all the right pieces of the puzzle in place. The two biggest pieces, of course, Albert and Pauline Gore, the political parents from Central Casting: he a bombastic, prideful Tennessee senator with a terrible score to settle (his 1970 reelection defeat) through his namesake; she a cooler, more calculating stage mama who is widely seen as the brains of the pair.

If you don't have anything nice to say, you're perfect for the modern press corps. Until recently, Senator Gore was frequently cited for his progressive career. Now, Albert Gore is bombastic and prideful; Pauline Gore is calculating and cool. We're allowed to hear that she was smart as a way of being told that he wasn't.

But don't think that Williams isn't fully prepared to go after that Dub-man also. On March 17, she penned a piece in the Washington Post about how Bush and Gore don't apologize correctly. Nothing pleases modern natterers more than making hopefuls gulp down humble pie. So this naughty tendency on the part of the pair was especially troubling to Williams:

WILLIAMS (3/17): Both Gore and Bush are masters at donning the polyester hair-shirt to make amends that, in the same breath, deny any need for atonement. It is hard to say why they seem so evenly, depressingly matched in this.

Could it possibly be that the hopefuls sometimes don't think they've really done anything wrong? That they "fess up" to get scribes off their back? Williams complained about Bush's Bob Jones mea culpa; "his letter [to Cardinal O'Connor] went onabout how unfairly he had been criticized," she groused. But Bush surely had noticed what Williams won't say—that other pols had gone to Bob Jones without complaint—and he likely believed that the scribes complained now just because Saint McCain was complaining. Williams, of course, had different ideas about what makes the deadly duo so depressing:

WILLIAMS (3/17, continuing directly): It could have something to do with a shared sense of entitlement. (Could I really be wrong if I'm George W. Bush/Albert A. Gore Jr.?)

Williams says that she "tends to think" that Bush has a "blustering inability," while Gore has a "heightened sense of shame" (text below). Her work is full of reports of "impressions." She tells how things "could be" and "seem," and also how things "tend to" strike her.

But then, when you're the master of the psycho-insight, there's no impression you aren't prepared to pass on. On January 7, Williams had said, in the Post, that Bush may be too "peevish" to be a good president. Here's one way she could tell:

WILLIAMS (1/7): [T]hen, suddenly, there it is—the flash of testiness; the grudging, pugilistic response, especially to questions about his intellect. He reads four newspapers a day, he told moderator Brit Hume in answer to a question during a recent debate. And then, he couldn't resist adding, with the shadow of a sneer, "I'm not so sure I get a lot of knowledge out of them, but I read them every day."

This surly edge isn't by any means the dominant note in Bush's public persona. But neither is it something that his fans can wish away.

To be honest, when we watched Bush's joke to Hume, we weren't sure whether Bush was mocking himself, or mocking the caliber of the newspapers. But Williams—able to spot a "shadow of a sneer"—makes the incident a referendum on Bush's suitability for office. Does Bush have a "surly edge?" He has a five-year record as governor of Texas; has the "surly edge" shown up down there? There is no sign that Williams has tried to examine how "peevish" Bush has been in office. (His reputation, we must report, is the opposite.) Like others in the Know All, Tell All Brigade, Williams is able to form her "impressions" on the basis of smirks, sighs and sneers.

That's right, folks—it's hip these days to trash the hopefuls, and there's no judgment the natterers won't make. Williams' review of Turque's book for Salon was titled, "Does Al Gore have a heart?" And Williams is up to making the call; she tells us, right in paragraph one, that underneath Gore's surface layers "is an emotionally isolated man of almost total opaqueness." "It's beige down there, all right," she attests. Because of those bombastic, cool parents, she says, Gore was "from the start, a tiny politician, a pleaser," an example of "the children who grow up hollow."

To us, that's a pretty sweeping diagnosis, but modern scribes are ready to make it; we've seen The Scribe become The Shrink in earlier pundit psycho-bios. We always get a little uneasy when we see weekly pundits put pols on the couch, but it's especially troubling when the pundit has recently offered plainly divergent diagnoses. Is Gore "an emotionally isolated man of almost total opaqueness," the type of kid who "grew up hollow?" It didn't seem that way two years ago, before slamming the hopefuls had become de rigeur. Here's what Williams wrote about Gore in Vanity Fair, just two years back:

WILLIAMS (2/98): Friends swear that under the throttled, somewhat wintry mien, Gore is an emotional man. His family life provides plenty of evidence that this is true; his marriage to Tipper is almost universally regarded in Washington as the rare political marriage that has retained some fire after 27 years. "Gore and Tipper really are like teenagers in love—a lot of hand-holding, a lot of touching," says a friend.

Say what? Read on. There was more:

WILLIAMS (2/98, continuing directly): And he has lived out a real commitment to his four children—Karenna, 24, Kristin, 20, Sarah, 19, and Albert III, 15...[F]or much of his vice-presidency, Gore blocked out great holes in his schedule—for field-hockey, football, and lacrosse games, back-to-school nights and sports banquets—that were genuinely off-limits to all the other claimants on his time.

And remember how we said that political pundits used to say nice things about Dad? One of those pundits was Marjorie Williams. Dad had seemed different back then:

WILLIAMS (2/98): Albert Gore Sr....was a proud southern liberal at a time when the l-word was not the worst thing you could call a Democratic politician. Gore is still revered by southern progressives for his early opposition to the Vietnam war, his largely principled record on civil rights, and a tax-the-rich populism that made him a gadfly among the nabobs of the Senate Finance Committee. With his rich oratory and mane of white hair, he was a senior senator out of Frank Capra.

Two years ago, Senator Gore was "out of Central Casting," as he still was last month in Salon. But the Official Story pundits told then was less negative that the one they tell now. Pundits now are hurt and upset that the voters have made such ridiculous choices. So the family man is suddenly hollow, as he confronts the surly man with the sneer.


Tomorrow: Negativity's end.

Home cookin': We haven't had a chance to read all of Turque's book, and we don't want to condemn it in any way. In our opinion, some reviewers have drawn simple-minded themes from the book that simply aren't there in Turque's text. But one small passage does help show how modern scribes sometimes push favored themes. Turque is discussing Gore's decision to go into the army in 1969:

TURQUE (page 62): Gore's draft story is a complicated piece of family business...He has said that his motivation for enlistment was ethical: that evading or manipulating the draft by pulling strings available to him as a senator's son was inherently unfair to less-connected friends in Tennessee. "I came from a small town where I knew most of my contemporaries," Gore explained in 1986, stretching his summers and holidays on the farm to cover his entire youth.

It's press corps dogma; Gore tends to "stretch." Here Turque extends the treasured theme even to Gore's reference to Carthage, Tennessee as his home town. What would Turque have had Gore say? Apparently, Gore should have said this:

GORE: "I spent my summers and holidays in a small town where I knew most of my contemporaries."

Please. In the next paragraph, Turque puts the word "hometown" into quotes, not being drawn into Gore's latest stretcher. Gore's draft board was in Carthage for an obvious reason. In this passage, the fact that Gore speaks the English language becomes the latest sign that he won't tell the truth.