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4 April 2000

Our current howler (part II): "Pander" bearers

Synopsis: Pundits bore the ugly word. Gore was pandering. They never said how they knew.

The Exiles' Last Hurrah
David Rieff, The New York Times, 4/2/00

How Low Can Al Go
Mary McGrory, The Washington Post, 4/2/00

Biological Warfare
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 4/2/00

Commentary by Peggy Noonan
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 4/3/00

Steve Roberts really took the cake, kicking off the Late Edition discussion. He said that Gore was "clearly pandering" on the Elian case, but—oh yes—he was right on the merits (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/3/00). The construction is so strange that we only remember seeing one scribe employ it before. That scribe, you'll recall, was Dana Milbank, talking about—surprise—Gore as well (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/20/99). Gore had "declared that he wanted to abandon the administration's 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy for gays in the military," Milbank said, in the Post. Milbank cited the stand as an example of "pandering," but instructed readers to "leave aside the merits of Gore's position" because "the policy, by most measures, hasn't worked." So Gore was right on the merits there, too, but there too Gore was slammed as a "panderer." Just as for Roberts on Sunday morning: Gore was pandering, but—oh yeah—he was right.

What did "pandering" formerly mean? "Pandering" used to be what a politician did when he pushed bad ideas to please interest groups. Now, even when Gore presents good ideas, helpful pundits still call him a "bear." It shows how tightly some scribes will stick to treasured scripts devised by the press corps. In this election, Bush is dumb and Gore can't be trusted. Obedient scribes happily read from the scripts. As we've told you before, it's the law.

Yep—it happened all over the press corps this weekend. Obedient pundits stood in line to tell us that Gore had been pandering. His position on Elian provoked that familiar Group Thinking; simply everyone knew what he'd done. They also knew what good pundits should do; we listed the rules in yesterday's HOWLER. Good pundits will 1) Go straight to motive; 2) avoid points of substance; 3) always be negative; 4) recite favorite scripts. Over the weekend, obedient scribes stood in line to recite about Gore.

How about the Sunday Times? It was Word Three in David Rieff's op-ed:

RIEFF (paragraph 1): As he panders to the Cuban-Americans of South Florida who want to defy both United States law and common-sense morality by keeping Elian Gonzalez from returning to his father in Cuba, Vice President Gore presents a spectacle that is dismaying but unsurprising.

Those pundits! They're always "dismayed" by what pols will do. But at the same time, they're never "surprised," because the pundits are so doggone smart! The Rieff sub-headline said "pander" too, and Rieff referred to Gore's "cave-in" and "gamble." He called Miami a "banana republic." Rieff never explained how he knew Gore had pandered. But then he also didn't explain why returning Elian to Cuba represents "common-sense morality." It's easier to get your name-calling in if you don't waste time on substance or argument.

Over at the Washington Post, Mary McGrory was in high dudgeon also. "How low can Al go," asked her headline. Here are excerpts from her opening paragraphs:

MCGRORY (paragraphs 1 and 3): Just when we needed Solomon in the Elian Gonzalez case, we got Al Gore at his crassest...The vice president has joined the panderers in supporting a pending bill that would give Elian and his father permanent residency status in the United States.

How did she know Gore was pandering? She didn't spell it out either. Instead, she quoted Marty Meehan—who also had said it—and she typed in a stern, harsh rebuke:

MCGRORY: Now Gore has breathed new life into Bush's accusation that "Vice President Gore will do anything to get elected," a proven applause line in the Texas governor's stump speeches.

Lots of people made this point; as we've noted in the recent past, they do love to say the same things (see "The Howler reader," 3/30/00). Coming from McGrory, this particular point was a little bit odd; she had already said that Governor Bush espouses the same policy Gore is supporting. So did that mean that Bush was pandering, too? The question just never came up. For that matter, how did she know that Meehan wasn't pandering—pandering to his northeastern constituents? McGrory didn't bother to say—didn't reveal her secret on motive. But she did praise Gore for something he'd done only a few days before:

MCGRORY: Meehan is a leading advocate of campaign reform. Like other Democrats, he was encouraged earlier last week by Gore's new emphasis on reform and by his new, more realistic tone in presenting it.

But how did McGrory know that Gore wasn't "pandering" then? Once again, she didn't explain it. (Pundits don't explain. They declare.) We couldn't help thinking that we might be seeing the outline of another great Pundit Dictum. A politician "panders" when he doesn't agree with the scribe. He's a model citizen, with good intentions, when he does (more tomorrow).

Whatever. Maureen Dowd at the New York Times was bearing the "pander" charge, also. But Dowd wrote her usual, cheerful piece, insisting that everyone was wrong. She never explained how she knew all that, either. But for the record, here's her take on Vile Gore:

DOWD: True, Al Gore looks craven for breaking with the president to lend his support to the efforts to keep the boy here. But why shouldn't he try to wrest Florida's Cuban-American vote out of the grip of the Bush brothers? This is Gore at his Goriest, standing firm on shifting principles.

What exactly were those "shifting principles?" Dowd—big surprise—didn't say. As we'll see tomorrow, Gore had favored deciding this case in domestic court for a period of several months as Dowd wrote. But Dowd didn't waste her time with that. She had to deconstruct the Bush bros' motives, also:

DOWD: Like all Republicans, the Bush boys believe in family values and the rule of law—as long as those beliefs don't get in the way of a good wedge issue. W. and Jeb pander most fluently in Spanish.

They were pandering also. So, of course, was Senator Bob Graham (D-FL). Dowd was inside his mind too:

DOWD: And Bob Graham, the Democratic senator from Florida, can hardly be blamed for helping Mr. Gore by sponsoring a bill to grant Elian permanent U.S. residency status. The senator's chances to be Mr. Gore's running mate depend on Florida being in play. And Mr. Graham knows an opportunidad when he sees one.

Writing like a ten-year-old child—sublime Gilda's little Emily, grown up with a column—Dowd impressed herself and her mind-reading crowd with her skill at imagining bad motives.

Was it possible that Senator Graham might have a good motive—might actually think his proposal made sense? Dowd never stopped to consider. She cited no evidence—none at all—to explain how she knew Graham's motive. And remember, Roberts had said that Gore and Graham were actually right on the merits of the case. So why were their motives so awful? None of these obvious questions were 'splained as the big boys and girls showed what nabobs they could be. They went straight to motive; they nattered all day; they told us how hopeless those pols seem to be. As we'll see tomorrow, they also failed to illuminate basic facts of this case. As usual, they mangled our discourse.


Tomorrow: "Gore breaks ranks over Elian," the headline said. It had said this on January 7.

Clearly full of something: Maybe Gore should propose a $7 billion fund for conservative women who need a quick payday. Last night, Peggy Noonan appeared on Special Report, promoting the latest book on Hillary Clinton. Brit Hume asked, "How's it going now that you've done this book?" Noonan brought our analysts to the edge of their chairs with her hair-raising reply to Hume's question:

NOONAN: Aaaahhh! [Laughing] You know, it's very interesting to me. If you stand up and depose the Clintons, and, say, write a book that is full of facts and full of assertions, and full of a kind of ethical seriousness and a moral seriousness, if you stand up and do this, they will not—the Clintons and their operatives will not knock down your book, or at least they have not knocked down my book—not a single assertion, not a single fact—but they will try very hard to knock you down. They try very hard to kill the messenger, they try to change the focus of their, um—

Hume broke in, understandably curious. "What have they done?" he asked. Sit back and enjoy the "moral seriousness" which Noonan was full of in reply:

NOONAN: Oh, well, just most recently, they put Mario Cuomo on—I assume Mario Cuomo was urged to go on TV to attack me in personal terms that I'm afraid I can't quote because I didn't get to see the whole interview. This was following my 4_ minutes on CNN, he came on for about ten minutes on CNN. And I'll tell you, he didn't argue with a single assertion in my book, he just suggested I had become unbalanced in my dislike of the Clintons and it was very tragic—

HUME: So you're a Clinton-hater!

NOONAN: Yeah. So they just turn it around. Instead of looking at the work they try to go at the person. This is what they've always done. It is positively Clintonian.

Noonan's complains that those horrible Clintons try to go after the messenger. And how does Noonan demonstrate this? She assumes that the Clintons put Cuomo on TV, and she assures us that Cuomo attacked her personally after announcing that she doesn't know what he said. This, of course, is a shining example of Noonan's moral seriousness, love of facts, and so on.

Need it be said? In this exchange, Noonan is doing all the things she piously accuses the Clintons of doing. We discussed this peculiar feature of the Clinton critique at length in the Days of Impeachment (link below). Sorry, Peg. Don't let your feelings be hurt by all this. But it would take a team of world-class shrinks to explain so absurd a performance.

Dear readers, our internationally-acclaimed Task Force on Classical Allusions gravely entered our chambers as Noonan chirped off. They referred us back to Plato's Seventh Letter. We're sure you'll recall what was said:

PLATO: When I saw all this, and others things as bad, I was disgusted and drew back from the wickedness of the times.

So too have many citizens today simply stopped watching our buffoonist public discourse. Hume didn't question what his self-impressed guest oddly said. Her charges were serious. He should have.

Visit our incomparable archives: We thought Joe Klein's 9/7/98 "Primary Cad" best tried to address the oddness of this kind of discourse. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/4/98.