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7 April 2000

Our current howler (part I): Mix-up about confusion

Synopsis: The Times and the Post were both puzzled by Gore. They explained it in two different ways.

Gore Speaks of Cuban Boy, Repeatedly but Not Clearly
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 4/5/00

Gore Struggles to Explain His Position on Elian
John Harris, The Washington Post, 4/5/00

Census and Nonsense
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 4/5/00

They're going to be parsing every word, as Katharine Seelye seemed to show us on Wednesday. By day's end, "Kit" was puzzled:

SEELYE (paragraph 1): Vice President Al Gore made three different statements today on Elian Gonzalez, but by the end of the day it was not entirely clear what he had meant to convey.

We don't often predict, but if we were forced, we'd guess you'll hear this script all year long. Gore is shifty, and Bush is dumb: The general election is now being scripted. And, once a script is set in place, every event is made to fit it. Here, for example, was Gore's confusing statement at "the end of the day" on Tuesday (on Lifetime cable):

SEELYE (8): Asked if Mr. Gonzalez should be allowed to take Elian home to Cuba, Mr. Gore said, "I think that if the father comes here with his wife and new baby, and in an atmosphere free of intimidation makes his true wishes known, then obviously a family court that traditionally decides such matters would take that heavily into account."

(9) Again, he did not say that this was the preferable outcome, only that he thought it was the outcome he thought likely.

Nothing too very puzzling here—and nothing all that shocking. But then, the second of Seelye's three quoted statements hadn't puzzled us all that much either. This statement came from the Gore campaign, around the middle of the day:

SEELYE (6): "Giving Elian, and his father and family, permanent resident status would allow this matter to be handled in family court and would allow his father to express what is in his heart," the statement said. "We need to ensure that his father can speak, freely in a court of law on free soil. I believe a ruling by a court of this kind, with these guarantees, would be respected by all parties."

It seemed like the very same statement. So, had there been something wrong with what Gore said Tuesday morning? Here was Seelye's complete account of that:

SEELYE (3): In the [Today show] interview, he seemed to suggest that the boy should be returned to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. "Nobody from the start has disputed the fact that this child eventually ought to go back with the father, if that is what is clearly decided is in the best interests of the child," Mr. Gore said, although he also said Mr. Gonzalez ought to first be able to say on American soil that he wants to take the boy back to Cuba.

Seelye seemed to have quoted a self-evident statement: If it's clearly decided to be in Elian's best interests to go back, no one has disputed that he ought to. In this case, though, Seelye went on to make her clearest statement of what was wrong with what Gore said this day:

SEELYE (4, continuing directly): But Mr. Gore refused to answer directly the question, posed three times, of whether Mr. Gonzalez should be granted custody if he comes to the United States. "If the father says on free soil that he believes the son should go back to Cuba with him, that of course is likely to be determinative," Mr. Gore said, carefully sidestepping whether that would be his own preference.

Hello? Is it unknown to Seelye that a major pol will often avoid directing court verdicts? Where on Neptune is this a surprise? Seelye stated, in her opening paragraph, that it wasn't "clear" what Gore had "meant to convey." But she presented three repetitive statements that seemed to be as clear as a bell. It's true—Gore didn't say how the case should come out. But if you can find these statements unclear or confusing, you're one step ahead of us.

But shifty-Gore-tries-to-fudge-his-position may be a basic script for this year's election story. At the Post, John Harris made the same claim about Gore's Tuesday statements, although he explained the problem in a different way. He opened with the same premise Seelye stated:

HARRIS (1): Vice President Gore says his position on the Elian Gonzalez case has been the same ever since the controversy over the Cuban boy broke four months ago. For a man whose position has never changed, however, the vice president lately has been having a hard time making that position understood.

No one can decipher this hombre! Harris seemed to share Seelye's problem. But he explained it in a much different way:

HARRIS (2, continuing directly): Just days ago, Gore drew wide notice—and considerable criticism—for breaking with President Clinton and endorsing special legislation to extend resident status to Elian and his relatives in Cuba. The idea, aides said, was that this would shift the legal jurisdiction over the case to Florida family court, which could then decide what is in the boy's interest.

(3) But in a television interview yesterday morning, Gore stirred up more confusion about his wishes in the case. Asked on NBC's "Today" show what should happen if the boy's father, assuming he comes to the United States, says he wants to return with Elian to Cuba, Gore responded: "If the father says on free soil that he believes the son should go back to Cuba with him, that, of course, is likely to be determinative, and will be determinative."

You're not puzzled? Please! Here's the "confusion:"

(4) There was no mention of the need for special legislation, and no mention that the father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, should have to first make his case in a Florida domestic relations court.

Rainman, report to the Post. If you don't methodically repeat every single assumed premise, Harris lapses into confusion. Of course, this was not the problem that had caused poor Seelye her confusion with Gore's troubling statements. Seelye and Harris agreed on the soundbite. But they 'splained it in two different ways.

That's right, folks. Shifty Gore keeps fudging positions. Bush—bless his heart—just ain't bright. You may see this acted out again and again; the press corps prefers simple stories. And remember—once a script is set in place, every event is tortured to fit it. On Monday we review a comical case from the coverage of the '96 race.


Monday: "Clinton lacks character, Dole's out of touch." Everything had to fit that great template.

Ex uno, nada: If the basic script says that Bush is dumb, Michael Kelly will be with the program:

KELLY (1): In this space recently, I argued that George W. Bush...would suffer (though not necessarily fatally) in the general election competition with Al Gore because Bush is a pinhead, and the voters, being by and large more or less patriotic, would hesitate to put the fate of the greatest nation on earth in the hands of a man whose cerebrum and cerebellum could comfortably sprawl on the top of this most modest of the tailor's tools, with room for his medulla oblongata to curl up for a nap alongside.

Woo-doggy! Can that fella write! But Kelly's from the Roger Simon school—he thinks both Bush and Gore are dim bulbs (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/28/00). Kelly mentioned that some folks wrote in, saying that he'd been rude to Bush:

KELLY (2): Writers also noted that I had failed to point out that Bush, son of Bush, is no less of a brain than Gore, son of Gore. True enough again...[T]here is the record of Gore's mistaken public statements of fact, a record that at least equals Bush's—to cite one of many wonderful howlers, there is Gore's translation of e pluribus unum as "out of one, many."

What makes a writer scour decades of statements to savor the random slip of the tongue? Once again, our bureau of shrinks thought it just may have captured a glimpse of the great writer's psyche:

KELLY (2): Many readers took offense [at the comments on Bush]. It was rude, they wrote, to call anyone a pinhead and especially wrong to so malign a presidential candidate, who should be accorded a minimum of respect. True enough, I suppose—although it seems to me that a man who is bold enough to get out of bed every morning and assert his superiority over every one of his 270 million fellow Americans...

We'll cut off the great remarks there. Readers, did it ever occur to you—ever in your life—that a presidential candidate is "asserting his superiority over every one of his fellow Americans?" It never occurred to us either. But perhaps you'll recall the great psychiatric work we performed at an earlier juncture (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/7/99).