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12 April 1999

A Daily Howler rumination: Parsing a scrappy retort

Synopsis: That “Scrapbook” gang had its feelings hurt when we sent off a recent letter. (Also: Dowd on Bush.)

Internet Al, Down on the Farm
Scrapbook, The Weekly Standard, 3/29/99

President Frat Boy?
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 4/7/99

We’ve received a letter from that “Scrapbook” gang over at the Weekly Standard. It turns out the gang had its feelings hurt by a letter we recently sent. We had written the Standard’s letters editor about “Internet Al, Down on the Farm.” We said, “Scrapbook clearly implied that Gore was lying in describing his upbringing on the family farm.”

Wrong, said the gang at Scrapbook. In saying that Gore’s account was “preposterous,” they had meant only that it was “laughable, absurd, and ridiculous,” because only “rich people who play at farming do the things [Gore] described (ax swinging, plowing with a mule, etc.).” Their real complaint about the vice president? Gore was “a hobbyist” down on the farm!

Their explanation parses (in very minor part) but then again, so did President Clinton’s. And we don’t recall the Scrapbook gang supporting such close parsing then. We believe that most readers will leave “Internet Al...” with the reading we’ve offered--because Scrapbook labors, from paragraph one, to get its readers to think what we said.

Here’s how “Internet Al...” starts out:

SCRAPBOOK: You probably thought you knew Al Gore’s life story by now. As told in the New Yorker a few years back, the outlines are these...”

And Scrapbook then quotes a paragraph from Peter Boyer’s 1994 profile, describing the Gores’ apartment in Washington in the 1960s.

But Scrapbook was not giving “the outlines” (plural) of Gore’s life story; it was giving a selective sample. In the Boyer profile, the paragraph immediately preceding the one Scrapbook quoted described the part of Gore’s “life story” that took place on the Tennessee farm. Forgive us for thinking that the Scrapbook gang didn’t want readers thinking about that.

Scrapbook readers were told two basic things. Gore’s “life story” took place in a D.C. hotel, and that his account of doing farm chores was “preposterous.” Yes--we do think most readers will take this to mean that the farm chores didn’t really occur. On what farm could Gore have done the chores? His “life story” took place in D.C.

At any rate, Scrapbook has won the war on this one--and the ’book has won it big. Given the weak-willed Washington press corps, the image of Gore’s somehow suspect farm chores has passed into conventional wisdom. Twelve years worth of profiles describe these chores. But to the CW, they have ceased to exist.

Here’s what we think: we think our public discourse shouldn’t be trivial, and it shouldn’t be misleading or false. “Internet Al...” is as trivial as it gets. And we’ll bet you a series of demanding farm chores that Scrapbook readers were misled by this hoo-hah.

Defining deviancy Dowd: Maureen Dowd has now set her sights on Texas Governor George W. Bush. Her “President Frat Boy” involves Governor Bush in the trivialization that has long been her trademark. Dowd apparently conducted a search of 60s newspapers, looking for references to good old George Dub; and she found him quoted in the New York Times, involved in a pointless frat matter. It’s the kind of inanity Dowd simply loves. She quickly began typing it up.

It was partly through abject nonsense like this that Dowd conjured up the dim “Love Story” flap. She scoured her way through old newspaper articles...OK, please, don’t make us relate it. We make the key point here again: our public discourse should not be trivial. We’ve long heard it said that God is not mocked. We know better. Twice a week, we read Dowd.

Starting tomorrow--neutron bombs away: The analysts howled when they carefully read the latest from that slippery Jeff Gerth.