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21 April 1999

Our current howler (part II): That certain smile

Synopsis: Ceci Connolly was simply amazed by the VP’s vast fund-raising prowess.

The Gore Machine
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post Magazine, 4/4/99

Bush’s Dash for Cash
Susan B. Glasser, The Washington Post, 4/7/99

We don’t want to imply that Ceci Connolly is trying to gimmick a story from thin air. Connolly is, plainly, a fully capable reporter, like most of the corps’ frontline scribes.

But sometimes the press corps will spice up a story--and we think there are elements of that process in Connolly’s Post Magazine cover tale. The article describes Al Gore’s “relentless hunt for dollars,” although George W. Bush is planning to raise far more money (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/20/99). Connolly occasionally seems amazed at the vast sums the vice president will raise:

CONNOLLY: [W]hile the vice president’s game plan this year is virtually the same as Lamar Alexander’s or Elizabeth Dole’s or George W. Bush’s, his fund-raising machine is bigger, tougher, faster. By the end of the year, Gore’s team hopes to...collect an unprecedented $55 million.

Connolly refers to the “unprecedented sum” at several points in her article. It sometimes seems there’s no end to the records the relentless vice president has set:

CONNOLLY: Soon after [his VP nomination in 1992], at a party in Maine, Gore topped every fund-raising record in state history, helping bring in $350,000 in a single night.

Even state-of-Maine records were falling! Susan Glasser shows the same reactions in her piece on fund-raising by Bush:

GLASSER: Texas Gov. George W. Bush is assembling the most ambitious Republican fund-raising effort ever, hoping to raise $20 million more than the previous record...

Glasser noted the record-shattering aims of Vice President Gore as well:

GLASSER: The Texan’s strategy is also premised on the prospect of a Democratic rival, Vice President Gore, who has embarked on his own plan to break the fund-raising record.

As we’ve noted, there is actual news value in the breadth of Bush’s plan, since he may become the first non-self-financed major contender to step outside the federal matching funds system. But Gore, of course, is “breaking records” because federal spending limits go up every four years. Every four years, there are more voters to reach, in more media markets, and the cost of campaigns is higher than before. Connolly explained it perfectly well in a separate part of her article:

CONNOLLY: Each election cycle the FEC sets a new inflation-adjusted spending cap for the primaries...In 1996, the cap (including matching funds) was $30.9 million; this time around, FEC officials estimate that it will hit $33.5 million.

In this setting, is it really surprising that candidates “break records?” Hardly, but reporters often feign amazement at the way those fund-raising records keep falling--and suggest that the new records reflect the candidates’ appetites, rather than simple realities of inflation-based spending. (We’ll guess that the Post is not paying reporters what it paid in the ’96 cycle.)

Alas! In “The Gore Machine,” Connolly--a top-notch reporter--never ceases to be amazed at Gore’s fund-raising prowess. Early on, she gapes in surprise as Gore masters campaign minutiae:

CONNOLLY: Gore is fluent in the obscure language of the money game. He knows the difference between a “fund-raiser,” in which money actually comes in the door, and a “donor maintenance event,” at which contributors are stroked for past good deeds and anticipated future generosity.

But of course, Connolly’s writing shows that she too knows the difference, as is perfectly normal for a campaign reporter; it would be strange indeed if a major candidate didn’t understand the distinction she draws. But in “The Gore Machine,” there’s no part of Gore’s performance, no matter how trivial, that doesn’t inspire her awe:

CONNOLLY (continuing): Gore is fluent in the obscure language of the money game. He knows the difference between a “fund-raiser,” in which money actually comes in the door, and a “donor maintenance event”...He knows that a “candid” souvenir photo is worthless if the donor and the candidate aren’t smiling into the camera. “Gore positions himself and the individual for the pictures,” says lawyer-lobbyist Tony Coelho, a former congressman and supreme Democratic fund-raiser. “He’s very conscious of it.”

Wow! He even looks into the camera! Top that! No wonder the campaign pros love him! A few paragraphs later, more skills are revealed:

CONNOLLY: No fund-raising chore seems too menial or too minute. Gore remembers contributors’ birthdays; he inquires after the kids. He hosts thank-you parties to show his appreciation.

Earlier, we learned about Gore’s thank-you notes. And that “machine” has just plain thought of everything:

CONNOLLY: The campaign will even solicit contributions over the Internet in its effort to hit that magic $55 million mark.

Jeez! Where does he get these people? Connolly does describe Gore as a diligent fund-raiser--as someone who has “come to accept the hunt for money as an essential part of the political process.” She describes some interesting (if insignificant) differences between Gore and Clinton--Gore as VP would ask contributors for money, Clinton (as prez) generally would not. But it’s hard to believe that sending thank-you notes distinguishes Gore from others at this level. Every candidate will be doing the things that Connolly describes with an air of amazement--though one would think from this article that Gore alone has thought of inquiring about the kids.

Given inflation--and shifting FEC limits--is it surprising that hopefuls “break fund-raising records?” Should we be amazed to learn that candidates thank donors, and look in the camera and smile? There are serious issues about campaign finance, ones that reporters should examine in detail. But sometimes, in the desire to tell a good story, things that are remarkably trivial get reported as if they’re Big News.

Tomorrow: Ouch! Connolly says Gore is “stretching the rules.” She didn’t give any examples.