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23 April 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Just say it

Synopsis: If pundits think Gore did wrong in the past, they shouldn’t say it by spinning the present.

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

Does everything always have to be wrong? One sometimes wonders when reading the press corps--and it’s a question we asked when we read Ceci Connolly’s cover story on Gore’s big “machine.” The truth is, no one yet has done anything wrong in fund-raising for the 2000 primaries. Forbes is self-financing; Gore will take matching funds; Bush may turn down matching funds, and try to raise enough to compete with Forbes. But no one yet has done anything wrong--or anything that can be gimmicked up into some sort of horrid transgression. Indeed, late in her article, Connolly speaks with Gore campaign manager Craig Smith:

CONNOLLY: The Gore campaign insists that it has safety mechanisms in place to limit any possibility of impropriety. “We have set up the most rigorous system of checks we’ve ever seen in fund-raising,” says campaign manager Craig Smith, who notes that the 1996 controversies “sensitized” Gore to the fact that “he is going to be held to a higher standard.”

Smith then describes background checks and legal briefings that fund-raisers and solicitors will undergo, and says that lawyers and consultants will conduct weekly meetings to review contributions that “may be legally acceptable but may not pass the smell test.”

Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing how the Gore campaign will handle such matters. There may be news value in Smith’s assertion--in his statement that the scandals and controversies from 1996 may lead to tightened fund-raising procedures. But the fact that Gore will be held to a higher standard is manifest all through Connolly’s piece--a piece in which a candidate raising far less money than his principal rival is said to be on a “relentless hunt for campaign dollars.”

Indeed, Connolly’s article makes no sense at all, except in the ’96 context. The puzzling features of her portrait only make sense in the wake of that campaign. Indeed, she devotes a portion of her piece to the two major Gore controversies from 1996, reviewing the Hsi Lai Temple event and Gore’s fund-raising calls from his office.

This isn’t the time to examine those matters, though they will surely arise in the coming campaign. And obviously, those who think Gore engaged in misconduct have every right to say so. But scribes who write about such serious topics do have the burden of careful analysis. Connolly’s treatment displays some of the shortcomings of the conventional wisdom about these events.

In writing about the Hsi Lai Temple event, for example, Connolly at one point says this:

CONNOLLY: Aides traveling with the vice president on his Caifornia swing told reporters the event was a fund-raiser.

But Connolly earlier has assured us of Gore’s astonishing knowledge of campaign finance law. Does it make sense that Gore would knowingly stage a fund-raiser at a religious temple--and then bring a bunch of reporters along? In writing about the fund-raising phone calls, Connolly makes standard objections to the vice president’s press conference:

CONNOLLY: Gore was at his worst that day. He ducked questions, low-balled the number of calls he made and seemed to contradict himself, first defending his making the calls, then promising never to do it again. And not once, but seven times, he parroted the disastrous “no controlling legal authority” line fed to him by his lawyers.

There are so many problems with this standard account that it would take a full article to review them. For example, Gore didn’t state the number of calls at the conference, and his office provided a still-accurate number the very next day. But the claim that Gore said he made “a few calls” has become conventional, and inaccurate, wisdom in a press corps that is now gloomily Goth in its desire to describe drear misconduct.

Do reporters feel Gore misbehaved in 1996? If so, they should stand up and say it. But they shouldn’t say it in the ways it’s said all through “The Gore Machine.” They shouldn’t say it by expressing amazement at the amount Gore is raising, when another major hopeful is raising much more, or by feigning amazement when they tell us that Gore is briefed before fund-raising dinners. Every candidate, except the self-financed, is engaged in the standard practice of American fund-raising. And the truth is: Connolly describes no misconduct, or any kind, by any candidate in the 2000 race. If Connolly feels Gore engaged in misconduct in 1996, the way to deal is simply to say it--not to say that the Gore campaign is now “stretching the rules,” when she clearly doesn’t show that’s the case.

Indeed, here’s the way Connolly describes Gore’s fund-raising, at the start of her article:

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 hopes to stretch federal fund raising rules as far as possible to collect an unprecedented $55 million.

With his prep school manners and his wooden speaking style, Al Gore would seem an unlikely star in this curious world of political hustling. But when it comes to fund-raising, no player on the national scene has excelled like the vice president. Friends and colleagues describe him as focused, driven, disciplined and seemingly inured to the seamy side of the business--a professional fund-raiser’s dream. He never says no, never complains; he just goes about his business like the dutiful political son that he is.

But the truth is, every candidate is taking part in this “seamy hustling”--it’s a basic part of our political system, however one wants to describe it. And Connolly gives no example of anyone, in any campaign, trying to “stretch” any rules. The “unprecedented sum” that Connolly billboards is a figure set by the FEC--and the “unprecedented” $31 million that Gore will raise for the primaries is dwarfed by what Bush may pursue (perfectly legally).

If scribes think Gore did wrong in the past, they should just say it. They shouldn’t say it by spinning the present.

Visit our incomparable archives: Catch up on three past installments:

THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/20/99: Gore is on a “relentless hunt for cash”--although Bush hopes to raise much more money!

THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/21/99: Ceci Connolly is amazed by Gore’s fund-raising skills. He even looks into the camera!

THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/22/99: Connolly said Gore was “stretching the rules.” We think she was stretching the language.