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24 April 2000

Our current howler (part IV): "Dramatic breaks"—from reality

Synopsis: Why did Koenninger think Gore had changed his stand? Maybe he’d been reading the Post.

Reno Won't Reverse INS Decision to Return Boy to Cuba
Sue Anne Pressley and Karen DeYoung, The Washington Post, 1/7/00

Florida Judge: Cuban Boy Can Stay For Now
Sue Anne Pressly and Karen DeYoung, The Washington Post, 1/11/00

Rare Act of Congress Is Planned for Elian; GOP Leaders Back Citizenship Bills
Karen DeYoung, The Washington Post, 1/16/00

Gore breaks ranks over Elian
Detroit News wire services, 1/7/00

Why did Tom Koenninger think that Gore had changed his position on Elian? Koenninger questioned Gore on the matter on April 12, at the VP's American Society of Newspaper Editors address (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/21/00). In his answer to Koenninger's question, Gore said that he hadn't changed his views on Elian; then he gave a summary of what he had said on the subject in January. The next day, Ceci Connolly built a story around Gore's statement. Connolly clearly implied that Gore's answer was wrong—that he had flipped on Elian, several times.

One hates to turn to familiar old villains. But Koenninger might have thought that Gore had flipped because of press coverage on March 31. The day before, Gore announced that he was supporting a Senate bill to grant permanent legal resident status to Elian. Many Democrats strongly opposed Gore's proposal. In the Post, Sue Anne Pressley and John Harris treated Gore's announcement as a "dramatic break" with President Clinton:

PRESSLEY AND HARRIS (3/31): In a dramatic break with his own administration, and in defiance of President Clinton's pleas that the legal dispute be kept out of the political arena, Gore declared in a statement that "our immigration laws may not be broad enough" to achieve a just resolution in the Gonzalez case...

"Candidate Breaks With Clinton," an excited Post page-one headline exclaimed.

It made for an exciting story, one built around "defiance" and "drama." And there is no doubt that many Dems offered strong denunciations of Gore's position. But in fact, Pressley herself had repeatedly written about Gore's divergence from administration policy on Elian. On January 7, she and Karen DeYoung reported that Janet Reno had "declined to reverse a decision" by the INS to return the boy to his father in Cuba. But here's what they said about Gore:

PRESSLEY AND DEYOUNG (1/7): Vice President Gore, also campaigning in New Hampshire, seemed to be distancing himself from the ruling. Without expressly disavowing the INS decision, Gore said he wants the appeals process to go forward and repeated his position that no decision about the boy's fate should be made until the father can speak on "free soil." He said he is not convinced the father was not coerced by the Castro regime.

Reno approved the plan to return the boy to Cuba; it seemed clear that Gore disagreed. On January 10, Gore appeared on the Today show. According to Pressley and DeYoung, his position became much clearer:

PRESSLEY AND DEYOUNG (1/11): Speaking on NBC's "Today" show, Vice President Gore most emphatically distanced himself from the Clinton administration policy on the case. Both President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno have refused to reverse the INS decision.

"I'd like to see the dispute adjudicated in our courts, where traditionally, questions like what is best for this child are decided," Gore said on the show. "This child's mother died in an effort to give her child freedom."

Gore's position openly contradicted the administration's prevailing stand.

On January 16, DeYoung offered an overview of the major hopefuls' positions:

DEYOUNG (1/16): Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) have both been critical of the INS and said the issue should be heard in court. So has Vice President Gore, although the other Democratic presidential contender, Bill Bradley, said he doesn't want to "second guess" the INS.

In short, it was perfectly clear, back in January, that Gore did not support the administration position. In fact, the Detroit News ran a headline on January 7, "Gore breaks ranks over Elian." The story began: "Vice President Al Gore broke ranks with the Clinton administration Thursday over Elian Gonzalez's case." But a good deal of the coverage on March 31 stressed the "drama" of Gore's "break" with Clinton. (USA Today page-one lead headline: "Gore splits with boss over Elian.") Few scribes bothered to make the point that Gore had diverged from the administration months before. This surely helped feed the perceptions of many—perhaps including editor Koenninger—that Gore had "changed his position" in some substantial way when he endorsed legal resident status.

At any rate, Connolly built her 4/13 story around Gore's Q & A with Koenninger. Gore told Koenninger that his position hadn't changed; Connolly implied this was false. Since Gore's answer to Koenninger had stressed the statement he had made at the January 17 Democratic presidential debate, it might be worth reviewing what Gore said at that widely-viewed forum.

Gore and Bill Bradley met at the "Black and Brown Forum" in Des Moines on January 17. Moderator Soledad O'Brien asked about the Elian case. After Bradley spoke, Gore gave this answer:

GORE: I think the question ought to be simply what is in the best interests of this child. I think that the father should come here and stand on free soil to express the true feelings in his heart. I think we should remember and honor the fact that the child's mother lost her life, sacrificing her life to try to get her child to freedom. Now if Castro keeps hiring these paid demonstrators to shout outside the father's window, how can we be sure that he is not speaking under the threat of intimidation? If he is not allowed to come here and speak freely, then the matter should be addressed in our domestic relations courts, which have expertise and experience and the body of law by which we traditionally answer these questions according to due process. I want to compliment Congressman Bob Menendez of New Jersey [gesturing] who has helped to lead our nation's dialogue on this issue. As a father myself, I believe that we should focus on getting the father the right to say what is truly in his heart, and then focus on what is truly in the best interests of this child.

Gore twice stressed the need to ensure that Juan Miguel Gonzalez could freely express his true feelings about the case. But that was one of the basic points stressed by Gore on March 30. Why should the extended family be given legal residency status? To move the case into family court, Gore and the bill's sponsors repeatedly said. But it would also free Gonzalez from possible intimidation. Pressley and Harris reported this in the March 31 Post:

PRESSLEY AND HARRIS (3/31): Backers [of the bill] say that, in addition to the bill moving the jurisdiction of the case to a family court, granting permanent residency status to Elian's father and other relatives would allow the father to express his wishes about where he wants to live without the possibility of coercion from Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's regime.

Whatever one may think of the bill's merits, this was one of the principal concerns Gore had expressed in January.

Were there any changes in Gore's basic position, going back to January? On January 17, Gore seemed to imply that the father's freely expressed wishes would be definitive, and that the case should go to family court only if the father did not come to the United States. By March 30, Gore and the bill's sponsors clearly intended that the case would go to court under any circumstance; the effort is to ensure that the father feels free to speak his mind in that setting. Was that an actual change in Gore's approach? Journalists who are concerned about that point could fairly raise the question. But Connolly's article on April 13 was completely divorced from reality. She pictured a cartoon-like flip in Gore's position: For months he had favored family court, she said, and now he supports permanent residency. She didn't tell readers that permanent residency was designed to get the case into family court, a point Gore and the bill's sponsors made repeatedly. And she didn't tell readers that permanent residency status was intended to make Juan Miguel Gonzalez feel free to speak, a concern Gore had voiced months before. She certainly didn't tell her readers that Gore had split with the administration's policy in early January. Instead, readers were told another "dramatic" tale—Gore had "prolonged a controversy" by what he told Koenninger. But how big was the "controversy" Gore had "prolonged?" The answer helps finish our story.


Tomorrow: We swear! No more! Our current Grand Finale! Seelye and Connolly show what happens when news is rearranged to fit scripts.

Von Drehle gets it right: Of all the strange words that have been spoken about the Elian case, the strangest constructions must have occurred in the 4/19 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. We don't express a view on the legal correctness of that court's ultimate rulings. But this is the start of the decision, as excerpted in the 4/20 New York Times:

U.S. COURT OF APPEALS: Elian Gonzalez ("plaintiff"), a 6-year-old child from Cuba, has made his way to the United States. Plaintiff, as an alien, submitted an application for asylum to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

He did? Plaintiff submitted an application? We've heard that childhood education is great in Cuba, but plaintiff must be the world's brightest 6-year-old boy, to be submitting such complex legal motions. Later, the decision says this:

U.S. COURT OF APPEALS: Not only does it appear that plaintiff might be entitled to apply personally for asylum, it appears that he did so. According to the record, plaintiff—though a young child—has expressed a wish that he not be returned to Cuba. He personally signed an application for asylum.

According to the court, plaintiff applied personally for asylum, when he personally signed an application.

Again, we do not offer a view on the court's ultimate legal judgments. But surely anyone who saw the paper which plaintiff "signed" would be struck by the oddness of these constructions. The application was "signed" in large, block-print letters, and plaintiff forgot to include his last name. In fairness, none of the letters in plaintiff's name were printed backwards, and none were cut from a Toys R Us catalog. And, as far as we could tell from what we saw on TV, plaintiff signed in pencil, not crayon. But one would think these remarks by the court would strike almost anyone as being odd. To us, these statements were the crowning example of the utter strangeness that this case has frequently coaxed from its participants.

But many pundits praised the court's decision without saying a word about its transparent oddness. And so we compliment David Von Drehle, for his piece in today's Washington Post (The Court Case ( Von Drehle discusses many of the legal questions and precedents involved in the notion that a 6-year-old child could apply for asylum. More to the point, he displayed an ability to be struck by the oddness of the 11th Circuit's constructions. We are amazed that so many excitable pundits could read the decision without noticing a word out of place.