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25 April 2000

The Howler wrap-up: Doing a number

Synopsis: Seelye and Connolly tell the stories they like. We suggest you avoid their "reporting."

Gore Says He's Been Consistent On Elian
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 4/13/00

Inventing Al Gore
Bill Turque, Houghton Mifflin, 2000

The Chosen One
Marjorie Williams, Vanity Fair, 2/98

Gore Challenges Bush Credibility on Policy Speeches
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 4/13/00

Gore's Mother Gets a Degree
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 4/11/00

Gore Tells Students Of His Vietnam Tour
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 4/14/00

Gore Tells Students Vietnam a 'Mistake'
James Gerstenzang, The Los Angeles Times, 4/14/00


So just how big was that "controversy" Gore had "prolonged" in his April 12 speech to the ASNE? You remember—the "controversy" Ceci Connolly discussed in paragraph 1 of her piece the next day:

CONNOLLY (4/13) (paragraph 1): Vice President Gore reasserted yesterday that his position on the fate of Elian Gonzalez has not changed, prolonging a controversy that has knocked the presumptive Democratic nominee off his campaign agenda.

According to Connolly—it was the whole point of her article—Gore had really kicked up a fuss, by saying that his views hadn't changed.

So how big was the controversy Gore had prolonged? Apparently, not all that big. Katharine Seelye also reported the ASNE speech, in a much longer New York Times article. And it was strange—Seelye didn't utter a word, not one, about the "controversy" Gore had "prolonged." Jennifer Harper covered Gore's speech in the Washington Times, and she didn't mention it, either. In fact, of the five major papers we review every day, only Connolly mentioned the "controversy" at all. We took a look at the Los Angeles Times. The "controversy" didn't turn up there, either.

But so it goes when the press corps' top spinners tell you the stories they like. The truth is, a lot of what Seelye and Connolly have written about Gore-on-Elian has been simple and outright fabrication; Seelye's April 16 piece in the Times is one of the great bits of recent dissembling. In a major Sunday article, Seelye said she was puzzled by aspects of Gore's position which she had clearly described only two weeks before. If you read Seelye's April 16 piece on Gore's "puzzling move"—then read her page-one, lead story from March 31—you see the outright dissembling of which this press corps is capable. Anywhere else, this is known as "corruption."

None of this, by the way, has a thing to do with the merits of Gore's position. Readers can judge that as they like. And the fact that many Dems had aggressively attacked Gore's stand was clearly news on March 31. But, in the aftermath of Gore's March 30 announcement, Seelye and Connolly spun a set of webs, misstating basic facts about what Gore had said. Connolly's groaning distortion on April 13 was almost a match for Seelye's. (We refer here to Connolly's misrepresentation of Gore's past position on Elian, not to her excited report of a "controversy.")

But then, Seelye and Connolly are so drenched in spin that it's hardly surprising to see them reach a point that borders on outright deception. The scribes routinely force spin-points into stories where the spin-points are plainly irrelevant. As we've mentioned, on April 12 Gore attended a luncheon at the Westin Fairfax Hotel (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/14/00). Fifty years (and several renovations) ago, today's Westin Fairfax was simply the Fairfax, which billed itself as "Washington's family hotel." The Gores lived there in a small two-bedroom apartment, according to biographer Bill Turque:

TURQUE: [T]he Fairfax was a bit more modest in Gore's day...Billed as "Washington's Family Hotel" the bare linoleum floors and thick steel doors suggested transience and utility rather than family friendliness. Until he graduated from high school in 1965, Al Gore's home was Apartment 809, a smallish, two-bedroom suite overlooking Embassy Row and Rock Creek Park.

In her February 1998 Vanity Fair profile of Gore, Marjorie Williams wrote that "[a]lthough the Fairfax Hotel later became the Ritz-Carlton, it was not a posh place at the time Gore was growing up." She said that the contemporaneous correspondence of Gore's parents "is full of suggestions that, when [Gore] was young, the family's upper-middle-class existence was a stretch."

To all appearances, the Gores were not rich when Gore was growing up, and the Fairfax, a family residential-apartment hotel, was neither "posh" nor "fancy." The Gores lived there in a small apartment. But the notion that Gore grew up in a luxury hotel became a GOP spin-point in March 1999—and remains a point of frequent, manufactured reference in the dispatches of Seelye and Connolly. When Gore attended the April 12 luncheon, for example, each scribe knew exactly what to do. Each forced an irrelevant biographical point into her next-day report:

SEELYE (4/13): The luncheon was Mr. Gore's second of the day. At the first, held at the Westin Fairfax Hotel, the same Embassy Row building where Mr. Gore grew up as the son of a senator, Mr. Gore was the drawing card for 30 people whom the [DNC] hopes will contribute to a May 24 gala for the party.

Connolly worked it in too:

CONNOLLY (4/13): The vice president crammed a lot into one of his rare days in Washington...He attended two lunches, first with top Democratic fund-raisers at his childhood home (the former Fairfax Hotel), then at lobbyist friend Tom Downey's house to collect $500,000 for the [DNC].

Connolly had time to include such trivia, but no time to explain what Gore had told the ASNE in his speech. But then, Connolly had also found a way to mention the "Washington hotel" only two days before. On April 10, Gore had attended a Nashville luncheon at which his mother was honored:

CONNOLLY (4/11): Though Gore spent his youth largely in a Washington hotel and prep schools, his parents lived true American success stories, rising from hardscrabble Tennessee roots to the apex of politics.

In this construction, Connolly not only flogs the iconic hotel, but also tells readers that Gore's life story—unlike those of his parents—is not a "true American success story."

Two irrelevant "hotel" cites in one week! It had been a rich time for Connolly. Every luncheon seemed to bring it to mind! But if you want to see why the hopeless scribe should be sent to the countryside for re-education, let's revisit her 4/14 story. The day before, you'll recall, Gore had spent the day at a Charlotte junior high school (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/14/00). Nothing reminded Connolly that day of the hotel where Gore "spent most of his youth." But in her report, Connolly offered the following construction about Gore's army record:

CONNOLLY (4/14) (paragraph 2): Even though he and his parents opposed the war, Gore said he volunteered for the Army because he "thought it was the right thing to do."

(3) Co-teaching Sandy Simpson's history class, Gore described his months as a military journalist but said he could not recall his lottery number. (It was 30, a number that would have guaranteed being drafted had Gore not volunteered.)

On April 14, we noted a problem with this dispatch; Gore didn't have a lottery number. He entered the army in August 1969, and the lottery occurred in December! Clearly, Connolly had gone to a lot of trouble to learn and present this irrelevant piece of information. Gore's birth-date came up #30 in the lottery; but Gore himself was unaffected, having volunteered four months before.

If you've followed Connolly at all, dear readers, you'll understand why the draft number was there. As Connolly tells the misleading story, an unsuspecting reader might well think that Gore volunteered due to his low lottery number. And that would mean that what he'd just said about his reason for volunteering was an exaggeration, or maybe a lie! At the time, we were too polite to say it straight out; after all, perhaps Connolly had misunderstood the chronology. Maybe Connolly didn't see that the info at the top of her story was irrelevant and baldly misleading.

No such luck, you Pollyannas! Reading later, in the Los Angeles Times, we stumbled on this account:

GERSTENZANG (4/14): Simpson, the teacher, asked Gore on Thursday if he could remember his lottery number.

"Oh, no, I don't—I think I went in just before that happened," he said.

In other words, Connolly was told, right at the event, that Gore had enlisted before the lottery. Knowing that the lottery number was completely irrelevant—knowing that Gore hadn't been in the lottery—Connolly went ahead and reported it anyway, doing so in such a way as to cast doubt on what Gore had just said. But so it goes when hopeless spinners tell you the stories they like.

Connolly and Seelye are consummate spinners, as we've seen them show again and again (see postscript). But reporting Gore's stance on the Elian matter, they bumped up to outright deception. Seelye's April 16 piece is utter sophistry; Connolly's earlier effort isn't much better. Your right to know what hopefuls have said is taken away in such gruesome scribblings. But their hopeless distortion of Gore-on-Elian is only the latest from the Tinpot Tandem. Routinely, Seelye and Connolly tell the stories they like. We suggest you avoid their "reporting."

 

Visit our incomparable archives: Newcomers to our incomparable site might want to revisit Connolly Past:

Last April, Connolly offered a spin-drenched Post magazine cover story on Gore's ongoing fund-raising. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/20/99, 4/21/99, 4/22/99, 4/23/99.

In May, Connolly made a labored effort to keep the fading "farm chores" hoax alive. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/25/99. (This episode is relatively minor, but one of our favorites, for reasons of style.)

In July, Connolly did two page-one stories on Bush/Gore campaign spending. The articles were astounding in their suppression of key data. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/99 and 7/19/99.

In December, Seelye and Connolly accidentally misreported something Gore said to alert high school students. Even after the error was corrected on Hardball, Connolly went ahead with a Day Two report, loaded with other errors. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/3/99 and 12/6/99.

Two weeks later, Connolly accidentally reported another wierd statement which Gore had never made. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/18/99.

This past March, the Post's ombudsman boxed Connolly's ears for the 12/2 mess. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/00.

 

Is this really the best we can do? We have said it right from the start: We think the Elian Gonzalez story is straight out of Solomon. The case involves two propositions with which few American commentators ever disagree. First: Children should normally be with their parents. Second: There is a serious problem with Castro's Cuba. If you believe those two propositions, then this case is problematic. We think there is a wide range of possible resolutions—none of them perfect—which sensible people might choose.

But we've rarely seen commentary quite as strange as that which we've seen since last Saturday. This morning's Washington Post op-ed page offers some grinding examples. Take this passage from Charles Krauthammer's piece:

KRAUTHAMMER: Why did Reno do it [conduct the raid]? Her argument is always shifting. First, it is "the law."

Now, the INS certainly is duly constituted authority. But it is no more "the law" than is the street crimes unit of the New York City police. In a democracy, the law is determined by the courts. And the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had just days before the raid found that the INS had acted with no basis in "statutory, regulatory or guideline provisions" in refusing to consider the claim for asylum made for Elian by his great-uncle Lazaro.

But as Krauthammer notes, the 11th Circuit's finding dealt with the INS's handling of the claim for asylum. It had nothing to do with a separate question: Who should have custody of the child while that claim is being decided? The 11th Circuit didn't say. It is frustrating enough to watch lawyers and pols spin this sophistry on TV without challenge. But here the silly sleight-of-hand is carried straight to the Post's op-ed page.

Lower down on the page, George Will continues the angry, irrelevant remarks he previewed on This Week last Sunday. What justified the fact that the raiders were armed? Will's sarcastic complaint is simply extraordinary for its utter refusal to reason:

WILL: One bit of intelligence that supposedly justified the assault—"dynamic entry" is the term of art—on the house was the possibility that there might be weapons inside. Considering that 40 percent of American households have guns, it is notable that the assaulters managed to hit a house that did not have any.

Surely, one could offer a sensible argument against the Saturday raid. But Will doesn't want to be bothered. He seems not to notice that the figure he cites helps explain why the raiders would want to be armed. Beyond that, he simply assumes that the household contained no guns; we know of no one who has shown that is true. And what was the "bit of intelligence" to which he refers? He makes no effort to describe or evaluate it. (In this morning's USA Today, Justice Department officials say that Marisleysis Gonzalez had made a veiled threat about guns.)

This bit of scripting comes later:

WILL: Is "dynamic entry" justified whenever the government has some business to conduct with an American household and suspects that occupants of the household may be exercising their Second Amendment right to own a gun? Or was there something else that particularly alarmed authorities about Lazaro Gonzalez's little house, which bristled with...toys? [Will's ellipsis]

The mandatory sanctification of the Lazaro Gonzalez family has been one of the silliest manifestations of the criticism. We'll look at that later this week. (By the way, the reference to the Second Amendment is another pointless bit of theater. Guns which are legal or constitutionally protected can kill police officers, too. Will and Krauthammer litter their pieces with other gong-show masquerades of reason.)

Elsewhere on the page, E.J. Dionne—writing like a grown-up—discusses a conversation he recently had with a Cuban-American woman, whose parents sent her out of Cuba as a child. (The parents followed three years later.) We strongly recommend his account. Dionne seems to understand that cases like this one are tragic, and they're hard. But much of the commentary of the past week reads like the silliest form of shrieking street theater.

It's understandable that parties who are directly involved in this case may sometimes become upset and irrational. But commentators are hired to help us get past that. The bizarre commentary we've seen in the past few days can't possibly be the best we can do. But it seems that such nonsense is becoming the norm. Check today's Post if you doubt it.

 

Charles Krauthammer, The Picture
George Will, The Raid in Little Havana.
E.J. Dionne, Spotlight On Castro