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26 April 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Too taxing for Richard Cohen

Synopsis: Richard Cohen took on the Gores’ tax records. He proved he’s no average tax analyst.

Better to Give
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 4/16/98

We can’t fault Richard Cohen for the central premise of this piece; it wasn’t very smart of Vice President Gore to give so little money to charity. The Vice President gave $353 to charity in 1997 on a total income of $197,000; and in a world where every pundit goes over your records and looks for a way to trash your “character,” it would be smarter just to borrow some money and give it away, making nice with the natterers and nabobs.

But we did have to chuckle at one point in Cohen’s piece, where Cohen was discussing the awkward fact that the Gores have donated considerably more money to charity in the (very) recent past. We had to chuckle at the skillful way a top pundit will nail down his point. Cohen reports that Tipper Gore gave away $35,000 last year--royalties from her book Picture This--and also mentions that Vice President Gore recently donated $50,000 in royalties from his own book, Earth in the Balance. Truth is, we were getting dangerously close to painting a portrait of a couple who had given away a whole lot of dough. So Cohen put his thinking-cap on, and he devised this amusing construction:

COHEN: Still, without those book royalties, the Gores would have donated a whopping $883 to charity over the last two years.

Get it? What Cohen is saying here is: “If it weren’t for all the money they didgive away, they hardly gave anything away at all!” How the gods must have roared in Zeus’ great halls, delighting in Cohen’s construction!

What is especially amusing about Cohen’s flight is that his article is meant to be understanding. Understand now: this is what passes for friendlycomment by the rules of the Washington press corps! Cohen asserts that the Gores are “wonderful people,” and he mentions Tipper Gore’s efforts to comfort refugees in Zaire. But even in the midst of this type of grinning piece, the rules of the game are remorselessly clear--a pundit has to gin up constructions that will make public figures look cheesy.

Nor did Cohen exhaust his spin with the wonderful construction we’ve already cited. In his very next paragraph, he managed to come up with this:

COHEN: The figure [$883] is not only paltry, it is substantially below what USA Today says is the yearly average for people in the Gores’ income bracket--$3,379. What that says to me is not just that the Gores are not charitable people in the conventional sense but that the vice president is a political klutz.

But USA Today cited the “yearly average” given by people in the Gores’ income range. On that basis, the Gores are big givers! A yearly averageis not a yearly minimum;and on the basis of what Cohen has just finished telling us, the Gores’ “yearly average” over the past two years is almost eighteenthousand dollars! They make other folk in their class look like pikers! Isn’t it amazing--that Cohen could absent-mindedly misinterpret the basic facts that are right there in his own piece?

When Socrates was with us here in D.C., he had a jest he simply loved about the city’s surfeit of columnists (see SOCRATES READS, now in progress). “They have absolutely nothing to say,” he would tell us, “and a contractual obligation to say it two or three times a week.” We fought and fought The Great, Great Greek about the suggestion that was lodged in this comment. But now and then we read a (very average) column that does bring the comment to mind.

For the record: Cohen seems to imply, in one of the passages cited above, that Vice President Gore’s $50,000 contribution was made in the past two years. It was actually made in 1992. (Maybe USA Today didn’t have all the info.) This would mean that the Gores’ average contribution over the past six years was at least $14,000. And again, that’s an “average,” boys and girls. Here’s how you get it: You add up the totalof all the donations; then you divideby the number of years...