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1 May 2000

Our current howler (part III): One out of two is real bad

Synopsis: Stu and Charlie knew the hopefuls’ motives. But they didn’t know what the hopefuls had said!

Commentary by Cokie Roberts, Sen. Robert Graham (D-FL)
This Week, ABC, 4/23/00

Commentary by Charles Cook, Stuart Rothenberg
Inside Politics, CNN, 4/24/00

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, MSNBC, 4/26/00

Phew! Senator Graham was really miffed about that 5 A.M. seizure of Elian. When Cokie asked why, he explained:

GRAHAM: I stood in the Oval Office with the president of the United States and I said, Mr. President, this is a very sensitive issue that's happening in my community. One of the things that's made it so tense is that people feel insecure 24 hours a dayThe president of the United States made that commitment to me, that there would be no taking of this child at night.

Cokie could feel the pol's pain:

ROBERTS: So it was a personal commitment from him to you in the Oval Office...When would that have been?

GRAHAM: Three weeks ago.

ROBERTS: Three weeks ago. So that's part of your anger here.

Graham explained the "insensitivity" and "crudeness" of staging the action at "one of the most religious periods of the year, to do it at a time when families are reflecting on spiritual values, to do it in the middle of the night."

Was Senator Graham sincere in his feelings? Or was he just "pandering" to Cuban-Americans? Here at the HOWLER, we don't have a clue—but you'll find few questions about Graham's sincerity welling up within the press corps. Graham's presentation fit an approved theme—you can't trust anything Clinton says. And when conduct fits a theme the press loves, motive will rarely be questioned. Questions about motive are highly selective—applied at random, generally without evidence, to further the stories scribes like.

Yep. It's easy to talk about people's motives, since there's no way to show that you're wrong. Pundits can tell the stories they like, with no fear of contradiction. And just how lazy can pundits be, when they have themes of sincerity and motive to wallow around in? Pundits can get pretty lazy. In the case of Gore on the Elian matter, many scribes have assured us of Gore's horrid motives—often without seeming to know what position Gore has held.

Take the appearance of Charles Cook and Stuart Rothenberg on the 4/24 Inside Politics. In a three-minute segment with Bernard Shaw, the pundits repeated—four separate times—the standard soundbites on Gore's horrid motives. But wouldn't you know it? In all the excitement about Gore's motives, they didn't seem to know what position Gore holds. They repeatedly judged the hopeful's sincerity without seeming to know where he stood.

In the opening exchange, Shaw asked Cook, "[W]hat's the likely political fall-out" of "the U.S. government's handling of the Elian Gonzalez case?"

COOK: I don't think there is going to be a whole lot. Five months is a long, long time in politics...But I do believe that Vice President Gore has hurt himself, because I think a lot of people question the sincerity of his position, supporting keeping the boy in the U.S., and it sort of fed into this perception that he says the most politically expedient thing.

Cook immediately raised the question of Gore's sincerity and motives. But in questioning the motives behind's Gore's position, Cook plainly misstates Gore's stand. Gore has not, at any time, "supported keeping the boy in the U.S." Gore's position has been consistent: the case should be decided in the Florida family courts. When Gore came out in favor of permanent legal residency status on March 30, he made clear that this was being done to allow the case to be heard in the family courts. "Mr. Gore said he was supporting legislationthat would allow Elian to stay in the United States while his case is adjudicated," the New York Times reported on March 31 (our emphasis). "If the court decided he should be with the father, Elian would return to Cuba."

The position had been clearly stated, but Cook didn't seem to know it. And Rothenberg, failing to correct Cook on Gore, soon muddied up Bush's stand, too. Moments after Cook's quoted statement, Shaw turned to Rothenberg and asked, "How has Bush handled [this issue]?"

ROTHENBERG: I think Bush has handled it pretty well. I mean, he's tried to stake out a reasonable position that the issue is the best interests of the child. He hasn't seemed overly partisan to me. I think his big problem is that the Republican Congress appears overly partisan.

Rothenberg made no effort to correct or clarify Cook's statement of Gore's position. He didn't demur in any way from Cook's statement about Gore's bogus motives. He then praised Bush for taking a "reasonable position" that is completely identical to the one Gore has taken. Bush and Gore have both long held that the case should be decided in family courts, where "the best interests of the child" is the standard. On January 17, for example, Gore discussed this case at the Democratic White House forum in Des Moines (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/24/00). The first sentence in his statement? "I think the question ought to be simply what is in the best interests of the child" (our emphasis). His closing sentence? "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 in the best interests of the child" (our emphasis). "The best interests of the child" has been repeatedly stated by Gore as the standard by which this case should be decided. In his statement, Rothenberg praises Bush for a stand which Gore has taken. In context, Rothenberg implies that there is a difference between Bush and Gore's positions. This is simply false.

But then, the embarrassing truth is hard to avoid. Many scribes have judged the two hopefuls' motives while misstating the two hopefuls' stands. It has been virtually impossible in recent weeks to find a clear statement of Bush and Gore's shared position. On the April 26 Hardball, for example, a tabloid talker interrupted Chuck Lane (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/28/00):

LANE: The irony is that Bush, who holds a position opposed by a majority of the American people—

CHRIS MATTHEWS: They want him to go home with his dad; Bush doesn't—

LANE: —comes out the winner simply because he seems consistent on this. I'm not sure George Bush isn't pandering in the position that he holds too because he's trying to secure Florida and the Cuban-American vote there as well. [Lane's emphases]

In his interruption, the talker muddies Bush's position. Bush favors resolving the case in the family courts; he has not said how the courts should decide. Lane never clarified the talker's comment, and a viewer of Hardball would never have guessed that Bush and Gore share a position. Meanwhile, misstatements abounded on other cable shows last week; it would have been virtually impossible for a viewer to know that the hopefuls share a stand on the issue, or to learn what that shared stand might be.

But for all their problems in stating the facts, few pundits have failed to recite standard soundbites assailing the VP's motives. Cook and Rothenberg—who butchered or muddied Bush and Gore's positions—rattled off the standard soundbite about Gore's motives four separate times. Castro dreams of training minions this well. This all came in a three minute segment:

COOK: But I do believe that Vice President Gore has hurt himself, because I think a lot of people question the sincerity of his position, supporting keeping the boy in the U.S., and it sort of fed into this perception that he says the most politically expedient thing. I think he hurt himself a little bit.

Moments later:

COOK: And again, I don't think [Gore is] hurt by the substance of his position as much as this just—there is this long, nagging things that he's too much like President Clinton, will say whatever it takes.

A third iteration:

COOK: Well, no, I think it feeds into this nagging perception of him willing to say whatever it takes...You sort of—I sort of—when he said that I just kind of winced and thought, gosh, he doesn't really believe that.

Rothenberg offered the fourth iteration:

ROTHENBERG: The specifics of the case won't hurt him, but I think Charlie is right, it adds up to the overall impression that this guy will do or say anything depending upon political calculations.

All these descriptions of motive were made in three minutes, by a pair of pundits who showed no sign of understanding the positions the hopefuls have taken. Shaw never asked for any clarifications, and never asked the pundits how they knew who was sincere and who wasn't. Those pundits! They may not be well versed on the facts, but when it comes to motive, they know what to do. In the case of Gore's position on Elian, they have kept on reciting those Official Soundbites. As we'll see in tomorrow's Grand Finale, it has produced the press corps' latest hopeless and revealing self-exposé.


Tomorrow: Again, a familiar theme went on display: Pundits all say the same things.

Clarify, clarify: Cook's account of Gore's position was at best misleading (it's a stretch to call it that). Rothenberg's account of Bush's position was technically accurate, but it was misleading, too. Rothenberg didn't correct or clarify what Cook had said, and no one would dream, from what Rothenberg said, that Bush and Gore hold the same position. Shaw never asked the two pundits to clarify any of the muddles their comments produced. Just another day of utter confusion on the part of the major press corps. But the pundits did manage to state the official soundbite on Gore's motives four separate times.

By the way, Cook and Rothenberg are two of the fairest, least partisan commentators on the Washington scene. When they can produce a segment like this, the problem with press culture is perfectly clear. It's the only thing they made clear in this segment.