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15 May 2000

Our current howler: Err Connolly

Synopsis: Appreciate what you’re seeing. Don’t take it for granted. We’ll not see her like soon again.

Baseball fans along for the ride at Pedro's Playground
Ken Rosenthal, The Baltimore Sun, 5/13/00

Different Paths for Campaign Attacks
Terry Neal and Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 5/14/00

Gore hits stride just in time for starting gun
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 1/24/00

13 ways of looking at Al Gore and race
David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima, The Washington Post Magazine, 4/23/00

Giving Bush the Bradley Treatment
James Dao, The New York Times, 5/5/00

Pedro Martinez had just fanned 15 Birds, surrendering two measly singles (no walks). And he did it in front of the Orioles' fans, right there at Camden Yards. Over at the Baltimore Sun, Ken Rosenthal threw up his hands:

ROSENTHAL: By the ninth inning, Camden Yards was Pedro's Playground.

"Let's Go Pedro!" the fans chanted, rising each time Pedro Martinez went to two strikes on their beloved Orioles.

"It's almost starting to get like that in every city we go into," Boston Red Sox pitching coach Joe Kerrigan said. "People realize now that they're not going to see anything like this in their lifetime."

It's what scribes used to write about Michael Jordan. Fans were advised not to take him for granted. They were told, "You'll not see Michael's like soon again."

Well, we couldn't help thinking of Rosenthal's words when we opened our Washington Post Sunday morning. Along with Bush correspondent Terry Neal, Ceci Connolly had written an entire article comparing the tactics of Bush and Gore:

NEAL AND CONNOLLY (paragraph 1): Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have been going after each other with relish in recent days, but their approach to the art of attack politics couldn't be more different.

Their approaches "couldn't be more different?" We love it when scribes start out with a claim that is impossibly overstated. First, Neal and Connolly limned Gore:

NEAL AND CONNOLLY (2): Traveling around the country, Gore is launching an almost daily frontal assault on Bush. On foreign policy, the vice president found Bush guilty by association with "isolationists and protectionists" in the Republican Party. He linked the governor to the tobacco and gun industries, saying that "his agenda clearly and overwhelmingly reflects their game plan." He called on Bush to reveal his "secret plan" for Social Security.

In the next paragraph, the scribes explained Bush's approach. They spelled out that remarkable contrast:

NEAL AND CONNOLLY (3): Schmoozing with reporters on his campaign plane from Palm Springs recently, Bush played the bemused victim and laughed off the attacks—but got in a few choice digs of his own. "I don't believe America is interested in having a president who gets elected by tearing people down," said Bush, who doesn't put his "Al Gore will say anything to get elected" slogan in the "tearing people down" category.

The "different approaches" were obvious. Gore engages in "almost daily frontal assaults," even involving "guilt by association." Bush, bemused, laughs off the attacks, getting in "a few digs of his own." And oh yes, something that made us smile—when Bush says that Gore "will say anything to get elected," Bush doesn't think that remark counts as "tearing people down."

We had to chuckle at that last statement—that Bush doesn't think that calling Gore dishonest should count as "tearing people down." Because many reporters don't seem to think so either, as we pointed out only last week (see our "Daily update," 5/9/00). Last Friday, James Dao repeatedly referred to Gore's "attacks"—which Gore delivers with "loaded terms"—while noting, without any comment at all, that Bush routinely calls Gore "dishonest." Bush's comments didn't seem to strike Dao as "negative," either. For details, see today's postscript.

Is there something wrong with calling your opponent "dishonest?" People will have different thoughts about that. But almost anyone would agree that something is wrong with saying things that are simply untruthful. Well, almost anyone would think that is wrong—because now it seems that Ceci Connolly doesn't. Later in her Sunday piece, she quoted "senior Bush officials" attacking Gore. But she didn't point out the glaring errors found in their very serious charges. Suddenly, even a false attack didn't strike the scribe as being worthy of correction or comment.

Play-by-play: Midway through their article, Neal and Connolly quote Bush on those Gore attacks. Bush said he is ready to respond "quickly and effectively." Neal and Connolly then give an example:

NEAL AND CONNOLLY (19): Two senior Bush aides said last week that the campaign studied Gore's 1988 presidential bid and closely tracked this year's Democratic primary fight for clues about their opponent. Gore, they argue, was the first candidate to raise the specter of Willie Horton in the 1988 primary (although it was supporters of Bush's father who used pictures of the furloughed black convict in television ads against Michael S. Dukakis).

That tactic by Gore showed how ruthless he is, according to Bush's advisers:

NEAL AND CONNOLLY (20): If Gore could employ such a slash-and-burn attack against fellow Democrats, imagine what he would do to Bush, the argument went...

In short, the Bush team accuses Gore of "slash-and-burn" tactics for having "raised the specter of Willie Horton" in 1988. "Imagine what he could do to Bush," they marvel, sadly shaking their heads.

There's only one problem with this presentation. At best the account is grossly misleading; more reasonably judged, it's just false. As we have discussed endless times in the past—as Ceci Connolly knows perfectly well—Gore never so much as mentioned Willie Horton in the 1988 primaries. On one occasion—in one debate, out of 42—Gore criticized the Massachusetts furlough program which gave Horton a weekend pass. But he never mentioned Horton by name; never mentioned anyone's race; never ran an ad on the subject; and never used any photographic images, let alone ones that would identify race. If the Bush campaign is telling scribes that Gore "raised the specter of Willie Horton," then they are engaged in odd campaign tactics indeed, using grossly misleading claims (really, lies) to attack Gore for a "slash-and-burn attack." And this conduct goes on at the very same time that Bush attacks Gore as dishonest!

Remarkable! So can we assume that the Post scribes blew the whistle—called the foul on those senior aides? After all, their article started by saying that Gore was engaging in "frontal assaults," while Bush had a different approach. Indeed, above the headline, in large print, the article billboarded Bush's view. Bush's advisers "believ[e] voters are tired of slash-and-burn politics," the Post's billboard told its readers.

But nowhere in the article were readers informed of the groaning error in the Bush camp's attack. It was left there hanging, uncorrected for readers, without a word to inform them of the facts. Indeed, two paragraphs later, Neal and Connolly let Bush express his views on the subject of campaign attacks. The statement he makes is especially striking, given what his advisers had said:

NEAL AND CONNOLLY (21): "It's disappointing that someone running for the highest office in the land would continue saying—and feel free and comfortable about saying—things that simply aren't true," Bush said recently. "This is a man [Gore] who feels he can say what he wants to say."

Does Bush really have such scruples about misstatements? If so, surely he'd correct his advisers if he knew how inaccurate their charges had been. But Bush couldn't learn that from the Connolly article, and neither could the Post's misused readers. Nope—in an article about negative tactics, in which Gore is repeatedly accused of being "integrity-challenged," "negative" and "saying things that simply aren't true," the Bush campaign makes a serious charge built on baldly false statements. And Ceci Connolly didn't mention that fact.

So we couldn't help thinking about Michael Jordan, as we saw this latest exhibition of Connolly Rules. Readers, we may not see her like soon again. We advise you to sit back and marvel.


We know what you're thinking: Because you're fair, we know what you're thinking. You're thinking: Maybe Connolly doesn't know the facts about Gore and Willie Horton. Sorry. Here is her own account, in a January 24 article. She was writing about the primary contest being waged between Bradley and Gore:

CONNOLLY (1/24): But one week later, Bradley was digging up a 15-year-old vote Gore cast on tobacco while in Congress. He then revived the debate over Gore's role in raising the prison furlough of murderer Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. Although Gore was in fact the first to tar Dukakis with that criticism, Gore studiously avoided mentioning Horton's name or race.

Connolly understands the facts perfectly well. But then, who at the Washington Post doesn't? Two Sundays ago, the Post magazine's cover story was entitled, "13 ways of looking at Al Gore and race." One of the article's thirteen sections dealt exclusively with the Horton matter. The section was titled, "Did Gore hatch Horton?" David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima spelled out the facts quite clearly:

MARANISS AND NAKASHIMA: Gore never mentioned Willie Horton's name, never held up his picture, never mentioned race...Bill Bradley this year accused Gore of introducing the Willie Horton issue into what he called the "lexicon" of the 1988 campaign. But Gore kept his focus on the policy. "It was a stupid policy, it continues to be a stupid policy," said [Thurgood] Marshall [Jr.], now secretary of the cabinet in the Clinton administration. Even Dukakis now defends Gore on the matter saying he raised the issue in a legitimate way.

In short, everyone at the Washington Post surely knows the basic facts of this case. Connolly's editors surely know the facts, too.

But Connolly, as we've told you, is a ceaseless spinner. She plays by rules of her own design. The Post abuses its readers with work like this. Why is this work being tolerated?

Staying in touch: We've sent a note to the Post ombudsman (our first since December). For the text of that letter, click here:

James Dao-thought: According to Neal and Connolly, when Bush says Gore "will say anything," he doesn't think that counts as "tearing people down." But then, James Dao doesn't think so, either. The scribe served up a perfect example of this strange view in the May 5 New York Times:

DAO: Ms. [Susan] Estrich praised Mr. Bush's ability to roll with Mr. Gore's punches and, in the process, make him seem like a negative politician. "It seems to be working," she said of the governor's approach. "He's up [in the polls]."

In adopting Mr. Bradley's strategy of calling Mr. Gore dishonest, Bush aides have appropriated one of Mr. Bradley's sharpest debate lines, which they often strip across news releases: "Why should we believe you would tell the truth as president if you don't tell the truth as a candidate?"

Does the claim that a candidate is "dishonest" count as "negative" politics? Not when it's said about Gore. Dao's column was accompanied by a
boxed feature titled "Some Strong Words About Bush." Dao gave five examples of Gore's "strong words," including this shocking statement:

DAO: MAY 3 "What about the waitress who's carrying a heavy tray, what about the longshoreman, what about the steelworker and the auto workers? When they get to the current retirement age, they don't want to be told that in order to finance some risky tax scheme for the wealthy, they are going to have to keep on working until they are 70 years old."

That was the entire text of Dao's example. Referring to Bush's budget plan as a "risky tax scheme" offends the sensibility of the Manners Prefect.

That's right, folks. Saying Bush has a "risky tax scheme" counts as "strong words about Bush," and it's put in a box for special display. Bush's repeated claim that Gore is "dishonest" and "doesn't tell the truth" merits no similar treatment.