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20 May 2002

Our current howler (part IV): Clothes-hoarse

Synopsis: Did pundits fashion a great debate? Howard Fineman reviewed Bush and Gore’s wardrobes!

Commentary by Al Hunt
Capital Gang,
CNN, 5/20/00

Commentary by Fred Barnes
The Beltway Boys,
Fox News Channel, 5/20/00

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

Commentary by Howard Fineman
MSNBC, 5/15/00

Had Candidate Bush made a worthwhile proposal? That was a matter of judgment. But the “great debate” which the press corps promised simply never occurred. Instead, the pundit corps told a well-scripted story. Bush had shown himself to be a bold leader by daring to touch the third rail of American politics. Gore, by contrast, was engaged in endless attacks—and he was trying to scare the voters. And everyone knew another thing—Gore was trying to do to Bush exactly what he’d done to Bill Bradley. Around the press corps, pundits politely stood in line to recite variants of this latest group tale.

Was the press corps driven by liberal bias? Bush and Gore made their dueling speeches about Social Security on Monday, May 15. By the weekend, it was easy to see who was winning the war in the press. On May 20, in fact, two major pundits—one liberal, one conservative—came to a common conclusion about the coverage. On Capital Gang, Mark Shields popped the question: “Al Hunt, who is winning the first round of the Social Security debate?”

HUNT: Well, certainly, Bush is winning among the elites, and I think in the press coverage so far. But, Mark, I don’t think he can go for five or six months with ducking the details of what this is all about. Alas, poor Albert! Hunt was one of those lotus-land pundits who dreampt that his press corps would force real debate. (Bush did in fact go five or six months without giving his important plan’s “details.” See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/17/02.) But Hunt was surely right in saying that Bush was winning the war in the press. Hunt was a liberal, but conservative Fred Barnes voiced the same judgment that evening on Fox. Barnes spoke with his Beltway Boys co-host, Mort Kondracke. “An important thing has happened in this country regarding Social Security,” Barnes said. “Elite opinion—in other words, the bigwigs, the opinion-makers, people like you, Mort—have changed their mind and are now, I think, sympathetic to the Bush plan and think that Gore is just being a reactionary liberal.” Indeed, it had long been clear that press elites favored the use of personal accounts. Hunt and Barnes were stating the obvious as the corps’ great debate was unfolding.

How silly can the press corps be in reciting its favorite scripts? Some of the attacks on Gore are still worth recalling. Such follies will surely recur in the fall if the press corps revisits this topic.

May 4 and 5—James Dao-thought: Gore’s first critique of personal accounts was offered in late April/early May. During that period, Gore made a set of “compare and contrast” speeches, critiquing Bush’s proposals in four major policy areas. The New York Times responded with a pair of front-page articles by James Dao, lamenting Gore’s “cascade of attacks.” In fact, Dao’s May 5 piece expressed the theme which was rapidly becoming press dogma. According to the article’s headline, Gore was “Giving Bush the Bradley Treatment”—Gore was trying to tear up Bush the same way he had torn up Bill Bradley. How sensitive was Dao to Gore’s attacks? Incredibly, here was the Timesman’s first example of Gore’s disturbing conduct:
DAO: Even some Democrats seem to think that Mr. Gore’s attacks occasionally go over the top…Today Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat who supports investing some of the Social Security trust fund in private markets, took issue with [Gore’s use of] the word “privatization.”
“That’s a scare word,” said Mr. Moynihan, who supported Mr. Bradley in the primaries but has since endorsed the vice president.
Dao was stretching mightily. Moynihan’s semantic sensibilities to the side, the term “privatization” was being widely used to describe Bush’s Social Security proposals. The budget reporter at Dao’s own Times had used the term just four days before. The AP was calling Bush’s idea an example of “privatization.” So were Newsweek, Time and U.S. News—and so was the Washington Times, in editorials supporting Bush’s position. (The paper was also using the term in its news reporting.) George Will called Bush’s plan “privatization”—and so did William Kristol, Paul Gigot, Tony Snow and Robert Novak. But incredibly, Gore’s use of the commonplace term was Exhibit A in Dao’s front-page piece—a sign of his attack-dog campaigning. Other absurd examples abounded. At the end of his article, Dao gave four examples of Gore’s recent “cascade of attacks.” Incredibly, here were two of the four “attacks,” exactly as Dao presented them:
APRIL 25—“We fell prey to the politics of illusion during the decade of amazing deficits. Now we have to avoid the politics of illusion in the decade of amazing surpluses. This is a test of our memory. Have we forgotten the dangers of irresponsibility? Have we forgotten the virtues of responsibility?”

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.”
Incredibly, after Gore’s two-week “cascade of attacks,” these were the most disturbing examples Dao was able to muster. For the record, Dao explained what was wrong with these troubling statements (otherwise, it would have been quite hard to tell); the delicate scribe was upset with Gore for using the words “irresponsibility” and “risky.” But Dao’s silly articles set the tone for the punditry yet to come. Gore was slammed for his endless attacks—by scribes who rarely made any attempt to examine his “attacks” on the merits.

May 15—Howard Fineman, clothes-hoarse: Was liberal bias ruling the press corps? After May 15, Gore was battered on pundit shows for his opposition to personal accounts. On The News, Brian Williams rolled his eyes at Gore’s use of the troubling word “risky.” On Hardball, host Chris Matthews lit into Gore for using the word “privatization.” (Matthews seemed to agree with guest Jack Kemp that Gore’s word-choice was “pure demagoguery.”) On CNN, instant reporting of the May 15 speeches zeroed in on Gore’s “buzz phrases.” Two days later on Inside Politics, Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg showed their mastery of the corps’ latest script; they applied the word “attack” to Gore no less than ten times in a two-minute outing (partial text below). But what were the merits in Gore’s “attacks?” The pundits made no effort to say. Nor did Williams attempt to explain the risks which did exist in Bush’s proposal. On these programs, budget experts were non-existent; spinning pundits ruled the day. So it went as the somnolent press corps napped, yawned, snored, spun and slumbered.

Was liberal bias driving the coverage? Not for those watching Hardball. On Hardball, Gore was battered all week long for his opposition to personal accounts. According to excitable host Chris Matthews, Gore was “a human stop sign” and “a pander bear”—a “pure demagogue,” making “dishonest statements.” He was “fear-mongering”—“running a fear campaign”—trying to “scare the hell (and “the bejesus”) out of people.” Gore’s own proposals in this area constituted “an assassination of the character of Social Security.” But little effort was ever made to offer info to Hardball viewers. Did budget experts appear on the show? Surely we don’t have to ask.

One classic performance on the program does deserve special mention. On May 15, Howard Fineman reviewed Bush and Gore’s speeches—and there was little doubt where the Newswseek sage stood. “Al Gore is saying that, one more time, the Democrats can use Social Security as a scare issue,” he said. (Though Fineman presented this as his own view, it was also a Bush campaign spin-point.) Bush, by contrast, was being “presidential”—a point the scribe made three separate times just in his opening comment. (This was also a Bush campaign spin-point.) Indeed, Bush’s clothing was even presidential. “You see Al Gore in the, in the silk shirts,” Fineman said. “You see George W. Bush dressed up like a president.” Incredibly, even at the start of this “great debate,” Fineman offered a mindless comment about the hopefuls’ wardrobes. (Bush had worn a suit-and-tie for his May 15 speech. Gore wore a sport coat and a dark shirt.) But as the rest of Campaign 2000 would show, there was simply no issue important enough to distract your pundits from this kind of nonsense. In particular, nothing would ever stop Howard Fineman from insulting the American public interest this way. Nothing would shake the press corps’ fixation on trivia, sheer irrelevance—and spin.

Donald Lambro says that SS reform will drive the congressional elections this fall. Will the press corps fashion a “great debate?” Precedent raises some doubts.

Next: Notes on future schedules.

The Daily update (5/20/02)

Speaking of one-trick ponies: Your pundits are happiest when they All Say The Same Thing. When it came to SS reform, major pundits all had the same story:
Hardball, MSNBC, May 5, 2000:
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Norah, let’s start in talking about this amazing campaign. Who would have believed that George W. Bush would have looked so clean and so good right now after that bruising fight with John McCain? He’s up five points in a number of polls this week, and yet you see Al Gore picking away at him with these left jabs of his…It’s the same thing he did to Bill Bradley—attack, attack, attack.

Russert, CNBC, May 6, 2000:
JOE KLEIN: The concern I have about the Gore campaign is that he has learned one lesson and he’s kind of becoming a one-trick pony.
TIM RUSSERT: Attack. Attack. Attack.
KLEIN: Attack. Attack.
RUSSERT: Governor Bush put forward a Social Security plan calling for a partial privatizing, and he attacks, saying that is risky…Why—why—why does Gore just, almost knee-jerk, attack, attack, attack?

Inside Politics, CNN, May 17, 2000:
CHARLES COOK: For Governor Bush, it’s a chance to show sort of bold leadership…But at the same time, getting into that area is certainly a risky thing and it’s going to test all of George Bush’s abilities of persuasion to sell this, because Al Gore is very good at the attack, just look at what he did to Bill Bradley on health care…
BERNARD SHAW: What comes to mind, Stu?
ROTHENBERG: Well, in general, he has been attacking for months now and there’s been a lot of criticism that he’s been overly negative. Once again, here, attack, attack.
But what were the merits of Gore’s attacks? All across our pundit reserves, scribes made little attempt to say. But Joe Klein knew why Gore was doing it. “Why does Gore just attack, attack, attack?” Russert asked. “Well, because it’s—it’s, you know, scaring people about Social Security,” Klein said. So it went as liberal bias kept spoiling the corps’ campaign coverage.