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7 June 2000

Our current howler (part I): E pluribus, unum story

Synopsis: Our analysts groaned and covered their ears when David Gergen gave the One Standard Story.

Commentary by David Gergen
Hardball, MSNBC, 6/2/00

Commentary by Howard Fineman
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 5/30/00

Commentary by Steve Roberts
Late Edition, CNN, 6/4/00

Gore to stress the positive with own issues
Susan Page, USA Today, 5/30/00

Al Gore's Next Makeover
Howard Fineman, Newsweek, 6/5/00 (released on 5/29)

Sometimes it's simply hard to believe the poverty of our public discourse. Our analysts groaned and covered their ears when they heard David Gergen playing Hardball Friday night:

GERGEN: But Chris, there's another thing, part of this. Al Gore—he does have wonderful advisers. Bob Shrum—he's one of the best out there. There's no question about that. But we're into, what, the seventh reinvention, the eighth reinvention of Al Gore?

It had to be, what, the ninety-ninth, hundredth time we'd heard someone say it? The copy-cat crowd was out in force—but at least Gergen spared us from hearing him name each of the alleged "reinventions." Howard Fineman was not so compassionate. He helped kick the frenzy off when he appeared with Brian Williams last Tuesday night:

FINEMAN (The News): By my count we're on about the fifth or sixth Al Gore now. I covered his first presidential campaign—that was Bible Belt Al, followed by Environmental Al, followed by Good Soldier Al, followed by Attack Dog Al, and now comes the Intellectually Questing, Soulful Al who uses his brain to look over the horizon to see issues that are going to face us in the 21st century.

Let's face it—the only part of the brain these guys like is the part that controls short-term memory. Steve Roberts was still reciting the bite on Sunday afternoon's Late Edition:

ROBERTS: What is this, the third new Gore, the fourth new Gore? I've lost count in this campaign. And I think that belies a certain shakiness, I agree with you.

What had produced the excitement? Over Memorial Day weekend, the Gore campaign had described a new approach for the next week's campaigning. Susan Page described the plans in USA Today last Tuesday morning:

PAGE (paragraph 1): Vice President Gore, lagging in the presidential race after weeks of slashing his rival, will turn this week to promoting his own family-related proposals, including a new welfare-to-work initiative focused on fathers.

To be honest, it didn't really sound all that startling, described in Page's sensible prose. Page described some of the proposals Gore would make in "a week of events designed to portray Gore in more positive and personal terms." And why was Gore taking the new approach? Page discussed that too:

PAGE (9): Some aides say Gore has paid a price for relentlessly attacking Republican George W. Bush for what the vice president dubs "risky schemes" to reform Social Security, cut taxes and develop a national missile defense system. They fear that message has overshadowed Gore's proposals and made it harder to convince voters that he is a likable person.

Page went on to quote several Dems commenting on Gore's approach.

That's the way you report events if you want to inform your readers. Fineman reported the same change in approach in his Newsweek piece last week, but he decided to do a little bit more—he took the old spin-buggy out for a ride. Fineman's article was called "Al Gore's Next Makeover," and it included the following passage:

FINEMAN (Newsweek): It's of course way early in the race, and the economy is still on [Gore's] side. Gore's handlers are plotting yet another rollout of the candidate, this one a massive ad campaign based on the notion that he's not so much as alpha male as a thinking man with a heart.

Fineman talked about "makeovers" and "rollouts," and he managed to work "alpha male" in there too. That's the way you report events when you're trying to whip up the 'hoos.

The desire to associate Gore with "makeovers" has been widespread within the press corps. But how much sense did Fineman make in listing his "five or six" Als? He was counting five or six Gores over the course of twelve years. But some overlapped, some seemed to recur, and some didn't seem to contradict one another. To be honest, Fineman—who has become one of the press corps' top spinners—didn't really make much sense at all:

Is "Environmental Al"—he wrote the book—really different from "Intellectually Questing Al?" Fineman lists these as Two Different Als—but they're really the same person, aren't they? And wasn't Gore associated with futuristic issues from early in his career in the House? So the "new Al" was there from the start! "Good Soldier Al" was the Clinton VP. But didn't Gore, as Clinton's VP, also play an "Attack Dog" campaign role? And don't campaigning vice presidents almost always do that? In fact, none of this makes much sense at all, except as one thing—Good Hard Spin.

In Newsweek, Fineman played Reporter Howard (though he slipped in a few major spin-points). On The News, he appeared as Pundit Howard, pushing images that don't make much sense. But the spinning went on all through the week, as pundits lined up to recite Approved Stories. Gergen said there were "seven or eight" Gores. Roberts said it was three or four. Fineman said it was five or six. But as usual, they all had One Story.

Tomorrow: Someone else was reciting the very same tale. It was Jim Nicholson, at the RNC.


The Daily update (6/7/00)

An elder enjoys his burlesque: Last week, we asked you: Where are the elders? We got an unfortunate look last Saturday night when the New York Times' Tom Friedman appeared with Tim Russert on cable. Friedman gave us a chance to see what is frequently wrong with even our brightest commentators.

Host Russert posed a question:

RUSSERT: The man of the hour, Al Gore. All of Washington [is] talking about, what is wrong with the Al Gore campaign?...What is Al Gore all about? What's his campaign all about? And how does he embrace the things you write about in terms of globalization?

The question was a bit revealing itself. The show, pre-taped, aired on a Saturday; on Thursday, a Zogby poll had revealed that "all of Washington" was "talking about" what's wrong with a campaign that is one point behind, five months from the election. But it was Friedman who captured our attention. After praising Gore for "really getting" globalization issues "at a very, very deep level," Friedman turned to another issue on which he may not be such an expert. But it's clearly one on which he likes to emote:

FRIEDMAN: The other thing, I took a very strong position on Elian Gonzalez in favor of Janet Reno. Whatever you thought about the issue—you know, there were sort of two positions. One is that you were with Janet Reno, the other was that you were with the Miami Cubans. Al Gore had a third position, OK? Third position is he wanted it resolved in family court. [Speaking louder] Well I wanted it resolved by Tinkerbell, but Tinkerbell wasn't available, OK!? Neither was family court! You had to be for one or the other. And it seems to me, by not going with his gut—and people smelled it at a hundred paces—he's been losing altitude ever since.

This struck us as an extremely unintelligent presentation. here were only two positions? That is simply wrong; the case could have been resolved in family court, and if there had been more votes for that in the Congress, that's right where the case would have gone. Beyond that, Friedman exhibits a standard failing—he criticizes Gore very personally for his position, and doesn't mention, as a point of simple fairness, that Bush took the very same stand. But so, of course, did major senators, of both parties—when Gore came out for permanent legal resident status on March 30, he was supporting a newly-introduced, bipartisan resolution. Perhaps Friedman could "smell" the senators too, but a balanced presentation would have mentioned these facts before resorting to "Tinkerbell" imagery. Before Friedman engages in ridicule and sense-of-smell stuff, he ought to give a better set of facts.

But many elders, for whatever reason, have turned away from careful discourse. They prefer the excited presentations that elders have long tried to temper. Friedman displayed our modern problem when asked to comment on Bush:

FRIEDMAN: I've always had the sense, listening to Bush, that I'm listening to a man who hasn't been reading the newspaper for the last twenty years. And that's one of the things that's concerned me about him. He does have a set of serious advisers around him. But to me it comes down to a campaign, at least if you wanted to caricature it, between a man with no brain and a man with no spine. And it's which do we really want?

Exactly: "If you wanted to caricature it." But why does Tom Friedman want to do that? When even our elders turn by instinct to caricature, we no longer need to maintain them. The rabble—the sophists—the spinners—the street: they've always been ready to engage in loud ranting. If this is the best that Tom Friedman can do, then why not just tune in Chris Matthews?

By the way, we can smell Friedman at a hundred paces. Why does he get so worked up about Elian? We can tell you: It's because he thinks the Miami relatives are "Cubans." Does he refer to Rick Lazio and Rudy Giuliani as "Italians?" The Miami relatives are Cuban-Americans. And we know because Tinkerbell told us.

Commentary by Tom Friedman
Russert, CNBC, 6/3/00