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9 June 2000

Our current howler (part III): Different strokes

Synopsis: Al was "reinventing himself," Gergen said. But George had just "moved to the center."

Commentary by Thomas Friedman
Imus in the Morning, MSNBC, 6/8/00

Commentary by Andrea Mitchell
The Mitchell Report, MSNBC, 6/7/00

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

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Bob Shrum
Hardball, MSNBC, 6/1/00

Yesterday morning, the I-man was chatting with Timesman Thomas Friedman. The following exchange was plainly heard:

IMUS: I was talking to Chris Dodd earlier this morning and noted that the president had attended Prime Minister Obuchi's funeral...Isn't that the vice president's job?

FRIEDMAN: Definitely it's the vice president's job. He seems to be otherwise engaged, with his third reinvention.

If there's one thing our pundits do nicely, it's memorize. Andrea Mitchell had the new bite down too; "Al Gore undergoing another makeover," she intoned at the start of her Wednesday night program (6/7). To us, the English language is being stretched when running some ads is chalked up as "reinvention." But you know how particular those pundits can be. They simply despise the slightest sign of flip-flops, panders, or insincerity. At the first small hint of message shading, the posse scripts up and heads out.

So David Gergen was right on message when he showed up last Friday (6/2) to play Hardball (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/7/00). You'll recall what he said about Gore:

GERGEN: 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?

Yep. The latest "makeover" had been on for a week when Gergen spoke with a tabloid talker. As other pundits had done all week, Gergen suggested that slippery old Al was tryin' to fool us again.

But that wasn't what made our analysts groan here at our sprawling world headquarters. Yes, we thought it was silly to describe Gore's week as a "makeover" or "reinvention." But what brought the analysts out of their chairs? It was what Gergen had said about Governor Bush. Yep—just moments before his comment on Al, Gergen said this about George:

GERGEN: I think he's done extremely well in moving back to the center. You know, South Carolina has almost disappeared from people's minds now. He's used all sorts of issues like the environment and education to move back to the center. And I think he is actually taking some risks on some issues and the vice president isn't.

That's right, folks. Al had been "reinventing himself." But George had "moved back to the center."

Gergen—about to mock Gore for "reinvention"—was praising Bush for something that sounded similar. In South Carolina, Bush had stressed his conservative side in fighting off McCain's growing challenge. Since that time—as Gergen explicitly noted—Bush had made a whole set of presentations that shaded in other directions. He had even directed the state of Texas to give out $1 million worth of free trigger locks. But was this derided as a "reinvention" or "makeover?" Nope. Openly praising Bush for his move, Gergen used a cheerful phrase to describe what the hopeful had done.

As you know, we always caution against the "double standard" complaint. It's the easiest claim on earth to make, and the hardest of all claims to prove. It's rare when two situations are so alike that one can make valid comparisons. But we had noticed this attitude from the pundits before—this cheerful acceptance of Bush's retoolings. In fact, we'd seen an example from a tabloid talker on Hardball just one night before (6/1).

The talker was hosting Gore consultant Bob Shrum, one night after Bush had appeared on the program. Straight from the gate, the talker asked Shrum about what Bush had said the night before on abortion:

MATTHEWS: What did you think of his answer to that? That basically, all the talk about outlawing abortion is basically posturing to a large extent, because there are many options for a woman to get an abortion, go to Canada, go to Windsor, Canada, go to Vancouver...The fact is that no one really believes that we're going to outlaw abortion so why do we talk about it?

Shrum—he's a "wartime consigliere," the talker said—managed to dredge up some reasons:

SHRUM: Look, his position is he wants the issue to go away. He wants to sound moderate during the election, and then when he becomes president, under the Republican platform, which he says he supports, and which I have no reason to doubt he supports, [interruption] he is committed to appointing judges that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

Did the talker smell "reinvention" by Bush? Hardly. Here's what he said:

MATTHEWS: You won't give him a break and say—I know you're opposed to him, why would you give him a break—but the fact is he's clearly sending a message. Don't worry, ladies out there, and gentlemen, I'm not going to be Cotton Mather. I'm not coming in to outlaw abortion.

Reinventing, our tush! Shrum was supposed to give Bush a break because Bush was just "sending a message." And the talker was sure that a "message" was being sent. When Shrum said he had no reason to doubt that Bush supports the GOP platform (as he says he does), the talker interrupted with this:

SHRUM: ...under the Republican platform, which he says he supports, and which I have no reason to doubt he supports—

MATTHEWS: Well, what about what he said last night? That's reason to doubt it.

Double messages now seemed quite appropriate.

The pattern continued throughout the Shrum scrum. The talker next mentioned Bush's comments on Hardball about gay issues. Bush had said, "Absolutely. Sure." when asked if "good people could be gay:"

MATTHEWS: Isn't that progress from a guy wouldn't even meet with the Log Cabins a couple of months ago, to admit that good people could be gay? I asked him a follow question, it wasn't on the tape, and I said, "Have your attitudes and feelings about this whole question evolved, knowing that so many of your friends, people came out of the closet, people that, friends of your family, had actually been living the gay lifestyle?" And he says, Yeah, I might think he has evolved. Give this guy a break a little, huh?

On Thursday night, "evolving" and "sending messages" weren't "reinvention," they were "progress." Shrum was repeatedly urged by the talker to give the evolvee a break.

Let's make ourselves clear. We aren't necessarily saying that the talker's view of Bush's "evolution" is accurate. We aren't criticizing Bush for his stands. But we can't help noticing a peculiar pattern as we watch the press corps reciting their scripts. It hasn't just been on this one talker's program. All over the memorized Pundit Chorale, where one major hopeful is scored for "makeovers," another seems to get winks and nods.

Monday: Terry Neal's excellent piece in today's WashPost made us think once again of dueling standards.


The Daily update (6/9/00)

Maybe Bill Sammon needs repairs: Bill Sammon is named for a popular fish, and his stories often seem to involve running water. Last summer he flogged that Gore canoe trip, and this week he's been checking out plumbing. In fact, there's so much running water in Bill Sammon's work, we often have to run to the bathroom ourselves, right in the middle of one of his stories. We try not to drink any juices or nectars for an hour before reading the Times.

We don't know Sammon, but he seems awfully genial, and we've never heard anyone say any different. But he needs to take a major pill after this ridiculous image in Wednesday's plumbing feature:

SAMMON: When Mr. Gore called Mrs. Mayberry on Saturday, he invited her to dinner at his house later this month and invited himself to dinner at the Mayberry house as soon as the renovation is complete. Mr. Gore, a gun-control advocate, will have a chance to see the seven shotguns and pistols the Mayberrys keep in a glass cabinet in their living room, next to the picture window that looks out at the Gore house.

That last image involves inexcusably bad judgment. When a genial person can publish a passage like that, it shows how much our culture is being harmed by the journalism of denigration and destruction.

Repairs come quickly after 'slumlord' accusations
Bill Sammon, The Washington Times, 6/7/00