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12 June 2000

Our current howler (part IV): Once-told tale

Synopsis: Pundits could ridicule Bush for "reinvention," too. So why don’t the scribes want to do it?

Trotting Out the Latest Reinvention of Al Gore
Steven Weisman, The New York Times, 6/11/00

A Positive Plan For Convention
Terry Neal, The Washington Post, 6/9/00

Commentary by Brit Hume, Juan Williams, Morton Kondracke
Special Report, FNC, 6/8/00

Commentary by Arianna Huffington
Rivera Live, CNBC, 11/9/99

"Sometimes it's simply hard to believe the poverty of our public discourse." Those were our incomparable words as we started this story-cycle last week. We thought of our comment just yesterday morning, as we read Steven Weisman in the New York Times. Weisman's "Editorial Observer" appeared under the predictable headline, "Trotting Out the Latest Reinvention of Al Gore:"

WEISMAN (paragraph 1): At the risk of self-parody, Al Gore is trying once again this month to break out of a slump by reintroducing himself to voters. He isn't changing his clothes this time, but he is avoiding personal attacks and unveiling big policy ideas connected in some way to life stories...

In other words, a candidate "reinvents himself" by 1) avoiding personal attacks and 2) offering big policy ideas. If there is self-parody here, it is that of the press corps, in its latest Month of Memorization. Weisman was holding court on Day 14 of the latest Spin Fiesta, repeating what every other pundit on earth had said. His ability to stick to Approved Pundit Scripts was matched by his lightweight reasoning:

WEISMAN (2): Why, the candidate must wonder, can Gov. George W. Bush reposition himself as a moderate with such ease while his own reinventions draw ridicule?

It's the very question which we began to raise in last Friday's DAILY HOWLER (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/9/00). By the way, we note that Weisman's own language implies that Bush has also engaged in "reinvention." So why has Gore alone drawn ridicule? Listen to Weisman's explanation:

WEISMAN (3): One reason may be that there have been so many of them [Gore reinventions]. But the dominant theory is that Mr. Gore simply does not connect with people. He is seen as too stiff, too eager to please, too caught up in policy gobbledygook to excite voters...

Weisman nowhere disagrees with this "dominant theory." Gore's "reinventions" have alone "drawn ridicule" because Gore doesn't "connect with people."

We guess this theory all depends on which "people" Weisman means. For the record, the "ridicule" of Gore's latest "reinvention" did not come from the voters. The public didn't raise the idea that Gore "reinvented" himself. The theory—and the subsequent ridicule—came from the press corps itself. As we've noted, it started with Howard Fineman's June 5 Newsweek piece (released on May 29); it was the headline on the Fineman piece which first referred to Gore's "latest makeover," and it was Fineman who started the open ridicule on the May 30 News with Brian Williams (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/7/00). The copy-cats took it from there. In yesterday's article, Weisman did what pundits so often do—he described the press corps' own plain conduct, then attributed that conduct to somebody else. As we've seen before, "the voters" and the "late-night comics" are the two stool pigeons most frequently named when the hopeless press corps wants to pretend that its propaganda began somewhere else.

Weisman did introduce one new idea—the idea that Bush has done the same things as Gore, but just hasn't been ridiculed for it. Indeed, we were struck by that very same thought when we read Terry Neal's piece in last Friday's Washington Post. According to Neal, the GOP is "planning a summer convention that minimizes attack politics." Why has the party decided to play down attacks? Here was one part of the background:

NEAL: Last month, the Texas governor's campaign held focus group discussions and concluded that Vice President Gore's biggest liability with voters is his personality—particularly when he's in attack mode. The information collected there as well as polling data has persuaded the campaign to take the high road and deviate from its original strategy, which Bush indicated in March would include direct and frequent attacks on Gore.

Ohmigod! According to Neal, the Bush campaign has used focus groups and polling data, and changed the hopeful's approach! If you wanted to, you could almost say that Bush had thus "reinvented himself." Indeed, Neal also stated in his piece that Bush will avoid certain issues at the convention:

NEAL: The campaign is trying to focus the event narrowly on the issues Bush has concentrated on since effectively wrapping up the nomination in March: education, Social Security and Medicare, "compassion subjects" (empowerment and revitalization), and national defense...Notably absent from the agenda are tax cuts and abortion.

Bush's tax cut was once "rolled out" as a major part of his campaign.

We have no complaint with the Bush campaign—none at all—for the way it has planned its convention. But we couldn't help thinking how easy it would be—to ridicule the conduct of the Bush campaign as the Gore campaign has been ridiculed. Remember, Brian Williams introduced "focus groups" into the mocking of Reinvented Gore; he said that Fineman's article described their use, although the article said no such thing. According to Neal, the Bush campaign had used focus groups—and changed Bush's tack in the process.

That's right, folks. If the scribes wanted to be as silly about Governor Bush as they've already been about Vice President Gore, it wouldn't be hard to work it out. Here are Bush's, what, five or six reinventions:

Version 1.0: Outsider George—Bush refuses to start his campaign events until the Texas legislature gets finished.

Version 2.0: Insider George—A month later, Bush arrives in DC for massive fund-raiser attended by Washington lobbyists.

Version 3.0: Compassionate George—Bush campaigns in New Hampshire last fall, promoting "Compassionate Conservatism."

Version 4.0: Reformer George—Bush campaigns in South Carolina, calling himself a "Reformer with Results."

Version 5.0: Attack Dog George—Bush accuses McCain of dissing vets, and then he vows to go after Gore too.

Version 6.0: Puppy Dog George—Responding to polls and focus groups, Bush lays off the attacks.

The truth is, you can gimmick up as many silly "versions" of Bush as you can of Gore. It's a snap.

But there was the gang on Special Report peddling the GoreSpin last Thursday. You'll surely think we're making this up. But Brit began the panel like this:

HUME: So we see Mr. Gore now stepping out—he hasn't changed his clothes again—but he seems to have changed all of the other outward appearances of his campaign, including moving to a new billboard-free headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee. What do you think, Mort?

Moving to a larger building is now folded into "reinvention." And the spin is furthered by mentioning something that Gore hasn't done (changing clothes). In response, Morton Kondracke was strictly professional; he mentioned Gore's new proposal to "lockbox" Medicare surpluses. Kondracke said nothing on the "reinvention" theme; he simply discussed the proposal's merits. But, asked to comment on the proposal, Juan Williams ran back to the spin:

WILLIAMS: Well, I don't know how you can reinvent yourself at this point. I mean, so, I think one of the difficulties for Al Gore—

HUME: Is this proposal, is this an appealing, is this an exciting, an example—

WILLIAMS: You know, the reason why I reacted to this as I did is I don't think the proposal has much sticking power right now. It's not going to shift votes, is what I think.

That's what he thought, but instead, he said, "I don't know how you can reinvent yourself!" Thinking one thing, but always stating the spin? It's known as "Devotion to message." Moments later, Kondracke brought the analysts out of their chairs with this double-dipper performance:

KONDRACKE: This is actually ratcheting up the last New Gore. The last New Gore was the Positive Gore. Off the negative, on to the positive. So now what they're doing, they're coming up with new arguments for the New Gore...

According to Kondracke, Gore had reinvented himself twice in the last two weeks! Bingo! But that's how it is with Official Spin. Someone always finds a way to "ratchet it" to the next level. (See postscript—in fact, do not miss.)

Needless to say, the panel had engaged in gruesome critique, in which every action is forced to fit the Spin Point of the Fortnight. Williams thinks: The Medicare lockbox won't change votes. Williams says: I don't see how you can reinvent yourself. Why is this image being forced on Gore, when Weisman and Neal—and Gergen too—noted that Bush has also "reinvented?" That takes us back to Lawrence O'Donnell, making a sage point on Hardball last month.

Tomorrow—a Howler epilog: Lawrence O'Donnell's sage point last month has plainly been acted out since.

Postscript—The next level: Someone always seems to take the Official Spin up to the next level. Last fall, pundits spent a month embarrassing themselves about the number of buttons on Gore's suits (three). Three-button suits had been in fashion for years; Brooks Brothers (!), in the Wall Street Journal (!), was running ads for such suits at the time. Brooks Brothers!! But the Official Spin was hard and unyielding: Gore had taken some weird advice on clothes from an overpaid "guru." The pundits took turns embarrassing themselves with their inane and vacuous comments. Finally, Arianna Huffington improved the news on Rivera Live one night:

HUFFINGTON: Frankly, what is fascinating is the way he's now dressing makes a lot of people feel disconnected from him. And there was this marvelous story in one of the New Hampshire papers saying, "Nobody here in Hanover wears tan suits with blue shirts and buttons all four buttons." It's just not the way Americans dress.

In a year of embarrassing and inane pundit commentary, we think this one may have taken the cake. After weeks of complaining about three-button suits, Huffington found a way to top other scribes. We have pointed this out again and again: When the pundits agree to say the same thing, the only way to stand out is by saying it larger. This leads to spinning the message up—to saying that Gore is wearing four-button suits, or to saying that he reinvented himself two times. We pray that history will look back with jaws agape at our press corps' utter inanity. But understand this: If this hopeless crew had to earn its keep, they'd all have been fired long ago.


The Daily update (6/12/00)

They edit, we decide: Over the weekend, Hillary Clinton did some funnin' at the Albany Gridiron Dinner. Several shows played short clips of her humorous speech. The photo album with the Yankees cap was actually pretty funny (and it was very good politics). And a few jokes which were played on the Sunday shows seemed to get pretty good laughs.

But we knew the election was underway when we watched those scamps on Fox News Sunday. They played an HRC joke that fell flat. Here's the full tape from the show:

Fox News Sunday (6/11/00):
TAPE OF MRS CLINTON: Where else in the world can you stand on any street corner and have people yell, "Go home," in every language known around the world?

Huh? The panel didn't know what to say, either. Here was the best they could muster:

TONY SNOW (continuing directly): Oh-kaaaay. [Pause] Tish?

TISH DURKIN: Huh? [Pause] Whatever her quotient [pause]—whatever her potential as a stand-up comic, I think that the biggest issue, we all know, with regard to the first lady's campaign is, she is basically in a dead heat with the heretofore virtually unknown congressman, Rick Lazio...

It was pretty clear, on Fox News Sunday, that Mrs. Clinton's weird joke just fell flat. But wouldn't you know it? They played the same joke on Meet the Press—and you could hear that the joke got a pretty good laugh. And on Meet the Press, they did a good thing. They played the whole joke, start to finish:

Meet the Press (6/11/00):
TAPE OF MRS. CLINTON: I really do love New York, especially the diversity. Just tell me this: Where else in the world can you stand on any street corner and have people yell, "Go home," in every language known around the world?

The part in bold is what's known as the "premise." On Fox News Sunday, they absent-mindedly left it out.

We know a little bit about jokes, and if you leave out the premise, all jokes will fall flat. Does somebody know that at FNS, too? Fox loves to say, "We report, you decide." In this case, it seems like they edited.

Commentary by Tony Snow, Tish Durkin
Fox News Sunday, Fox, 6/11/00