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23 June 2000

Our current howler (part IV): "Suddenly" last Sunday

Synopsis: When Michael Kelly is getting his stuff from Tim Russert, the mighty god, Spin, roars with pleasure.

Gore and the Goodies
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 6/21/00

Gore to announce $200 billion plan to aid retirement
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 6/19/00

Commentary by Susan Dentzer
The NewsHour, PBS, 6/20/00

Surplus Causes Bending of Political Party Lines
Ron Brownstein, The Los Angeles Times, 6/20/00

Commentary by Sam Donaldson
This Week, ABC, 6/18/00

Commentary by Wolf Blitzer
Late Edition, CNN, 6/18/00

Commentary by Juan Williams
Fox News Sunday, Fox, 6/18/00

No surprise—by Wednesday, Michael Kelly had the spin down, and the Post was quite willing to print it. His column opened like this:

KELLY (paragraph 1): It's easy to mock Al Gore (now, there's a truism) for his sudden embrace of big tax cuts and for his likewise abrupt passion for allowing workers to augment their Social Security pensions by investing tax dollars in the stock market, two ideas that George W. Bush has been trumpeting and that, until now, Gore has been screechily denouncing as too, too terribly risky.

Kelly's points had been official spin-points since Seelye's paragraph 7 on Monday. You'll remember how she had put it:

SEELYE: Mr. Gore's plan does two things that Mr. Gore had criticized in the plan offered by Governor Bush, his Republican rival. One, it allows people to invest taxpayer money in the stock market. Two, it substantially increases the amount of the surplus that Mr. Gore would devote to tax cuts.

In short, Gore was supposedly doing the things he had bashed. It was also the official RNC line. Dentzer had quoted Bush saying it:

DENTZER: Bush criticized Gore's proposal as a flip-flop.

[Tape of Bush speaking] Now all of a sudden he's decided it's okay to be managing money in the stock market. First the stock market was roulette and risky, and now the heat's on, and he changes position.

Everyone knew the official story—Gore was now doing the things he had bashed. Scribes like Mitchell felt obliged to keep stating the spin—even as they explicitly said the Gore and Bush plans were really quite different (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/20/00 and 6/21/00).

But how much were pundits willing to spin you? They were willing to spin you a lot. According to Kelly, Gore's "big tax cuts" were "sudden" and his retirement plan was "abrupt;" Gore had reinvented himself out of nowhere. The great god Spin roared with pride. But had the Gore cuts really come out of nowhere? Ron Brownstein, in the Los Angeles Times, had recently mentioned some facts:

BROWNSTEIN: In January, the Office of Management and Budget estimated the operating budget surplus—that is, funds in federal accounts excluding Social Security—would total $746 billion through 2010. But revenue growth linked to the booming economy has been running so strong that OMB is expected to estimate the on-budget surplus will be as much as $1 trillion larger over that period.

In other words, as everyone (including Kelly) well knows, the projected federal budget surplus will soon officially double. And, as everyone (including Kelly) knows, it is in that context that Gore "suddenly" offered an increase in his proposed tax cuts. Strangely, Kelly never mentions the impending change in surplus projections as he trashes Gore for "suddenly" changing. But luckily, Brownstein isn't a spinner. He described the way the new projections were changing both parties' plans:

BROWNSTEIN: The new money has encouraged a similar pattern of convergence and contrast [between Bush and Gore] on Social Security. Last summer, when he prepared his budget blueprint, Gore was forced to eliminate Clinton's proposal for federally subsidized accounts that would help middle-income worker save for retirement. Gore had to abandon the proposal because he needed the money to fund his education and health care ideas...But the surplus projections have grown so large that Gore today, without retrenching any of his other spending plans, is scheduled to unveil a variation on Clinton's retirement account plan.

How hard is this to figure out? Previously, Gore couldn't afford the retirement accounts. With the new budget projections, they are affordable. That doesn't mean they're a good idea. But it casts Kelly's use of "sudden" and "abrupt" in a brand new light.

Let's keep it simple and deal with the tax cuts. A trillion new dollars shows up in the surplus. Gore puts one-fourth of that into tax cuts. In the Post, readers see this described as a "sudden" change of plans, without one word of context. The great god, Spin, calls out in glee (why the Post prints such a mess, we can't tell you). But amazingly, someone else had recently said that Gore's new tax cuts were, quote, "sudden." And this scribe wasn't a hambone like Kelly. Sadly, this scribe hosts Meet the Press:

SEELYE (6/19): [Bush spokesman Ari] Fleischer was not the only one suggesting [on Sunday] that Mr. Gore was perhaps going through multiple reinventions.

Those transformations were among the main subjects of [the Sunday] talk programs...

Tim Russert posed the question on the NBC program, "Meet the Press." "Fairly or unfairly, there's a perception that Al Gore has changed positions on abortion, on gun control, Elian Gonzalez, wearing earth tones, wearing sport shirts, wearing coats and ties, changing campaign chairmen, moving from Washington to Nashville, suddenly in favor of a $500 billion tax cut—that Gore has no center, that he flips and panders as a politician. Is that a problem?"

We'll ask you, please, to avert your gaze from the inanity of much of Russert's discourse—from his listing of the various kinds of clothes that people do in fact sometimes wear. And we'll ask you not to think about Russert's modern assumption—that if you say "fairly or unfairly" at the start of a statement, you can say anything you like after that. Just give some thought to that highlighted word—to the word that Kelly would work with on Wednesday. In that moment, Russert—who knew all about the budget context—was speaking to a million Americans who didn't. And saying "fairly or unfairly" at the start of his statement didn't change a simple fact—Russert misled them, totally, inexcusably. It was an offering to the jealous god, Spin.

Sad and remarkable—that at the very top of our public discourse, such a presentation could be. But then, all over the press corps on Sunday morning, hosts murmured incantations to Spin. Often they bordered on incoherence. Sam Donaldson quizzed new Gore chair Bill Daley:

DONALDSON: OK, we hear about the new Gore. I mean, he reinvents himself. What's the problem here? Is it the issues? Is it Al Gore himself? Is he boring? In other words, when you come in and look at the campaign, what are you going to say needs to be done?

Daley mocked the press corps' emphasis on the color suit someone wears. But Donaldson wasn't finished:

DONALDSON: Mr. Daley, he doesn't come across as easy sometimes on television as you are coming across now. Are you going to have people on the staff who continue to say that you have to be an alpha male?

Did Sam really think that his guest might say "Yes?" Sam was rattling off the silly spin-points that have littered this past year's discussion. But the height of the inanity came later on, during panel. And no, we're not making this up:

DONALDSON (starting the panel): Let's continue with the theme of Al Gore. New Al Gore. New Al Gore?

That was his entire question! Donaldson, serving a powerful god, had been reduced to babbling spin-points. But how much better was Wolf Blitzer, hosting Late Edition's panel?

BLITZER: Can he reinvent himself again? Does he need to reinvent himself again?

BLITZER: If Al Gore does now try to reinvent himself, as the popular phrase is, what does he have to do?

Blitzer had it perfectly right. Our hosts had been reduced to blabbing "popular phrases"—to repeating basic spin-points again and again. All of the important hosts were doing it—and they all had a handy excuse. What's the theory? If they simply repeat a "popular phrase," as Blitzer put it; if they just echo phrases "we hear about" (Donaldson); if they mention "perceptions" that exist "fairly or unfairly" (Russert); then they can rattle spin-points after that. And by the way: How inane did the Sunday talk get? Judge for yourself. Here's Juan Williams:

WILLIAMS: Two points. One is, the big talk around Washington this week is that Al Gore is back in suits. Our Alpha Male has decided that suits are in. I appreciate that. I like suits. [Forced laughter]

Williams—describing the "big talk" of his hopeless tribe—gave us a look in the addled soul of the hopelessly trivialized press corps. But you know who's behind it all. Spin!!

We've come to expect no better from Williams. And you know what you're getting when you read Michael Kelly. But readers, go back to that one word from Kelly's column—go back and think about "sudden." We have no view on Gore's tax cuts, but the word "sudden" was there for one reason—to spin you. We're not surprised to see this from Kelly; Kelly will do and say anything to win. But when Kelly is getting his stuff from Tim Russert, a horrid problem now pervades our troubled press.


Send in the clowns: How bad a writer is Michael Kelly? How amazing is it that he's even in print? Just consider his first two paragraphs. Here's how The Irate One continued:

KELLY (paragraph 2): And of course Gore should be mocked. There is something genuinely funny in seeing him take time off from his simultaneously shrill and pompous attacks on Bush's proposal to cut income taxes by $1.3 trillion over 10 years as an irresponsible abdication of governmental stewardship—in order to present his own $500-billion, 10-year tax cut as a splendid example of governmental stewardship. Gore campaign spokesman Douglas Hattaway says his man's half-trillion election-year candy-toss is "a responsible tax cut," while Bush's trillion-dollar baby is "a giant tax giveaway. Where is the magic point where a tax cut goes from one to the other—$600 billion? $900 billion? If Bush had brought in his scheme at, say, $700 billion, only $200 billion more than Gore's, would it too be "a responsible tax cut?" What if Bush had proposed exactly the same figure as Gore? Would both plans be responsible tax cuts, or would they both be giant tax giveaways? It's so confusing.

Well—it'll be confusing if Kelly has his way. There are two basic problems with Kelly's writing; he isn't very smart to begin with, and he's totally willing to spin and deceive you. Let's take a brief look at what can happen when the Post peddles that noxious blend:

  1. Size of Bush's tax cut. Kelly uses $1.3 trillion as the size of Bush's tax cut. That is the Bush campaign's estimate, not Gore's (and not Douglas Hattaway's). The Gore campaign says it's larger. (We don't know which camp is right.) Even then, Kelly spins Bush's figure down, comically; halfway through his paragraph, it becomes "Bush's trillion-dollar baby," which he compares to Gore's "half-trillion" cut. Remember how "Kit" Seelye keeps saying that Gore's $500 billion is "half of" Bush's $1.3 trillion? Kelly, a clown, makes it work.
  2. Restoring the key omitted fact. Kelly's column omits a crucial fact; the projected budget surplus is about to change, big-time. So let's work that fact back in. The Bush proposal was a $1.3 trillion tax cut when the projected surplus was $746 billion. Gore now proposes a $500 billion tax cut, out of a projected surplus that may approach $2 trillion. In short, Bush's proposal called for a tax cut roughly two times the size of the existing surplus; Gore calls for returning perhaps one-third of the existing surplus. Kelly doesn't want you to see how different those two programs are, so he never mentions the new projections. He deceives you, which is fine at the Post.
  3. Ever the hapless sophist. Kelly's hambone rumination ("Where is the magic point?") is like something from Mel-Brooks-does-the-philosophical-classics. In classical Athens, if they'd held a Star Search to locate new sophists for Socrates, Kelly would have lost in the very first round. Where does a mere "tax cut" become "a giant tax giveaway," he ponders (attempting to mock addled Gore). We can't help him. But let us ask a related question: Where does a mere "tax cut" suddenly become "big tax cuts," Kelly's phrase about Gore from paragraph one? Gore had been proposing $250 billion in tax cuts (another fact which Kelly omits); with the new surplus projection, Gore went from $250 billion to $500 billion. But Kelly makes it clear right out of the gate—Gore has displayed a "sudden embrace of big tax cuts." In other words, the former proposal was not a "big tax cut;" the latter proposal now is. So where does a "tax cut" become a "big tax cut?" Is it at $300 billion? $350 billion? What if Gore had proposed exactly the same figure under both surplus projections? Would one be a "big tax cut" and the other not? It's all so confu-u-u-sing when a hambone like Kelly peddles a witch's brew in the Post!

Actually, this isn't confusing at all—it's quite obvious. And, of course, it's also quite sad. The Post has long owed the world an explanation: Why is this hambone in print?

Visit our incomparable archives: Kelly's column, "Farmer Al," was deception as deceptive as deception can be. Why did the Post think "Farmer Al" was OK? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/3/99, 4/5/99, 4/7/99.

Less subtle: At the Washington Times, they're less subtle; they just lie in your face. Say hello to Donald Lambro:

LAMBRO (6/17): The Gore campaign maintains that its tax-cut plan was enlarged in response to recent revisions in the growing budget surplus. But the larger tax revenue numbers were made public much earlier this year, and Mr. Gore has made no move to adjust his tax-cut figures until now.

What planet does Lambro live on? The day before his column appeared, William Welch wrote a piece in USA Today, "1 trillion added to federal surplus projection." Welch's opening paragraph:

WELCH (6/16): Congressional and White House analysts are preparing budgets that will add as much as $1 trillion to the surpluses that the federal government is expected to accumulate over the next decade.

The day before, Robert Novak's Post column was headlined "The Exploding Surplus." Here's how Novak opened:

NOVAK (6/15): The journey of the third consecutive Congress controlled by Republicans toward the highest domestic social spending in a generation is about to take on more fuel. Thanks to economic growth, the surplus is exploding.

The new figures have not yet been announced. Or maybe Donald Lambro's just spinning. The new surplus projection hasn't been "made public" yet; but the fact that the budget surplus was going to rise has been discussed for a period of months. And we note that Lambro talks about "larger tax revenue numbers" being made public, not "the growing budget surplus." Or maybe it simply all depends on what the meaning of "made public" is.

But remember one fact: Kelly and Lambro are two of the writers who keep telling voters that you can't trust Al Gore! Do you now see Spin's matchless dominion?

New Gore tax plan 'another change'
Donald Lambro, The Washington Times, 6/17/00

$1 trillion added to federal surplus projection
William Welch, USA Today, 6/16/00

The Exploding Surplus
Robert Novak, The Washington Post, 6/15/00


The Daily update (6/23/00)

We'll be waiting: This morning, Frank Bruni describes Governor Bush's public statement about the execution of Gary Graham:

BRUNI AND YARDLEY: Mr. Bush spoke in a somber voice and wore a solemn expression as he delivered a written statement about the case. He did not make eye contact with reporters, as he typically does, and walked briskly in and out of the room. He did not take questions.

No eye contact? At last there was something to grab a reporter's attention. At any rate, we note Bruni's last sentence. In a campaign that we hear is all about character, the press corps ought to ask Governor Bush to explain his view of the facts of this case. We'll be waiting to see if "Panchito" spoils the fun on the plane by asking Governor Bush to lay out his thinking.

Inmate Is Executed in Texas As 11th-Hour Appeals Fail
Frank Bruni and Jim Yardley, The New York Times, 6/23/00