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 surpriseby Wednesday, Michael Kelly had the spin down,
and the Post was quite willing to print it. His column opened
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
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 storyGore was now doing the things
he had bashed. Scribes like Mitchell felt obliged to keep stating
the spineven as they explicitly said the Gore and Bush plans
were really quite different (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/20/00 and
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
BROWNSTEIN: In January, the Office of Management and Budget
estimated the operating budget surplusthat is, funds in federal
accounts excluding Social Securitywould 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
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
cutthat 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 discoursefrom 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 assumptionthat 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 wordto the word that Kelly would work with
on Wednesday. In that moment, Russertwho knew all about the budget
contextwas speaking to a million Americans who didn't. And saying
"fairly or unfairly" at the start of his statement didn't
change a simple factRussert misled them, totally, inexcusably.
It was an offering to the jealous god, Spin.
Sad and remarkablethat 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
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 itand
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
Williamsdescribing the "big talk" of his hopeless
tribegave 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 columngo back and think
about "sudden." We have no view on Gore's tax cuts,
but the word "sudden" was there for one reasonto 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 stewardshipin 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.
Wellit'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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 gateGore 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 allit'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
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