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Caveat lector

25 June 1999

Our current howler: Being there

Synopsis: Selective reporting by the press has kept The Dub’s secret from view.

Who Chose George?
Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs, Time, 6/21/99

The Big Sleepy
Kevin Merida, The Washington Post, 6/7/99

In Love For Their Country
Lloyd Grove, The Washington Post, 6/14/99

Sure enough, there it was, right in the data from Zogby International. The polling began on the Thursday after Gov. Bush's Kick-Off Weekend. When respondents were asked to state a reaction to Bush, here is what they said:

Good, strong, excellent 17%
Ex-president 11%
Integrity, honesty, honor 9%
Son of President Bush 5%
Governor 4%

Yep. Eleven percent of respondents, asked their reaction, volunteered the belief that Bush was his Dad. There's no way of knowing how many others thought this, without offering the characterization.

Nor was this an outlier. The phenomenon has been widely observed-though almost never reported. All praise to Time magazine's Duffy and Gibbs for mentioning the syndrome last week:

DUFFY AND GIBBS: The Bush team loves to recall the moment in the summer of 1997 when Karen Hughes, Bush's communications whiz, walked into the governor's office with a poll showing him suddenly ahead of all the other Republican contenders. "You've got to be kidding me," Bush said, a reply conveniently retailed to reporters since. [And passed on by reporters, like Duffy and Gibbs, who have no way of knowing if the report is true.] The polls were a bit fluky: a Republican working for Bush conceded that some 40% of those who picked Bush in the early days thought they were voting to bring back the Old Man, not Junior. But that was also the summer when giants started to fall and the party cracked wide open.

In short, the early polls which made Bush the GOP front-runner were conducted among respondents who literally didn't know who they were talking about. It is surely one of the most comical-and unreported-facts about recent affairs.

It is hardly the fault of Gov. Bush if voters confuse him with his father. And his landslide re-election in Texas, where he is known, surely speaks loud and clear for itself.

But the fact is, the press corps rarely reports information of the type the Zogby poll reveals-rarely reveals how little the public may know on particular issues. Pundits, like pols, just love to be loved; fawning compliments to the public are de rigeur in each cohort. Buried away and kept from view are routine data from information surveys-data showing that the public often doesn't know what it's talking about.

But if the press has ignored the comical state of the public's awareness of Gov. Bush, it has known what to do with another bit of data found in the Zogby polling. Here are the responses that Zogby received about Vice President Gore:

Good, capable, positive 15%
Vice-president 11%
Dull, stiff, boring 7%
Bad 6%
Puppet, Clinton mouthpiece 3%

Amazing, isn't it? After the endless stream of press reports about how ungodly boring poor Al Gore is, only 7% of respondents offered that view on their own. Far fewer people said Gore was boring than said that The Dub was his Dad! But that celebrity press corps, determined to spin, has repeatedly pushed the "boring" topic, even conducting national polls over which hopefuls strike respondents as dull.

Poor scribes! Reporting the facts about the public-on-Bush might relieve the horrid boredom they're enduring. But history tells us you won't be hearing a whole lot about the public's confusion. A Dub had gone to the top of the heap because folks had him mixed up with his Dad. But it was to a different kind of repetition-their own-that the press seemed hypnotically drawn.

Talk about monotony: The Post Style section has simply amazed with its devotion to Gore boredom stories. Kevin Merida's lengthy article on Gore's boring ways led the Style section on June 7. The headline: "After Six Years in Suspended Animation, Al Gore Shows No Signs of Stirring from THE BIG SLEEPY." The endless article complained of Gore's "geeklike attraction" to actual issues.

A week later, Lloyd Grove did a page one Style profile, focusing largely on boredom issues. Its opening paragraph:

GROVE: Tipper Gore offers two anecdotes about her husband as fresh and compelling evidence that he is not a stuffed shirt.

Ceci Connolly's surprisingly rude "boredom" piece followed like clockwork on June 23. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/23/99, for the incomparable review we managed to pen as we struggled to avoid soothing sleep.