29 June 1999
Our current howler (part I): Theyre ba-a-ack
Synopsis: Diane Sawyer grilled Gore on the night of his speech. Incredibly, those farm chores were back.
Commentary by Margaret Carlson
Inside Politics, CNN, 6/16/99
Commentary by Brian Williams
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 6/16/99
Backstage at the opening
Roger Simon, U.S. News, 6/28/99
Commentary by Diane Sawyer
20/20, ABC, 6/16/99
"George W. has had a great three days," Margaret
Carlson told Bernie on Inside Politics. "[He] has
been running, what, for three days now and we've declared him
to have the nomination wrapped up."
Carlson was speaking a matter of hours after Al Gore's announcement
speech in Carthage, Tennessee. Shaw asked her if the Gore event
would eclipse the glowing Bush coverage.
"Everybody gets their announcement day," she replied-but
she was thinking of a distant era. That night, Brian Williams
took to the air, giving the VP his day:
WILLIAMS: Political advance men and women will be handicapping
today's announcement and its pitfalls for some time. Little
things that took on huge importance, like the camera platform
that was too low, so Gore's actual announcement was hidden from
view of most cameras by his own people holding up his own signs.
There was the occasional sentence that came out backwards, there
were the AIDS activists who blew whistles marring the early part
of the speech, and all the while, amid a speech on home, family
values and children, the doubt, even among some Democrats privately,
about their once anointed one.
By the way, we replayed the tape of the VP's speech, searching
for sentences that "came out backwards." No luck. Maybe
we had been distracted by what Roger Simon had spotted:
SIMON (paragraph one): Al Gore stands in the sheltering shadow
of a giant maple in the square of his boyhood hometown, two thirds
of the way through one of the best speeches of his life. He's
belting it out, bringing it home, when he feels-a tickle.
What had distracted the hometown hopeful? Simon pulled no punches:
SIMON (paragraph two): Which turns to a trickle, a trickle
of sweat, which he cannot avoid wiping away from his upper lip.
This happens during nearly every speech, inside or outside, air
conditioned or not, and he just can't help it, reaching out quickly
with his left hand and executing a backhand swipe. It can happen
four of five times in a 20-minute speech, but he has been trying
so hard to avoid it during this speech, the speech in which he
announces that he wants to be president of the United States.
To no avail. Al Gore may have the heart and soul of a moderate
Democrat, but his sweat glands are positively Nixonian.
Williams was so impressed with Simon's insights that, after
billboarding "some great writing by journalist and author
Roger Simon," he read the above passage, in its entirety,
on his June 21 show. "It turns out that Al Gore has a physical
attribute, and it turns out to be a trickle of sweat," Williams
intoned, before reading about the annoying effluvients. He also
read the parts of Simon's article which dealt with (what else)
the huge importance of those troubling camera angles.
It may seem hard to believe that major journalists could focus
on such trivia-and offer such schoolyard denigration. It was especially
amusing to see such nonsense from Williams, who two days before
had staged his silly interview with Eric Pooley about Gov. Bush's
matchless charms (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/17/99). But the scribes
helped us see that some in the corps were no longer observing
Carlson's old-country courtesy. To Williams and Simon, a kick-off
speech now presented an excuse for deep-dish trivialization-touched
off a search for utterly meaningless flaws, whose "huge importance"
could be spun on the air.
But of all the scribes who didn't seem to have heard about
Carlson's traditional rules of deportment, the analysts were most
struck by Diane Sawyer's gruesome interview with Gore on announcement
night. What a journalist! Sawyer's lifetime scoop came when Marla
Maples said that sex with The Donald was the best she'd ever had.
Recently, Sawyer created a flap by secretly taping staff conversations,
which she strangely had somehow planned to air. Perhaps we all
get what we deserve when we let such celebrities go anywhere near
a presidential campaign; but there she was, interviewing the Gores
on the night of the big kick-off speech.
In interviewing Gore, she was sitting with a man who had been
vice president of the United States for the past six years; had
written a best-seller making serious ecological claims; had played
a major diplomatic role in the Kosovo negotiations, just concluded;
and had been accused of misconduct in 1996 fund-raising. What
was the first thing that Sawyer discussed? You've got it. Here
she was, three minutes in, asking about those farm chores:
SAWYER: All right. My cousins are all tobacco farmers and cattle
farmers. I have a test for you. Ready for a pop quiz?
SAWYER: How many plants of tobacco can you have per acre?
Sawyer was reinventing the farm chores flap, one of the most
embarrassing (and disgraceful) bits of recent press history. Starting
in March, the press corps, responding to GOP faxes, had begun
to peddle an angry tale-that Gore had not really grown up on a
farm, and hadn't really done the chores he had discussed in a
newspaper interview. They had done this in the face of twelve
years worth of their own Gore profiles, all of which described
Gore's life in Tennessee, and most of which discussed the very
chores which now had become so suspect. They had done this at
the very same time that Bob Zelnick's Gore bio was being published,
in which Zelnick used the Tennessee chores as the central metaphor
of Gore's entire life. In the aftermath of a series of Hotline
submissions, and in the aftermath of Zelnick's widespread interviews,
the press corps had slowly come to heel and had stopped promoting
the gong-show-like flap. But here was Sawyer, down from New York,
wading back through the muck and the mire.
Sweat on the lip and mud on the boots-this was the stuff of
the celebrity press corps. Sawyer's interview was an embarrassing,
distressing performance-if we think our public discourse really
Tomorrow: A brief history of the farm chores flap, with
a look at why the flap had disappeared.