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30 June 2000

Our current howler (part IV): Normal people

Synopsis: Gore ain’t a "normal person," Williams says. We wonder how many she knows.

Mr. Gore's Life of Compromise
Marjorie Williams, The Washington Post, 6/30/00

A New Bump in Al's Road
Bill Turque and Michael Isikoff, Newsweek, 7/3/00

Inventing Al Gore
Bill Turque, Houghton Mifflin, 2000

1) Ms. Williams misses the joke

In this morning's Post, Marjorie Williams quotes part of Gore's interview with Robert Conrad. Williams, magisterial, addresses Gore in the second person. When Gore is quoted in the passage which follows, he's talking about the 1988 trip to Taiwan on which he first met Maria Hsia:

WILLIAMS: Later, two of your hosts on that trip throw a fund-raiser for your Senate reelection campaign. They produce a measly $20,000. ("I remember thinking at the time that it was a little out of keeping with the high expectations I had for this dynamic new group chomping at the bit to be active participants in the political process," Gore told Robert J. Conrad, chief of the Justice Department's campaign finance task force, with a rare note of bitterness. He admitted to adding up "the many hours on the airplane to and from Los Angeles, and couldn't help but add in the many hours to and from Taiwan.")

Williams says that Gore displayed "a note of bitterness" in these remarks to Conrad. She bases that judgment on a transcript, not a tape, and she wasn't present to observe Gore's demeanor. In fact, we would bet Williams that full 20 grand that Gore was actually joking here—that a look at a tape would show that his comments were actually made tongue in cheek.

We've noticed before some scribes' inability to discern what quite plainly are jokes (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/19/00). Some of our scribes aren't too swift. But that doesn't stop Williams, in this piece, from offering sweeping assessments of character. Why should scribes avoid what Williams calls "the legitimate form of journalism that examines character itself?" Here's why: Most scribes aren't smart enough to "examine character." Williams makes that clear throughout.


2) Ms. Williams, reporting from Neptune

Why did Gore say that the Hsi Lai luncheon wasn't a fund-raiser? How about this for a possible reason: Because no funds were raised at the event! It's the most obvious conceptual point in the world—but one that has been skillfully avoided by the press corps all week. In all the hubbub over Hsi Lai—in all the puzzlement over what Gore could have meant—it has been virtually impossible to find a pundit who was willing to state that in print.

Williams—busy examining Gore's character—ought to take a look at her own. Here's how she treats Gore's nugget statement:

WILLIAMS: You sort of know this event is a fundraiser, because after all the Democratic National Committee finance people arranged it, and they're all over the place. But you don't think much about it because you know that you pay people to worry about it for you, and to stay on the right side of the arbitrary distinctions that rule your life.

Actually, what Gore has said, under oath, is that he didn't know this event was a fund-raiser, because he was told that it wasn't. His deputy chief of staff, under oath, agreed; he said he told Gore it wasn't a fund-raiser. But those two facts don't appear in this column. What appears instead is utter nonsense—ruminations on Gore's thank-you letters, for instance:

WILLIAMS: One member of the Taiwan party, Maria Hsia, comes in and out of your life over the years, a face in that sea of faces into which you are always smiling. She gives money; you send her staff-written letters full of polite lies, adding "personal" notes in your own handwriting. ("This is the kind of routine overstatement that is quite common, both in PS's to letters of this sort, and in captions on pictures, et cetera," Gore told Conrad. " 'You're a great friend, thank you; you two are great friends, thank you; see you soon.' It's a typical expression from me in a context like this.")

Years later you will find yourself explaining to an endless series of questioners that in your world a "friend" isn't the same as a friend.

We've decided to stop being polite today: If it's possible to write something dumber than that, will you please tell us what it could be? Marjorie Williams—writing from Neptune—is surprised that people sometimes call other people "friends" when they really aren't close, personal friends! Even sadder, Williams has time to waste on nonsense like this—but doesn't have time to relate basic facts about the matter she's judging. We'll say it again, the simple truth, the truth that editors need to be told: Most of our scribes aren't smart enough to be assigned to "examine" pols' "character."


3) Ms. Williams won't take responsibility

Here's one of Williams' character problems: She won't accept personal responsibility. We've groaned before at the general practice she exhibits at the close of her column:

WILLIAMS: And suddenly you wake in a room full of shouting reporters, and then a room full of polite, gimlet-eyed lawyers, all of them bent on holding you personally responsible for every weary gesture; all of them happy to spend years taking apart your precious distinctions, one by one.

In this passage, "shouting reporters" and "gimlet-eyed lawyers" are "happy to spend years taking apart [Gore's] precious distinctions." But that, of course, is precisely what Williams is doing, in this very column! We've laughed before at the way our pundits ascribe their conduct to other groups; they love to say that "late-night comics" have been making comments which they have been making. But in truth, Williams doesn't "take apart" Gore's distinctions; what she actually does is obscure them. Her readers are never told the dirty little secret: No solicitation of funds was made that day. And her readers are never told this second fact: When the site of the luncheon was moved to the temple, the plans to sell tickets was dropped. Yo! Marjorie! Marjorie Williams!! While you're telling your readers all about people's character, why don't you tell them a few basic facts? People can't evaluate how "precious" a distinction might be until they know the facts upon which it was based.


4) Mr. Turque's life of compromise

Yep. All over the press corps, there was one rule week: Never, ever tell your readers that no tickets were sold to the luncheon. And never, ever let readers know this: No solicitation was made at the event. If readers actually knew those facts, Gore's "distinction" might not seem quite so "precious," and the magpies—enjoying their latest improved story—might have to trade their blacks and whites for far less exciting shades of gray.

But if we were to select a king-of-buried-facts this week, it would have to be Newsweek's Bill Turque. In his recent biography, Inventing Al Gore, Turque describes the temple luncheon in some detail. "Gore's temple appearance was not originally intended as a fund-raiser," he writes. He says it was "clear from Hsia's correspondence that the fund-raiser and the temple visit were originally planned as two separate events." He states that scheduling problems forced cancellation of the planned fund-raiser, a luncheon at a restaurant. He reports what DNC officials have said: That John Huang was told he could not solicit funds to attend the luncheon once it moved to the temple. And he reports deputy chief of staff David Strauss' sworn testimony: Gore was told the event was "a community event." What actually happened at the luncheon? In his book, Turque gave this account:

TURQUE (page 319): Some details of the visit support Gore's contention that he believed he was attending a goodwill event rather than a fund-raiser. After lunch, with Hsia translating into Chinese, he delivered what staff called his "e pluribus unum" talk, a standard stump speech praising racial and ethnic diversity. There were none of the usual thank-yous he offered to groups of contributors for their financial support. The comments were also in marked contrast to the more typically partisan rhetoric he used at the San Jose fund-raising reception that evening. Other trappings of a fund-raiser were missing as well, like a front registration table and donor cards.

But in the current Newsweek, Turque—paired with Michael Isikoff—describes the luncheon quite differently:

TURQUE AND ISIKOFF: The session with Conrad does not paint a flattering picture. Indignant and defensive at points, Gore insisted he knew nothing about money changing hands at the temple, despite briefing papers alerting him that the luncheon was a fund-raiser. "I sure as hell did not have any conversations with anyone saying, this is a fund-raising event," he said. It turned out that more than $140,000 was collected there, some from "straw" donors illegally reimbursed for their donations. Last March longtime Gore associate Maria Hsia was convicted of election-law violations in connection with the temple event.

This is gruesome writing. When do professionals write this poorly? When they're writing to spin or deceive:

  1. We have no idea how Gore's "briefing papers" could have "alert[ed] him that the luncheon was a fund-raiser." As was noted before the Thompson committee, Gore's briefing book listed dollars raised by the San Jose dinner, and did not do so for the Hsi Lai luncheon. To all appearances, the briefing book would have "alerted" Gore that the luncheon was not a fund-raiser. By the way—what did Turque say about the briefing book in his biography? He said "the entry in the briefing book...neither specified that attendance at the luncheon required a donation nor offered an estimated sum that the gathering was expected to raise." What about such an entry would have "alerted Gore that the luncheon was a fund-raiser?" Turque's Newsweek account contradicts his book. We wonder why Newsweek permits this.
  2. What does Hsia's conviction have to do with Gore's statement? Hsia's prosecutors explicitly argued in court that Gore didn't know about the money Hsia was raising. Charles LaBella said the same thing this week. Newsweek's readers aren't told.
  3. Almost anyone reading this hopeless passage would think that $140,000 was raised at the luncheon itself. In fact, Hsia's "straw donors" were first approached the day after the luncheon, and Huang had collected his money before. (According to Roger Parloff, fifteen of the 100+ attendees gave checks to Huang. The others paid nothing at all.)

At any rate, read those two accounts by Turque—two accounts of the same event. When you see the different ways the event is described—when you consider what the Newsweek report leaves out—you see the way reality bends to fit the day's accepted story.

Should people be told even a few basic facts? In all the chatter on Hsi Lai this week, we haven't seen anyone state a simple point: No ticket price was charged for the luncheon. There's been time to discuss Gore's thank-you notes. There's been time to discuss Gore's horoscope last April (Time). There's been time to discuss Conrad's view of how much Gore was sweating during their interview (Time again). There's been time to ascribe words like "bitter" and "indignant" to the lifeless text of a transcript. But all over the press corps, basic facts have managed to take a major hike. If Williams wants to examine dysfunctions of character, we think she should start close to home.


The Daily update (6/30/00)

The lives of normal people: The press corps' hopeless intellectual standards are a constant source of amazement. So too the press corps' condescension. Williams' condescension today is overpowering. Again, she addresses Gore:

WILLIAMS: This is what you're used to, being "put" here and "sent" there, like a suitcase; you gave up years ago trying to string the hours of your days together into anything like the coherent days that normal people take for granted.

We're told that, unlike normal people, Gore is willing to be "put" and "sent" places. You know—a lot like a suitcase. Of course, normal people don't make up quotes, but the words "put" and "sent" appear in quotes for no apparent reason; Williams doesn't cite any text where Gore actually uses those words. Williams' condescension powers on as she describes the world of this abnormal person:

WILLIAMS: These are just the facts of life: the arbitrary distinctions (you can call from this phone but not that phone); the thinly veiled quid pro quos (you can offer a cup of coffee in the Oval Office to someone who knows he will later be asked for $50,000, as long as you don't explicitly connect them); the surprises, pleasant and un-. Cognitive dissonance is such a familiar state of mind that you don't even notice it any more.

Williams knows all, tells all.

Again, we're going to be frank: This work is an insult to democracy. It is because of our great human limitations—limitations that scream from every part of this work—that "normal people" long ago passed strictures about examining and judging other people's character. It's a problem for democracy that an addled class lays about writing nonsense like this.

Normal people don't "examine" other people like this. We wonder if Williams knows any.