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11 July 2000

Our current howler (part I): School boyz

Synopsis: The Atlantic’s cover shows the schoolboy level to which our discourse has fallen.

Reporting Live
Lesley Stahl, Simon & Schuster, 1999

An Acquired Taste
James Fallows, The Atlantic Monthly, 7/00

Dick Darman clued in Lesley Stahl—it's all about the pictures. During the 1984 presidential campaign, Stahl aired a lengthy report on the CBS Evening News; it was broadly critical of President Reagan. In her recent book, Reporting Live, Stahl described her thoughts as the piece went to air:

STAHL (page 210): I knew the piece would have an impact, if only because it was so long: five minutes and 40 seconds, practically a documentary in Evening News terms. I worried that my sources at the White House would be angry enough to freeze me out.

But that isn't what happened, she says. When the piece aired, Darman called from the White House. "Way to go, kiddo," he said to Stahl. "What a great piece. We loved it." Stahl replied, "Didn't you hear what I said [in the broadcast]?" Darman's answer has been frequently quoted:

STAHL: [Darman replied,] "Nobody heard what you said."

Did I hear him right? "Come again?"

"You guys in Televisionland haven't figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you."

Stahl's critical report about President Reagan had been accompanied by generally upbeat visuals. According to Darman's theory, the pictures registered more with viewers than anything Stahl had said.

We don't know if Stahl's account is completely accurate. If it is, we don't know if Darman meant what he said. But the anecdote has become quite famous, and we thought of it as we perused the current Atlantic Monthly. On its cover is a picture of Vice President Gore—with a vampire's tooth coming out of his mouth. "How Al Gore Learned to Love the Jugular," the cover says. "An Acquired Taste, by James Fallows."

The Fallows piece is a detailed look at Gore's history as a debater. The portrait is less than flattering. Here's the synopsis preceding the piece:

THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY: Al Gore is the most lethal debater in politics, a ruthless combatant who will say whatever it takes to win, and who leaves opponents not just beaten but brutalized. But Gore is no natural-born killer. He studied hard to become the man he is today.

Yikes! No wonder the Monthly pictured Gore with a fang coming out of his mouth! For the record, Fallows didn't likely write the synopsis which preceded his lengthy piece, but almost all the key elements of the précis were found in the article itself. Here is Fallows' nugget statement, right in paragraph 3:

FALLOWS: Debate has also been the medium in which Al Gore has displayed the least attractive aspects of his campaigning style: aggressiveness turning into brutality, a willingness to bend the rules and stretch the truth if necessary. A generation ago Gore was a divinity student who said he was repelled by the harsh realities of politics. Now he is the political combatant most likely to leave his opponents feeling not just defeated but battered.

Yow! How people can change! Of course, a few years ago, Fallows was a celebrated press critic, a contrarian trashed by glowering colleagues for his aggressive book, Breaking the News. Now he's telling a Standard Tale mouthed by pundits all over the press corps. According to the Fallows piece, Gore is not only a "brutal" debater who would leave his foes "battered" as he "bent the rules and stretched the truth if necessary." He is also, we're explicitly told in the article, someone who has "learned to destroy opponents in debates," with the "ability to fight close in and mean." Gore is someone with "the ruthlessness to frame—or distort—facts in an argument of devastating effect." Fallows refers to "the way [Gore] has learned to destroy opponents;" compares him to fictional figures from organized crime; and says that "Gore is manifestly willing to lie for political convenience." Interestingly, Fallows never says, in his text, that Gore "will do and say anything to win." But that standard, seminal GOP soundbite is excerpted in the article's synopsis, and the final sub-head in the article is "Whatever It Takes." Editors worked the GOP soundbite into the piece at two points, although Fallows himself never mouthed it.

If a candidate is ruthless, brutal, dishonest and mean, and "manifestly willing to lie for convenience," that, of course, is a serious matter which magazines ought to report. And you could hardly blame a mag for putting a fang into such a pol's mouth. But something else is also true—if a writer is going to say such things about a major public figure, he has an obvious obligation to back up his remarkable statements. On this count, Fallows fails badly. Fallows recounts five debates or debate cycles involving Gore—those from the last four White House campaigns, and the 1993 NAFTA debate with Ross Perot. In three of those five debates—against Quayle, Kemp, Perot—Fallows doesn't even seem to allege any misconduct by Gore. Fallows cites only one case in which a pol has plainly lied; that is the 1992 debate, in which Fallows says that Vice President Quayle deliberately lied, about Gore. In the 1988 debates, Fallows says that Gore either "wholly invented an accusation" against Michael Dukakis, or at least "[took] large interpretive liberties." But the claim is hard to square with the facts; even the texts which Fallows cites seem to support Gore's statement. And Fallows claims that Gore misrepresented Bill Bradley's health plan in the 2000 debates. "[Gore's] charge was misleading at best," he says, referring to Gore's description of the Bradley plan. Unfortunately, at the final Gore-Bradley debate in New Hampshire, Bradley himself was still representing his own health plan in precisely the way which Fallows rejects. As a simple term paper by a college freshman, stuff like this would be hard to peddle. As a major attack on a candidate's character, this article is an utter puzzle—and a striking display of what is going so wrong within our troubled public discourse.

Schoolboys like to draw funny teeth on pictures of people whom they disfavor. As our discourse continues its downward spiral, this practice has reached the Atlantic.

Tomorrow: Fallows asserts one clear-cut lie. But it's a lie which is told about Gore!


The Daily update (7/11/00)

Self-editors: President Bush and Mrs. (Barbara) Bush gave an interview last week to the New York Times' Frank Bruni. Bruni's article ran at the top of page one, along with a top-of-page photo. The story's news value likely commanded the placement; "Panchito" found out, to cite one example, that the Bushes are supporting their son, Governor Bush, in his race for the White House. Not only that—the Bushes predict that their son will win. Wisely, Bruni broke that news right in his opening paragraph.

But one part of the session was worthy of note. Predictably, it was buried in the accompanying transcript, completely unmentioned by Bruni:

BRUNI: Are you confident that your son will win?

PRESIDENT BUSH: I think he'll winI don't think in the fall that the press is going to have the same love affair with Gore that they had with John McCain.


BUSH: Well I think they don't like him so much.

BRUNI: For a good reason?

BUSH: Oh, I don't know about that. I'm going to leave it to George's campaign to define Al Gore...

We were intrigued to see President Bush veer slightly off message to note an obvious fact. The press corps' distaste for Vice President Gore has been an obvious factor in the unfolding campaign. But press corps members know full well not to mention such awkward facts. When pundits are asked to discuss the progress of the candidates, they know that their answers should never suggest that press attitudes may be playing some part.

Consider Tim Russert's hour-long interview with Gloria Borger and Bob Schieffer this weekend. The pundits wandered about in a haze, trying to figure just what it could be that was causing Gore to have problems. If you enjoy rhetoric straight from the "mistakes-were-made" genre, just listen to Borger's hazy account of what has been troubling Gore:

BORGER: Al Gore has this image out there, rightly or wrongly, that he is somebody who is willing to do anything to get elected president. Now most people who run for president are willing to do just about anything to get elected, but Al Gore has this sort of image [interruptions]—there is this sense, as it was with the Elian story for example, that perhaps he was pandering to the Cuban-Americans in Florida because that's a very important state, or Al Gore, uh, will do anything, you know? There is this sense of flip-flopping...

Clearly, "there is this sense." But why is there "this sense?" And where does "this sense" come from? For example, who exactly had "this sense" that Gore "perhaps" was pandering about Elian? Clearly, the press corps had this sense; as we noted all throughout April, virtually every pundit in America stood in line to mouth the Official Approved Soundbite. Indeed, Borger raised the claim again in the passage we have just cited. Later in the hour-long show, Russert brought Elian up again. We were struck by Borger's weak presentation:

BORGER: At first, you know, Gore did come out and say, this is an issue that belongs in family court. To be fair to him, he has always said that this belongs in family court. But there were plenty of proposals on the Hill at that time [January] to grant Elian permanent residency status—

RUSSERT: And he supported them!

BORGER: Well, but he didn't come out and support them until a little later [March 30] and then it made you feel that, well, he was doing something for the Cuban-American community in Florida, 26 electoral votes, and then, you know, why was he doing it? The calculation I think inside the campaign was that the only people who would remember this was those Cuban-Americans, and it turned out to be exactly the opposite. The only people who remember now what Al Gore did was everybody else, who didn't believe how he was apparently pandering to that community...

In a nation of 270 million souls, it's astounding to think that this is the best we can do at the top of our discourse. Borger doesn't even begin to assemble an argument about Gore's motives. (We also note that, in his interjection, Russert seemed unaware of basic facts of the case.) Why did Gore's March 30 decision "make you feel" that Gore was pandering? After all—Hello there! Duh-uh!—if Gore had wanted to pander to Cuban-Americans, he could have supported legal residency from the start! Borger doesn't mention something she ought to know—there were valid arguments against legal residency, based on the precedents such an action would set. And why did Gore begin supporting it on March 30? As was reported in every major paper, a bipartisan group of senators had introduced emergency legislation the day before. The INS had announced it planned to send Elian home the next week, and permanent residency was now being presented, by those senators, as the only way to get the case into the family courts (which Gore had supported all along). What were Gore's motives in all of this? At THE HOWLER, we don't have a clue. But neither, it's clear, does Gloria Borger, although she continues mouthing standard soundbites, accompanied by groaning pseudo-argument. Was Gore pandering more than Bush was pandering? After all, Bush supported legal residency right from the start. Why didn't that mean it was Bush who was pandering? (We don't assert that.) Borger shows no sign—none at all—of having moved beyond the memorization of Standard, Official, Approved Soundbites.

So "there is this sense" out there that Gore was pandering. Where exactly did it come from? Could it possibly have come from the press corps' predisposition? We note, by the way, that in the first passage we have cited above, Borger perfectly mouths this campaign's definitive GOP soundbite. "There is this sense," Borger says, that Gore is "willing to do anything to get elected." Is it possible that "this sense" may come from major journalists repeatedly mouthing one party's basic soundbite?

At any rate, it was interesting to compare the hour-long Russert with President Bush's comment to Bruni. President Bush was frank enough to state a fairly obvious point. But in their hour of talk about the election, Russert, Borger and Schieffer never said a word about the press corps' conduct and possible influence. Pundits know not to discuss that subject. One thing you can always count on, folks—the celebrity press corps will put its interests ahead of yours. They'll do it every single time.

POSTSCRIPT: How skeptical were Borger and Schieffer about Bush's motives? Read the panel's remarkable discussion about why Bush went to Bob Jones University:

RUSSERT: When a lot of the revelations came out about Bob Jones University, and some of the things they had said at Bob Jones University even about his father, George W. Bush seemed genuinely startled and unaware.

BORGER: Yeah, he was. I think he was very startled by it. It was pretty bad staff work for him. I think he got himself in a situation he couldn't believe. I mean, the notion that George W. Bush is a Bible-thumping conservative Republican of that ilk is something that's sort of hard to believe...

Oh! So, does that mean that Bush was "pandering" to that community? Not at all—not in this case! In this case, it was "bad staff work." Schieffer's comments were simply astonishing:

SCHIEFFER: In fact, were you [Russert] not the one who asked him the question, did he know what they had said about his father at Bob Jones? I think you were. And I believe that's the first time he had heard that.

RUSSERT: We went to a commercial break, he said, I had never heard that before.

SCHIEFER: And I take his word on that. I to this day cannot figure out why George W. Bush went to Bob Jones.

Schieffer's last comment is simply astonishing. As readers will recall, we argued against the press corps when they slammed Governor Bush for going to Bob Jones University. Every Republican candidate in the last twenty years had visited the campus, without a word of press comment. Why did the press corps yowl this time? Because they were mouthing the soundbites of John McCain, their favorite during the primaries. But Schieffer's current statement—that he "cannot figure out" why Bush went to Bob Jones—is one of the most remarkable statements of the year. Bob Jones is an emblem of South Carolina cultural conservatism, and Bush ran a conservative campaign in the state. Everyone explained it, again and again, at the time of the primary. (Again: We don't think there was anything wrong with Bush's visit.) But now, Schieffer pretends that the issue at Bob Jones was what they had said about Bush's father, and he says he can't imagine why Bush even went to the campus. In summary: Bush didn't know what they had said; Bush was a victim of bad staff work; and he isn't that kind of Republican. Schieffer can't even figure out why Bush ever went to the campus. Compare this remarkable discussion to the comments on Gore-and-Elian; you see a press corps performing so poorly that it simply beggars description.

Commentary by Tim Russert, Gloria Borger, Bob Schieffer
Russert, CNBC, 7/8/00