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13 July 2000

Our current howler (part III): They couldn’t just all get along

Synopsis: For Dems, 1988 was the war of the all against all. But Fallows singles out one combatant.

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

Massachusetts governor, Sen. Paul Simon change tactics in bid to recharge campaign in Iowa
Gwen Ifill and Bill Peterson, The Washington Post, 1/21/88

Massachusetts governor, in rare flare-up, calls former senator 'naïve'
Paul Taylor, The Washington Post, 1/26/88

Rivals gang up on Gephardt
David Broder and Gwen Ifill, The Washington Post, 2/14/88

Simon savages Gephardt's record
Gwen Ifill and David Broder, The Washington Post, 2/12/88

Gephardt toughens tone with personal attacks on Dukakis, Gore
Bill Peterson, The Washington Post, 2/25/88

Governor calls rival 'flip-flopper' as Florida battle gains intensity
Bill Peterson and David Broder, The Washington Post, 2/26/88

Governor shows new aggressiveness
David Broder and Paul Taylor, The Washington Post, 2/28/88

Gephardt says Dukakis distorts state's recovery
Thomas Edsall, The Washington Post, 7/3/87


Stop the presses. And lock up the kids! Al Gore interrupted Perot! That's right—during their 1993 NAFTA forum, the ruthless debater left Perot feeling brutalized, interrupting on several occasions (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/12/00). And he gave him a Smoot-Hawley photo! Remarkably, in the three debates which Fallows reviewed between 1992 and 1996, this is the worst behavior which he attributes to Gore. He never accuses Gore of lying, although in '92, Gore is lied about. What else does Gore do? In 1996, against Kemp, he tells a joke. In 1992, against Quayle, he does nothing.

In short, in these three debates—of the five which Fallows covers—Gore never engages in the vampiric conduct which the Atlantic attributes to him. Gore, we are told in the Fallows piece, is ruthless, lethal, dishonest and mean. He leaves opponents feeling battered, brutalized and destroyed. He is "willing to bend the rules and stretch the truth if necessary" and is "manifestly willing to lie for convenience." Fallows compares him to Michael Corleone. He is drawn with a fang on the magazine's cover. But the "acquired taste" (for blood) which the cover describes doesn't seem to show up in the 90s debates. Whenever the vampire acquired his taste, in these forums he kept it well hidden.

Indeed, even when Fallows dissects the 1987-88 Democratic debates, he starts out with a thundering dud. "In one particular debate," Fallows writes, "Gore demonstrated his ability to inflict deliberate damage." Let's be honest—it sounds really bad. The date was February 18, 1988; at the time, Gore was battling with Richard Gephardt to challenge front-running Michael Dukakis. At the debate, Fallows reports, "Gore [was] asked a question about the Democrats' habit of pandering to interest groups:"

FALLOWS: In reply, Gore devoted one sentence to the question itself...Then he turned his gaze from the questioner to look straight at Gephardt, a few feet away, and delivered the prepared attack. "Standing up to pressure is something the next President is going to have to do," he began. "I'm gonna lay it on the line here, Dick. Now, look, you voted against the minimum wage every time you had a chance to in the Congress. If you had your vote, it would still be two dollars and thirty cents an hour. Now you say you're for it. You voted against the Department of Education. Now you say you're for it. You voted for tuition tax credits. Now you say you're against it. You voted for Reaganomics. Now you say—well, where are you this week on Reaganomics? I'm not sure."

Naughty lad! The challenge to Gephardt continued on for more seconds; according to Fallows, Gephardt answered toughly a few minutes later. Fallows records two observers' reactions:

FALLOWS: "It was just devastating," Paul Begala, who was working then for Gephardt, told me recently. "Gore turned to him and seized on Dick's greatest perceived weakness, that he flip-flopped around on issues, and gutted him with a perfectly crafted sound bite. It was really very tough, but not across the line of being unfair. It was right up to that line, because it was so personal, and that was because of the way he delivered it." "What hurt Gephardt so badly in 1988 was that he had no money," Robert Shrum, who is advising Gore now but was on Gephardt's staff at the time, told me. "But that debate hurt too." Gore's campaign excerpted his blast at Gephardt and ran it as a TV ad, complete with the cutaways to an abashed Gephardt. Begala says, "It looked like a completely fair attack, because the guy was right there listening, and there was nothing much to say."

It's clear that something is supposed to be wrong with all this, but Fallows never quite says what it is. For the record, Fallows never suggests in any way that what Gore said in this exchange was untrue. Did Gephardt vote against the minimum wage? If so, why wouldn't that be an obvious subject to raise? Fallows quotes Begala saying that Gore's remarks "looked like a completely fair attack." But was it a completely fair attack? Fallows spills a lot of ink on this debate. But he never gets around to explaining what is supposed to be wrong with Gore's conduct.

For the record, the Democratic contenders in 1987-88 went through a long, contentious series of debates. Gore engaged in "more than two dozen" debates, Fallows says. According to Dukakis, there were 42 Dem debates in all. Gore was plainly an aggressor at several points on the schedule; at one juncture, he was praised for it by the Washington Post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/11/00). But the titans took turn beating each other up, as a review of Post archives makes clear. Let's look at the general period in question. On January 21, reporting from Des Moines, Gwen Ifill opened like this:

IFILL AND PETERSON (1/21): The normally polite Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis suddenly went on the attack in tonight's debate here among five of the seven Democratic presidential candidates.

Dukakis had a barb for almost everyone, except Jesse L. Jackson...But he saved his sharpest words for former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt.

For Babbitt! A week later, Duke was at it again:

TAYLOR (1/26): Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and former Colorado senator Gary Hart testily challenged each other's budget expertise tonight during the latest debate among the Democratic presidential contenders.

The steely exchange began when Hart said he was "surprised, frankly" that Dukakis remains unwilling to put out a campaign document that outlines a proposed 1989 budget, something Hart has done.

Shortly before the debate which Fallows describes, Gephardt got jumped by a whole bunch of hopefuls:

BRODER AND IFILL (2/14): Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), the winner of last Monday's Iowa caucuses, was gang-tackled in a televised debate here today by three of his rivals in Tuesday's New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary.

Why was Gephardt getting beaten up? It all started with ads—by Paul Simon!

BRODER AND IFILL (2/14): The League of Women Voters debate...was barely under way when Gephardt renewed his complaint that Simon television ads, asking whether voters can "trust" a candidate who has changed his position on as many issues as Gephardt has, had gone "over the line" in questioning his motives.

That's right, folks. Well before the Gore performance which so upset Fallows, gentlemanly, professorial, bow-tied Paul Simon had raised the same issue against Gephardt, in aggressive TV ads. In fact, Ifill and Broder had written about them:

IFILL AND BRODER (2/12): Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) pulled out the New Hampshire primary campaign's version of long knives today, sharpening his attack on Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) with a new round of radio and television advertising.

The Post's headline? "Simon savages Gephardt's record" (six days before Gore's performance). Nor did the 2/18 Gore display end the Democrats' squabbling:

PETERSON (2/25): Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), buoyed by his second Midwest victory of the month, moved south today lambasting Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) in his toughest, most personal attacks of the Democratic presidential race.

But the Duke wasn't takin' no mess:

PETERSON AND BRODER (2/26): A perturbed Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis struck back at Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) today, calling him a "flip-flopper" and a "prince of darkness," as the "Super Tuesday" battle for delegate-rich Florida heated up.

Two days later, in a debate, Mr. Namby-Pamby kept right on firin':

BRODER AND TAYLOR (2/28): Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis heaped scorn on the credentials and accomplishments of rivals Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.) in a nationally televised Democratic presidential debate this afternoon aimed at voters in the 20 states casting ballots on March 8.

Showing an aggressive, almost prosecutorial style of ridicule not seen in previous encounters, Dukakis ripped Gephardt's tax and trade record and scoffed at Gore's diplomatic skills.

The two rivals returned the fire, but their barbs did not have nearly the sting of Dukakis'.

And guess who started it? Richard Gephardt! Thomas Edsall wrote him up, on July 3, 1987:

EDSALL: Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), in one of the sharpest attacks of the Democratic presidential campaign, denounced the trade policies of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis today and accused him of distorting his state's economic recovery.

In short, while it's easy to pull one single debate and paint one combatant as a brutal attacker, there was a good deal of contention, from various sides, throughout the Dems' debate cycle. Readers of the Atlantic piece were blissfully kept in the dark.

According to Fallows, Gore stands out among modern pols for his ruthless ways in debates. But Fallows' presentation of Gore-on-Gephardt is—to use his own phrase—"misleading at best." And we still haven't seen a single instance in which Fallows accuses Gore of lying. Tomorrow, Fallows makes that charge. His weak performance may make you wonder if it's really Gore who will say "what it takes."

Tomorrow: Whatever it takes

 

The Daily update (7/13/00)

She's ba-a-a-a-ck: Last week, the New York Times had some good news for once: "Maureen Dowd is on vacation." Indeed, when the hapless harridan returned to her post, she was a little bit slow on the uptake. Last Sunday, she went all the way to paragraph 5 before mentioning bald spots, comb-overs, or hairdos:

DOWD (paragraph 5): The reinventor of government can't stop reinventing. But the national stage is not the place to figure out who you are. Consider Hillary with her 83 hairdos.

That isn't like our Maureen. To her credit, she got "alpha" into her first dozen words, and the notion that Gore "doesn't know who he is" is on the list of Fully Approved Soundbites. Dowd wanted to serve the jealous god, Spin. But listen to this hopeless effort:

DOWD (6): The vice president's story arc doesn't exactly track. First, he gives us a monthlong "We're Fat and Happy and Let's Keep the Prosperity Going Tour," trying to get credit for something he actually deserves some credit for. Then, on Friday, at the very end, he retools himself as champion of the little guy, bashing big business—drug companies.

If you can tell us how those ideas clash, you're a better observer than we are. By the way, one stylistic point—Dowd had to use "retool" in this passage, because she had already said "reinvent" twice.

And it didn't get any better. There simply are no words on earth for the absurdity of this Dowd performance:

DOWD (17): How amazing that Mr. Gore can't simply body surf the rising economic tide. Writing about the demand for luxury goods, The Washington Post reports that orders for yacht charters are up 400 percent.

Yacht charters! There's no way to make fun of that. We remind you that this is the press corps' idea of the finest commentary of which they are capable. Dowd is the avatar of the pundit class—overpaid, out of touch, uninvolved and uncaring. Is there any way we could pay the Times just to ship her back out on that yacht?

Mutant Master Hits L.A.
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 7/9/00