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15 September 2000

Our current howler (part IV): Look who’s talking

Synopsis: Curtis Wilkie’s review of the M & N bio embellished about those embellishments.

A new biography finds a solid achiever who embellishes when none is needed
Curtis Wilkie, The Boston Globe, 9/3/00

The Prince of Tennessee
David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima, Simon & Schuster, 2000


In Glen Johnson's tendentious analysis of those budget numbers, he displayed devotion to a treasured theme—one which Globe writers have pushed all year. We happened to notice the same theme being pushed in the Globe's recent review of that brand-new Gore bio. Curtis Wilkie did the review; the Globe's headline captured the gist of his piece. "A new biography finds a solid achiever who embellishes when none is needed," the headline told Globe readers.

Let's note—the headline says that the new biography found Gore to be "a solid achiever," and Wilkie says so in his review. "There is much to admire about Al Gore," Wilkie says at one point in his piece. But from the headline, a reader would get the idea that the new biography—by David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima—focuses on that treasured Gore "embellishing" problem. Globe writers have hammered away at that theme, often embellishing the truth themselves. Indeed, Wilkie implies at the start of his piece that "Eminen" wrote all about it:

WILKIE (paragraph 1): The subtitle of this campaign biography could be: The Riddle of Al Gore. Why does a disciplined, earnest, intelligent man with high morals have, as the authors describe it, "an occasional propensity to enhance his role in events?" To believe that as a 20-year-old he contributed to Hubert H. Humphrey's acceptance speech at the 1968 Democratic convention? To claim that he was "shot at" in Vietnam when he never faced enemy fire? To expand his job description at The New York Times from copy boy to "newspaper trainee?" And, most famously, to pose as father of the Internet and role model for the protagonist of "Love Story?"

"David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima provide some answers in their study of Gore's life," Wilkie writes, "tracing the Democratic presidential nominee from his unusual childhood and formal relationship with his father, the late former senator Albert Gore of Tennessee, through Harvard and the Vietnam War years to his decision to go into politics himself."

That's how the review begins. A reader might think that the new book deals with the topic described here. In fact, M & N's book only lightly touches on this theme, however beloved it may be at the Globe. Indeed, Wilkie's examples provide another example of a pattern we have observed for years. That pattern? The press corps' own tendency to spin and "embellish" in pursuit of well-loved, treasured stories.

According to Wilkie, Gore has "most famously" embellished his role in two events: Love Story and the Internet. Alas! In this 292 page biography, Maraniss and Nakashima mention Love Story only once. Here is the sum total of the two writers' oeuvre. They are discussing the dorm where Gore lived for his last three years at Harvard:

MARANISS AND NAKASHIMA (page 76): Dunster [House] was an aging Georgian structure with a red-topped clock tower, no elevators, no air conditioning, and unreliable hot water heaters...While overseen by a master from the old school, the aptly named Alwin Max Pappenheimer, Dunster also harbored an interesting collection of young tutors, including a classics instructor named Erich Segal who was conceiving a novel on college life that would become Love Story.

As readers of THE DAILY HOWLER will know, Segal told Melinda Henneberger of the New York Times that the lead male character of his book was modeled on Gore and his college roommate, Tommy Lee Jones. But the passage above is the book's only reference to Love Story or to Segal. Readers are free to draw conclusions about why the book discusses the topic no further. But Maraniss and Nakashima never say that Gore embellished his role in Love Story (one might suppose they don't think that he did). According to Wilkie, Maraniss and Nakashima "provide some answers" to a question which—in this case—they clearly didn't choose to raise. Globe readers should have been told that.

And how about inventing the Internet? That doesn't get much play either. There is only one place where the authors discuss that topic, and it gets one sentence total. They refer to the work done by Gore's father on the interstate highway system:

MARANISS AND NAKASHIMA (page 36): The Interstate project made a lasting impression on [Gore]; it served, in a sense, as the generational precursor of his own later work in Congress promoting the Internet's information superhighway. The father passed down to his son something else, it would seem; an overeagerness to take credit. Although Albert Gore [Senior] was an important figure in the Interstate highway bill, there were many other key participants...but he never shied away from calling the system his own. It was not unlike Al Gore's later boast that he had paved the way for the widespread use of the Internet—stretching an indisputably important role into a seminal one.

That one last sentence is the sum total of the authors' discussion of that topic. No one reading this book without a predisposition would ever review it as Wilkie did here—suggesting to readers that the book tries to solve the riddle of Gore's remarks on these topics.

Another example is even more bogus. Here is The Prince of Tennessee's total text on that "newspaper trainee" brouhaha:

MARANISS AND NAKASHIMA (page 115): Whatever the lieutenant at the Newark induction center told Gore, he received his job assignment not there but during basic training at Fort Dix. His military occupational specialty was 71Q10—a journalist. How did he get that designation? According to his military file, he told a superior during the processing that he had worked as a "newspaper trainee" for the New York Times one summer. He had been a copy boy there, not a reporting intern, between his junior and senior years at Harvard. Apparently his superiors at Fort Dix were impressed enough to recommend him as a reporter trainee at Fort Rucker in Alabama...

That's it—there you have it. Is that passage supposed to imply that Gore had somehow "expanded his job description?" Your guess is as good as ours; it certainly doesn't say that. One minor weakness of this book: It sometimes seems to flirt with the "embellishment" theme without coming right out and addressing it. But somehow, Wilkie takes this one trivial comment and makes it into the theme of the book; it shows up in his opening paragraph. Our question: Could any politician ever get away with "embellishing" like that which Wilkie does here? And why in the world is the Boston Globe still feeding this rubbish to readers? By the way, Maraniss and Nakashima do write, when they describe the Humphrey speech incident, "There is in Al Gore an occasional propensity to enhance his role in events." But that is their total statement on the subject at that point, and their next sentence says, "The 1968 convention episode may fall into that category of solipsism" (our emphasis). Hence, even here, they do not state a settled view about Gore's account of this matter.

Globe readers will think from this review that this new book examines a treasured old theme. What they should have been told is that, in this long book, there are no claims about one of Wilkie's "famous" examples (Love Story), and almost nothing about the other (the Internet). But saying that would have strangled a theme the Globe has nourished—and embellished—all year. Rather than giving an honest review, the Globe once again deceived readers.

 

The Daily update (9/15/00)

Full-court Press: The AP's spin-driven account of Gore-on-Oprah made us chuckle this week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/13/00). But there's no excuse for the service's groaning account of Jeffrey Toobin's current New Yorker article. The article deals with the Buddhist temple luncheon. The New York Times ran the AP account:

THE NEW YORK TIMES (AP): More than $100,000 was illegally raised for Democrats during the event, and Republicans have made Mr. Gore's attendance an integrity issue. [Maria] Hsiah, who is awaiting sentencing for causing false statements to be filed with the Federal Election Commission, could receive up to 25 years in prison.

And yes, Republicans have made Gore's attendance an "integrity issue." That is why this hapless service ought to get a few basic facts right. No money was raised "during the event," as every journalist following this story surely knows. Hsiah was convicted for conduct the next day, when she went back to the temple and asked for donations. Her prosecutors explicitly stated that Gore did not know about her illegal conduct.

Do the boys and girls at AP get anything right? This fact has been uncontested for years. In an excess of fairness, we do give some credit. In the passage which the Times unwisely used, the AP never mentioned Gore's earth tones.

Campaign Briefing: Gore is defended on temple visit
AP, The New York Times, 9/13/00