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Caveat lector

10 October 2000

Our current howler: New models

Synopsis: David Von Drehle said good-bye to Love Story. Jonathan Alter helped hype a replacement.

Al Gore And The Fib Factor
Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, 10/16/00

'Untruthful' label could dog Al Gore
Walter Shapiro, USA Today, 9/20/00

Lies the Press Likes
Michael Kinsley, The Washington Post, 10/10/00

GOP Homes In on Gore's Credibility
David Von Drehle and Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 10/10/00

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

Record shows Gore long embellishing truth
Walter Robinson and Michael Crowley, The Boston Globe, 4/11/00

It's hopeless, and maybe we just should admit it. Jonathan Alter is a guy we like. But here's his account of the lullaby flap from the current Newsweek:

ALTER: The weird thing is that Gore clearly knew he was under extra scrutiny on this [embellishment] score. His rise in the polls stopped in September right around the time he was lambasted for claiming to have heard a union song as a lullaby that was actually written when he was in his 40s...

"When he was in his 40s!" The lullaby lulu got its start from another guy we like, Walter Shapiro. Here's the way Walter told it, when the story itself was still young:

SHAPIRO: The tune was written for an ILGWU radio and TV ad campaign that first aired in 1975, when the 27-year-old Gore was a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean.

And that's how everyone agreed to tell it until Alter improved things a tad. (You can fill in your own lines on this theme: "Who's embellishing this story?") Like Richard Berke in last Friday's Times, Alter also doesn't mention that Gore said the lullaby jibe was a joke. Gore's explanation is supported by tape of the incident, and has been vouched for by USA Today and by conservative Bob Novak. But alas! Explanation help kill a good story.

Why all the focus on alleged misstatements by Gore? Many pundits explain the matter as Michael Kinsley does today in today's Post. "There is a bizarre press convention," he writes, "that assigns every candidate an official flaw—Gore lies, Bush is dumb." The press corps "only plays up incidents that confirm the diagnosis." Kinsley describes press conduct so brainless as to be simply breath-taking, but the explanation is widely offered by the press corps itself. We don't have access to journalists' minds, but from many corners comes this tale—the press corps tells the stories it has scripted.

And that is why it's always worth noting when an old tale at last bites the dust. In an otherwise negative story about Crazy Gore's lies, the Washington Post finally gave up on Love Story. David Von Drehle and Ceci Connolly did the honors this Sunday. Here's their obit for the treasured old workhorse:

VON DREHLE AND CONNOLLY: Friends and supporters, who know him as an upright man, believe that Gore's statements are examined to such adversarial extent that he gets charged with the mistakes of others and prosecuted on faulty evidence. Take the "Love Story" case, for example.

As historian Sean Wilentz explains in the American Prospect magazine, Gore has been widely ridiculed for saying in 1997 that he and his wife were the models for the main characters in "Love Story," a bestseller of the early 1970s. "In fact, Gore never made the claim," Wilentz writes—rather, he referred to a newspaper interview with author Erich Segal in which Segal was incorrectly quoted saying that Al and Tipper were his models. Segal has said that Gore and his college buddy Tommy Lee Jones were the inspiration for the figure of Oliver Barrett III but that Tipper was not a model for the lead female character.

Von Drehle is fairly new to this beat, but Connolly has been flogging Gore for years, so our analysts emitted low, mordant chuckles to see the way this explanation was proffered. Did Connolly really have to wait for Wilentz to inform her on the facts of this case? Every fact recited from Wilentz—every fact the Post article cites—was perfectly clear on 12/14/97 in Melinda Henneberger's seminal New York Times story. There has been absolutely no mystery about this story—except for those the press corps liked—since the week when this nonsense first surfaced. Why then does Connolly tell us now that Love Story has been, in effect, a long slander? After all, the RNC has been hammering Gore on this tale since March 1999. Connolly—a shameless spinner of the first order—knew this was bogus all along, but has finally, two years later, lets it go. Quite typically, she lets it go with a cover story, pretending Wilentz has shed light.

So let's see. 1) The Washington Post has let Love Story go. 2) Many scribes have recently noted that Gore never did say he "invented the Internet." 3) The farm chores debacle was such a hoax that even the press corps gave it up in '99. All three building block stories of the "Gore liar" theme have now been given up for dead. And why is it safe to dump Love Story now? Again, we don't make our way inside scribe minds. But part of the reason just may be the availability of other great tales—foolish lullabies spun and improved that keep the treasured Gore theme alive.

Indeed, Gore has "a history of embellishments," the Post writers state. Here's a replacement for Love Story:

VON DREHLE AND CONNOLLY: Ever since [1988], Gore's opponents, and the media, have been on the lookout for more examples [of "lies"], and Gore has provided them. In 1992, he described his late sister as "the first Peace Corps volunteer"; Nancy Gore Hunger did work in the Washington office of the Peace Corps but never volunteered overseas.

And yes—"lies" is the direct antecedent, from the preceding sentence ("pallid lies" is the actual phrase). But was Gore's reference to his sister a "lie?" In their Gore biography, The Prince of Tennessee, David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima described Nancy Gore's stint at the Peace Corps. She worked there from its inception in 1961, they report:

MARANISS AND NAKASHIMA: The only question was where to put Nancy Gore, who was talented and engaging but somewhat unfocused and disorganized. The solution was Special Projects...

Though Nancy was never a Peace Corp volunteer in the traditional sense (as her brother later described her in speeches), she did forgo paychecks in the first few months, and often forgot to cash them when she became a paid staffer.

So Nancy Gore worked at the Peace Corps without pay in the early months. On Sunday, we're told—in a front-page story—that Gore "lied" when he called her a "volunteer." For the record, M&N seem as interested as VD&C at making Gore utterances into deceptions; they say that Gore described his sister as "a Peace Corps volunteer in the traditional sense" without giving any actual quotations. But even Gore's speeches aren't that clunky. Here's how the Boston Globe's Walter Robinson quoted Gore in his attack piece in April:

ROBINSON AND CROWLEY: Nancy Gore Hunger, who was 10 years older than her brother, worked as a paid staff aide at Peace Corps headquarters from early 1961, when the agency was founded, until 1964, according to Peace Corps records and several friends.

Yet Gore, in a 1992 appearance on C-SPAN, called his sister "the very first volunteer for the Peace Corps." In 1994, when the University of Tennessee at Knoxville established a chair in her name, she said: "She was the very first volunteer in the Peace Corps. She did so much for so many."

Robinson makes no note of Nancy Gore's unpaid tenure. (Is there any part of Robinson's piece where he didn't embellish the facts?) But in neither Gore quote which Robinson cites does Gore say that his sister "volunteered overseas"—the phrase VD&C used to spin up their complaint—or that she was "a volunteer in the traditional sense," the phrase that gives the illusion of substance to M&N's pallid disquisition. Time and again, you see it happen. When you explore the press corps' examples of Gore's pallid lies, you'll find the press corps improving the facts to put meat on some sad pile of palaver.

Nancy Gore worked—yes, "volunteered"—for the Peace Corps. She worked for months without pay, from Day One. (What do you call it when you work without pay?) So what would make a decent person want to say—on page one of the Post—that this is just another Gore lie? Michael Kinsley has one explanation—the press corps sticks to its brainless scripts. We can think of less lovely explanations. But as Love Story finally leaves the stage, other nonsensical stories rush in. And some of those stories—27 turns 40—get better, before our eyes, as they're told.

Visit our incomparable archives: Is there any part of that Robinson piece that doesn't turn out to be embellished and spun? The Boston Globe should hang its head. For a review of one of the year's most remarkable works of deception, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/9/00, 5/10/00, 5/11/00, 5/12/00. And by the way, kids: 5 + 2 = 7. You'll understand after Part One.

IMAGINE: Imagine! Your sister works for the Peace Corps for free. Years later, you call her a "volunteer." Six years after that, the Post calls you a liar. Say hello to your press corps, everybody!