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16 October 2000

The Daily update: Playing the numbers

Synopsis: How long did Westmoreland chat with Gore? Melinda Henneberger has been playing the numbers.

Is What We've Got Here a Compulsion to Exaggerate?
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 10/15/00

For Gore, Army Years Mixed Vietnam and Family Politics
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 7/11/00

Inventing Al Gore
Bill Turque, Houghton Mifflin, 2000

When the celebrity press corps gets a "story line" they like, they are relentlessly unintelligent in maintaining it. On Sunday, Melinda Henneberger was sounding off about those Embellishin' Gores:

HENNEBERGER: [Gore's parents] were improving his resume before he was old enough to have one. When he was six, an item in the Knoxville News-Sentinel had Senator Gore bragging that Little Al had "out-talked a senator" when he got his dad to buy him a 98-cent bow and arrow set rather than the 49-cent model the senator had chosen: "He's a budding politician. There may be another Gore on the way to the political pinnacle. He's just six years old now. But with his experience to date, who knows what may happen?" How could Mr. Gore be expected to know what was real and what was hype?

We might ask the same question of New York Times readers. The jesting quote is from the News-Sentinel, not from Senator Gore, by the way, though Henneberger, a professional writer, accidentally and completely unintentionally somehow manages to obscure the point. Then she goes on to play The Shrink in that closing sentence—doing what our reporters do when they want to be at their embarrassing worst. The doctor is IN throughout this piece, whose headline questions a "compulsion to exaggerate." Sadly, the piece starts with a lengthy account of Gore's troubling conduct in telling a thirty-year-old humorous anecdote—not perfectly accurate, one person thinks—about a trick played on him in Nashville as a cub reporter. Of this utter, yowling nonsense, the utterly hopeless New York Times now fashions its bizarre campaign coverage

Our press corps is determined to be unintelligent. But alas! They also love to spin. We couldn't help chuckling when The Doctor's ruminations took her to Fort Rucker in 1970:

HENNEBERGER: [Gore] was occasionally self-aggrandizing [in his interviews with Henneberger], as when he recalled that when he was a low-ranking enlisted man at Fort Rucker, Ala., Gen. William Westmoreland interrupted a formal departure ceremony to chat with him for an incredible 45 minutes. An Army buddy who was there recalled they talked for just a few minutes—five, maybe.

Gore is embellishing again! Surely it's "compulsive!" But of course, that was Henneberger's Spin For The Day. In July, her Spin For The Day was completely different: "Army Private Al Gore was never and could never have been just one of the guys." So on that occasion, she compulsively told the Westmoreland tale just a little bit differently:

HENNEBERGER (7/11): No less than the Army's highest-ranking officer, Gen. William Westmoreland, singled him out during a visit to Fort Rucker, Ala., where Mr. Gore was stationed for more than a year. The Army chief of staff stopped in the middle of a farewell ceremony to pull the young man aside for a private chat—and kept Mr. Gore's superior officers waiting, and watching, while he asked one of the lowest-ranking men on the base for his thoughts on why so many young people opposed the war.

Really! The brass were "kept waiting and watching" while Westmoreland "pulled Gore aside for a private chat," we were told back in July. But that was then, when the scribe had one spin, and this is now, when the spin is "Gore lies." So now we're told it was "just a few minutes"—it was over in the bat of an eye! In a targeted politician, such shifting accounts would be proof of a loathsome "character problem." But at any rate, listen to how Henneberger's husband, Bill Turque, told the Westmoreland story in his recent Gore bio:

TURQUE: At the end of a visit to Rucker, [Westmoreland] was shaking hands with General Oden when he spied Gore, covering the departure for the Army Flyer. [Gore's army friend Bob] Delabar, who was shooting the story for the paper, said it was as if Westmoreland had spotted an old friend. "He said, 'Oh, Al,'" Delabar recalled. As Oden and his staff cooled his heels, Westmoreland walked the young private over to the edge of the tarmac for a conversation that lasted at least ten minutes.

Weird! "Army buddy" Delabar told Henneberger's husband (in 1998) that the conversation lasted ten minutes or longer. Is there some other "Army buddy" who told Henneberger it was "just a few minutes—five, maybe?" Or is Henneberger—sigh—embellishing again? We have a call in requesting the dope, and we'll pass along what we are told.

But what is utterly silly about this? The fact that it was written at all! This White House race concerns Social Security, taxes, nation-building, global warming. And Henneberger wants us to waste our time judging the character of one of the hopefuls based on a recollection of a pointless conversation that is now thirty years old!! Understand: Delabar and Gore are asked to recall a conversation that occurred in 1970. They disagree on how long it lasted. And this is presented—in the New York Times!—as a possible character problem! And we note, of course, a Standard Trope in this latest silly example. Gore and an "Army buddy" (presumably Delabar) differ in their recollections. So what does Henneberger do, dear friends? She simply assumes the "Army buddy" is right! She presents no way of judging which of the two recollections is in fact more accurate. When the celebrity press has a spin to pass on, the accuracy of supporting tales is just assumed.

This article is relentlessly unintelligent. Gore tells Henneberger that he might have stayed in journalism "if I had been a better reporter." Henneberger says that story "clanks," because Gore "has an impressive clip file." And that's right, of course—in her opinion. The absurdity of including this in a list of "embellishments" would occur to a fair-minded fifth-grader. But in her next paragraph, Henneberger tops even herself, wasting our time with this groaner:

HENNEBERGER: He tells some funny, but highly suspect stories about being a dork campaigner—like the one about not knowing a thing to say after one of his opponents beat him to the microphone and stole his one joke as a joint appearance during his first race.

Again, the utter pointlessness of this discussion is the first thing that needs to be noted. But what makes Gore's story "highly suspect?" Henneberger doesn't make any effort to say. Is it the fact that Al Gore told it?

"Is what we've got here a compulsion to exaggerate?" The headline's question could be asked of the writer. Our press corps is prepared to be dim to the core. And when they get a "story line" they like, they ain't givin' it up—even if they have to stoop to playing the numbers on an incident that was irrelevant from the start.

Imagine—this is the sad, sorry gruel the great, great Times stirs about this election. The sorry state of the press corps' soul is on display as one scribe plays some numbers.


Character problem (10/16/00)

Not saying that one magic word: Henneberger should read her husband's book. Or at least, she should describe it more truthfully. In July, she wrote this passage about Gore-in-Nam. Gore is describing an overnight trip to Khe Sahn, a site near the DMZ:

HENNEBERGER (7/11): "They sent in the infantry to secure it and there were helicopter gunships firing," Mr. Gore added. "My buddy kidded me for digging a foxhole, but there was firing in the hills surrounding there. It wasn't aimed at me, but I wasn't sure of that." [Mike] O'Hara, Mr. Gore's closest friend in Vietnam, has said he recalls gunfire, too—all outgoing."

Wrong again, Embellishment-Breath! Presumably, Henneberger refers to what O'Hara told Turque for his biography:

TURQUE: "Al did what everyone else did," said Mike O'Hara, the photographer who shot the Khe Sahn assignment. Although the fire at the airstrip was nearly all outgoing, Gore took no chances, reinforcing the tarmac covering the foxhole with metal sheets. "He seemed a little concerned," recalled O'Hara, who had several more months' experience on the ground.

No doubt Henneberger would have handled things differently. But according to Turque's detailed notes, it was O'Hara who told Turque (in 1998) that the fire was "nearly all outgoing." Henneberger dropped that one magic word. It let her tell a better tale—and it points to a character problem.