18 October 1999
Our current howler (part I): You too can be rich
Synopsis: When Gore was a kid, were his parents rich? Youd likely think so from the Maraniss bio.
Growing Up in Two Worlds
David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima, The Washington Post, 10/10/99
The Son Also Rises
Gail Sheehy, Vanity Fair, 3/88
The Chosen One
Marjorie Williams, Vanity Fair, 2/98
When Al Gore was a child, were his parents rich? You can't
exactly tell from Part II of the "biographical stories"
currently being run in the Post. The articlewritten by David
Maraniss and Ellen Nakashimadescribes Gore's life from birth
through high school. But read, if you will, the opening paragraph,
and tell us if the family was rich:
MARANISS/NAKASHIMA: During his early years as a senator's son
in Washington, Al Gore was often the smallest one in the crowd,
a pint-size boy with dark hair and freckles who lived with his
prominent parents in Suite 809 atop the Fairfax Hotel along Embassy
Row. If this experience made him different from you and me, to
borrow F. Scott Fitzgerald's phrase, it was not from being rich,
but rather from being apart. He grew up in a singularly odd world
of old people and bellhops, separated from the child-filled neighborhoods
of his classmates at St. Albans and further still from his summertime
pals at the family farm in Tennessee.
This paragraph states that Gore's parents were prominent. But
does it say that his parents were rich? The word appears in the
second sentence. But what does that sentence really say? Does
it say that Gore wasn't rich, but was merely "apart?"
Or does it say that the Gores were rich, but something
else made Gore different? In this article, the nation's most important
political newspaper is profiling a major presidential contender.
And distressingly, the profile's second sentence is flatly ambiguous.
It's the second sentence of a major profileand there's
no way to say what it means.
The question matters because, since this past March, the GOP
has been saying that young Gore was rich, and that being
rich did set him apartthey've been saying he grew up in
a fancy hotel, and that made him unlike you and me. In the press
corps, this biographical spin has been churned again and again,
and evidence suggests it may have had an effect on the vice president's
White House chances. As a matter of fact, the evidence suggests
that the Republican Party has been planning this spin since 1988,
when Gail Sheehy profiled then-candidate Gore in the pages of
Vanity Fair. At the time, Gore was a rising young star
of the Democratic Party, and a surprising entry in the White House
race. If Gore gained traction, what would the GOP do? Sheehy quoted
SHEEHY: The first hint of Republican nervousness over the young
senator from Tennessee surfaced when G.O.P. strategist Kevin Phillips
warned that his party had better begin to put Gore down by
"describing him as a spoiled rich kid from St. Albans who
smoked marijuana and had a soft job in Vietnam."
Even then, the "rich" spin was in place! Republicans
have generally discarded the Vietnam spin; as it turned out, most
GOP hopefuls hadn't gone there at all. But starting this March,
with the end of impeachment, the "spoiled rich kid"
part of the message reappeared, and by the time Gore made his
formal announcement in June, the excitable press corps had been
typing the spin for the course of three solid months. Lustily
ignoring established facts, for example, the press corps insisted,
again and again, that Gore couldn't have done all those
chores on that farm, because he had really grown up in a fancy
hotel. Some pundits dissembled about room service (see THE DAILY
As is their habit, their practice and preference, the buffoonism
from the press corps was total (for links on the farm chores brouhaha,
see postscript). But just how well-off were the Gores?
One would be forgiven, reading this Maraniss profile, if one thought
they were rather well-off. The word "rich" appears right
in paragraph one, accompanied by Fitzgerald's well-known bromide;
it would take careful parsing to see that the writers hadn't
actually called the Gores rich (or had theythere's no way to
tell). And all throughout the Post writers' portrait, they seem
to be offering up emblems of wealth; Senator Gore's cousin Grady
Gore, who owns the Fairfax, shows up each day from "his capacious
Maplewood estate," and when young Gore heads off for school
each morning, he "scoot[s] past the green chinoiserie desk
with the silver goblet, past the big red sofa with the tufted
back." The Gores' residence is described as "Suite 809"
four times in the profile's early going.
But just how wealthy were the Gores? One writer has
told us: Not very. Writing a decidedly mixed piece on Gore just
last year, Marjorie Williams profiled the vice president's class
background. "While Gore has been lampooned as 'Prince Albert,'"
she wrote, "product of a silver-spoon childhood, the reality
was more complicated." The parents had both grown up poor,
Williams wrote. She described their status when Gore was a kid:
WILLIAMS: [Gore's father] would become rich after he left the
Senate, in the employ of Armand Hammer. But the senior Gores'
correspondence is full of suggestions that, when Al was young,
the family's upper middle-class existence was a stretch. "I
may be the poorest senator up here," Albert Gore wrote in
a letter to a supporter shortly after his first Senate victory,
and Pauline wrote a letter to a friend that there was no way the
family could afford a new car. She shopped zealously for bargain
antiques and carefully noted the stock number of some shoes she
tried on at Bergdorf's so that she might find a way to get them
And what about that fancy hotel? Not so fancy, according to
WILLIAMS: Although the Fairfax Hotel later became the Ritz-Carlton,
it was not a posh place at the time Gore was growing up; in any
case, the apartment was in their reach only because the hotel
was owned by a cousin.
Cousin Grady let the Gores live at the Fairfax for free, according
to biographer Bob Zelnick.
But don't tell that to the excitable members of Washington's
celebrity press corps. This year's commentary on Gore is littered
with references to how young Gore grew up at "the Ritz."
As we'll see tomorrow, slapstick examples of spinning abound,
as the press corps assures us that Young Gore was rich. In the
past seven months, the spinning of Al Gore as rich has been a
principal RNC preoccupation.
Given all this, a competent newspaper would have understood
the importance of Maraniss' second sentencewould have understood
that the simple word "rich" is a loaded term when one
writes about Gore. A major paper with its ear to the ground would
have been careful in treating that topic. Just in general, you'd
think an editor would try to avoid printing profiles in which
the second sentencethe second sentence!doesn't really make sense.
But in a campaign like thiswhere wealth is being used to "define"
a major hopefulyou'd think a paper would be extra careful. You'd
even think a paper might see this profile as a chance to examine
the much-discussed topic.
But part II of these profiles said "rich" right up
front, and talked about the "chinoiserie." Indeed, this
"biographical story" brilliantly presents the tendentious
images that have defined the Gore coverageand often does so in
apparent contradiction of its own reported anecdotes and facts.
Tomorrow: In June, Jim Nicholson drove a mule-drawn
wagon to the Fairfax. A letter to the New York Times explained
Dem chores: For links to past reporting on the farm
chores brouhaha, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/7/99. Full links at
end of article.