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18 October 1999

Our current howler (part I): You too can be rich

Synopsis: When Gore was a kid, were his parents rich? You’d 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 article—written by David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima—describes 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 profile—and 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 apart—they'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 Kevin Phillips:

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 HOWLER, 7/2/99).

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 they—there'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 wholesale.

And what about that fancy hotel? Not so fancy, according to Williams:

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 sentence—would 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 sentence—the second sentence!—doesn't really make sense. But in a campaign like this—where wealth is being used to "define" a major hopeful—you'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 coverage—and 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 why.

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.