19 October 1999
Our current howler (part II): Suite reason
Synopsis: Did young Al Gore grow up in a "suite?" A letter to the New York Times helped show why such foolishness matters.
Growing Up in Two Worlds
David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima, The Washington Post, 10/10/99
Gore heads down home
Jennifer Harper, The Washington Times, 6/17/99
Restless Gore Launches Campaign of Values
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 6/17/99
Al Gores Mission
Editorial, The Washington Times, 6/17/99
Letter to the editor
The New York Times, 7/2/99
Did young Al Gore grow up in a "suite?" The Post's
October 10 "biographical story" tells us right away
that he did. The first paragraph of the article (see yesterday's
DAILY HOWLER) says he lived in "Suite 809" of the Fairfax
Hotel, and mentions that the hotel was "on Embassy Row."
(It also employs the word "rich.") In fact, the family
residence is referred to as "Suite 809" four separate
times in the article's early going, although the one childhood
friend who mentions the Fairfax calls it "this big old apartment
MARANISS/NAKASHIMA: Sam Williams, a school friend who lived
in the suburb of Bethesda, was struck during visits to the Fairfax
by his classmate's unusual life: He came to think of Al as "almost
political aristocracy" existing "all alone in this big
old apartment building."
For the record, Marjorie Williams, in her 3/98 Vanity Fair
piece, also called the Gores' residence an "apartment."
Bob Zelnick, in his Regnery bio, says the Gores lived in "Apartment
Did young Al Gore grow up in a "suite?" Sadly, such
nonsense does matter. On June 16, Al Gore kicked off his White
House campaign with a rally and speech in Carthage, Tennessee,
but the RNC's chairman, the inventive Jim Nicholson, was directing
the press corps' gaze elsewhere. The chairman had got him some
ol' rented mules, with which he was entertaining the press corps
that day. Jennifer Harper penned the play-by-play in the Washington
Times the next morning:
HARPER (6/17): RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson rolled up to Washington's
swank Westin Fairfax Hotel in a mule cart yesterday morning
to mock Mr. Gore's oft-cited references to his farmhouse upbringing.
In political speeches of yore, Mr. Gore has touted the character-building
experiences of pigpen mucking and ax-wielding in his Tennessee
He had? In "political speeches?" For the record,
the silly "farm chores" flap which had then run three
months had stemmed from Gore's remarks in a single newspaper interview.
Oh wellclose enough for newspaper work. Harper continued to type:
HARPER (6/17): "Al Gore is not Daniel Boone," Mr.
Nicholson told reporters. "He is a barefoot boy of Embassy
Then, Nicholson's efforts were fully rewarded:
HARPER (6/17): The son of a powerful senator, Mr. Gore spent
much of his childhood living in the hotelcalled the Ritz-Carlton
in those daysin a suite on the eighth floor.
The hotel, of course, was not called the "Ritz
Carlton." It was called the "Fairfax," and was
not especially "posh," according to the one major
writerVanity Fair's Williamswho has actually examined
the matter (see yesterday's DAILY HOWLER). Dutifully, Harper noted
an irrelevant fact. The hotel is "swank" today,
she said, showing the kind of analytical skill one comes to expect
from the Washington press corps. But Harper was not the only scribe
rewarding Jim Nicholson's effort:
CECI CONNOLLY (6/17): Republican National Committee Chairman
Jim Nicholson today mocked Gore's promotion of his rural roots,
riding up to the elegant Washington hotel where Gore grew
up in a wagon drawn by a pair of mules. He then led reporters
on a tour of the rooms that were once the Gore family residence,
what he referred to as the "real Gore homestead."
To Connolly too, what is elegant now surely was elegant then.
Those scribes! Only the press corps would spend its time touring
through "evidence" that is forty years old, that has
undergone successive renovations (the Fairfax, in time, became
the Ritz; the Ritz became the Westin). Most perfectly, an editorial
in the Washington Times sent the messages Nicholson hoped to convey:
WASHINGTON TIMES (6/17): Mr. Gore hasn't helped himself by
offering one faux pas after another...[T]here was Mr. Gore's reminiscences
about plowing the fields of Tennessee as a young boy, when in
reality he grew up in a luxurious downtown Washington
"In reality" tells usfalsely, of coursethat Gore
was dissembling when he described his farm experiences. "Luxurious"
sends a second key messagewhen Gore was a kid, he was rich.
And why exactly should such foolishness matter? Why would Jim
Nicholson spend his time renting mules? To create a potent set
of imagesimages that were expressed in a letter to the New York
Times in July. Here's the reason why Chairman Nicholson had taken
the press on that ride:
NEW YORK TIMES LETTERS PAGE (7/2):
To the Editor:
...[N]o matter how decent he is, Al Gore's patrician upbringing
has left him unable to connect with the vast majority of Americans.
Raised in a luxury hotel as the child of a senator,
Mr. Gore spent his formative years in the rarefied confines of
Washington, a place that has nothing in common with other American
cities in terms of appearance, demography, industry or life style.
...[V]oters connect with Bill Clinton because he is a quick-thinking
poor boy from a broken homeMost of us have no similar feelings
of empathy for Mr. Gore's life experience other than a bit of
envy over a childhood with room service.
Los Angeles, June 28, 1999
As all political writers (and editors) surely know, American
elections are fought and won over silly, potent images like these.
And that's the reason why the Washington Post should have understood
the stakes involved when it suggestedright in paragraph onethat
when Gore was a kid, he grew up rich, living in a fancy hotel
(see yesterday's DAILY HOWLER).
We have already quoted the Williams assessment, offered in
Vanity Fair last year; again, she said that when Gore was
a kid, his parents weren't rich, and the Fairfax was not
all that fancy. At THE HOWLER, we can't assess the accuracy of
that claim, but we will note that the assessment is apparently
shared by David Maraniss, co-author of these Post profiles. As
a former college friend of Gore's, we interviewed with Maraniss
for the current articles, and we raised the matter of the Williams
piece with him at that time. Last week, after perusing the October
10 piece, we spoke with Maraniss by phone (he's a fine fellow),
asking his assessment of the Gores' wealth when the VP was a kid.
Were the Gores rich? "They weren't rich," Maraniss saidbut
again, we suspect many readers will get a different impression
from reading the October 10 profile.
Let's make one thing clearhere at THE HOWLER, we have total
confidence in the fairness and good intentions of Maraniss. We
don't intend to imply judgments about the intentions of anyone
who worked on this piece.
But in failing to report whether Gore grew up rich, the Post
missed the chance to clarify an important mattera matter that
has been widely spun over the past seven months. We'll say it
again: if the Post had had its ear to the ground, it would have
reported this much-discussed matter. At any rate, in the
context of the past seven months of spin, the October 10 article
will surely imply things, to many readers, that Maraniss seems
to think aren't true. In this way, we think this article showed
the remarkable power of conventional wisdom in the work of the
press corpsthe remarkable power of conventional images to penetrate all that we read.
How powerful is conventional wisdom? It appears in this
profile in another way. The authors keep insisting that young
Gore was stiffbut comically, their "biographical story"
is full of anecdotes that seem to suggest something different.
Tomorrow: The writers keep insisting that young Gore
was stiff. Their own reporting seems to say something different.
More life of Brian: The fashion talk continued last
night on The News with Brian Williams. Williams touted
an upcoming segment:
WILLIAMS: Coming up, what could be wrong with Al Gore's new
look in olive-colored clothes...
Oops. Producers aired footage of Gore wearing black. But when
he came back, the handsome anchor read a brief item from Newsweek:
WILLIAMS: [Quoting Newsweek] Along with lifting weights
to buff up, Gore's gone to an earth-tone wardrobe, featuring lots
The item didn't say "what could be wrong" with that.
But Williams read a second item:
WILLIAMS: [Quoting Newsweek] The press will never drop
Gore's "stiff" label. His latest persona ain't casualit's
calculated. And he's just uncool.
Was this item actually a commentary on the press? It didn't
seem to occur to Williams. But again we saw the mindless way one
anchor approaches the news.