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20 October 1999

Our current howler (part III): Prone to tattling

Synopsis: The writers insist that young Gore was stiff. Their reporting seems to say something different.

Growing Up in Two Worlds
David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima, The Washington Post, 10/10/99

Gore: A Political Life
Bob Zelnick, Regnery, 1999

In failing to say if the Gores were rich, the Post passed up an excellent chance to report on a widely-spun matter. But the October 10 profile really starts going wrong when the writers say this, early on:

MARANISS/NAKASHIMA (paragraph 7): Perhaps no human beings, not even candidates for the American presidency, should be judged decades later by the way they were before they reached adulthood, but it is true nonetheless that in seeking to understand why people think and act as they do, the early days often provide the richest veins in the biographical mine...

Perhaps no human beings should be so judged? Perhaps? In this profile, the writers don't judge Gore on the way he was "before he reached adulthood." The writers judge Gore on the way he was when he was seven years old. It's hard to believe that such excellent writers can produce work as silly as this:

MARANISS/NAKASHIMA (4): For the most part...Al adapted to the staid environment [of the largely child-free Fairfax] by behaving as a perfect little gentleman. He was invariably courteous to his elders and seemed uncommonly earnest, sometimes overly so and prone to tattling...

In this passage, we are actually told that a presidential candidate was, at age seven—get this—"prone to tattling." And what was the evidence of that last horrid trait, which went hand in hand with the other excesses? Read in full and see what happens when we're determined to tell favorite stories:

MARANISS/NAKASHIMA (4): His only sibling, Nancy, was a decade older...On weekends, she often stayed home to look after her little brother while their parents were on the political circuit. Barbara Howar, a friend from school, sometimes joined her and they had the run of Suite 809.

(5) Although Nancy by all accounts adored her little brother, at times like this she wanted nothing to do with him. He was the sort of little pest who would seek attention by popping out of nowhere...Their efforts to evade the watchful eye of Little Al met with no apparent success. "Every time we tried to do something, Al would catch us and say, 'I'm telling! I'm telling! I'm telling Dad!'" Howard recalled recently. "He was an egregious little tattle-tale."

And that's it. On the basis of this one silly anecdote—describing Gore at age seven—a major writer tells readers, in paragraph four, that a presidential candidate was "prone to tattling." We hope it isn't necessary to say just how silly that statement is. We also think it shows the press corps' deep impulse to pass on its conventional wisdom—because the passage cited from paragraph four is just one part of the writers' profile in which they insist that little Gore was much the stiff, wooden veep we often read of today.

Let's return to the underage Gore, the seven-year-old little tattletale. Apparently confident in their skill as psychiatrists, the writers pen this diagnosis at the start of their piece:

MARANISS/NAKASHIMA (6): His compulsion to adhere to the established order extended beyond the common practice of snitching on an older sibling.

We won't trouble you with the single example they give to confirm their diagnosis (this example occurs at age ten). We will ask you to marvel at their psychiatric language—their belief that they are equipped to make such a statement, forty years later, about the life of a ten-year-old child. The notion that young Gore has a "compulsion to adhere to the established order" is a judgment no psychiatrist would make on this evidence. But the judgment does express the press corps' conventional wisdom, robotically asserted all through the past year, that there is something unnatural about our stiff, cautious veep. We now learn, from our two parlor shrinks, that the odd behavior was in place long ago.

All throughout the writers' profile they assure us of this picture. Young Gore is "invariably courteous;" "always standing straight;" "inordinately cautious;" "overly earnest." Nancy, we're told, was "in some ways his opposite, radiant, easygoing, and full of mischief." (This sentence occurs in the very same passage where Gore drives Nancy crazy by acting up all the time.) The writers are determined to fill in this picture, with no example too absurd or mundane:

MARANISS/NAKASHIMA (9): Here is a morning tableau at Suite 809 drawn from remembrances of the family and hotel workers: Al's mother, hoping to make the hotel seem more like home, bakes her own bread and prepares Al's family meal. He eats hurriedly, gathers his books and leaves for school at precisely the same time each morning... crossing Massachusetts Avenue to wait for the N-2 or N-4 bus that will take him up the hill to St. Albans.

Leaving "at precisely the same time each morning?" Exactly as millions of kids do each day? You will have to take our word, until you read the piece, that, in the context of the writers' psychiatrizing, this detail becomes another emblem of Stiff Little Al's robot manner. The writers also gape in surprise at the "regimen" the little guy found at St. Albans. "A St. Albans boy was instructed to keep a stiff [!] upper lip," they say. Here's how bad it was for our little compulsive:

MARANISS/NAKASHIMA (17): Every boy had to engage in some form of athletics, from varsity football, the favored sport, to an after-school program for the less athletic students dubbed Troop 19. The regimen could end as late as 6.

As late as 6! Imagine that! Is there any high school in this country where after-school sports may not last that late? But to the writers, the desire to paint Gore as an under-age robot turns this into a major surprise. When he would go to Tennessee each summer, "the Tennessee life took much of the stiffness out of Gore," they say. Trust us—this profile is full of anecdotes, silly and otherwise, designed to show us that Gore was stiff, in line with that seven-year-old child's sad "compulsion." The writers even found a St. Albans teacher willing to say that Gore was "a wooden Apollo." Triumphant, they save the best for last, citing the quote at the end of their profile.

But what saves this "biographical story" is its unintended high comedy—the writers' apparent lack of awareness that, in the course of their peregrinations, they give us anecdotes, one after another, that don't fit their diagnosis at all. They show us Gore "quickly developing a reputation for reckless driving" when he gets his learner's permit at age 14. He finally wrecks his dad's Impala at what seems to be age 16 (details tomorrow). They show us Gore in a full-blown fist-fight in a St. Albans math class, "tumbling around the room, bowling over desks." They show us Gore standing on his head on the outboard motor while water-skiing at a Tennessee lake; inviting a 15-year-old Donna Armistead out when he was 13, kissing her and asking her to go steady the next day; jumping up and down with her on a bed to make her mom think that the two were having sex:

MARANISS/NAKASHIMA: Donna's mother came hurtling into the room only to find the young couple "dying laughing, holding hands, jumping."

There was a bit more life there than we thought. "Invariably courteous" and "inordinately cautious," Gore "would unscrew the receiver on a telephone in the basement room so [he and Donna] could listen secretly to his father's conversations with important people." The authors show him on the roof of that fancy hotel, dropping water balloons on cars as they pass in the street. In a photo, they literally show him right at the center of a toilet paper prank at St. Albans. Nor did the authors exhaust all known examples of young Gore's ability to express his compulsion. Biographer Bob Zelnick offered other examples of Gore's need to adhere to the rules:

ZELNICK: Gore played center on the football team...getting ejected for unsportsman-like conduct in losses his junior and senior year to arch-rival Episcopal.

He was known as the fellow who could keep a broomstick balanced on the tip of his nose interminably.

He celebrated graduation by driving around town in the big family Chrysler Imperial tossing cherry bombs into the street.

In a 1987 profile of Gore in the Baltimore Sun, Michael Kelly told another tale of the pint-sized compulsive; at ten, Gore acted out his need to obey by splattering paint on passing cars in the street.

In failing to explore the Gores' financial background, the Post missed a chance to explore some big spin. But in insisting that Gore, at age seven, was acting out a "compulsion" by threatening to tattle on his big sister, the writers showed the power of the press corps' own compulsion to adhere to a powerful order—the order the press corps tends to put on the news by adhering to its own treasured spin.


Tomorrow: Charles Krauthammer said scribes should stop pretending they're shrinks. We agree after reading this portrait.

Bet your money. All of it: Our analysts have enjoyed the nonsense this week about that possible government shutdown—especially the efforts of Hardball's tabloid talker to make this into another crisis, with debbil Clinton tryin' to shut 'er on down. There is no chance—repeat, none at all—that there will be a government shutdown. We'll report on this hoohah next week. (We commend FNC's Brian Wilson for stating, on Special Report Monday night, that there is virtually no chance of a government shutdown.)

Meanwhile, you can take your life savings out of the bank, go straight to Vegas and bet on "no shutdown." Or visit our incomparable archives. The same silly nonsense was going on just last year. For an embarrassing case of impeachment-era reinventing, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/26/98 and 9/1/98.