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21 October 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Adults only

Synopsis: Charles Krauthammer says scribes should stop acting like shrinks. We say: Back to basics.

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

Nixon On the Couch
Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post, 10/15/99

In the nugget statement at the start of their profile, Maraniss and Nakashima say that young Al Gore had a "compulsion to adhere to the expected order." He was "uncommonly earnest, sometimes overly so." "If there was uneasiness among the St. Albans was that perhaps he was too constrained," they advise. Let's just quickly recall again the way young Gore acted that out:

MARANISS/NAKASHIMA (paragraph 26): Al obtained his learner's permit when he was 14, and quickly developed a reputation for reckless driving. "He was constantly running us into hog feeders and running us off the road," Steve Armistead recalled. One morning, as Gore was returning from summer school...he tried to speed past a truck on a narrow road, but the truck weaved to the left and sent him upside down into a ditch...[H]is father's 1962 Chevy Impala was totaled. His daredevil streak was evident in other ways: water-skiing at Cove Hollow on Center Hill Lake, where his father kept a speedboat, he loved to stand on his head on the outboard motor.

(27) There were, in the end, still limits to Gore's antic behavior, his Carthage friend noticed.

But there seem to be no limits to the authors' skill at telling a favored story. Indeed, to go by their own reporting, young Gore seems less a slave of established order than a nightmare from Dukes of Hazard. He fights in class; he tattle-tales badly; he eavesdrops on his father, drops water balloons on cars. He's constantly wrecking Dad's cars. But nothing keeps the authors from telling the story—the pleasing story, so frequently told—of the strangely stiff man who is now the vice president, who was once a robotic little boy.

Do we not see again the pattern we've described before—the impulse to improve the news? If the young Gore wasn't wooden enough, we'll just say that he was all the same? In this "biographical story," the authors show an extended tolerance for ignoring evidence that defeats favored themes. They routinely juxtapose sweeping assertions with evidence that seems contradictory.

In paragraph four, we're told that sister Nancy, ten years older, was "in some ways [Gore's] opposite, radiant, easygoing and full of mischief." Little Al, it would seem, was not "full of mischief." But in paragraph five we read this:

MARANISS/NAKASHIMA (5): He was the sort of pest who would seek attention by popping out of nowhere, reciting in a singsong voice the latest television commercial he had memorized ("Got a little ant...Got a little fly...Real-Kill! Real-Kill!...Watch them die!")

How do those thoughts go together? In paragraph twenty, he has "inordinate caution;" six paragraphs later, he's water-skiing on his head. In paragraph four, the authors show us young Al Gore throwing water balloons on cars from the Fairfax; in the very next paragraph, we are told that he "seemed uncommonly earnest, perhaps overly so." How do the authors reconcile these thoughts? At this point, they just flat-out tell us:

MARANISS/NAKASHIMA (4): For the most part, his water balloon caprice aside, Al adapted to this staid environment by behaving as a perfect little gentleman.

See how it works? It's all quite plain! When parts of the story don't fit our theme, we'll agree just to set them "aside!" We'll ignore them! So too with Gore's friends, who are quoted above, noticing "limits" to Gore's "antic behavior." Apparently, since he never killed himself in those cars, the picture of the compulsion for order does in the end stay in place.

We have stated before that we have full confidence in the intentions of those who worked on this profile. But it's hard not to feel that again we're seeing again the impulse to improve the (old) news. At some points, witnesses almost seem browbeaten into saying what the analysts want:

MARANISS/NAKASHIMA (20): Al Gore was not one to disappoint [headmaster] Canon Martin or any of the teachers. There he was, always standing straight, speaking clearly, giving his all. "He was balanced and steady and didn't go swinging off one way or another," according to Stanley D. Willis, an English teacher and director of admissions. In that way, Willis believed, Gore "sort of did in a way exemplify the St. Albans boy."

Gore "sort of" exemplified the ideal, "in a way." It's something less than a clear affirmation—but that's how it plays in the piece. In the next paragraph, the writers say this:

MARANISS/NAKASHIMA (21): If there was uneasiness among the St. Albans faculty about the senator's son, it was that perhaps he was too constrained by circumstances.

What a construction! Does this say the faculty had "uneasiness" about Gore? No. It says that if there was uneasiness, it was that he was too constrained. Well—perhaps that's what the problem was, if there was actually a problem. It's hard not to feel that these stories are being spun up to make history a bit more instructive.

Sorry. We think this work shows us once again why the press corps should stick to the basics. Even skillful writers like those involved here are not equipped to pen work like this—work that presumes to diagnose seven-year-old kids, based on anecdotes recalled forty years later. We think these skilled writers are over their heads. Charles Krauthammer, complaining about writing on Nixon, recently offered these thoughts in the Post:

KRAUTHAMMER: One modern conceit is that the inner man is more important than the outer man. The second conceit is that somehow, thanks to Freud and modern psychobabble, we have real access to the inner man.

As a former psychiatrist, I know how difficult it is to try to understand the soul of even someone you have spent hundreds of hours alone with in therapy. To think that one can decipher the inner life of some distant public figure is folly.

We think the problems with this "biographical story" illustrate Krauthammer's thesis.

Krauthammer made another point with which we lustily agree:

KRAUTHAMMER: It is part of the trivialization of politics that we give endless attention to the inner life of the politician...I don't really care what a public figure thinks. Let God probe his inner heart. Tell me about his outer acts.

We've thought of this, reading back through the Post profile, because of its statement of purpose. The writers tell us that, for Gore, "the child remains the father of the man." They say that "in seeking to understand why people think and act the way they do, the early days often provide the richest veins in the biographical mine." Hubris is lurking, but their implication is clear. By taking a look at Gore-the-child, we'll find out why Gore "thinks and acts" as he does as an adult today.

But there is one glaring problem with this project. Nowhere do the writers attempt to say how Gore "thinks and acts" today. They seem to believe that we already know, presumably based on prior reporting. They simply offer their "biographical story," which is intended to explain the VP. But they're explaining patterns of thought and action they have made no attempt to define.

In doing so, the writers seem prepared to rely on conventional press understanding. Sorry—we don't share their confidence. We'd prefer that writers show how Gore acts before they thrash history in an attempt to explain it. Let's set aside all the water balloons—and try to learn about Gore's (and Bush's; and Bradley's) important adult acts.


Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal: Our analysts are off to Erie, Pa., where they'll address the real Americans, beyond the beltway. And as they always politely say of Lake Erie: It's not just a good lake. It's one of the great lakes.

They'll be back and be filing on Monday.