28 October 1999
Our current howler (part I): High minded
Synopsis: Debate preview! When CNN brought on Carlson and Carlson, it sounded more like Cheech and Chong.
Resolved: Debates are oddly influential rituals
Roger Simon, U.S. News & World Report, 11/1/99
Commentary by Tucker Carlson, Margaret Carlson
Inside Politics, CNN, 10/27/99
Roger Simon of U.S. News was looking ahead to the town
hall forumlast night's forum with Bradley and Gore, on CNN from
New Hampshire. Simon quoted Bradley aides saying Gore would surely
try to "pull a Darth Vader;" he would try to "leave
tire tracks," Simon said, on poor, helpless Senator Bradley.
Simon milked the excitement for all it was worth. Then he typed
this puzzling story:
SIMON: That is why the Bradley people carefully checked out
the stools. In 1992, the Clinton-Gore campaign made sure the stools
for their debate with George Bush and Ross Perot were so tall
that Perot's legs would not be able to touch the floor...
Is that true? At THE HOWLER, we don't really know, but it makes
an amusing story. But now, give your credulity a serious work-out.
Read what the scribe typed up next:
SIMON (continuing directly): This time, the Bradley campaign
made sure the stools were of proper height. "Besides,"
Anita Dunn, Bradley's communications director, says, "we
don't anticipate they can find a stool where Bill Bradley's legs
will not touch the floor."
Exactly. True or not, the '92 story only makes sense
because Clinton is taller than Perot. Since Bradley is considerably
taller than Gore, the concern voiced here by the Bradley camp
makes absolutely no sense at all. But Simon typed it up all the
same, because it gave Bradley a chance to get out exciting spin.
You can't be too careful when you deal with ol' Gorewhen you
enter the ring with "Darth Vader."
Welcome to the celebrity press corps, where writing doesn't
have to make sense! Scribes like Simon will type up your talesif
they serve the press corps' interests. We'll return to Simon before
our cycle is done, to look again at his town hall preview. But
let the word go forth: His silly story set the tone for the press
corps' preview of last night's forum. We saw the press corps at
its reliable worst as it set the stage for the Dems' first encounter.
And just how bad can the press corps be? Let's visit CNN's
Inside Politics. Hours before the CNN-sponsored forum,
Judy Woodruff and Bernie Shaw were chatting with two Inside
regulars. Woodruff asked Tucker Carlson (with Margaret there
too) what the two candidates had to achieve that evening. There
was more pressure on Bradley, Carlson opined. We swear itthis
is what the scribe said:
TUCKER CARLSON: I think it's Bradley, though, who has the most
to lose...[F]ew people know what Bradley's like on the stump. And
I think, I think it's going to be a big surprise for a lot of
viewers to see Bradley, a person who really sort of comes off
like, well, like he's been smoking a lot of pot. [Laughter
from Margaret Carlson and Woodruff] Kind of slow and laconicand
that's really appealing to a lot of people. Not clear how appealing
it will be to a TV audience.
Carlson was referring to a three-term former senatora former
Rhodes Scholarand a man who stands an excellent chance of becoming
a nominee for the White House. We think it's safe to say it: Bradley
has not been "smoking a lot of pot," and few
people will think that's how he "comes off"except the
celebrity press corps. But today, celebrity pundits routinely
compete to deliver the silliest, most disparaging comments. Indeed,
Margaret Carlson knew just what to do. She applauded her bold,
MARGARET CARLSON: Well, I love it, Tucker can be original [laughing].
All that's been said, I don't think anyone has yet said that Bradley
comes across as someone who is high on grass.
But Tucker was sure he was right:
TUCKER: Have you seen him? It's unbelievable!
MARGARET: I know!
The giggling pair seemed like student reporters from Ridgemont
High in a parody on Saturday Night Live.
But this, my friends, is what now passes for "analysis"
by "political commentators." And if you've caught the
Carlsons' weekly Inside segment, you'll know they were
just getting started. It almost seems like pundit lawyou have
to say how dull these guys are. So Margaret Carlson went ahead,
providing the predictable insight:
MARGARET (continuing directly): I know! It is going to be the
debate of the dull and the duller...
We're sure we weren't the only ones thinking that this is a
dangerous construction for these two to use. At any rate, Margaret
lumbered on, fully explaining the dullness:
MARGARET (continuing directly): It is going to be the debate
of the dull and the duller. And the question is, who's more comfortable?
And in some ways, Bradley is more comfortable being dull. Gore's
problem is he has a lot of high-paid advisers around telling him
you can't be dull, you have to change. And so he's trying to change
in public. Whereas Bradley's comfortable being dull...
Clearly, he's not the only one. Our analysts sullenly rolled
their eyes at Carlson's predictable rant. But we always like to
give full quotes. Here's how she wrapped up her work:
MARGARET (continuing directly): And the idea tonight is to
connect with people. And the person who's more comfortable is
the one who's going to connect. And if that means a little
controlled substances, well, there you go. Bradley wins!
Phew! The analysts roared and exchanged high-fives as Carlson
brought it back to the drugs.
There was a time, not too long ago, when it was simply impossible
to imagine such scenesimpossible to imagine that a major network
would put such a mess on the air. Even yesterday, Judy Woodruffwho
was trying to be a sportseemed a bit surprised by the
WOODRUFF: So you're saying we're not really talking issues
here, even though that what these questions are about? It's going
to be how are they relaxed, how are they comfortable?
Woodruff, to her credit, was plainly puzzled. Margaret, though,
helped her along:
MARGARET: Well, a lot of television is how you come across.
And there's no time in these forums to really marshal an argument.
Yeah. As if "marshalling an argument" would do any
good, with pundits like this to critique it.
Here at THE HOWLER, we simply don't know why CNN puts up with
this mess. We can't imagine why Judy Woodruff doesn't make this
sort of thing quickly stop. The weekly segment with C and C has
become a stage for this kind of buffoonism. Over the past few
months, the analysts have come to us, almost weekly, complaining
about this sort of cant.
In fact, the forum last night was anything but dull,
as we suspect will be true of tonight's GOP event; it featured
two smart, experienced pols responding to very sharp questions.
Only the pundits, before and after, marred what was otherwise
an outstanding forumbut they did perform one public service as
they offered their vacuous commentary. They did display, for all
to see, the mess being made of our vital public discourse. And
they clearly displayed why we need to unload this sad-sack celebrity
Tomorrow! Pundit minds think alike: Bill Press previewed
the action on Crossfire. And guess what? He said it would
be..."dull and duller!"