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29 October 1999

Our current howler (part II): High style

Synopsis: Gore said Bradley would spend too much on health. On three follow-up shows, nobody noticed.

Commentary by Bill Press, Mary Matalin
Crossfire, CNN, 10/27/99

Commentary by Claire Shipman, Brian Williams, Howard Fineman, Lisa Myers
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 10/27/99

Commentary by Larry King
Larry King Live, CNN, 10/27/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Robert Reich, Tony Blankley
Hardball, CNBC, 10/28/99

Did we mention that the press corps tends to be negative? That it isn't just Carlson and Carlson? Margaret Carlson assured us on Wednesday that the town hall would be "the dull and the duller." Ninety minutes later, co-hosting Crossfire, Bill Press also previewed the forum:

PRESS: It's already being called the contest between dull and duller.

Huh! Now where had we heard that before? Thirty seconds later, co-host Mary Matalin quoted a scribe; the event would be "Tweedledee and Tweedledum." Do you ever get the sneaking idea that these people really hate covering news—that they'd be happier reporting on big fashion shows, or just covering Game 4 of the Series?

Because if you actually care about public affairs, the forum was a long way from dull. It featured smart questions from plainly concerned citizens, answered by smart, learned pols. (The press corps had to watch on TVs, penned up in a separate room altogether.) A teacher asked about cynical students; an adult child asked about Alzheimer treatments. And the hopefuls showed a vast range of experience, smartly responding on a wide range of topics. In fact, the forum was so much smarter than any hour ever engineered by the press corps itself—well, one found oneself wishing for more opportunities to explore the news with the press corps not present.

And in the debate, an intriguing dispute was thrown into stark relief. Early on, Gore cited a new study from Emory University; it said Bradley's health care plan was too costly. According to the study, the plan would cost $1.2 trillion over ten years—more than the size of the projected budget surplus over that same ten-year span.

The dispute about the cost of this plan made page one headlines in major newspapers. Yep—it was "Barbs on policies' cost" (page one, New York Times); "Gore takes issue with costs of Bradley health care plan" (page one, Washington Post). And when NBC's Claire Shipman emerged from the hall to summarize the forum for handsome anchor Brian Williams, she correctly noted that the health plan dispute had come up several times in the hour:

SHIPMAN: What was interesting was that Gore continued to come back to this issue. Bradley was making the case that his health proposal, which is more expensive, is not going to bankrupt the country, and Gore continued to needle him on it fairly subtly throughout the debate.

"That was a fairly interesting moment," she said, describing one time when Bradley "felt compelled" to say, "Al is just wrong about the numbers."

But it didn't seem "fairly interesting" to a handsome anchor, MSNBC's chief fashion analyst. After Shipman's capable overview, Williams conducted a discussion of the forum with Howard Fineman and Lisa Myers—an eight-minute discussion in which the dispute about health care simply never came up. What was discussed on the anchor's show? "I want you to tell me about stagecraft," Williams told Fineman, and the pundits were eager to tell their host which hopeful seemed stiff and which didn't. Almost immediately, Myers got off an Al Gore joke: "He even slouched, which I assume took some practice," the witty scribe unforgettably said. And Fineman told us several times that Gore was "trying very hard to be a mechanical Al Gore way." As usual, the pundits discussed the town hall meeting as if they had viewed a broadcast of StarSearch, or as if the two hopefuls were somehow involved in a hunt for federal modeling contracts.

Nor did the matter of health care costs penetrate the discussion on Larry King Live, where the analysis went on for forty minutes, immediately after the forum. The program's host never brought it up, though he did find the time to ask this:

KING: Jeff [Greenfield], what about appearances, Al Gore's new look, the suit that's a kind of khaki green, the different colored shirt, the movements on stage?

Earlier on, King had asked Bob Woodward about "the light-colored suits." For the record, no citizen at the actual forum asked any questions about clothes or "movements." And none of the hosts in these two discussions ever really asked anything else.

Last night, on Hardball, we almost thought that the health costs were up for discussion. A tabloid talker opened a segment with back-to-back tape of Bradley and Gore. And what did the tape show the hopefuls discussing? The cost of the Bradley health program! The analysts leaned forward, expectant, and still. But less than one minute into the segment, Robert Reich and a tabloid talker were happily chatting like this:

REICH: I thought Gore actually looked good—


REICH: He was tanned, he was thin, he was well-coiffed. Bradley looked a little bit crumpled, a little older. But Bradley was serene. He was comfortable with himself. He was—and here's the word everyone's going to be using, Chris. Bradley was authentic.

MATTHEWS: Yeah, I think you're right. But I also think he had that—you know, the stuff football players wear under their eyes, that black tar? He had that—you know what I'm saying, the lighting was so looked like he was a raccoon.

Reich had some thoughts about that:

REICH (continuing directly): But you see, I don't think that's necessarily bad, Chris—


REICH: Because again, in terms of projecting authenticity and being comfortable with yourself, I think the public may—I mean this is the question, is the public ready and in fact does the public desire someone who just is not blow-dried and tanned and thin and has a quick rapport and repartee, someone who just seems very comfortable.

"This is the question!" On Hardball, it was sadly the case. A talker asked if the public was ready for Jack Klugman, not Tony Randall. Tony Blankley capped the seven-minute segment with a reflexive appeal to the Howard Stern crowd:

BLANKLEY: Gore looked like he was the kind of person who's doing sex after reading a book about how to do it...So I thought he was pretty clumsy in his style.

To Tucker Carlson, Bradley looks like a guy who's been smokin' lots of grass (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/99). To Tony Blankley's elevated gaze, Gore seems like a guy who reads books about fucking.

Do need we say that, in two full segments, the costs of the health plan never came up? The only "issue" raised was Gore's defense of Clinton during impeachment. And that was crazy, Blankley assured, because Thomas Jefferson, as VP, "viciously undercut" John Adams. So it goes when this vacuous gang meets to air out its wit and its wisdom.

The emptiness and the instinctive crudeness is an insult to the discourse by itself. But why else should this sad-sack crew get itself back to the basics? Today's Washington Post editorial reminds us again of the problem with talk about spending the surplus. As CelebCorps chat about tans, drugs and sex, it continues to fail on the basics.


Monday: The hopefuls' surplus doesn't exist. But don't expect to hear that from the press corps.