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
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 newsthat 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 itselfwell, 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 yearsmore
than the size of the projected budget surplus over that same ten-year
The dispute about the cost of this plan made page one headlines
in major newspapers. Yepit 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
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 Myersan 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 relaxed...in 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
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
MATTHEWS: He did
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 wasand 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
thatyou know, the stuff football players wear under their eyes,
that black tar? He had thatyou know what I'm saying, the lighting
was so bad...it 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 mayI 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.