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31 October 2001

Our current howler (part III): Whose line was it, anyway?

Synopsis: Did anyone say he was glad that Gore lost? If someone said it, Rick Berke didn’t quote him.

Bush Winning Gore Backers’ High Praises
Richard Berke, The New York Times, 10/20/01

Jim Moran didn’t say he was glad that Gore lost, but to Rick Berke, it sure sounded like it. Before he reported the words Moran said, he did some small pre-positioning (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/30/01). Moran "sound[ed] relieved that Mr. Gore is not president," Berke avowed in his New York Times piece—and then, at long last, he provided the quote. Surprise! Moran’s words didn’t say any such thing—but Berke, spinning hard, had his "story."

And Moran’s striking case is no outlier. Norman Dicks didn’t say he was glad that Gore lost either, although Berke tried hard to spin Dicks too; he provided a prologue to Dicks’ remarks that was a laugh-out-loud verbal jumble, obscuring the fact that Dicks himself didn’t say the thing Berke was peddling. Weird, isn’t it? According to Berke, "prominent Democrats" now were saying how glad they were that Gore had lost. But Moran and Dicks were quoted early on and weirdly, neither one said it!

But Moran and Dicks aren’t alone in this piece, a virtual textbook of spin. In fact, it isn’t clear that any Dem told Berke he was glad that Gore lost. As we’ve noted, Berke says he spoke within "more than 15" Dems; we assume that means he spoke with sixteen. Did anyone say he was glad that Gore lost? If someone said it, Richard Berke didn’t quote him.

Certainly, no one speaking on the record is quoted saying what Berke describes. Moran and Dicks are the first two Democrats quoted by name; the third such "prominent Dem" is Gore himself, who once again voices support for Bush, "my commander in chief." But good old Berke! Having seen Gore say he won’t "second guess" Bush, the scribe then feigns enormous surprise when a top Gore aide wouldn’t second guess either. Sure enough, Berke was soon spinning strangely again. This time he pre-positioned Carter Eskew’s wholly predictable comments:

BERKE (16): The diminished confidence in Mr. Gore that some Democrats are expressing is a big change from last year’s campaign, when Gore supporters argued that Mr. Gore should be elected because of his grasp of world affairs…

(17) Now, not even Mr. Gore’s closest aides would assert that their candidate would have done any better.

(18) "The Bush administration has a number of people with tremendous experience in foreign policy and crises," said Carter Eskew, one of Mr. Gore’s top political advisers. "They were able to add a sense of stability to the situation, and the president has led them well. Gore himself would have had that experience."

Gore’s closest aides wouldn’t say Gore was better? Join us in saying it: Duh! In this passage, Berke stares at Eskew in pop-eyed surprise; he’s simply amazed that even Eskew isn’t willing to say that Gore "would have done any better." Absurdly, Berke seems to think that Gore would be polite to Bush, and then Eskew would show up and just let him have it! Let’s face it—when a spinner like Berke gets into high gear, there is nothing so dumb he won’t spin it.

Indeed, how outlandish is Berke’s spinning here? The pre-positioning of Eskew’s comments actually begins in paragraph 16. According to Berke, Democrats’ "diminished confidence" in Gore "is a big change from last year’s campaign," when they all thought that their man was just so great. To Berke, Eskew’s refusal to denigrate Bush shows his "diminished confidence" in Gore. Ridiculous, eh? Is there any claim so utterly stupid that spinners like Berke won’t present it?

But some of you may have spotted a problem; Berke is expending his "N." He only spoke to sixteen Dems, and four have already been mentioned. Indeed, Berke quotes two other "prominent Democrats" by name, Rahm Emmanuel and Tom Daschle. Revealingly, Big Dem Daschle really slams Gore. Here are Daschle’s actual words, found at the end of Berke’s piece:

BERKE (26): "I am very comforted by the way the president has handled all this," Mr. Daschle said. "He has more than risen to the occasion. He’s impressed me a lot. Al Gore could have been every bit as capable of rising to an occasion like this."

Daschle said Bush had been impressive, the very same word that Dicks used. He said he was comforted by Bush’s performance, the same word employed by Moran. But then he went ahead and said something else—Gore would have done an outstanding job too. Do Dicks and Moran hold this view this too? They don’t seem to have said any different.

At any rate, we’ve now gone through six prominent Dems, and no one has said that he’s glad Gore lost. But these, of course, are prominent Dems who are speaking to Berke on the record. Surely the really catty comments come from those famous anonymous quotes. After all, as Berke notes early on in his piece: "The bluntest assessments were from Democrats who spoke on the condition that they not be identified."

But even Dems who aren’t being named don’t seem to have said what Berke wanted. In fact, no Big Dem is actually quoted saying the thing Berke reports. Hold onto your hats, kids, because here comes The Bomb. What follows is the one direct quote which best supports Berke’s basic thesis:

BERKE (7): One former senator who was a staunch Gore backer said he was relieved that Mr. Bush was president because he feared that the former vice president would think he had all the answers.

(8) "He may know too much," the former senator said. "And he would have tried to micromanage everything."

Did this alleged former senator actually say he was "relieved that Mr. Bush was president?" You’ll note that’s a paraphrase, not a quote. Weird, isn’t it? You’d think if someone had said those words, Berke would have wanted to quote it. After all, that was the thesis behind his whole piece—big Dems are glad Gore lost. If this alleged former senator actually said it, you’d think that Berke would have put it in quotes. Once again—weirdly—Berke doesn’t.

But if this alleged former senator really exists—and if he said the words which Berke does quote—doesn’t it seem that this Dem, at least, is glad that Bush won and Gore lost? After all, he says that Gore "would have tried to micromanage everything," an iconic slam since the days of Jimmy Carter. He says that Gore "may know too much," and that surely isn’t praise, either. But is he actually glad that Gore didn’t win? For some reason, Berke doesn’t quote him saying it. And guess what? All throughout the length of this piece, no one else says it, not even anonymously. For some weird reason, the quote isn’t there. Tomorrow, we try to guess why.

Next: The power to paraphrase is the power to spin. Also powerful: selective quotation.