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2 November 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Highly programmed

Synopsis: By Friday, the pundits all said the same thing about Gore. It was different right after the forum.

Commentary by David Brooks
The NewsHour, PBS, 10/29/99

Commentary by Elizabeth Arnold
Washington Week in Review, PBS, 10/29/99

No Cheap Shots
Mary McGrory, The Washington Post, 10/31/99

Commentary by Tony Blankley
Hardball, CNBC, 10/28/99

Bradley’s Gestalt Therapy
Gail Collins, The New York Times, 10/29/99

Commentary by Margaret Carlson
Capital Gang, CNN, 10/30/99

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

Commentary by Brian Williams, Lisa Myers
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 10/27/99

Democrats Echo Themes in Face-Off
Ceci Connolly and Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 10/28/99

Gore again chides Clinton for affair during N.H. debate
Bill Sammon, The Washington Times, 10/28/99

Yep. By Friday, the pundits all knew how Gore and Bradley "came across." Gore had been programmed, hyperactive and phony; Bradley came across as authentic. It didn't much matter where you turned. Let's start with David Brooks on the NewsHour:

BROOKS: I thought Bradley wiped the floor with [Gore]. I think Bradley came out and said I'm a grown-up guy, I'm sitting here telling you what I believe. Al Gore struck me—he took the focus group viagra...Somebody compared him to an animal that has been chained up and they let him loose and he came out oozing compassion.

Elizabeth Arnold saw Gore pretty much the same way:

ARNOLD: I would say that Vice President Al Gore was so determined to appear relaxed and connect with the people that he was practically leaping off the stage for personal details of the questioners' lives.

Mary McGrory had noticed that too:

MCGRORY: Gore has been programmed to relax, which is still a reach for him...He demonstrated hyper-animation, quizzing the questioners, asking them about their children, walking to the front of the stage.

Even that! Walking to the front of the stage! Imagine! Tony Blankley, in his vulgar way, said he thought Gore was all programmed up too:

BLANKLEY: Gore looked like he was the kind of person who's doing sex after reading a book about how to do it.

In the Times, Gail Collins didn't think Gore was "hyper-animated;" she thought he was "overstimulated:"

COLLINS: Al Gore has a personality without a thermostat, and when he tries to look animated he practically crashes into the wallboard...He bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the kid who asks the teacher for more homework.

Brooks enjoyed the line about homework so much, he quoted it on the NewsHour. Speaking of homework, we presume we don't have to name all the pundits who pretty much copied off each others' papers, all of them straining to say the same thing about what they had seen at the forum. The savants all noticed the very same thing—Gore had seemed staged, rehearsed, and programmed. He was "sweaty," said Margaret Carlson on Capital Gang, who had many spin points right in place:

CARLSON: In this forum, Bradley came across as more authentic than Gore does because [Gore's] been told to adopt some of the Clinton, the Clinton personality tics—getting off the stool, asking the [questioners'] names—and that worked in the last election.

Almost everyone saw that, when Gore asked folks questions, the technique was plain old "Clintonesque."

Yep. If there's one thing the celebrity press corps just loves, it just loves to all voice the same judgments. The June Taylor Dancers look like atoms in space compared with this synchronized crew. Determined to speak on subjective matters, the corps is also determined to speak with one voice—happily mouthing a single story, a tale which begins who knows where. By Friday, the pundits were happily scripted, uniformly stunned by Gore's sorry outing. Gore had been programmed, rehearsed, and Clintonesque. Bradley had been more authentic.

So it's odd to note that this is not what was said immediately after the forum. Strangely, several major scribes who immediately went on TV hadn't seen the event this way at all! Nope—before the gang could get its story straight, the forum had seemed very different indeed. Weird! First scribe out was Gloria Borger, reporting on Larry King Live:

KING: Was this, Gloria, in your opinion, a good night for the former senator [Bradley]?

BORGER: I think it was a good night for both of them. I hate to be so mooshy about this, but I think that both did what they wanted to do. I think Bill Bradley got a chance to present himself as the outsider candidate...And I think Al Gore got an opportunity to show off his expertise, to talk about his experience and he also took a couple of whacks at Bill Bradley...

Typical of the celebrity press corps, Borger apologized for not being negative. But when King asked how the debate had struck other scribes, Borger never said a word—nothing at all—about Gore being programmed, or rehearsed, or unrelaxed. Which put her in line with Lisa Myers, on air at the very same time:

MYERS (to Brian Williams): I think both men did very, very well and probably accomplished what they set out to do. The pressure was really on Al Gore tonight. He had to prove that he isn't a stiff. And I think he came across as relaxed—he told a joke, which a few people laughed...he did a good job. He had a fact and a program for every answer without seeming too programmed...I think that both men should be very happy with the way the evening went.

We swear it, folks, that's just what she said—Gore "came across as relaxed." It provoked even Williams, the handsome anchor, to offer unscripted remarks:

WILLIAMS: Good points all—Gore was looser, and Bradley was Bradley.

Wow! Even the fashion man said it! And back in the press room, as reporters typed stories, how had they perceived the forum? Ceci Connolly and Dan Balz, in the next morning's Post:

CONNOLLY AND BALZ: For the most part, the hour-long event was marked more by civility and general agreement on a wide range of issues than by disagreement and rancor...Both men appeared relaxed throughout...

Really! Connolly said Gore was "relaxed," just like Myers! Bill Sammon, in the Washington Times:

SAMMON: Mr. Gore seemed more animated than Mr. Bradley, who took a professorial approach that sometimes neared detachment.

Really! So, to Sammon's eye, it was Bradley's demeanor had almost seemed a little bit odd! A few of the major papers we review did note, the next day, that Gore had asked more questions of the audience. But none of them identified that as strange, although most of the papers did offer some thoughts as to how the two hopefuls "came across."

The power of the celebrity press corps to all-say-the-same-thing is a power we've observed here before. It was perfectly enacted in last week's forum, as these comments help make crystal clear. On Wednesday night, only one pundit—Howard Fineman—voiced the view that would soon Become Law; only Fineman went on TV and voiced the essence of the spin-that-would-come:

FINEMAN: What I saw was a guy, namely Al Gore, trying very hard to be relaxed, to connect, as Lisa said, and doing it, even if in a mechanical, Al Gore way.

A number of pundits gave flash reactions on the King and Williams shows (see postscript). Only Fineman gave a hint of the view all scribes would soon, by law, avow.

But leave all that aside, dear friends, and answer this one puzzling question. How embarrassing is it when McGrory and Carlson, two major scribes, will stoop to the level they did this weekend—will stoop to calling Gore inauthentic and programmed because he got off his stool when it was his turn to speak! Incredible! None of the seven candidates in the week's two forums ever stayed on his stool while he spoke. And you're invited to imagine what the corps would have said if the stiff, distant Gore had done that. People who can say such remarkable things—well, we're going to be perfectly frank. They should go find a job they are able to do, and stop debasing our priceless public discourse.

That's right. When a journalist can give an answer as inane as the one Carlson gave (see above), her employer should relieve her of further duties. But of course, Elizabeth Arnold cited Gore for leaving his stool, too. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/1/99.

It's what we've told you many times. When this hapless press corps gets on your case, your danged if you do and you're danged if you don't. It's Lord of the Flies, as we've mentioned before—they'll say you're strange if you get off your chair without asking permission! Straining and groaning to find a new spin, there's no nonsense too silly for this crew to repeat. Tomorrow we'll start a four-day look at where the corps' silly spin comes from.


Tomorrow: Jeff Greenfield previewed the Dem town hall. He predicted the spin, word for word.

Name game: That's right, folks. When CelebCorps gets on you, everything's wrong. Gore has been criticized since the forum for addressing questioners by their first names (see Carlson, above). Our analysts immediately scrambled into action, reviewing the tapes of the forums. Their finding: Gore addressed questioners by name three times, out of thirteen questions asked him. And in the GOP forum, guess what went on? Four of the first seven questioners, completely appropriately, were addressed by their first names, too! (After that, our bored analysts stopped counting.) Four GOP hopefuls (McCain, Bauer, Forbes, Hatch) addressed questioners by first names at some point.

On such mindless distinctions our celebrity press corps pretends to conduct a good-faith analysis. We think the truth is something quite different, as we will continue to explore all this week.

Flashers: Pundits who gave flash reactions Wednesday night. Larry King Live: Bob Woodward, Jeff Greenfield, Gloria Borger, Larry King. The News: Claire Shipman, Lisa Myers, Howard Fineman, Brian Williams. Only Fineman expressed any part of the view that would soon be full-blown Pundit Law.