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2 November 2001

Our current howler (part V): Will do and say anything?

Synopsis: Why, oh why, did Gore get "Berked?" We suspect it all comes down to character

Living Politics: Gore Loyalists are Relieved That Bush is the Man
Howard Fineman,, 10/3/01

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

Are some "prominent Dems" now glad Gore lost? Like most things, it’s certainly possible. Consider Howard Fineman’s 10/3 piece, penned for and published long before Berke’s piece. Fineman said it too, right up front:

FINEMAN (pgh 1): It’s not merely that they want to rally ’round our leader—though they do. It’s not that they think their man wasn’t up to the job—they think he was. But with almost audible sighs of relief, some top people who worked for Al Gore privately tell me they are glad (relieved might be a better word) that George Bush—not Bill Clinton’s veep—is in the White House now.

Fineman’s article deals with Gore aides; Berke’s piece deals with Dems in general. But essentially, the two essays make the same claim (Berke even uses Fineman’s key word, "relieved," when he laughably tells us how Jim Moran "sounded"). According to Fineman, some aides to Gore are now "relieved" that Bush is in the White House.

Is that true? We have no way of knowing. Fineman quotes no one by name, and may have spoken with as few as two people (his "N" is even less clear than Berke’s). But in other key ways, Fineman’s piece highlights the problems with Berke’s hapless methods. Did someone say he was glad that Bush won? Fineman at least gives a quote:

FINEMAN (2): The reasons are complex, but the bottom line is not: "I’m glad Bush is in there and Gore is not," is the blunt way one former top Gore lieutenant put it to me.

And Fineman quickly offers another quote, in which a Gore aide gives a clear reason:

FINEMAN (4): The Democratic strategists also have realized that Bush has far more political room to maneuver at home than Al Gore would have had. With his reasonably good ties to the conservative, pro-military wing of his party, the president has been able to both talk tough and take his time…Gore may not have had the time to execute a waiting game. "The Republican Right would have been all over us," said one Gorean.

This presentation isn’t flattering to Republicans. According to Fineman, Gore aides "think their man was up to the job," but think he’d have been undermined by dishonorable GOP-cats. This is a far cry from the "diminished confidence" in Gore which Berke says prominent Dems are expressing—without offering a single quote, of course, in which somebody actually says it.

From this point on, Fineman’s piece becomes harder to follow; he begins to exhibit the suspiciously murky writing that’s on display all throughout Berke’s piece. Suddenly, it’s hard to tell which statements represent Fineman’s views, and which represent the views of "Goreans." Like Berke, Fineman is a professional writer—a man who knows how to write very clearly. Guess what, kids? When you have to struggle to parse his meaning, there’s a strong chance you’re now being spun.

But Richard Berke never quotes anyone saying he’s glad that Bush won. And when Berke starts putting-things-in-his-own-words, sorry—we don’t trust his integrity. In his article, Berke laughably spins Moran, Dicks and Eskew, trying to show us that Gore’s a Big Putz (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/30/01, 10/31/01). And that’s why we simply don’t trust the guy’s character when he makes presentations like this:

BERKE (pgh 5): The bluntest assessments were from Democrats who spoke on the condition that they not be identified. Several said the nation was fortunate to have Mr. Bush in power, and they questioned whether Mr. Gore would have surrounded himself with as experienced a foreign policy team as Mr. Bush did. Citing Mr. Gore’s sometimes rambling speech in Des Moines on Sept. 29 in which he praised Mr. Bush, some Democrats also questioned whether the former vice president would have been as nimble at communicating to the public.

This is the first passage in which Berke quotes those Blunt Dems who craftily refused to be named. Except wait a minute, he doesn’t quote them; once again, we get paraphrase only. And note how Berke’s accounts of the Blunt Dems’ comments don’t quite say what they seem to imply. Did Blunt Dems say the country was "fortunate to have Mr. Bush in power" as opposed to having Mr. Gore? They may have, but Berke doesn’t say that. When Blunt Dems said Gore’s team might not have been "as experienced," did they say and that would have been a problem? It’s possible, but that’s not there either. If Blunt Dems said Gore might not "have been as nimble at communicating," did they also say that, because of that fact, we’re better off on balance with Bush? Or did Berke pick and choose from the things that were said, stitching together the elements he liked? Polite Democrats—on and off the record—have, without question, been praising Bush’s performance. But did any of Berke’s Blunt Dems say that having Bush in office made us more fortunate? Whether you want a quote or you’ll settle for paraphrase, you simply won’t find it anywhere in Berke’s piece. His paragraph 5 seems to be a clear slam—until you parse it very carefully, the way we at THE HOWLER are inclined to do when someone devotes himself to laughable spinning as Berke does in other parts of this piece.

We said that j-schools should study Berke’s piece because it’s a textbook of spin. Unlike Fineman, he never offers a single quote backing up the basic theme of the piece, and his paraphrases are strangely slippery; they never quite support his claims either. Indeed, Berke shows young scribes what not to do all throughout this article. He shows how you can write 1100 words and never quite support your key claim. He shows how you can write a full piece and never quite say the things that you seem to be saying.

But as we pointed out in Monday’s HOWLER, we’ve seen this scribe front-run before—bashing Bush when the bashing was good, even slandering Gore’s aged mother in the most repulsive piece of the last campaign (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/29/01). A scribe who peddles crap like that may be a scribe who will do and say anything. Why, a scribe who peddles crap like that might even front-run at times like these! When Berke called him up, Gore refused to trash Bush. It’s too bad our scribes don’t have as much character as the pols whom they so love to torment.

The power to spin: How great is the press corps’ power-of-paraphrase? Even when they’re handed a transcript of a pol’s real remarks, their spinning can simply run riot. When Berke interviewed Bush for a March 2000 article, the NYT actually published an extensive transcript of Bush’s remarks. It was perfectly clear that Bush had not been dissing McCain in the interview—in fact, he had done quite the opposite. But no matter—in his article, Berke served up a ludicrous paraphrase of something Bush had supposedly said, making it sound like Bush had been rude to the press corps’ sainted straight-talker. But the corps adopted the paraphrase as fact; they beat up Bush for a solid week over something he’d clearly not said. Only George Stephanopoulos noted that Bush was getting a very bad deal.

Anyone could have looked at the NYT transcript and seen what Bush had actually said. But the power to paraphrase is the power to spin, and the pundits were shaking their fists at the sky and avenging their misused, sainted champion. Berke opened the door with his key, phony paraphrase. Then the press corps came thundering through.

For links to our real-time treatment of this episode, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/30/01. The power to paraphrase is the power to spin. Front-runners do enjoy using it.


The Daily update (11/2/01)

Why "anti-Americans" can’t be all wrong: He’s long been the dumbest rock in the box, but this morning, Don Imus seemed to have it all workin’. It seems the I-man had received a letter from the Pakistani embassy, complaining about his references to Pervez Musharraf as "that fat bastard" and his accusations that Musharraf has been bribed to support U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. So Don Imus swung into action. He loudly asked his (female) correspondent, "Why don’t you shut up;" asked her to "come over here and make me shut up;" continued his witty references to Ramadan as "Ramma-lamma-ding-dong;" and told his correspondent he would stop by the Pakistani embassy and she could make him shut up over there. He talked about Musharraf "wetting his panties." He histrionically conducted his second diatribe on the subject at exactly 7:11—yes, another imbecile racial slur. Unsurprisingly, his gang of panderers—Charles McCord and, of course, Bernie—laughed at every word Don said. Later, Chris Matthews guested on the program, saying of Al Gore, "He doesn’t look like one of us. He doesn’t seem very American, even." No, we’re not making this up.

Make no mistake—these people will lecture the nation on "character," but it’s they who are the "fifth column" among us. Chris Matthews is finally rich and famous, and he’ll put it ahead of the national interest every time. And which patriots put these two fools on the air? NBC, our home-grown fifth column. It’s tragic to see what can occur when greed and dim-wittery win control of a culture. As we’ve long told you—the Culture War’s over and Howard Stern won; Imus and Matthews are just his handmaidens. We’re all put in danger now by their celebrity. But rest easy. NBC now belongs to Welch and Gates, and Don and Chrissy’s roles in the overall spinning are well understood—and, we would guess, quite secure.

Meanwhile, can those "anti-Americans" be all wrong if Imus is on the air every morning? To see the fruit of a rotted-out culture, just put on Donnie every day, and watch Charles (the good "Christian") laugh and laugh.