4 November 1999
Our current howler (part III): Jacobs patter
Synopsis: Jacob Weisberg said some silly things. So the other kids decided to ape him.
Gore and Bradley Debate
Jacob Weisberg, Slate, 10/27/99
Commentary by David Brooks
The NewsHour, PBS, 10/29/99
Bradleys Gestalt Therapy
Gail Collins, The New York Times, 10/29/99
Commentary by Brian Williams, Howard Fineman
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 11/2/99
What went on in the press room at the Dem town hall forum?
Our incomparable analysts weren't there. But within 48 hours,
a uniform view of the Dem event was being expressed by CelebCorps.
And, because they all agreed to say the same thing, they fought
to say it the silliest way. By Friday night, Gore had been "practically
leaping off the stage" (Elizabeth Arnold). By Saturday night,
on Capital Gang, he was "Clintonesque" when he
got off his chair!
How silly did the rhetoric get? Pretty silly, as we've notedand
it got sillier as the week went along. But one writer in the press
room got silly right awayJacob Weisberg, writing for Slate,
in a dispatch the mag posted that evening. Typing rapidly, Weisberg
WEISBERG (paragraph 2): Gore arrived on stage like some sort
of feral animal who had been locked in a small cage and fed on
nothing but focus groups for several days. Upon release, he began
to scamper furiously in every direction at once. Assuming his
stool 20 minutes before showtime, he volunteered to take extra
questions from the audience. At the end of the hour-long non-debate,
he promised to stay and answer even more. As of this writing (10:30
p.m.) he's still at it, sitting on the edge of the stage with
his wife, talking about human rights in Africa and offshore drilling
in the Gulf of Mexico with a few dozen New Hampshireites.
Weisberg expresses CelebCorps' fashionable boredom with the
very notion of political discourse. And, having declared the forum
a "show," he continues with his theater review:
WEISBERG (3): Gore came across as a kind of manic political
vaudevillian. He oozed empathy from every pore, getting all over
every questioner like a cheap suit. First he would ask the person
about his circumstances, his family, or his job, in a desparate
effort to bond. Then he would respond with an explosion of gesticulation,
sympathy and agreement...
Weisberg uses language that is remarkably rudeand might we
say, just a bit misleading? Weisberg tells us Gore behaved like
a "feral animal" just released from captivity in a cage.
But, for the record, in the course of "scampering furiously
in every direction at once," Gore did manage to make this
remark, in response to his second question (Who should be the
decision-maker on health care?):
GORE: I think the decision-maker ought to be the people who
are getting the care. That's why I support an HMO patient's bill
of rights so that the decisions on specific care are made by doctors
and not by faceless bureaucrats who don't have a license to practice
medicine and who don't have a right to play God. That's who I
think ought to make the decisions. Now I think it's also important
that we look ahead and answer exactly how we're going to finance
the plan because I paid, obviously, a lot of attention to the
answer that was given over here [by Sen. Bradley]. I put out a
health care plan that reaches coverage for almost 90% of the American
people. It gives coverage to 100% of all children. The cost is
$146 billion over ten years, and a prescription drug benefit is
provided under Medicare for $118 billion over ten years. Just
today, the respected Emory School of Public Health came out with
a non-partisan analysis of both my plan and Senator Bradley's
and they said that his plan costs $1.2 trillion. That is more
than the cost of the entire surplus over the next ten years. We
have to look ahead and save some of that surplus for Medicare.
If we wipe out Medicaid, and wipe out the chance to save Medicare,
and wipe out the surplus, then you might get a few more people
in the short run, but you give two thirds of the money to those
who already have health care. You're going to hurt, you're going
to shred the social safety net. So I think that the cost is way
We include the full quote for a reason. We think the explanation
is remarkably lucid for a feral animal scampering wildly about
the stageand we make a further point, which anyone can confirm
by reviewing a tape of the forum. During the course of this detailed
answer, the vaudevillian Gore had his left hand in his pants pocket,
and gestured normally with his right handthis being, apparently,
the "explosion of gesticulation" Weisberg described
to Slate's misled readers. In his next question, Gore continued
to make his "desperate efforts to bond." Here was the
text of the question:
QUESTION: My name is Bethany Urich, I'm from Claremont, New
Hampshire, my question is for Vice President Gore. A few years
ago I attended a barbecue at my home town where President Clinton
and Newt Gingrich shook hands and promised to make meaningful
campaign finance reform. But they didn't keep their promise. Since
the process of changing the system remains in the hands of the
incumbents, how can the American voter force change in this area?
And what would you do specifically to advance real reform?
Note the way the "oozing" hopeful "got all over
GORE: Thank you. Let me take ten seconds to finish my last
answer [laughter]. Medicare cannot be an afterthought.
The only way to fix Medicare fairly is to set aside 15 to 16%
of the surplus to do it now. Otherwise, you're putting Medicare
at risk. Senator Bradley said in an interview that he would speak
to this issue later on. But if you spend the entire budget surplus
on the first campaign promise, then that does not leave money
that should be allocated for Medicare. NowI feel very strongly
that we should have campaign finance reform...
In this question, Gore "got all over the questioner"
and "oozed empathy" by ignoring her question until he'd
finished another. When he did return to the question she'd asked,
he didn't address her by her name at any point, or ask about her
family or her job. At two points, his left hand did come out of
his pocket, and once his right hand rose above shoulder level.
No doubt this is the "explosion of gesticulation" which
gave upset Weisberg such pause.
These were the answers Gore gave to the second and third questions,
when even bored Weisberg was likely still watching. We invite
you to compare the answers Gore gave to the image provided Slate
readers. The image of the feral animal is hard to square with
these detailed, lucid answers. The claim that Gore "got all
over every questioner" is, as we've noted before, just not
In engaging in hyperbole and outright misstatement, Weisberg
forfeited the chance to offer a balanced critique. But despiteor
becauseof his strange hyperbole, at least one of his images lived
on. Reread Weisberg's paragraph 2, and then recall David Brooks:
BROOKS: Al Gore struck mehe 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.
That "somebody," it turns out, was Jacob Weisberg.
Brooks took "focus group," "chained animal,"
and "oozing compassion" from Weisberg. "Viagra"
he thought up himself. Meanwhile, maybe Gail Collins sampled Weisberg
too. An unusual phrase popped up in her column:
WEISBERG (6): Gore's problem, I think, is that he has watched
Bill Clinton for seven years...When he tries to emulate Clinton's
mind-meld, he overdoes it, grossly.
Collins, two days later:
COLLINS: [Gore] tossed in a little Spanish and a long joke,
and made endless attempts to create Clintonesque mind-melds
with the audience.
But why shouldn't Collins be sampling Weisberg, when David
Brooks was sampling her? Brooks, on Gore's "cheap tricks:"
BROOKS: The trick of staying late after the cameras and going
on for another ninety minutes, someone said it was like a kid
who volunteers for more homework.
That "someone" was apparently Collins:
COLLINS: At the end, he refused to be dragged off-stage...He bore
an uncomfortable resemblance to the kid who asks the teacher for
As time passed, the various pundits seemed to push each other
on; by the weekend their critiques of the forum were increasingly
hard to reconcile with what actually happened. As we saw yesterday,
Collins wrote a Friday piece which heaped ridicule on Gorethough
she later told Judy Woodruff that she thought the VP had done
Yep. That ol' debbil, peer pressure, was driving them on, until
they all happily said the same thing. By Friday night, Gore was
an animal practically leaping off the stage. We suggest you watch
the tape againor reread Gore's two quoted answers.
Tomorrow: Al Hunt thought that Gore had won. By Saturday,
he took it all back.