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5 November 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Hunting Al

Synopsis: Al Hunt, the press corps’ final straggler, finally agreed with the crew.

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

Gore’s secret guru
Michael Duffy and Karen Tumulty, Time, 11/8/99

Commentary by Brian Williams, Howard Fineman
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 10/27/99

By Saturday night, as the "Capital Gang" met, Al Hunt was the press corps' last straggler. All of the pundits had agreed to agree: Gore had been programmed, Clintonesque. The point had been made again and again; scribes fought to say it in the silliest manner. On Capital Gang, Hunt would hear Margaret Carlson say it was Clintonesque when Gore got off his stool!

But daggone it all, when Hunt watched the forum, that hadn't been what his lyin' eyes told him. "I initially thought Gore won," Hunt confessed, after the other pundits had all said something else. But Hunt now realized that he had been wrong. He explained his new views to Bob Novak:

HUNT: I initially thought Gore had won...But the more I talked to people, non-politicians primarily, I thought the point you made tonight and others have made tonight was more relevant.

Other scribes had helped bring him around! Hunt explained further:

HUNT (continuing directly): And this may be a bit of a stretch, but it was a bit like the Kennedy-Nixon debate which Nixon won on points but Kennedy was the flavor of that season. And I think that the thing that makes it more appealing for Bradley is the fact that he's the antidote to Clinton's slick, manipulative brand of politics.

The reference to "the flavor of the season" was particularly intriguing. Conventional wisdom has long been in place: in the Kennedy-Nixon debates, radio listeners thought Nixon had won, but people watching on TV favored Kennedy, because of his looks and his style. The Kennedy-Nixon debates have long been said to have ushered in a troubling new TV era, in which voters think with their eyes, not their heads, casting votes on the basis of style.

But how perfect! Because everything the Capital Gang pundits said concerned the style of the hopefuls. Kicking off the discussion of the Dem forum, Novak said Gore was too aggressive (a theme Novak had pursued for several weeks). Margaret Carlson, next up, agreed:

CARLSON: It may not be the year of not battling but I think it's the moment. At this stage, people are liking Bradley not being negative and not being aggressive...

Then, continuing, Carlson said this. We swear we don't make this stuff up:

CARLSON (continuing directly): And [Bradley's] way, which is to channel the insouciance of Dean Martin and the iciness of John Malkovich, is appealing...The Eddie Haskell-Energizer Bunny of Al Gore is not as appealing at the moment.

Why were people "liking Bradley?" To Carlson, he evoked Dean Martin! No one mentioned a plainly relevant fact, by the way—New Hampshire Dems who watched the forum had actually scored the event a draw. Pundits prefer not to mention such facts, since they interfere with preferred pundit stories.

Nope. Pundits don't like to mention facts that mess up agreed-upon stories. The Gallup poll showing the forum a draw was the least-mentioned fact of the week. By Saturday night, everyone knew that Bradley had won, and he'd won because he'd been more appealing. In his flash reaction, Hunt had thought something else. His lyin' eyes, he now knew, had been wrong.


Coming: Carlson offered an explanation for all the talk about style:

CARLSON: One of the things is, because they don't differ on issues, as you say, is that we're spending a lot of time talking about the shade of blue in their shirts and like there's the Center for the Study of Budget Priorities, there's now schools of thought studying boredom and stiffness and who's going to cope with it better. This forum, Bradley comes across as more authentic than Gore does because [Gore's] been told to adopt some of the Clinton personality tics...

We're sure Carlson believes her explanation for the pundits' endlessly vacuous comments. We're much less charitable in our view. We search for missing substance next week.

Crayola: The next day, Mary McGrory revealed the shade of blue. The shade of blue in Gore's shirt was "gunmetal" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/99).

Getting to yes: On Capital Gang, Novak made an eccentric point, with which the penitent Hunt agreed anyhoo. Novak said Gore played too rough:

NOVAK: Looking at the little might think that Gore really whacked him a good one because he looks like a better debater. And that, by the way, is what a lot of my brothers and sisters in the media felt because they're used to going for candidates that hit and are negative.

On the night of the forum, pundits uniformly described the event as "amicable" (Berke, New York Times); "civil" (Connolly, Washington Post; Sammon, Washington Times); lacking "rancor" (USA Today headline). Brian Williams said this to Howard Fineman:

WILLIAMS: Howard, now the cynical question that I address to you intentionally, and that is, when do the columns and articles and explanation pieces come along saying, "These guys are way too nice. Someone has to be highly critical to make this a race to give the American public, Democratic voters, a choice?"

FINEMAN: Everybody back in the Hopkin Center behind me is busy writing those now, Brian.

But by Saturday night, Novak and Carlson agreed how aggressive Gore had been. Their born-again friend went along. The full text:

HUNT: I initially thought Gore had won, because I was—

NOVAK: Because you're used to the—

HUNT: You're right. You're absolutely right—

NOVAK: You want blood. You think it's a bloodsport.

HUNT: I know how much you hate blood. But the more I talked to people, non-politicians primarily, I thought the point that you made tonight and others have made tonight was more relevant...

But Novak's point contradicted the universal flash reaction which pundits voiced after the forum. So does the press corps find its way to views that seem to suit preferred ends.

Glimpsing the Wolf: We've finally seen Time on Naomi Wolf, and Time also relies on "apparently" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/3/99). Michael Duffy and Karen Tumulty talk about the role that "seems to have fallen" to Wolf in the Gore campaign; they tell us that Wolf is "apparently counseling Gore on more than style points." Not only that—"it is hard to imagine" that Wolf has pushed her ideas about sex education on Gore. Enjoy this closing construction:

DUFFY AND TUMULTY: If there is any testament to Wolf's staying power inside the Gore campaign, it may be that she has survived every one of its shake-ups.

It's amazing that such a sentence could make it to print. What this sentence actually says is: "Wolf hasn't ever been fired." Time dresses this up to create some excitement, in best CelebCorps fashion.

The writers' clearest statement is this:

DUFFY AND TUMULTY: Sources tell TIME that since Gore 2000 set up shop in January, Wolf has been paid a salary of $15,000 a exchange for advice on everything from how to win the women's vote to shirt-and-tie combinations.

That is a fairly clear statement of Wolf's alleged role. And who told Time? "Sources."

In today's New York Times, Wolf denies that she has ever consulted Gore on clothes. At THE HOWLER, we don't know (or care) if that is true. Duffy and Tumulty don't seem to know, either.