9 November 1999
Our current howler (part II): Reach out and touch someone
Synopsis: How can voters bone up on substance? Tucker Carlson had a novel idea.
Commentary by Jeanne Meserve, Henry Aaron
Inside Politics, CNN, 11/2/99
Commentary by Tucker Carlson, Margaret Carlson, Judy Woodruff
Inside Politics, CNN, 10/27/99
Commentary by Juan Williams
Fox News Sunday, Fox, 11/7/99
Finally! We salute the three papers who have now published
stories on the differences between the Bradley/Gore health plansthe
major, important point of dispute that emerged in the Dem town
hall forum. Yesterday, three major papers published detailed stories
examining the health care dispute (see postscript). Our analysts,
returned from their Washington sojourn, have hungrily fallen on
these postings. Starved so long for substantive fare, they greedily
wolf down the crumbs of nutrition now ladled out by the three
But over the course of the past two weeks, there has been precious
little mention of the Dems' major town hall dispute. Some of this
press corps flight from substance has been chronicled in our pages
before. On Washington Week in Review, for exampletwo nights
after the town hall meetingthe band of pundits went on at length
about differences in "style" between the hopefuls (see
THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/1/99). But, except for one brief, fleeting
reference, no one mentioned the substantive dispute that
newspaper stories had headlined post-forum. A viewer wouldn't
have known that disputes about health care had come up three times
in the Gore-Bradley houror that papers the next day had almost
all said it was the key area of substantive disagreement.
Sorryin the two weeks since the town hall forum, substance
has gone out the window. Pundits have argued about how programmed
or authentic the two hopefuls seemedand they've also had a great
deal of fun telling jokes about Naomi Wolf (more next week). How
much have they written about Al Gore's wardrobe? Calvin Klein
dreams of getting clothes this much ink! The pundit class
has embarrassed itself by its devotion to things that don't matter.
And even when pundits took stabs at health care, our analysts
were sorely disappointed. Take a report on Inside Politics
six days after the forum. Jeanne Meserve reviewed the basic differences
in the two Dems' health care plans, and she stated the heart of
the town hall disputeGore's claim that Bradley's ambitious plan
would cost twice as much as Bradley says. Gore, remember, says
Bradley's plan would crowd out spending for other priorities.
Who is right about these numbers? Our analysts leaned forward,
They might as well have just snoozed in their sofas. "Experts
say, don't get hung up on the numbers," Meserve said, and
then she played tape of economist Henry Aaron:
AARON: There's not a hint of wild-eyed fiscal irresponsibility
in Senator Bradley. Nor in Vice President Gore.
Maybe not, but which one is right? "Henry Aaron
says the public already knows what it needs to," Meserve
said, to our surprise. Then, more tape of Aaron:
AARON: What Senator Bradley has done is declare in unmistakable
terms that reducing the ranks of the uninsured is his number one
priority. And he's willing to put a lot of money behind it. The
vice president has declared that this is an important issue, he's
willing to put sizable resources behind it, but not quite as much.
And that was the end of the discussion about those numbers
we shouldn't get "hung up on." And truth to tell, it
would be hard to get "hung up" on the numbers here,
because the numbers were never even mentioned in the colloquy
between Aaron and Meserve. Would Bradley's plan cost $1.2 trillion,
as Gore had suggested at the forum? If so, would that crowd out
other priorities? The question was never asked or answered in
the taped interview as presented by Meserve.
We were very much struck by the "What me worry?"
aspect of this discussion. And we're amazed to hear someone say
that voters "already know what they need to." We'll
guarantee it: if a survey were done, voters would know nothing
at all about the hopefuls' numbers. And they'd have no way
to guess whose numbers were rightbecause the press corps hasn't
yet tried to say.
But that "What we worry" approach to this matter
was already clear in the press corps. Let's revisit the October
27 edition of Inside Politics (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/99).
In their preview of the forum, Tucker Carlson and Margaret Carlson
pointed out that Senator Bradley looks like he smokes a lot of
grass. Then they assured a surprised Judy Woodruff that the forum
wouldn't be about substance:
WOODRUFF: So you're saying we're not really talking about issues
here, even though that's what these questions are about? It's
going to be how are they relaxed, how are they comfortable?
MARGARET CARLSON: Well, a lot of television is how you come
across. And there's no time in these forums to really marshal
an argument or show how you would lead...You're really just conveying
yourself or an idea of yourself in little more than sound bites.
For what it's worth, Carlson had given a perfect glimpse of
how the press corps would cover the forum. For the next solid
week, the pundits did focus on explaining which hopeful had seemed
to be more relaxed. But responding to Margaret's vision, Tucker
took matters further. The analysts roared when they heard him
TUCKER CARLSON (continuing directly): Well, sure. If you want
a detailed examination of their positions, the candidates' positions,
you can read the newspapers, you can call the campaigns and get
one. I mean people who are really interested in what the candidates
thinks on specific issues probably already know by now. I think
really absolutely the bottom line is appearance and form and temperament,
etc. Those are the things that really count.
We thought this reply was astonishing. Again, the notion that
voters already know what candidates think on specific issues is
a fantasy out of bad civics texts. We hope it isn't even necessary
to argue about this peculiar claim. But we were specifically struck
by Carlson's idea of what an interested voter might do. If citizens
want to know what Bradley thinks on an issue, they can call
up Bradley's campaign and find out! What an outlook! This,
of course, frees the pundit class to do what they've done ever
since the Dem forumto comment on hopefuls' demeanor and clothes,
and tell us whose body language seemed more authentic.
Talk about "let them eat cake!" To these pundits,
voters can call around for information themselves, while the pundit
class discusses "form" and "appearance." But
one thing must be said in fairness. The Carlsons called their
shot this day, describing exactly how the press would react to
the Bradley/Gore town hall forum.
Tomorrow: On Capital Gang, Margaret Carlson explained
why the pundits hadn't talked about substance.
Biblio: A list of the Monday health care stories our
analysts now greedily devour:
USA Today: Gore, Bradley conflict on health care remedy.
New York Times: Health Care Brings Out Contrast in Candidates.
Wall Street Journal: Gore Attacks Bradley Prescription
for Health Care's Ill. Bob Davis and Laurie McGinley.
The Manchurian pundit: CelebCorps' skill at self-brainwashing
grows by the day. On Fox News Sunday two days ago, Mara
Liasson said the White House thought that Gore bested Bradley
at the forum. Neatly programmed Juan Williams replied:
WILLIAMS: That's evidence of self-delusion. I think everybody
and their mother think that Bill Bradley, just by standing up
there and trying to be offer some vision, really out-pointed Al
Gore, who was widely caricatured around the country as someone
who was being instructed on how to look casual and relaxed and
friendly and interactive...If you think Al Gore won that debate,
I think you're trippin'. [Panel laughter]
It would be hard to overstate the dumbness of this comment.
Gore was indeed "widely caricatured" around the countryby
Williams' pundit class. But, as we've stated before, a Gallup
poll was taken of New Hampshire Dems who actually watched the
town hall forum. The results were widely reported: 39% thought
Bradley won; 38% thought Gore won. 14% said the two were even.
9% had no opinion.
We've described in detail the way CelebCorps brainwashed itself
about the Dem forum. By last Sunday, Williams thought the event
had been such a rout that he had to resort to drug humor to drive
home the point. He told viewers that "everybody and their
mother" thought Bradley had won. He never mentioned the empirical
In any sector except the press corps, such groaning incompetence
is cause for quick firing. Bridges fall down when engineers work
like this. But we're lucky: engineers never do.