22 November 1999
Our current howler (part I): Process servers
Synopsis: Howard Fineman says hopefuls just hate "process" stories. Sally Quinns recent piece shows us why.
The outside shooter and the fighting pilot
Howard Fineman, Newsweek, 11/15/99
When He Was Gore, and No More
Sally Quinn, The Washington Post, 11/14/99
Rotten at the Gore
Carl Cannon, George, 11/99
A Gore Daughter Emerges as a Leading Adviser
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 11/20/99
"Inside Politics" column
Greg Pierce, The Washington Times, 11/19/99
In his recent cover piece about "straight shooters"
Bradley and McCain, Howard Fineman talked about "process"
FINEMAN: If you are a candidate in the anti-slick era, you
don't want to see stories about how you're being handled. There
have been almost none about Bradley and McCain, and almost nothing
else about Gore and Bush...
He then makes a peculiar claim about the straight-shootin'
underdogs, one a number of writers have made:
FINEMAN (continuing directly): The idea in this era is to look
independent, even orneryand to seem to ignore traditional
mechanics even while you quietly use them. McCain is polling
in New Hampshire, and is advertising heavily there...Bradley's
showy obliviousness to fashion is a strategy in and of itself.
Campaigning in New Hampshire, he reluctantly bought a pair of
shoes. They were as similar as he could find to the ones he was
already wearing. They were the first dress shoes Bradley had purchased
in a quarter century. How does the world know that? He explained
it, at length, to reporters in the room.
Many scribes have made the odd claim which Fineman makesthat
the "authenticity" of Bradley and McCain is sometimes
a deliberate campaign strategy. Is that true? We don't have the
slightest ideaand we don't think this should be the scribes'
focus. (We also don't think that a serious writer reports it when
a hopeful buys shoes.) We would prefer that writers focus on plainly
salient facts, and let readers decide who seems authentic (if
they care). We have no faith at all that our hapless scribeswho
favor hopefuls who give them nicknames, Fred Barnes sayshave
the professionalism, the skill, or the basic honesty to sort out
such subjective matters.
But we have seen some process stories this week; sure enough,
they've generally dealt with Bush and Gore, and one quickly sees
why major contenders would rather not read such creations. One
also sees how utterly useless these stories generally turn out
to be. Grindingly subjective, based on unnamed sources, such stories
let the eager scribe write pretty much whatever he likes. As we've
noted, our Washington press corps has a hard enough time explaining
simple facts about basic, core policies. Letting reporters go
off on these behind-the-scenes tangents is an invitation to mayhem
Take for example a Gore process story recently penned by Sally
Quinn in the Post. Her story doesn't deal with Gore's record or
proposalsit deals with his accent, his family background, and
his clothes. Quinn seems to have memorized every sound-bite currently
murmured in Washington's dimmer quarters, and she reads them back
to us, packaged in ways that amaze with their incomprehension.
One passage starts off like this:
QUINN: Don't duck your background. You are a child of privilege.
That's the simple truth. Your father was a senator. You went to
St. Albans and Harvard. You are the embodiment of the American
dream. Your parents worked hard to give their son a better life.
That's what all parents do...
Quinn seems to be scolding a nine-year-old. And she implies
that Gore is "ducking his background," in ways she doesn't
bother to state. But Gore's first, "biographical" TV
ad included footage and text about his father's career; in fact,
the ad was criticized for including such material. Quinn's
incomprehension picks up steam:
QUINN (continuing directly): There's nothing wrong with who
you are. Look at your three biggest rivals, Bush, Bradley and
McCain. Not only are they not denying their privileged backgrounds,
they are embracing them. McCain is proud of the fact that
he is the son and grandson of admirals. [Quinn's emphasis]
Quinn doesn't say how the three are "embracing" their
backgrounds, but have you ever heard McCain talk about growing
up in Washington and attending an area prep school? And speaking
of McCain: is being the son of an admiral, in the current climate,
the same as being the son of a senator? Quinn is either deliberately
obtuse, or is unaware of the simplest realities. Here's the best
QUINN (continuing directly): Tell us the stories about growing
up in Washington, about knowing so many of the great leaders of
the time. It doesn't mean you can't tell farm stories, too. That's
just another part of who you are.
It is? Really! When did that happen? In March, Gore
accurately answered a specific question about his life experiences
outside Washington. Result? He was ridiculed for his "farm
stories" for three solid monthswas called "delusional"
and "deeply dishonest" by major writersand Sally Quinn
forgot to speak up and straighten the factual record. (Peer pressure.)
The question Gore answered, by the way, was based on a claim made
by Senator Bradleythat because he, Bradley, had grown up in a
small town, he had a more varied life experience that Gore. This
is one of the ways that Senator Bradley has "embraced his
privilege," as Quinn dimly puts it. Quinn seems to be writing
her dispatch from Mars, she seems so unaware of the past year's
In this article, Quinn tells Gore what shoes to wear, what
staff to hire, what issues to stress, what stories to tell. She
plays the shrink in her middle passage, telling us Gore may well
be having "some sort of belated midlife crisis" (his
father died, plus he just had a grandchild). She offers a bizarre
critique of Gore's recent Imus appearance; saying Gore
seemed "stilted and over-rehearsed," she seems to be
mistakenly reciting the sound-bite from the Dem town hall forum.
She saves the bestNaomi Wolffor last, telling Gore he didn't
need Wolf because he already had enough advisers. And then she
recites a version of the season's most chic sound-bite:
QUINN: It seems all too clear to me now that Naomi is there
to tell you not who you are but who you should be.
Quinn doesn't explain what those words mean, and she doesn't
explain how this fact got so "clear." She doesn't explain
one other thinghow she got on a first-name basis with "Naomi,"
a 37-year-old woman who has written three best-sellers, and who
is far more accomplished than Quinn. It is the perfect ending
to an utterly vacuous article, filled with conventional wisdom
and cant. The article shows why most writers should be assigned
to paraphrase things the hopefuls say, and not write a single
word beyond that.
But what is most comical about Quinn's process story is the
way it interacts with two others. In taking us behind-the-scenes
to examine-the-process, writers type up contradictory tales there
is no way on earth to judge. What's wrong with the way Gore has
run his campaign? Pundit Dearest doesn't have any doubt:
QUINN: [I]magine agreeing to allow Coelho to have total control
of your campaign. You are the candidate. Would you relinquish
that kind of control as president? [Quinn's emphasis]
She is aghast that Gore has given up all control. Meanwhile,
Carl Cannon, writing in the current George, also knows
what's wrong with Gore:
CANNON: The vice president is a notorious micromanager who
wants to be his own campaign boss. This impulse is almost always
a mistakecandidates have enough demands on their time.
Meanwhile, Melinda Henneberger agrees with QuinnGore does
take too much advice. But it isn't Coelho who gives it:
HENNEBERGER: [T]here is a consensus among Mr. Gore's [unnamed]
friends that he does prefer advice from members of his family,
at least in part because they are so supportive, generally mirroring
his own feelings.
..."The rest of us are just interchangeable operatives in
this dirty business of politics," said one disaffected former
consultant. "When it comes down to the real decisions? It's
[daughter] Karenna, [wife] Tipper and his gut..."
See the way it all comes clear when top writers start expounding
Tomorrow: The press corps cares about who told who.
They don't care about who is right.
Oh well: In paragraph 14, Quinn says Gore gave
Coelho "total control." In the very next paragraph,
Quinn says Wolf is telling Gore "who he should be."
Elsewhere on earth, that doesn't make sense. But it's close enough
for the celebrity press corps.
Same ol' Jim: Last Wednesday night, a tabloid talker
didn't know the facts about that Bradley TV ad. (The facts had
been explained in three major papers that morning; see THE DAILY
HOWLER, 11/19/99.) By Thursday, RNC chairman Jim Nicholson was
pretending that he still didn't know what was what. According
to Greg Pierce's "Inside Politics" column, a Nicholson
press release on Thursday, November 18 said Bradley had run "a
highly misleading ad where [he] pretends he's Marcus Welby with
a jump shot:"
PIERCE: "Trouble is, it was the Republican Congress that
passed the legislation, in 1993and Mrs. Drumm's baby was born
in 1993, two years before Bradley even introduced his version
of the bill," the Republican National Committee said in a
press release..."The ad is misleading, and every independent
reviewer has said so."
But every independent reviewer also explained what Nicholson
pretended not to knowthat Drumm was referring to her third
child, not her second (the second child was born in 1993).
This is the same dishonest faxing Nicholson engaged in last spring,
concerning the farm chores nonsense. But CelebCorps liked the
feel of that charade, and eagerly played along with it, month
after month. Nor are they going to say anything about Nicholson's
buffoonism now. To CelebCorps, that would be impolite.