24 November 1999
Our current howler (part III): Granny tales
Synopsis: A process story about a Bradley fund-raiser starts to show where the genre can lead.
Gores Plan for Success in 00: An Array of Solid Positions
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 7/29/99
The Grandmother Behind Bradleys Money Machine
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 5/22/99
Back in July, the New York Times had heard griping about their
Gore campaign coverageback in the summer, when a major Gore speech
was the signal for a bunch of "stiff" jokes (see THE
DAILY HOWLER, 7/22/99). Finally, someone assigned poor Katharine
Seelye to do a piece on Gore's policy stands. The grumbling journalist,
mourning her fate, scratched out a word of sullen protest:
SEELYE: Mr. Gore's advisers say they have been disappointed
that news organizations have dwelt on his political problems despite
his focus on issues, although a recent poll by the Dallas Morning
News suggests that voters at this point seem to put little stock
in issues. The poll found that even though most Americans admit
they know little about Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the Republican
front-runner, they strongly favor him over Mr. Gore and former
Senator Bill Bradley, Mr. Gore's rival for the Democratic nomination.
To some journalists, the revelation that voters "know
little about" major candidates would be a signal to report
more about them. Not this crew! Back in July, Seelye even asked
Gore why he bothered with policy stuff:
SEELYE: Mr. Gore becomes almost indignant when asked if his
avalanche of positions might be overwhelming voters.
To be honest, there was little chance Gore's positions had
overwhelmed Seelye's readers, since the Times wasn't covering
them much. The humorless hopeful shot back at Seelye: "How
did we get in a position where it's considered odd to offer a
detailed set of policy proposals for the challenges we face?"
Finally, keening and wailing every step of the way, Seelye glumly
outlined Gore's "positions on scores of topics."
That's right, folks. This press corps simply loves stories
on process, and has to be bullied into doing much else. They love
to gossip about who's giving adviceand hate talking up health
plans and throw-weights. They're hard. Recently, Howard
Fineman said hopefuls hate "process" storiesand said
there have been virtually no such stories on Bradley and McCain,
and not much else on Bush and Gore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/22/99).
We don't quite agree with Fineman on that, but process stories
do serve one big function. They let scribes make vacuous points
about hopefulsand they let scribes tell the stories they like.
A May 22 "process" story on Senator Bradley helps
show the genre's shortcomings. It was a page one story in the
Washington Post (with a picture), and the headline may have caught
WASHINGTON POST HEADLINE: The Grandmother Behind Bradley's
Money Machine/Spaghetti Suppers Preceded Million-Dollar Galas
for a Key Fund-Raiser
The "grandmother" in question was "sixtyish"
Betty Sapoch, a fund-raiser straight from a publicist's dream.
Here's how Ceci Connolly started:
CONNOLLY (paragraph 1): Betty Sapoch got her start in politics
in the kitchen, cooking spaghetti and meatballs at the local Italian-American
Sportsmen's Club. For $15, friends got an evening with basketball
star Bill Bradley and all the pasta they could eat.
It doesn't get more wholesome. And while we're at it, how about
CONNOLLY (4): While Bradley preaches the gospel of cleaning
up the campaign finance system, he is working it assiduouslybut
with the help of a woman who defies the Washington stereotype
of a fast-talking, back-slapping operator. She is, in the words
of one admirer, "the un-Terry," a reference to Terence
R. McAuliffe, the gregarious Clinton-Gore fund-raiser who still
holds the record for presidential fund-raising in a single quarter.
Still holds the record for presidential fund-raising?
There hadn't been any campaigns since the record was set! Connolly
slips in a pointless word to make her tale a bit better. But it
surely isn't hard to see why Grandma Sapoch is a modern-day publicist's
dream. In this passage, an unnamed admirer explicitly describes
her as the opposite of Clinton-Gore's big money style. Sapocha
grandmother cooking spaghettiis the perfect emblem for the Bradley
campaign's claim to be doin' it different.
But Connolly's article is fascinating because, while it profiles
the Bradley camp's granny fund-raiser, it also lists facts at
which many journalists have recently gaped in surprise. The article
notes that the Bradley campaign is running a sophisticated fund-raising
operation. (NOTE: There is no reason at all why it shouldn't.)
Here are the passages that come between the two paragraphs we've
CONNOLLY (2): Two decades later, the "sixtyish" Sapoch
is organizing million-dollar galas in Manhattan and personally
pulling in close to $1.5 million for Bradley's campaign so far,
according to finance chairman Rick Wright.
(3) In the fight for the Democratic nomination, "Dollar
Bill" Bradley has positioned himself as the unsullied reformer
taking on Al Gore, the powerful vice president tarnished by the
fund-raising excesses of the 1996 campaign. Yet the rise of Betty
Sapoch, from spaghetti suppers to the boardrooms of Wall Street,
illustrates that the Bradley money machine is far from the modest
operation its quaint roots suggest.
In other words, Granma's cheerful pot-luck suppers don't
illustrate Bradley's fund-raising. But there they are in a page-one
Post headline, complete with a friendly photo of Granny. Can we
suggest that Sapoch's unnamed admirer who mentions "the un-Terry"
(paragraph 4) may actually be finance chairman Wright (paragraph
2)? The Bradley campaign would simply be foolish not to try for
a set of images like this.
Let us make one point right nowthere is not a word in this
article suggesting that the Bradley campaign has done anything
wrong in its fund-raising. As we said in the spring when we discussed
Bush/Gore fund-raising, we know of no allegations that any
campaign has done anything wrong in fund-raising this year. But
in the course of her article, Connolly expanded on her statement
that Bradley's fund-raising is no "modest operation."
She stated that Bradley had raised an "impressive"
$6.3 million up to that point. She said that "despite Bradley's
rhetoric that he is bringing new people into the political money
game," he had a higher percentage of $1000 donors than either
Bush or Gore. She said that Bradley, Sapoch and a small circle
of loyalists had been laying the groundwork for his fund-raising
for two years. She mentioned the fact that Bradley made "a
half million dollars in consulting fees on Wall Street last year"
and earned $1.6 million in speaking fees as well. By golly, she
even said this:
CONNOLLY (6): Bradley has recruited several other Clinton money
men who had been targeted by Gore, including New York lawyer Joseph
Flom, Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz and Douglas Eakeley,
who attended Oxford University and Yale Law School with the president.
Two paragraphs after we meet "the un-Terry," Bradley
signs three Clinton-Gore money men! (We aren't told if the three
are "fast-talking.") In short, Connolly's article is
a fascinating amalgam of images wrestling with facts. She provides
detailed facts about Bradley's fund-raisingfacts which have recently
shocked various scribes (see Friday's HOWLER). But she headlines
images of grandma's suppersimages that, she cheerfully admits,
don't reflect the real state of the campaign.
Does it matter who helps the hopefuls raise money? Not reallyunless
they've done something wrong. The "grandma" aspects
of this piece are like the stories about who gives the hopefuls
advicethey are nothing more than human interest features, designed
to let newspapers go one more day without talking about matters
of substance (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/22/99). Meanwhile, recent
"process" stories about Bradley's campaign have dwelled
on some facts Connolly spelled out in May. And credulous scribes
have begun to complain that Bradley isn't running one big pot-luck
Friday (we think): Credulous columnists grumble and
complain when they learn it isn't all pot-luck suppers.
Way between the lines: We strongly suggest
you read Michiko Kakutani's article from this Monday's New York
Times ("Between the Lines, Revealing Glimpses of Five Candidates").
In our view, this review of the five major hopefuls' books is
one of the strangest bits of writing this year. The press corps'
bizarre obsession with Naomi Wolf has never been made quite so
clear. And enjoy a holiday parlor game: read what Kakutani says
about the "charts and graphs" in Earth in the Balance.
Then, count them up in the book for yourself. Can you say
"bizarre," HOWLER readers? More on this article Monday.
Meanwhile, Michael Lewis' "I Liked a Pol" in last
Sunday's Times magazine provided a striking description of press
corps negativity. This negativityan intellectual fad among intellectual
featherweightswill at some point go away by itself. In the meantime,
we all have to live with the pundits' strange furies. Lewis writes
a rare description. For this, of course, we're thankful.