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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.

Gore’s Plan for Success in ’00: An Array of Solid Positions
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 7/29/99

The Grandmother Behind Bradley’s Money Machine
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 5/22/99

Back in July, the New York Times had heard griping about their Gore campaign coverage—back 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 advice—and hate talking up health plans and throw-weights. They're hard. Recently, Howard Fineman said hopefuls hate "process" stories—and 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 hopefuls—and 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 readers' eyes:

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 this:

CONNOLLY (4): While Bradley preaches the gospel of cleaning up the campaign finance system, he is working it assiduously—but 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. Sapoch—a grandmother cooking spaghetti—is 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 already quoted:

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 now—there 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-raising—facts which have recently shocked various scribes (see Friday's HOWLER). But she headlines images of grandma's suppers—images that, she cheerfully admits, don't reflect the real state of the campaign.

Does it matter who helps the hopefuls raise money? Not really—unless they've done something wrong. The "grandma" aspects of this piece are like the stories about who gives the hopefuls advice—they 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 supper.


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 negativity—an intellectual fad among intellectual featherweights—will 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.