26 November 1999
Our current howler (part IV): Seduced and abandoned
Synopsis: Margaret Carlson just couldnt believe that Ol Authentic would spend time planning ads.
Matt Bai, Newsweek, 11/15/99
Buffing Up for the Granite State
Mary McGrory, The Washington Post, 11/18/99
The Branding of Bill Bradley
Margaret Carlson, Time, 11/22/99
The Aura of the Aura
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times Magazine, 6/27/99
Who Doesnt Want to Be a Millionaire?
Frank Rich, The New York Times, 11/20/99
Send In More Clowns
Frank Rich, The New York Times, 10/24/99
Bradley Is in Full Control, and Some Friends Fret
James Dao, The New York Times, 11/21/99
Watching Al Gore swing into action
Roger Simon, U.S. News, 10/25/99
In the pages of Newsweek, there was Bill Bradley, trying
on those new shoes in New Hampshire (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/22/99).
And Matt Bai's article on the hopeful's authenticity included
this cheerful boxed item:
BAI: For Real/Bradley benefits from his air of authenticity:
57% of Democratic primary voters say he's not a typical politician,
while 51% say the same thing about Gore.
Not exactly the most significant polling numbers we've ever
seen, but hyped up nicely by Newsweek. But then, this was
the same issue that showed Gore back ahead by ten points in New
Hampshire, yet praised the fast-gaining underdogs (see THE DAILY
HOWLER, 11/16/99). Newsweek enjoys pleasing stories. But
by the next week, at the Washington Post, Mary McGrory was worried.
Her friend Margaret Carlson was hurting because of what she'd
learned about a certain slick campaign:
MCGRORY (paragraph 1): Is Bill Bradley, who's been surging
in New Hampshire on the "authenticity" issue, just like
all the others? In this week's Time, Margaret Carlson, who got
the story from Adweek, tells us the disillusioning news that he
may be more Madison Avenue than Main Street.
Say what? Oh yeah. It gets worse:
MCGRORY (2): For 18 months, the above-it-all candidate met
on the quiet with a cluster of admen called the "Crystal
Group," after his home town, who gave him a personality touchup
that turned out to be perfect for the Granite State.
And indeed, Carlson was complaining in the pages of Time,
about the secrecy of Bradley's slick meetings. We've told
youonce those pundits get going on process, there's nothing they
may not dissect:
CARLSON: It's a surprise not that the Crystal Group exists,
but that there were such efforts to keep it under wraps. Bradley
told TIME recently that he intended to "run a campaign that's
not packaged," yet he'd already been meeting with his packagers
for more than a year by then.
That dog! Carlson also sounded off about this:
CARLSON: Bradley has shown that he does manage his image, if
only by omitting parts of his story. He likes reporters to follow
him while he does his own grocery shopping, but gets cranky if
anyone comes around when he's taking one of his frequent flights
on a corporate jet.
And Carlson was peeved about certain parts of Bradley's recent
CARLSON: He talks about teaching at Stanford University after
he left the Senate, but not so much about the hundreds of thousands
of dollars he earned as a consultant to J.P. Morgan, or the more
than $2.5 million he made giving speeches.
Ceci Connolly, you'll recall, had described these activities
in the Post some six months earlier (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/24/99).
But Margaret Carlson was thoroughly shocked.
Yep. Some "process" stories have begun to appear
about that slick ol' Bradley bunchabout Bradley hangin' out with
ad guys, and taking cheap rides on fancy jets. Some of the scribes
who had gushed "authentic" were having some big second
thoughts! But then, perhaps the scribes were so upset because
they'd been so silly to start with. Read paragraph one of Carlson's
CARLSON: Bill Bradley is the uncola, the all-natural candidate
so pure he would entertain no candidacy before its time. He still
drives a battered '84 Oldsmobile, and a few weeks ago he bought
new dress shoes to replace a pair he'd owned for 25 years. He
doesn't mall-test his ideas. He scolds anyone who presses him
on an issue he hasn't thought through. He won't go negative; for
that matter, he barely goes positive. The Anti-Clinton, he slicks
himself up for no man.
Was Carlson's passage tongue in cheek? We're still not surebut
it reflects the way many scribes had portrayed Bradley. Scads
of pundits had called him "authentic," and had recited
lightly-spun campaign tales. In May, when the campaign showed
up with a grandmother funder, she went straight to page one of
the Post. It was all a part of the excellent press pundits said
the campaign had received.
Here at THE HOWLER, we entertain no thought that Bill Bradley
isn't fit to be president. But by the same token, we always knew
that Bradley was a professional politiciandid you know that he
spent three full terms in the senate?and we never thought he'd
spent the past two years settin' down by the fishin' hole, jest
a-thinkin'. We know of no reasonnone at allwhy Bradley shouldn't
be the next president. But the scribes, it long had seemed to
us, had busied themselves with what looked like light spin. Is
it true, for example, what Carlson saidthat Bradley just won't
go negative? Melinda Henneberger, writing in June:
HENNBERGER: Making the case against Gore, [Bradley]
always says that, unlike the Vice President, "I had
a life before and after politics. I went to work like millions
of Americans and tried to do the best job at whatever I was doing."
We note the words "against" and "always"and
the oddness of Bradley's presentation. After Oxford, Bradley spent
ten years in the NBA; after Harvard, Gore spent seven years as
a journalist (in the army and Tennessee). Bradley then spent eighteen
years in the Senate (and two years in part preparing to run for
president); Gore finished his twenty-second year in office this
year. Gore entered the Congress in 1976, Bradley two years later.
The notion that there is some qualitative difference between these
two adult lives is frankly absurd on its face. Yet scribes have
typed it up all yearBradley's comment led to the farm chores
debacle in Marcheven as they swore up and down that Bradley just
won't be critical.
Here at THE HOWLER, our current cycle started with Fineman's
claim that there have been no "process" stories written
on Bradley. In the past few weeks, such stories have startedand
sometimes their authors have adopted a tone of surprise that the
Great Authentic would even plan ads. These stories have been silly,
but they've followed work that was sillier still, in which
the press corps politely peddled light spin. How did Carlson "know"
those were Bradley's first new shoes in years? She knew because
Bradley had told her (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/22/99). Some scribes
haven't noticed an obvious factthe Bradley camp does in fact
sell light spin. And now the scribes act seduced and betrayedamazed
by facts spelled out six months before.
Why do we argue against "process" stories? Against
stories telling us who gives who advice; who wears rumpled clothes;
who acts how in meetings; who has heart and soul? We argue against
them because there's no sign at all that the press corps can figure
this sort of thing outand because they give the corps all kinds
of new ways to tell us the stories they like. Why did Bradley
keep Crystal Group under wraps? Easybecause Bradley was spinning
the press corps! And the fact that Margaret Carlson couldn't
tell, all along, that there was a little light spin from the Bradley
camp is another good reason why the celebrity press corps should
stick to reporting the basics.
From both sides now: The analysts cheered at our state-of-the-art
headquarters when Frank Rich's piece from last Saturday was read:
RICH (11/20): The return of the quiz-show craze in the late
90's, Mr. Goodwin added, suggests a parallel between now and the
50's, another prosperous "time of dullness" with "really
intense public apathy and little ferment over public issues."
And certainly "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" gains
intellectual heft when compared with the current political culture's
debate over Al Gore's wardrobe.
The analysts cheered to find such a like spirit. We didn't
dare show them Rich's piece from last month:
RICH (10/24): Though Mr. Ventura is always condescended to
about the feather boas and Mylar tights he wore in the wrestling
ring, at least he limited his appearances in contrived costumes
to his stints as a paid entertainer; as governor he usually wears
street clothes. By contrast, Mr. Gore is now adopting various
costumes while vice president, trying to buff his image by throwing
off drab Washington duds for snazzier suits (if sans Mylar) as
well as chinos and polo shirts. In his search for an "authentic"
identitya journey "from wooden to plastic," in the
words of a New York Post headlinethe man has morphed into a male
model out of a Dockers or Home Depot ad.
We decided to leave well enough alone, with Rich now adopting
our incomparable view concerning the hopefuls' wardrobes.
Simon says believe this: Want to see the problem with
"process" stories? Read the first two paragraphs of
this James Dao story about how Bradley makes his decisions:
DAO (paragraph 1): As he was preparing a major poverty proposal
earlier this fall, former Senator Bill Bradley huddled with a
small group of top advisers to hash out final details. Several
aides expressed concerns about one idea they thought might be
overreaching and risky: a sweeping pledge to cut child poverty
by half over the coming decade.
(2) Mr. Bradley listened quietly...But when the discussion ended,
he spoke up: he would stick with his original decision. Debate
To Bradley's supporters, Dao wrote, "that story underscores
what they consider a major reason he has pulled close to Vice
President Al Gore." Bradley is "controlling the levers
of his campaign," and Gore is not, they said. "And the
result, they said, is that Mr. Bradley looks like the stronger
This is a classic "process" story, describing how
Bradley makes decisions. But it is also a classic bit of spin:
Faced with fears from wavering aides, The Candidate stands firm
on principle. One problemhow does Dao know the meeting occurred
as described? Was Dao present at the meeting, or was it described
by Bradley aides? The story never says. And needless to say, Dao
never tries to shed light on the one thing that matterswhether
Bradley's decision was a good idea.
Roger Simon wrote the same story on Gore after the defeat of
the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. A Gore ad on the subject quickly
appeared; Simon said how it was written:
SIMON: After the speech [in Seattle], Gore shook hands with
the workers and then went to a holding room in the union hall
and called his message chief, Carter Eskew. Whip up a short script
for a 60-second commercial to be filmed that night and aired the
next day, Gore told him. Gore also told him what the script should
say and then told him to fax him a draft at the Westin Hotel,
where he could edit it to his satisfaction. He made
clear that he was not asking for Eskew's advice. "He didn't
ask Carter what he thought," a senior Gore adviser said.
"He mandated Carter to do it."
How does Simon know this is true? He seems to be transcribing
what Gore's aides have told him. Simon even ventured inside Gore's
mind, telling readers what the hopeful was thinking:
SIMON: Writing, filming, and airing a commercialhis very first
of the campaignin about 12 hours would normally be considered
ludicrousGore did not care. Did his father ask aides before he
opposed the poll tax? Did his father consult aides before standing
up for civil rights. Did his father focus-group his opposition
to the Vietnam War? No. The father didn't and neither would the
This is simply gruesome writing. And oh yeswas Gore right
in his views on the CTBT? Here at THE HOWLER, we don't have a
clue. Simon never got into the merits.