29 November 1999
Our current howler (part I): Totally by the book
Synopsis: A strange review of five hopefuls books showed the power of conventional wisdom.
Rival Biographies of Bush are Rushing to Print
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 10/3/99
Levity Is at the Soul Of Bush, the Puck In the Political Pack
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 11/27/99
Between the Lines, Revealing Glimpses Of Five Candidates
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, 11/22/99
Commentary by Bernard Kalb, Melinda Henneberger, Howard Kurtz
Reliable Sources, CNN, 11/28/99
Commentary by Chris Matthews, Richard Belzer
Hardball, CNBC, 11/24/99
We thought we'd already read the silliest thing we'd read about
a book all year. It was a comment penned bywho elseFrank Bruni,
the press corps' chief worshipper of Governor Bush. In October,
bios of Bush had begun to appear. Bruni quoted the publishers:
BRUNI: The publishers and writers of these books say that even
if Mr. Bush's campaign falters in the months ahead, his ancestry
and stewardship of the nation's second most populous state make
his story a compelling one.
The notion that Bush's story would be "compelling"
even if he dropped from the racewell, it's the kind of thing
publishers make themselves say because it's their job to sell
lots of books. And we don't suppose there's anything wrong with
Bruni quoting them early on in his piecebut then, there was the
puffery in a box, in big print, apparently now in Bruni's voice:
BOX INSIDE BRUNI'S STORY: Even if he falters in the months
ahead, his story seems a compelling one.
As we've mentioned before, just the headlines that have
run over Bruni's stories this year would make a great comedy piece.
In fact, his headline writer was back in action last week, fawning
again on page one:
NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINE: Levity Is at the Soul Of Bush, the
Puck In the Political Pack
Maybe that's what makes Bush's story so grippingthe
fact that he's straight out of Shakespeare. (NOTE: The fact that
the Times has covered Bush in a comical way is no reflection on
Yep. We thought Bruni's boxed comment was the strangest remark
we would readbut along came Michiko Kakutani. Last week, she
wrote a lengthy piece in the Times about books written by five
major hopefuls. We thought a few of her comments on Bush's book
a bit odd; for example, after reporting that the book was principally
written by Karen Hughes, she surprised us a wee bit with this:
KAKUTANI: For the most part, Mr. Bush eschews the mangled syntax
of his father, sticking to simple platitudes, but he too has a
way with the bizarre image.
Is it surprising that there's no "mangled syntax"
in a book? Bush's father had occasional problems in extemporaneous
speech. And why are we told of Bush's "way with images"
if the book was written by someone else? On balance, though, we
thought Kakutani was reasonable about Bush, if a bit condescending;
she says the book "has the perfunctory tone of a 'what I
did over my summer vacation' assignment," and we think the
book is much more interesting and effective than that.
But it wasn't Kakutani's remarks on Bush's book that captured
our analysts' attention. Her treatment of four of the hopefuls'
books caused no disquiet in our analysts' quarters. But her treatment
of Al Gore's Earth in the Balance was one of the strangest
performances of the yearand another example of the overwhelming
power of that ol' debbil, conventional wisdom.
We know that some of our readers are now rushing to push the
button that types out "Gore shill." Sorrywe didn't
create the coverage we review, and again we cite the scribes themselves
remarking on the negative Gore coverage. On Reliable Sources
this past weekend, Bernie was asking who the press loves. And
Melinda Henneberger spoke right up to validate our incomparable
KALB: Melinda, there was an earlier consensus a few moments
ago that McCain is undoubtedly a reportorial favorite at the moment...Among
the Democrats, who do you think is the reportorial favorite?
HENNEBERGER: There's no question, there's no question that
Gore has gotten much rougher treatment than Bradley has.
Look who's talking (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/27/99). Bernie,
insatiable, wanted more:
KALB: In terms ofhe's gotten rougher treatment. Is there a
favorite? Does that
HENNEBERGER: Absolutely. Absolutely, Bradley is, is the press favorite on the
Because Bernie kept interrupting and talking over his guest,
we never learned what she wanted to say. But none of the panelists
ever disagreed with the thrust of Howard Kurtz's remark:
KURTZ: Before the show, I was trying to think of what the candidates
have been criticized on. I was trying to think of an area where
Bradley has been slapped a bit by the media and I didn't come
up with one.
It was when the scribes were asked to explain the Gore
coverage that the stammering and stuttering and strange stories
began. But sorry, folksno one disputed the general claim that
Gore has gotten very tough coverage.
Tomorrow we'll look at Kakutani's odd reviewand we hope you
put our thoughts in the context created by the pundits' remarks.
We'll also look, as the week rolls along, at further comments
that were made by Kurtz's guests. The press corps seems to be
in the thrall of an overpowering conventional wisdom. Kakutani's
odd piece helps show that. But asked to explain the source of
the Gore coverage, pundits often lack the first clue. What a shamewriters
so fully expert on others' souls become tongue-tied when asked
of their own.
Tomorrow: Do you want to know what Gore's book even
says? Don't bother reading Kakutani.
Also coming: Is there a "smear campaign" concerning
McCain? Some say that the press made it up.
Next week: The year's biggest "process" story.
Hell's Belz: Remember the days of Sahl and Bruce, when
comedians would challenge conventional wisdom? Sorry folks,
those days are long gone. Richard Belzer, the world's least funny
mortal, showed up to play some Hardball last week. You're
going to think we made it up, but this cant-drenched exchange
did take place:
CHRIS MATTHEWS: What do you make of the Democrats' fight? They've
got Mr. Inside, Al  and Mr. Outside , the man who plays
well without the ball , Bill Bradley. What do you make of this
BELZER: Goreit's amazing to meGore, here's a guy who grew
up in a hotel suite  and, you know, wants to claim he knows
the people . He's a militarist, he's not the big liberal everyone
makes him out to be, he's betrayed kind of the environmental movement
andfor a guy to wake up every day and not know who he is he's
hiring people to tell him who he is  and what colors to wear
, I think he's getting close to the Quayle factor ...I think
Gore is teetering on the edge, in spite of the tons of money that
he may have behind him , of becoming a joke.
In case you hadn't figured it out, we're counting the basic
spin-points the savants ticked off. And the fun was just getting
MATTHEWS: Yeah, you know he does keep trying out new suits
he'll go on Letterman and try to be a stand-up comic!
He'll come out with these earth-tone  suits, the three-button
 jackets like a waiter , he'll come out and act like a
manic  person.
BELZER: Right. 
Why did we count "right" as #16? Because it's a total
cliché on this show to agree with every word the host says.
Belzer went on to score more points about how Gore "becomes
a different person" in front of a camera . The conversation
wasn't much better on Bush, justmercifullya good deal shorter:
MATTHEWS: What do you make of this guy George W? I mean, he
strikes me as sort of a popular fraternity master , the guy
that everyone likes in school , out of Animal House
almost , but not the most bookish guy . What do you make
BELZER: George [sic] is more frightening to me than Gore because
George needs to be totally filled up with information  and
what to do and say whereas Gore at least had some experience at
politics and being out on the stump. Bush I think has led a very
insulated, very privileged life . He hints at being kind of
vapid  and kind of cavalier . He has this air of privilege
to it, that he sort of deserves it. And frankly I don't know that
much about him, and I don't think the Americans do either.
Seriously, folks, that's what he said. He "doesn't know
that much about" George Bush. But he's carefully learned
all the cant.
"George" is hardly the only one Belzer knows little
about. He doesn't know that Gore has long been identified with
the moderate wing of his party. And has Gore "betrayed"
the environmental movement? That's a subjective judgment, but
last week, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth, the one major
environmental group which has endorsed Bradley, stressed over
and over again that he thought Bradley and Gore both had outstanding
environmental records (Inside Politics, CNN, 11/23). The
one thing Belzer does know? Conventional wisdom and cant.
A display of its power tomorrow.