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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 by—who else—Frank 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 race—well, 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 piece—but 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 gripping—the 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 Governor Bush.)

Yep. We thought Bruni's boxed comment was the strangest remark we would read—but 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 year—and 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." Sorry—we 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 viewpoint:

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 of—he'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, folks—no one disputed the general claim that Gore has gotten very tough coverage.

Tomorrow we'll look at Kakutani's odd review—and 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 shame—writers 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 [1] and Mr. Outside [2], the man who plays well without the ball [3], Bill Bradley. What do you make of this match-up?

BELZER: Gore—it's amazing to me—Gore, here's a guy who grew up in a hotel suite [4] and, you know, wants to claim he knows the people [5]. He's a militarist, he's not the big liberal everyone makes him out to be, he's betrayed kind of the environmental movement and—for a guy to wake up every day and not know who he is [6]—he's hiring people to tell him who he is [7] and what colors to wear [8], I think he's getting close to the Quayle factor [9]...I think Gore is teetering on the edge, in spite of the tons of money that he may have behind him [10], 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 started:

MATTHEWS: Yeah, you know he does keep trying out new suits [11]—he'll go on Letterman and try to be a stand-up comic! He'll come out with these earth-tone [12] suits, the three-button [13] jackets like a waiter [14], he'll come out and act like a manic [15] person.

BELZER: Right. [16]

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 [17]. The conversation wasn't much better on Bush, just—mercifully—a 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 [1], the guy that everyone likes in school [2], out of Animal House almost [3], but not the most bookish guy [4]. What do you make of him?

BELZER: George [sic] is more frightening to me than Gore because George needs to be totally filled up with information [5] 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 [6]. He hints at being kind of vapid [7] and kind of cavalier [8]. 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.