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1 December 1999

Our current howler (part III): Way between the lines

Synopsis: Are you curious to know what Gore’s book says? Kakutani’s review never tells you.

Between the Lines, Revealing Glimpses Of Five Candidates
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, 11/22/99

Kakutani's review of the five hopefuls' books moves from one to the other episodically. Her first passage on Gore's Earth in the Balance starts with this paragraph:

KAKUTANI (paragraph 5): Vice President Al Gore emerges from "Earth in the Balance" (Plume), his 1992 book about the environment, as the quintessential A-student who has belatedly discovered New Age psychobabble. Like his speeches, his book veers between detailed policy assessments (predictably illustrated with lots of charts and graphs) and high-decibel outbursts of passion, between energetically researched historical disquisitions and loony asides about "inner ecology" and "spiritual triangulation"—asides that may help explain his curious affinity with his feminist consultant, Naomi Wolf.

Incredibly, this is the clearest statement that Kakutani ever makes of what Earth in the Balance is about. Although she spends about 800 words discussing the book, she never makes the slightest effort to tell readers what Earth actually says. In the book, Gore asserts that a looming environmental crisis calls for mobilization of the world's policies and resources. His argument is easy to state, because he states it rather clearly—our response to the approaching environmental crisis must become "the central organizing principle for civilization." Is Gore right in the science? We don't know, and it would be unfair to expect Kakutani to judge Earth's technical merit. But Kakutani's readers don't even know what Gore said, because Kakutani never bothers to tell them. In the passage quoted, she says Earth is a "book about the environment." The only other mention of the environment comes near the end of her article:

KAKUTANI (27): So what else do these books tell us about the candidates?...That Mr. Gore, sounding a lot like Naomi Wolf (who once tried to draw parallels between the Holocaust and anorexia), likes to compare the world's worsening environmental problems to Hitler's rise in the 1930's.

That is the only other place in her article where Kakutani mentions the environment. Even a careful reader would have little idea what the book discusses, because Kakutani spends her time on peripheral themes. "One of the book's main themes concerns the mind-body dichotomy and the perils of a 'disembodied intellect,'" she writes, and she spends substantial parts of her review talking about that (more tomorrow). Yet the "theme" to which she refers is clearly secondary; it first appears around page 218 of the 368-page book, and is essentially concluded when Gore ends the second part of his three-part effort at page 265. Before Gore says a word on the theme which Kakutani stresses, he spends over 200 pages making scientific arguments, the general thrust of which is never described in this peculiar article. People who read this New York Times piece have no real idea what Gore's book is about.

If there is any explanation for Kakutani's odd treatment, it comes in her second paragraph:

KAKUTANI (2): Each of the leading candidates for the Democratic and Republican presidential a published author. And, while the qualities that make a good autobiographical book...are not exactly associated with politicians in this age of spin, there are revealing self-portraits to be found between the lines.

"[T]he contenders' own words...provide inadvertent glimpses of the personalities behind the personas," she writes, suggesting that she brings a specialized interest to her review of these books. But she never specifically tells readers the fact that, while some of these books are essentially autobiographies, Earth in the Balance is not such a book. She never specifically tells her readers that she is discussing Earth's secondary themes.

Kakutani wants to find "revealing self-portraits" of the candidates. In Gore's case, unfortunately, this leads her to play the unlicensed shrink, as others in recent weeks have freely done (more tomorrow). But there is one other thing that animates her treatment—the love of silly, conventional gossip. A reader never learns from Kakutani what Gore actually wrote in his book. But the reader does learn, all too well, what gossips are saying about him. You will have noticed that each of the passages quoted above include a reference to Naomi Wolf, for example. Incredibly, in an 800-word review where she can't find the space to tell readers what Gore's book says, Kakutani does find time to mention Wolf twice, and to ponder "earth-toned clothes" in a third, separate passage:

KAKUTANI (20): Although Mr. Gore writes that he became increasingly aware of how "easy it is for every politician—myself included—to get lost in the forms of personality traits designed to please and rhetoric designed to convey a tactical impression" this awareness does not seem to have dampened his enthusiasm for the sort of image-spinning represented by his recent efforts to act more relaxed and wear more casual, earth-toned clothes.

Kakutani doesn't know what the book is about, but she has taken the measure of Gore. Well—she has almost taken Gore's measure. To note how tentative her judgments must be, look again at paragraph 5. Do Gore's "loony asides" (more on them tomorrow) actually explain his "curious affinity with Naomi Wolf?" Well, no—according to Kakutani, they "help explain" the affinity. Well, not even that, dear friends—they "may help explain" the connection. It is astonishing to think that Kakutani believes that such silly deductions can (or should) be drawn from this book—that she thinks she should hunt through this widely-discussed policy book looking for things that "may help explain" Naomi Wolf's role in the campaign. That is especially true since there is no evidence in this article—none at all—suggesting that Kakutani has any idea what sort of "affinity" Gore does or doesn't have with Wolf. Kakutani wants to "help explain" rumor and gossip. Welcome to page one of the Times.

Talk about "this age of spin!" Every passage of Kakutani's treatment is drenched in silly conventional wisdom (more tomorrow). This "review" is a tribute to gossip. Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the incredibly shoddy (and spin-driven) work Kakutani has done on this book. But the mere fact that so vacuous a treatment is on one page one of the Times shows the astonishing power of conventional wisdom. It shows the press corps' remarkable love affair with the trivial—its "affinity" for rumor and gossip.


Tomorrow: Did you count the charts and graphs in Gore's book? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/24/99.) The bizarre technical incompetence of Kakutani's work typifies the sad New York Times.

Hope you made it: Now that the budget deal has been officially signed, we hope you survived that government shutdown that a tabloid talker warned about last month (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/27/99). As we told you on October 27, there was never any chance—there was no chance at all—that a government shutdown would occur. And the idea that Clinton could to fail to sign a clean CR, and somehow get it blamed on the Congress? It was a prospect right out of Fantasia. But a talker needed something exciting, and he got his viewers all het up. Sadly, even some of the October 24 Sunday shows were wringing their hands about a possible shutdown. There was never any chance that a shutdown would occur. Ain't it weird, what some talkers don't know? And we ask you again: Why, oh why, does NBC put this gruesome talker on the air?