7 December 1999
Our current howler (part III): Digging that canal
Synopsis: Low bridge! Every standard down! Carefully parsing pundits were troubled by Gores recent statement on Love Canal.
Author of Love Story Disputes Gore Story (Hint: Tipper Wasnt Jenny)
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 12/14/97
Commentary by Tony Snow
Fox News Sunday, Fox, 6/13/99
Missteps keep Gore from getting a running start
Jill Lawrence, USA Today, 6/16/99
Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 12/1/99
Earth in the Balance
Al Gore, Houghton Mifflin, 1992
Gore: A Political Life
Bob Zelnick, Regnery, 1999
Just to establish the mindset involved in the exciting Love
Canal/Love Story scandals, let's recall what Erich Segal
said about Ollie Barrett IV:
HENNEBERGER: The character of the preppy Harvard hockey player
Oliver Barrett 4th was modeled on both Mr. Gore and his college
roommate, the actor Tommy Lee Jones.
Yep. That's what Segal told Melinda Henneberger about the Love
Story flap. And Henneberger placed this simple fact right
smack-dab in the paper of record. You didn't have to read very
far to see it; this sentence is from paragraph 3 of her piece.
Even Cokie Roberts might have made it that far, based on evidence
of her recent news-gathering (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/6/99).
But when the press corps falls in love with a story, the facts
will be damned every time. Let's review some of the gem-like prose
that emerged from the press corps this spring. Sorry, Tony Snow,
you're one of our faves. But in June, it's a factyou said this:
SNOW: [H]ow does Al Gore explain all these sort of wacky things
about I invented the Internet, I was the inspiration for Love
Story? I mean, these kind of autobiographical flourishes that
he doesn't need and aren't true?
See Henneberger, directly above. Jill Lawrence, in USA Today,
three days later:
LAWRENCE: But the vice president, who once claimed inaccurately
to have been the model for the hero of the book Love Story,
has created some of his own problems.
Yep. All year long, we've cited press comments about how Gore
"inaccurately" made this claim, and about how Erich
Segal "emphatically denied" it (see THE DAILY HOWLER,
6/21/99). Why, a certain talker said this just last week:
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Let's talk about the "Love" factor
here. Here's the guy who said he was the character Ryan O'Neal
was based on in Love StoryIt seems to me he's now the guy
who created Love Story, he created the Love Canal. I mean,
isn't this getting idiotic, Howard? Isn't it getting to be
Supporting actor Howard Fineman chuckled. Tamala Edwards looked
Yep. Over the past eight months of the Love Story nonsense,
pundits have repeatedly misstated basic facts. And why have they
been inclined to do so? Because this is a story they like.
In fact, the whole "Gore-has-a-tendency-to-exaggerate"
story has been based on four elementsLove Story, the farm
chores, the Internet, Love Canal. Two of these storiesthe farm
chores and Love Storyare simple intellectual frauds. Now
the Love Canal sequel comes alongand it's driven by an invented
quote, and by some very slick parsing and paraphrase.
What did Gore say about Love Canal last week? To help put last
week's comments in perspective, let's look at Gore's account of
this subject in Earth in the Balance. In Earth, of
course, Gore had an advantagehe was giving a written, not a spoken,
account. We think that passage provides some perspective:
GORE (1992): I carried these concerns [about the environment]
with me to Congress, and in 1978 I received a letter from a farm
family near Toone, Tennessee about the sickness they felt was
caused by pesticide waste dumped next to their land. It turned
out they were right: a company from Memphis, seventy-five miles
to the west, had bought up the neighboring farm and dumped several
million gallons of hazardous waste into trenches that leaked into
the water for miles around. As a result, I organized the first
congressional hearings on toxic waste and focused on two sites,
the small rural community of Toone, Tennessee, and one other recently
discovered waste dump at a little place in upstate New York, Love
Canal. Subsequently, of course, Love Canal became synonymous with
the problem of hazardous chemical waste. Toone didn't, but the
family received one of the biggest judgments ever handed down
in a lawsuit over damages from toxic waste.
This account has many elements of the story as Gore told it
to students last week (text below). But just for the record, there
is no apparent dispute about the facts of this case as Gore outlines
them in this passage. Gore did hold the first hearings on this
subject; they did involve Toone and Love Canal; they did produce
significant outcomes. Bob Zelnick, a Gore biographer, has misgivings
about those outcomes, but here's his recitation of the facts in
ZELNICK: Gore was also the prime mover behind the so-called
"Superfund," a trust fund administered by the Environmental
Protection Agency to clean up the most urgent toxic waste problems...Gore's
committee held fifteen hearings on the problem, rallying public
support for action with such high visibility cases as the disposal
of chemical pollutants near New York State's Love Canal. The question
was: Who should pay for the clean-up in situations that occurred
long before passage of the act where the companies involved had
violated no federal, state, or local law? Gore was adamant that
the companies should pay, rejecting even a 50-50 split with government...
Zelnick's misgivings about Gore's approach and outcomes are
discussed in his next several paragraphs.
Zelnick is a critic of Gore on these matters. But can we make
a note about Gore's statement last week? If Gore is trying to
puff up his role, he has an extremely odd way of doing it. Zelnicka
critic, writing for a conservative publishercalls Gore "the
prime mover behind the Superfund." He describes Gore's committee
"rallying support for action" in these cases, and he
describes Gore himself insisting that the companies involved pay
all costs. Except for the one disputed sentence about Love Canal,
Gore's account last week is considerably more modest. He describes
what happened after he received the letter from the student in
GORE (1999): ...I called for a congressional investigation and
a hearing. I looked around the country for other sites like that.
I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal.
Had the first hearing on that issue and Toone, Tennesseethat
was the one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that
started it all. We passed a major national law to clean up hazardous
dump sites. And we had new efforts to stop the practices that
ended up poisoning water around the country. We've still got work
to do. But we made a huge difference. And it all happened because
one high school student got involved.
If that is an effort to embellish Gore's work, Gore is the
least effective self-promoter of all time. He does not
describe himself as the Superfund's "prime mover," as
Zelnick, a critic, does. Here's what he says on the Superfund:
GORE (1999): We passed a major national law to clean up hazardous
Zelnick makes Gore a bigger player than Gore does. In fact,
Gore constantly says what "we" were able to do, and
his closing point is that it all happened because of someone
elsea Tennessee high school student. His account of how Love
Canal became part of his hearings is somewhat different from what
he wrote in Earthbut people who have actually lived on
the planet will know that to be the nature of extemporaneous speech.
Note that Gore can also be read, midway through, to say that his
committee's work "ended up poisoning water around the country."
That is also the nature of extemporaneous speech. Extemporaneous
speech often doesn't parse perfectly.
But the celebrity press corps jumped for joy when Gore made
these remarks to the high school students, because they had found
another statement they could spin into an example of their long-treasured
"tendency." Seelye and Connolly got real busy, changing
one thing Gore had said; they put a bogus quote in their papers,
and it has now gone all over the world (see postscript). Meanwhile,
creative paraphrasers got to work, telling the public about the
new thing Gore "said." The power to paraphrase is the
power to spin. We'll look at this new example tomorrow.
Tomorrow: The power to paraphrase is the power to spin.
CelebCorps reports what Gore "said."
For the record: We simply can't stress this strongly
enough. The press corps has given four examples of Gore's alleged
tendency to embellishand two of the press corps' four examples
are complete intellectual frauds. Pundits have made false statements
Love Story all year, and the farm chores was the press
corps debacle of the yearsimple, unvarnished invention. In fact,
it is because even the pundits no longer mention the chores that
a new third "example" of Gore's "tendency"
was needed. Thanks in part to the work of the Hotline (and
thanks to the incomparable DAILY HOWLER), many Washington pundits
have now seen the facts of the farm chores described in public
forums. It's become hard to keep misstating those facts; in fact,
it's been quite a while since we saw anyone mention the
choresalthough, typical of the press corps' cowardice, you will
never see anyone express concern about the fact that this charade
ever happened. (Corrections aren't big with the press corps.)
So, two of the four Gore "examples" were simply made
up. Example 4 is driven by a fraudulent quote. That quote has
now gone around the world. But do you begin to pick up an odd
Around the world: There's that famous old saw about
how fast lies travel, and this week's bogus quote is all over
the world. "I was the one that started it all"the words
that Gore plainly never spokehave now been "quoted"
in the current U.S. News, and again last night by
Brian Williams. (What a surprise. More on that recitation tomorrow.)
Meanwhile, for news of the Washington Post's grumbling "correction,"
see today's incomparable HOWLER EXTRA.