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17 December 1999

Our current howler (part I): The boys off the bus

Synopsis: What’s happenin’ out there in Gore-Bradley land? On Meet the Press, viewers heard a stale story.

Commentary by Tim Russert, Paul Gigot, Jack Germond
Meet the Press, NBC, 12/12/99

Commentary by Wolf Blitzer
Late Edition, CNN, 12/12/99

Bradley’s Pledge Of Chivalry Wilts In Campaign Heat
Mike Allen, The Washington Post, 11/21/99

Bradley Accuses Gore Of Distorting Record
Mike Allen, The Washington Post, 12/3/99

Bradley Launches Pointed Rebuttal at Gore
David Broder, The Washington Post, 12/1/99

Commentary by Gwen Ifill, David Shribman
Washington Week in Review, PBS, 12/10/99


What's happenin' out there in Gore-Bradley land? Last Sunday, Meet the Press viewers heard an old story. Tim Russert hosted Paul Gigot and Jack Germond, who at one time were among "the boys on the bus." Russert asked Gigot how the race looked to him:

GIGOT: I see it as Bradley in many ways taking the McCain role, the outsider, the character candidate, and Gore has been going back at him with I think a remarkably negative appeal to the party's base, using entitlements, using race, and so far it's working because I don't think Bill Bradley is fighting back. Bill Bradley seems to be staying above it all, says voters don't care about this any more. I think he's wrong about that and he's got to decide is this a street fight, which I think he's in, or is this a Quaker meeting?

Gigot's presentation was a bit selective. Bradley is proposing a more far-reaching health plan than Gore, costing substantially more. Gore has said Bradley lacks devotion to balanced budgets, hardly a sop to the traditional Dem "base." But Gigot's general theme—Bradley just won't fight back—was surely familiar to viewers. Indeed, the theme first appeared after the October 27 town hall forum, in which Gore criticized the cost of Bradley's health plan three times. Bradley didn't answer Gore forcefully enough, pundits said—and some pundits still enjoy saying it.

The idea that Bradley won't fight back was heard throughout this segment. Germond said that Bradley is trying to "appeal to our better angelsasking us to be a little better than we've been." Germond and Gigot listed areas in which Bradley could attack Gore, but hasn't. Russert, citing a hand-out by the Bradley campaign which accused Gore of "habitual lying," asked if Bradley was now going to start to throw a few elbows. Our analysts leaned forward when Germond said this:

GERMOND: The danger for Gore, Tim, is that some of the stuff that his people have done is clumsy, is heavy-handed. And you have to be careful about that. You know you don't want this really dark stuff, the whole approach of sending stooges out to do things for you—

Russert was intrigued by this also. "Like what, Jack?" he interrupted. Germond simply shocked the senses with this, his only example:

GERMOND: He sent a flip-flop duck, a quacking duck, into one of the, some Bradley event. That is a kind of cheap politics, you don't want to do that within the party I don't think.

Germond seemed to be referring to Bradley's Madison Square Garden fund-raiser, at which someone in a chicken suit appeared. This was his example of the "the really dark stuff" done by "stooges" on behalf of Gore. For the record, Germond seems a bit confused on the meaning of this disturbing event. Over the past few election cycles, "Chicken George" appearances have generally been staged to highlight a candidate's refusal to debate—a stance on the part of the authentic Bradley which commentators tend not to mention.

The picture drawn by the boys-off-the-bus was echoed in some ways on CNN's Late Edition. Wolf Blitzer questioned Tucker Carlson:

BLITZER: All right, Tucker, we've also seen another development this week, Al Gore coming out big-time, taking off the gloves, going after Bill Bradley and in fact in almost every speech he rips Bradley's policies.

After playing a remarkably mild clip of Gore criticizing the cost of Bradley's health plan, Blitzer asked Carlson, "What do you think of this new strategy from Al Gore?"

New strategy? Another development? At times like these, one can only wonder what planet the pundits are broadcasting from; again, Gore's direct criticisms of Bradley's proposals have been widely discussed since their October debate. And the Meet the Press panel was presenting a picture that was equally difficult to square with reality. Although Bradley had been criticized back in October for lack of response to Gore's critiques, reporters on the trail had been writing for weeks about Bradley's criticisms of Gore. On November 21, for example, a page one headline in the Washington Post had read, "Bradley's Pledge of Chivalry Wilts In Campaign Heat." Mike Allen's article started like this:

ALLEN (11/21) (paragraph 1): Bill Bradley's first television ad promises "a different campaign," one free of bickering and backbiting that he believes is the real root of voters' weariness with politicians.

(2) So who was that tall, pensive fellow who over the last two weeks accused Vice President Gore of using poor people "as political footballs," of being "too timid" on gun control, of failing to stand and fight for health care for all, of abandoning fundamental Democratic principles, and of being either inefficient or insincere in his opposition to new oil drilling off California's coast?

That tall fellow, it turned out, was Senator Bradley, who had made those perfectly ordinary critiques of Gore in the two weeks of mid-November—and who told Allen in an interview "that his different kind of campaign may get to look very conventional very quickly, although he blamed Gore for pushing first." Two days later, Allen reported an 11/22 Bradley speech in which Bradley had "used the reelection of President Clinton and the vice president as a symbol of all that is wrong with Washington;" "Bradley Attacks Gore on Campaign Fund-Raising" was the inside headline of the New York Times piece that day. The headline in the December 3 Post read "Bradley Accuses Gore Of Distorting Record." Allen's article opened like this:

ALLEN (12/3) (paragraph 1): Bill Bradley angrily accused Vice President Gore yesterday of repeatedly lying about his record and intentions, but said he did not believe he had been hurt by their increasingly harsh debate over health care.

Allen was not the only scribe to notice these remarks; the New York Times did a large article on Bradley's speech, and the Washington Times headline on the day read "Bradley says Gore is distorting record." Oh yes—two days before, a little-known cub reporter named David Broder had reported an 11/30 Bradley statement. "Bradley Launches Pointed Rebuttal at Gore," said the headline, and here was Broder's opener:

BRODER (paragraph 1): Bill Bradley struck back hard at Vice President Gore's criticism of his health care plan today, saying his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination simply proposes to "take a broken system and throw more money at it."

Let's be clear: we offer no criticism of Senator Bradley for any of these statements. We think these are perfectly ordinary critiques, the kind found in most political campaigns. Our question goes to the Meet the Press panel, who seemed to be reporting from a campaign bus on Mars, so removed from reality was the picture they drew. They told their viewers that Senator Bradley refused to "fight back" against Gore's vile attacks. Beat reporters, on the trail, had been reporting something different for a month.

Two nights before, on Washington Week in Review, a simple reality-based question had been asked. Gwen Ifill addressed David Shribman:

IFILL: David, who can afford to lose in New Hampshire?

SHRIBMAN: I think the front-runners can afford to lose and nobody else...

IFILL: Is that one of the reasons why we keep seeing Bill Bradley on the attack?

SHRIBMAN: Yes, that is one of the reasons. He cannot afford to lose the primary...

We state again: we imply no criticism of Bradley's campaigning. And there was no suggestion by Ifill or Shribman that Bradley had done anything wrong. But Shribman has been on the bus in recent weeks, and Ifill is newer to star status than the Meet the Press 3. Maybe that's why her program's viewers got a critique that seemed current and informed.

 

Monday: Gore attacks, and Bradley won't. It's a story the pundits love telling.

Astounding: There's no other word for today's top-of-page-one story in the Washington Post. Headline? "McCain, Bradley Gain in N.H. Poll." The article, describing a new Post-ABC poll, quickly makes this assertion:

BALZ AND DEANE (paragraph 3): [Bush and Gore] maintain substantial leads over McCain and Bradley in the national survey, but a separate poll in New Hampshire, the state with the nation's first primary, found McCain and Bradley now running even against the national front-runners.

Now running even? Major polls had Bradley ahead in New Hampshire in early October. The Post article never explains why its headline says that Bradley is "gaining," or why the writers say Bradley is "now" even (the new poll actually shows Bradley leading, 38-35). But reading between the lines of paragraph 28 (out of 30), it seems the Post is comparing this poll to an earlier poll taken "[a]t the beginning of September." We thought we'd seen it all with hapless reporting of polls. But the Post here has managed to find a new way to confuse and mislead its readers.

("McCain, Bradley Gain in N.H. Poll." Dan Balz and Claudia Deane, The Washington Post, 12/17/99)

Close enough for Hardball: Dee Dee Myers on Hardball last night, discussing the Bradley-McCain pledge to forgo soft money:

MYERS: That raises the question, if either Bradley or McCain, let's assume they're not running against each other, wins his party's nomination, he's now pledged not to accept, not to allow the party to use soft money on his behalf. What does that mean? That means he's going to be facing what, 200, 250 million dollars in spending by the other guy's party which will be unanswered and that's going to put one of them at a disadvantage unless they're running against each other, which is quite a long shot.

But Bradley, as is perfectly sensible, has said he will only forgo soft money if his Republican opponent follows suit. (McCain has said he will act unilaterally.) This position was restated at yesterday's forum, which Myers had been booked to discuss. Surely her error was immediately corrected, you say. Sorry—did we mention that the program was Hardball?

TAMALA EDWARDS (continuing directly): But again, Chris, you were talking about gimmicks and I think that's to a degree what this is about. I mean, it's one thing to say they would be hurt in a general election. These guys are doing their best just to see clear to the primary...It's about trying to be the nominee.

Edwards, from Time, didn't know the facts either. In fact, no one corrected what Myers had said. Edwards, of course, did know what it meant. Surprise—it meant something unflattering.

(Hardball, CNBC, 12/16/99)