20 December 1999
Our current howler (part II): : Deportment department
Synopsis: Eric Pooley slammed Gore for "attacking" Bradley. He didnt seem to care whether Gores claims were right.
Commentary by Tim Russert
Meet the Press, NBC, 12/12/99
Gore in Your Face
Eric Pooley, Time, 12/20/99
Bradleys Soft Sell
Steve Lopez, Time, 12/20/99
On Meet the Press, the pundits were telling a familiar
storyBradley just won't fight back (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/17/99).
Bradley was "appealing to our better angels," while
Gore's "stooges" were engaging in "the really dark
stuff" (having someone dress up in a chicken suit at Bradley's
Madison Square Garden fund-raiser). But right in the middle of
this familiar tale, a chuckling Tim Russert said this:
RUSSERT: Last week in New Hampshire, Gore supporters passed
out a flyer at all of the pharmacies in the state attacking Bill
Bradley's record on pharmaceutical companies and on health care.
The Bradley people countered with a fake prescription form, "How
to treat Gore-itis, habitual lying about an opponent's campaign
record." [Laughter from panel] Jack [Germond], are we going
to see a little moreis Bill Bradley going to throw a few elbows
back at Al Gore?
As we pointed out on Friday, Russert's question was weeks out
of datereporters on the campaign trail had been reporting elbows
from Bradley since mid-November. Bradley, according to beat reporters,
had criticized Gore for his campaign tactics, and for his positions
on issues. (NOTE: In our view, there is no reason why Bradley
shouldn't make such critiques.) In Time, Eric Pooley described
the "Gore-itis" incident, including an element Russert
POOLEY: Bradley's coordinator for [New Hampshire], Mark Longabaugh,
gave in to his frustration and authorized a flyer that looked
like a prescription form. It diagnosed a disease called "Gore-itis,"
with symptoms including "uncontrollable lying." The
next morning, in an interview with TIME, Gore was lamenting that
Bradley had launched an attack that was "quite astonishing
and very negative and very personal."...Furious that his campaign
had descended to Gore's level, Bradley had [campaign chairman
Doug] Berman issue an apology to Gore.
Is any of this silly stuff worth reporting? That is a matter
of judgment. Obviously, we have no idea if Bradley even knew about
the "Gore-itis" flyer; he has said that he did not.
But then, we don't know if Gore had anything to do with the chicken-suit
guy at the Bradley event, and that was painted in a very different
way from the chuckling that met Bradley's flyer. Meet the Press
viewers heard a light-dark tale, with pundits wondering if Bradley
would ever fight back. They were never told that Bradley and his
campaign had in fact been fighting back for some time.
Pooley's picture of these events that was remarkable for its
tone. The Bradley campaign had "descended to Gore's level,"
Pooley wrote, when Longbaugh "gave in to his frustration."
And Bradley was "furious" about it. Indeed, Pooley virtually
sanctifies Bradley. Here is his opening paragraph:
POOLEY: If Bill Bradley ever really believed that running for
President in 1999 could be a virtuous, high-minded mission...last
week should have rid him of the notion once and for all. Bradley
spent the week fending off cheap shots (and effective politics)
from Al Gore, his rival for the Democratic nomination. And spending
big in New Hampshire to keep his poll numbers from slipping. And
despite Gore's onslaught, by week's end it was Bradley's campaignthat
bastion of honorthat had been forced to apologize for a shrill
attack pamphlet it had distributed in New Hampshire...
To Pooley, Bradleys' campaign was a "bastion of honor"
which had been goaded into making "a shrill attack."
The Bradley campaign had issued an apology. But Pooley clearly
seemed to suggest that Bradley's flyer was correct in its charges.
"Gore, who stood beside Bill and Hillary Clinton while their
health-reform plan was distorted by Republicans in 1993, was now
busy distorting Bradley's," he wrote. Gore was "using
Clinton-style 'Mediscare' tactics." Later, Pooley said "Gore
is the only character in the campaign who has regularly landed
low blows." Meanwhile, Steve Lopez, in an accompanying "Campaign
Diary" feature, played the role of tag-team partner. In an
informal interview, Lopez asked Bradley "if the thought of
strangulation appeals" when he watches Gore "characterizing
Bradley's health-care plan as a budget-busting debacle."
A supporter was quoted saying that Bradley "seems to be pushing
a message of love." "At times, you find yourself watching
[Bradley] in amazement," Lopez wrote. And Lopez evokes the
image of the basketball star: "He's sharper in evening appearances,
at roughly the same time an NBA game begins," the hagiographer
Has Gore been "distorting" Bradley's proposals in
a series of "low blows" and "cheap shots?"
It's a question that reflects on the character of Gore, the competence
of Bradley, and the worth of the two hopefuls' plans. But strangely,
although Pooley builds his article around this notion, he gives
no documented example of the alleged distortions. In fact, at
times he seems to say something quite different, suggesting that
Gore's critiques had merit:
POOLEY: And the more Gore challenged the [Bradley health care]
policy (Were it's subsidies generous enough to pay for decent
private insurance or cover catastrophic illness?), the more Bradley's
team adjusted and clarified and riffeduntil the whole plan started
to seem not ready for prime time and some activists began wondering
if Gore might be right.
Those activists needn't waste their time reading Pooley, because
he makes no effort to settle this question. But he does go on
to say this:
POOLEY: Soon [Gore] moved on to an economic critique of Bradley's
plan, beginning with a wholly legitimate debating point. He said
the cost of the plan, which Bradley puts at $55 billion to $65
billion a year and Gore says is much higher, would gobble up the
bulk of the budget surplus, leaving little or no money for other
pressing needs like shoring up Medicare. Fair enough...
Pooley has now seemed to suggest that there may be merit to
Gore's two principal criticisms of Bradley's health planthat
it doesn't provide adequate coverage to those now on Medicaid,
and that it uses up money needed elsewhere. He clearly suggests
Gore may be right. He does give one example of an alleged
"cheap shot," saying that Gore has inaccurately stated
that Bradley "proposed" raising taxes. But he doesn't
give an actual quote from Gore; we're forced to put our trust
in his paraphrase of what Gore has actually said.
Has Gore been distorting Bradley's record? Thanks to journalists
like Lopez and Pooley, at THE HOWLER we don't have a clue. Pooley
builds an entire piece around serious charges that Gore is distorting
the recordthen provides exactly no cases of the "low
blows" which Gore had landed. As we'll see, the press corps'
treatment of the Gore-Bradley race has often featured this same
argument structure, in which Gore is slammed for his naughty "attacks"and
no effort is made to try to determine if the things Gore is saying
The peculiar structure of Pooley's tale is spelled out at one
point in his piece. Pooley continues from the last passage quoted:
POOLEY: ...Fair enough, except that Gore has a proportionality
issue. Even his advisers admit he doesn't know when to stop.
Last week...he sailed away on a tide of overheated rhetoric,
linking Bradley's health plan to George W. Bush's five-year, $483
billion tax-cut proposal and calling them "huge, risky, unaffordable
schemes that would raise our interest rates, stall our economy
and derail our prosperity." Bush and Bradley, he said, had
the same philosophy: "If the economy ain't broke, let's break
Naughty, naughty fellow. But is it true that Bradley's
plan could affect our prosperity? Pooley doesn't try to say. To
all appearances, he is more concerned with Gore's good manners
than with the accuracy of his claims. The press corps has frequently
played this role in this contest, acting like anxious parents
at a child's birthday party. They don't seem to care if Gore is
right. They are worried about his deportment.
Tomorrow: Gore will say anything, Tony Blankley
asserts. The examples he gives are instructive.
Advanced deportment department: Talk about ignoring
the merits! In yesterday's Washington Post, Dana Milbank criticized
Gore for "pandering" to special interests. After accusing
Gore of this in paragraph one, Milbank offered an immediate example:
MILBANK (paragraph 2): On Monday, Gore declared that he wanted
to abandon the administration's "don't ask, don't tell"
policy for gays in the militaryone more attempt to secure a crucial
constituency before the New York and California primaries on March
7. Leaving aside the merits of Gore's positionthe policy,
by most measures, hasn't workedhis stance is politically
reckless and easy for Republicans to exploit in the general election.
In short, Gore is right on the merits, but is still somehow
pandering. "Pandering" used to mean pushing an issue
just because it's popular. But somehow, in the logic of this passage,
it's even "pandering" when a hopeful is right!
Wouldn't we all be better off if pundits would simply stick
to the merits? This passage shows where the discourse ends when
scribes stress motive and character.