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20 December 1999

Our current howler (part II): : Deportment department

Synopsis: Eric Pooley slammed Gore for "attacking" Bradley. He didn’t seem to care whether Gore’s claims were right.

Commentary by Tim Russert
Meet the Press, NBC, 12/12/99

Gore in Your Face
Eric Pooley, Time, 12/20/99

Bradley’s Soft Sell
Steve Lopez, Time, 12/20/99

On Meet the Press, the pundits were telling a familiar story—Bradley 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 more—is 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As we pointed out on Friday, Russert's question was weeks out of date—reporters on the campaign trail had been reporting elbows from Bradley since mid-November.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 left out:

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 campaign—that bastion of honor—that 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 pointlessly stated.

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 riffed—until 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 plan—that 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 record—then 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 are right.

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 it."

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 military—one more attempt to secure a crucial constituency before the New York and California primaries on March 7. Leaving aside the merits of Gore's position—the policy, by most measures, hasn't worked—his 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.