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22 December 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Where attacks come from

Synopsis: The press attacked Gore—and said Bill won’t fight. Then we learned where attacks really come from. (An incomparable DOUBLE EDITION)

Commentary by Bill Bradley
Meet the Press, NBC, 12/19/99

Gore and Bradley take off the gloves before Iowa vote
Andrew Cain, The Washington Times, 12/7/99

Memo to: Bill Bradley
William Kristol, Time, 11/1/99

Gore Says Bradley’s Critique Was Too Personal
Richard Berke, The New York Times, 11/24/99

Commentary by Sean Hannity, Michael Dukakis
Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Channel, 12/3/99

Attack on Bradley Tax Ideas Shows Gore’s Skill
Jeanne Cummings, The Wall Street Journal, 12/8/99

Newly Aggressive Gore Follows Clinton Model
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 12/10/99

‘New’ Gore Bears Striking Resemblance to 88’s
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 12/11/99

Commentary by Susan Page
Late Edition, CNN, 12/12/99

Gore Tries Anew to Put Bradley Off His Stride
Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 12/20/99

With Endorsements, Gore and Bradley Promote Plans on Economy and Health
Katharine Seelye and James Dao, The New York Times, 12/8/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 12/7/99

Finally! At the start of last Sunday's Meet the Press, Tim Russert popped the question to Senator Bradley: "What has Al Gore said about your health care plan that is a distortion or a lie?" After apologizing for a campaign flyer accusing Gore of "uncontrollable lying," Bradley gave this reply:

BRADLEY: ...I do think that there have been some misrepresentations, one of which relates to the total cost of the program. The program will cost between 55 and 65 billion dollars a year. I think that is the most significant change or distortion...

That's the most significant distortion? That's the kind of distortion that has led the press to make the attacks on Gore we've discussed this week? No one can say with certainty what Bradley's plan would cost; some health care experts have said he understates his plan's cost. To say it is a "cheap shot" or "low blow" to challenge Bradley's cost estimate is to say that hopefuls should sit politely, with hand nicely folded, and never say anything at all.

But all over the press corps, the Manners Police have slammed the attacks of Vile Gore. And the pundits weren't surprised that Gore had been vile, because it turns out he's been vile all along! On December 7, Andrew Cain made a point in the Washington Times that soon would sweep through the press corps:

CAIN: Mr. Gore has never been reluctant to go for the jugular. During the 1988 presidential campaign, Mr. Gore was the first candidate to raise the Massachusetts prison furlough program and Willie Horton issue against fellow Democrat Michael Dukakis.

In recent months, our analysts had first seen this issue raised in an October 19 Washington Times editorial. The issue then appeared three days later in a column by Robert Novak. Bill Kristol was next, in Time:

KRISTOL: Big Al can be a tough, mean player. After all, he's the guy who introduced Willie Horton to the American public in his primary campaign against Michael Dukakis.

About a month later, the topic jumped to the mainstream press. Rick Berke, in the New York Times:

BERKE: Mr. Gore, who was touring the Hitchcock Nature Area here on the western border of Iowa, was asked why he condemned personal attacks when in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for 1988 he first raised the issue of Willie Horton against Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts.

To show the high caliber of readership which Berke now attracts, the Washington Times reported, four days after that, that Al Sharpton was now raising the Horton issue against Gore.

For the record, it is truly amusing to see conservative pundits raising this point against Gore. Surely few among them would affirm the policy at issue—the practice of granting prison furloughs to convicted murderers serving life terms for their crimes. But no matter—in the enlightening debate we Americans treasure, writers like Kristol and Novak were calling Gore vile for having said things they almost surely agreed with.

But the record should also reflect basic flaws in this exciting story. On December 3, Dukakis himself appeared on Hannity & Colmes, and alpha-co-host Sean Hannity decried Gore's vile past conduct:

HANNITY: I just recently watched one of the early debates with you and then-Senator Gore in '88. It was interesting because he did bring up the Willie Horton issue before anyone else did. He brought it up first and he hit you hard with it in this debate...

The governor's reply was instructive:

DUKAKIS: Well, he raised the issue in one of 45 debates, Sean, and we had literally 45 debates during that campaign. He did not press the issue. I responded and I think that I responded in a reasonable way and that was it. There's a big difference from that and from the kind of thing that the Bush campaign decided to do in 1988...

In 1988, the complaints about the Willie Horton issue, of course, had concerned campaign ads featuring footage of Horton himself; the footage appealed to racial stereotypes, critics said. Gore had never aired any footage about Horton. In fact, responding to the question raised in Berke's piece, Gore had clarified further:

BERKE: "I didn't bring that name up—I didn't know that name," Mr. Gore said today. "I think the issue of corrections policy is legitimate." He said he had no regrets for raising the matter, adding, "I think the way that George Bush's campaign brought it up was very different."

Berke agreed with the harried hopeful: "Mr. Gore first raised the matter during a debate in the primaries, but he never mentioned Mr. Horton specifically."

Let's review. Gore criticized a furlough program which few today would affirm. He never mentioned Horton specifically, or ran ads on the topic. And according to Dukakis himself, he raised the issue in just one debate.

But, in the crackpot world of the celebrity press corps, that conduct displayed Gore's vile nature. All of a sudden, everyone knew that this episode had revealed Gore's dark heart. And the press corps' prime ethos—"Pundit see, pundit do"—soon kicked into gear in the wake of Cain's story. Suddenly everyone in the press corps was typing this story. Here, for example, was Jeanne Cummings, writing on December 8:

CUMMINGS (12/8): Mr. Gore's approach shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with his political history. His 1988 presidential bid foundered well short of the Democratic nomination, but not before Mr. Gore slammed Rep. Richard Gephardt for backing Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cuts and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for supporting a controversial prison-furlough system.

Cummings, at least, omitted Horton's name. Two days later, Katharine Seelye worked it in:

SEELYE (12/10): Mr. Gore's combativeness has been quite evident in the past...After all, he was the candidate who in 1988 first raised the issue of prison furloughs in Massachusetts, laying the groundwork for Vice President Bush to seize on the image of Willie Horton.

Can you say "Clintonesque," boys and girls? Seelye doesn't say that Gore mentioned Horton, but she has Gore somehow "laying the groundwork" for what was done with his "image." The next day, Ceci Connolly took her turn with the issue:

CONNOLLY (12/11): In that [1988] race, it was Gore who first pinned rival Michael S. Dukakis for a controversial prison furlough program, and it was Gore's ad campaign that said of Gephardt: "He'll say or do anything to get elected." Among his attacks, Gore charged that Gephardt supported Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cuts...

Wierd! Connolly raised the very same point about Gore-on-Gebhardt that Cummings had earlier done. But back to that man again—on December 12, Susan Page raised prison furloughs on CNN's Late Edition:

PAGE (12/12): We're reminded this week, [unintelligible] several days, what a fierce campaigner [Gore] is. He showed us before. In 1988, he was the one who raised the issue of prison furloughs against Michael Dukakis in the primaries, before the Bush people had heard of it. He's a very fierce campaigner...

Dan Balz raised the issue this past Monday:

BALZ: Gore prefers the traditional cut-and-thrust of traditional politics and has often defined himself by criticizing his opponents. It was Gore, after all, who in 1988 introduced Willie Horton into the presidential campaign.

Balz goes ahead and uses Horton's name, unlike others who shy away, likely knowing that Gore never mentioned the icon of negative campaigning.

By last weekend, our analysts had finally begun to wonder where the scribes got this idea. We're used to that pattern where all the pundits stand in line to all say the same thing. But this was quite an exhibition, even by the press corps' sorry standards. Gore was now known to be a "very fierce campaigner" because he had one time, eleven years ago, criticized a program which no one would defend. We're used to idiocy from celebrity scribes, but this one was eye-catching even by press corps standards.

So the analysts began to pore over the clips, wondering where the topic had come from. And in a number of the articles involved, they began to get an idea. A number of pundits made passing references to material dispensed from the Bradley campaign. Just after her reference to the furlough program, Cummings, for example, wrote this:

CUMMINGS (12/8): [Y]esterday, [Bradley's] campaign accused the Gore camp of distortion. Mr. Bradley's aides assembled a five-page roster ticking off some nine examples of "Gore Distortions." They included rebuttals of Gore attacks on Mr. Bradley's health-care and education stances, while also targeting Gore's claims to have "found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal" and to have remained a steadfast supporter of abortion rights throughout his career.

This list of "Gore Distortions," by the way, is not the later "Gore-itis" form for which Bradley apologized. Seelye and James Dao also described the Bradley campaign's release:

SEELYE AND DAO (12/8): [T]he Bradley campaign released a statement accusing Mr. Gore of making false statements about Mr. Bradley's health care plan and positions on school vouchers. The news release also asserted that Mr. Gore has exaggerated or obfuscated his own record during the campaign...The Bradley campaign also criticized Mr. Gore for having taken credit in a Time magazine article for being author of the earned-income tax credit, which helps low-income workers. The credit, according to the Bradley campaign, was created in 1975, a year before Mr. Gore was elected to Congress.

On December 11, Connolly described a five-page Bradley hand-out titled "Just the Facts," which "the Bradley campaign went point-by-point through a series of what it termed Gore misstatements, some about himself and some about his opponent." ("Just the Facts" seems to be different from "Gore Distortions" and from the "Gore-itis" document.) And on December 7, Cain had mentioned a prior Bradley effort; the campaign "recently sent reporters a collection of news accounts detailing the increasingly harsh tone of Mr. Gore's campaign," Cain wrote. Cain said that one of the articles was a recent Paul Gigot column in which Gigot had accused Gore of "ruthlessness."

Is there anything wrong with hand-outs like this? Not if the materials are defensible and accurate. But there is no doubt that such hand-outs work—if you're a hopeful the pundits all like. Here, for example, was a tabloid talker on the night Cain's article had cited Gigot's piece:

MATTHEWS: You know, this is an early time to say it, it's December of 1999, but I think Al Gore is going to be the next president...because I think he's going to take off the gloves and be the most ruthless competitor we've ever seen in American politics...

Taking another phrase straight from the Gigot column, the talker said Gore will "do anything to win." Three nights later, he again spoke of Gore's "ruthless" campaigning, and Lisa Myers also used the word "ruthless" to describe Gore's critiques of Bradley. At least one tabloid talker seemed to have read the materials the Bradley campaign had sent out.

Was the Dukakis furlough program in the Bradley materials? None of the scribes said it was, but none of them claimed to have listed all the Bradley camp's topics. For the record, some of the issues raised in the Bradley hand-outs were extremely hard to defend. Earned Income Tax Credit (see above)? In Time, Gore had clearly said that he was the "author" of the proposal to increase the EITC, not the author of the EITC itself. We've discussed the "Love Canal" foolishness before. The Bradley campaign was passing out Gigot attack columns, "Love Canal" claims, and extremely strained efforts to paint Gore as an embellisher. There is no reason to doubt that the pundits got their inspiration about prison furloughs from the Bradley folks too.

But of course, our complaint is not with the Bradley campaign, but with the press corps itself. Let's review what we have learned. On 12/7, Cain reported that the Bradley camp had distributed press clippings criticizing Gore. On 12/8, Cummings reported that the campaign had passed out a new list called "Gore Distortions." Later, we were told of a hand-out called "Just the Facts," and there was the "Gore-itis" flyer for which Bradley apologized. All of this varied campaign activity was going on in the first ten days of December. And what did we hear on Meet the Press, as the boys-off-the-bus met on December 12? We heard about how Bradley was "appealing to our better angels"—how you just couldn't make him fight back! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/17/99.)

We think some of the material from the Bradley campaign was silly and hard to defend. But what is truly indefensible—and truly revealing—is the conduct of the press corps. Handed negative material by the Bradley camp, they kept insisting that Bradley just will not go negative. Reread Pooley's Time magazine piece, for example (released December 12). Try to reconcile the picture Pooley paints with the information we have just made our way through (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/20/99).

Let Willie Horton be your guide. The argument about Gore-on-Horton is utterly, hopelessly foolish; only a hapless bunch like the celebrity press corps could ever try to make such a case. Their abject willingness to push the issue reveals their low intellectual caliber. And even as the scribes took negative materials from Bradley, they moaned that Bradley won't fight back. But then, the press corps had told you, discussing McCain—they don't report certain things about hopefuls they like. In their recent work on Bradley and Gore, they have proven one thing: They weren't kidding.


Tomorrow: An epilogue to the past four-day cycle. And another example of obedient pundits typing up silly things they're received.