The Press v. Al Gore
December 6, 2001
How lazy reporting, pack journalism and GOP spin cost him the election
One month after formally kicking off his presidential campaign, Vice President Al Gore paddled down the Connecticut River in New Hampshire on July 22nd, 1999, spreading his green theme of protecting the environment and pausing for a photo op. His message was quickly drowned out, though, when the Washington Times' Bill Sammon reported that local authorities had granted Gore a special favor when they released nearly 4 billion gallons of water from a nearby dam into the drought-stricken river in order to keep the vice president's boat afloat. The price tag on the spilled water was quickly calculated at $7 million. The implication was clear: In a clumsy abuse of power, Al Gore, a supposed friend of the environment, gladly wasted precious natural resources to stage-manage a political event.
Following the lead of the Washington Times, an unabashedly conservative outlet often hostile to Democrats, the rest of the mainstream press pounced, not only upbraiding Gore for his supposed hypocrisy but also suggesting that the campaign miscue was just the latest example of a foundering presidential run. The New York Times detailed the "mishap," the Washington Post ridiculed Gore's FOUR BILLION GALLONS FOR A PHOTO OP, Newsweek dubbed it the "photo op from hell," and CNN covered the "wave of criticism after floodgates are opened on a New Hampshire river to keep Al Gore afloat."
In retrospect, the most notable thing about the whole story was just how murky the facts were. Nobody from the Gore campaign asked for the water to be released. (Concerned about security, the Secret Service did.) As for the amount of water released, it was 500 million gallons, not 4 billion - a fact that Sammon reported a week later, long after other media ran with the original story. And the local utility company that operates the dam was already dumping millions of gallons of water into the parched Connecticut River every day. The routine release had simply been moved up a couple of hours to accommodate Gore's trip. The $7 million figure turned out to be completely inaccurate, since the water was not wasted. Instead, it passed through hydroelectric turbines and generated power that the utility company sold to other utilities.
"I felt like we'd fallen through the looking glass," says Sharon Francis, executive director of the Connecticut River Joint Commissions, who coordinated Gore's visit on behalf of the region and for days fielded press queries about the derided canoe trip. She describes the media coverage as "fictional" and "nasty" and "spun to sound like something corrupt."
Two years later, Sammon defends his work, insisting that the incident makes "a point about Gore's political reflexes, [which are] to spin furiously and resort to deception."
Those are two things the D.C. press corps knows plenty about.
If the media charade surrounding Gore's Connecticut River trip had been a one-time event - nothing more than bored political reporters trying too hard to kick up some dust during a slow summer news week - this incident would be forgotten to history. Instead, it is emblematic of the way the political press operated throughout the campaign, falsely reporting trivia about Gore and challenging his character in order to score points.
The coverage was at times blatantly dishonest, and worse, reporters seemed so determined to stick to pre-assigned scripts ("Gore is a phony") that they balked at correcting obvious errors that began to circulate. (For a complete chronicle of the press's factual missteps in covering Gore, go to dailyhowler.com, a Web site run by Bob Somerby, one of Gore's college roommates and close friends.)
Whether it was the misreported assertion that he'd invented the Internet or the ridiculously exaggerated brouhaha over his quickly corrected claim that he and his wife, Tipper, were models for the young lovers in Erich Segal's best-selling novel Love Story, Gore's close friends and admirers agree that Gore has a penchant for hyperbole. But in last year's election, the press elevated this relatively minor personality quirk into a character-defining issue.
"The coverage seemed to be much more aggressive and adversarial than I'd ever seen before," says Scott Shepard, a veteran newspaper reporter who has four presidential campaigns to his credit and who covered the Gore campaign for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"There was a fair amount of animus as time wore on with Gore," says James Warren, who was then Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, referring to the mood on the press plane. "People were overly hard toward him. He's a decent, honest fellow. He was not the greatest candidate, but he's not dishonest. And some in the press came perilously close to saying that."
Recalls one network-television correspondent who spent lots of time on the presidential campaign, "There just developed among a certain group of people covering Gore, particularly the print people, a real disdain for him. Everything was negative. They had a grudge against [Gore]. I don't know how else to put it."
The hostility was evident throughout the campaign as the press, in a series of questionable endeavors, worked overtime to portray Gore as a fake. For instance, after combing through twenty years' worth of public statements, the Boston Globe last year ran a typical, and contemptuous, 3,000-word expos exploring the vice president's propensity to exaggerate. Or, as the paper tsk-tsked, "Gore has regularly promoted himself, and skewered his opponents, with embroidered, misleading and occasionally false statements." No doubt uncharted territory for a major American politician.
After all that research, what did the Globe's Walter Robinson and Michael Crowley find to be among Gore's most egregious exaggerations? "Starting in 1994, Gore has added two years to his journalistic experience, upping the figure from the five years he once claimed to seven." This may seem to be the very definition of trivial - "gotcha" journalism carried to its absurd extreme. But it's also wrong.
By biographers' accounts, Gore spent two years in the Army as a reporter, or "information specialist," and five years working for The Tennessean. That's seven years. The number has never changed. Asked about the discrepancy, Robinson now argues that Gore spent only nineteen months in the Army and that his five years at The Tennessean were interrupted by two years in law school, when he worked part-time at the paper. "It was another example of Gore sort of rounding things up to his advantage, trying to make it into something bigger," says Robinson.
Of course, the Globe article set aside space to mock Gore for his claim of having invented the Internet. Perhaps the most famous of Gore's fictional missteps, that over-the-top brag became convenient shorthand for pundits to ridicule a man so uncomfortable with his own skin, the conventional wisdom went, that he felt the need to chronically inflate his achievements. Clearly, he'd say anything to get elected. (And pundits, doubling as shrinks, even knew why : "In all likelihood, his exaggerations reflect a yearning for a kind of approval and admiration that he never got from his dad," said Gore biographer Bob Zelnick.)
The fact that Gore never said he invented the Internet didn't stop the press from telling, and retelling, a story that fit into its prepackaged narrative : Gore is a liar. But it was the journalists, trying hard to paint a damning portrait of Gore, who played it loose with the facts and perpetrated what added up to a complete fabrication.
Here's what happened. In 1999, candidate Gore was taping an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer in which he said, "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. " He was no doubt referring to his landmark "information superhighway" speeches, as well as his well-known support of high-tech research that stretched back into the 1980s. (For the record, Vinton Cerf, often called "the father of the Internet," not to mention futurist Newt Gingrich, have both publicly vouched for Gore's role in helping to shepherd the Internet to life.)
So who coined the phrase "invented the Internet" and attached it to Gore? His Republican opponents, who faxed out a press release suggesting Gore had claimed to have done exactly that.
It's no surprise that GOP operatives would willfully misinterpret a statement from a Democratic presidential candidate. What's amazing is that the press went along with it so uncritically. Was it accurate? The press didn't care, as virtually every major media outlet in the country followed the Republican lead and reported over and over again Gore's claim to have invented the Internet.
Concerned about losing the election on traditional campaign issues such as taxes, Medicare and crime, topics that, according to polls, favored Democrats, the GOP worked to turn the election into a character contest. To do that, Republicans had to link Gore with President Bill Clinton by dismantling the vice president's long-standing image as an earnest Boy Scout and replacing it with that of a phony liar. The New York Times cheered the Republicans' Internet move as "clever" and "ingenious."
As would become its custom, the Gore camp responded timidly and slowly. Seeing the Internet story was taking on a life of its own, some aides suggested the vice president pop the balloon by quickly addressing it. Gore, though, waited more than a week before publicly cracking a joke about how the night before the CNN interview, he'd been up late "inventing the camcorder." By then, the story had legs. And by trying to finesse the issue with humor and adopting the fictitious premise that he "invented" something extraordinary, Gore simply gave the damaging story credence.
"The Republicans did a very good job pushing that stuff, and the press reveled in it," says Tony Coelho, who served as Gore's campaign chairman until June 2000, when he stepped down for health reasons. "They wanted to bring down 'Prince Albert.'"
Often, the GOP didn't even have to prompt the press to create Gore exaggerations - reporters did it all on their own. During a September campaign stop, Gore recalled to a crowd of union workers that his mother used to sing him to sleep at night using "Look for the Union Label" as a lullaby. The press started digging and discovered the story was a fraud and "must be labeled untrue," as USA Today's political columnist Walter Shapiro reported. The TV jingle was written in 1975, when Gore was twenty-seven years old. The story was quickly picked up by cable TV's talkers and print columnists as another "bizarre fabrication."
The only problem was that Gore told the tale as a joke, confirmed by the video of the event, which showed the audience of Teamsters laughing at the mention of the so-called "lullaby." A week later, an editorial in USA Today addressed the issue and actually sided with Gore : "A review of the videotape gives plausibility to that explanation." But Shapiro stands by the column: "I was in the room [when Gore spoke], and I didn't feel it was a joke, and my tape recorder didn't feel it was a joke. I didn't hear people laughing. But if they were laughing, it was at Gore's awkwardness."
On October 6th, 2000, New York Times reporter Richard Berke referenced the union song prominently in a lengthy piece about Gore's "tendency to embellish," stressing "how Mr. Gore recalled a childhood lullaby that did not exist." Not once did the paper inform readers that both Gore and the members of the audience considered the line to be a throwaway joke.
Like most reporters quizzed about their Gore coverage, Berke agrees that the vice president was the victim of some shoddy press but that he himself did not contribute to it. And more important, says Berke, Gore did exaggerate, so even if some careless journalists made mistakes documenting the alleged embellishments, the story itself was legitimate.
But lots of well-known embellishment stories were not legitimate, such as the infamous Love Canal incident. When Gore spoke at Concord High School in New Hampshire on November 30th, 1999, and urged students to take an active role in politics, he recalled that it was a letter years before from a student in Toone, Tennessee, that got then-Rep. Gore interested in the topic of toxic waste. "I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing," Gore told the students. "I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I had the first hearing on that issue - and Toone, Tennessee, that was the one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all."
The next day, both the Washington Post and the New York Time botched the quote, erroneously reporting Gore had bragged, "I was the one that started it all."
The Post's Ceci Connolly, who covered Gore campaign for eighteen months and made the error, today insists that her miscue "did not change the context" of Gore's original statement. She contends that the key quote, the one that catches Gore embellishing, was the quote "I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal." Yet clearly from his response, Gore used the term "found" in reference to "looking around the country for other sites like" Toone, and in no way suggested he uncovered the Love Canal toxic-waste disaster.
Thanks to the high-profile misquote, though, the media's echo chamber erupted, with MSNBC's Chris Matthews mocking Gore for being delusional, while ABC's George Stephanopoulos lamented that the vice president had "revealed his Pinocchio problem." (In a press release, the ever-helpful Republican National Committee cleaned up the mangled quote, changing "that" to "who" in order to make the misquote grammatically correct : "I was the one who started it all.") This time Gore responded quickly but was again too humble, calling a reporter the morning after the Concord visit to say he was sorry if his Love Canal comments had not been clear enough.
It was actually local students, enrolled in a media-literacy course, who had to set the record straight by taking the unusual step of issuing their own press release under the headline TOP TEN REASONS WHY MANY CONCORD HIGH STUDENTS FEEL BETRAYED BY SOME OF THE MEDIA COVERAGE OF AL GORE'S VISIT TO THE THEIR SCHOOL.
It took the Post and the Times a week to run Love Canal corrections. Yet one month before Election Day, the usually reliable Associated Press reported confidently, "Gore's exaggerations have placed him more centrally than warranted at the creation of ... the Love Canal toxic-waste investigation." The episode fit a distinct pattern : Journalists just refused to drop unflattering Gore stories, no matter what the facts revealed.
For instance, the candidate was ridiculed endlessly after the infamous Love Story flap. Actually, what Gore mentioned to two reporters in an offhand comment was that, according to an old Tennessean article,Love Story author Segal had made that claim. After Gore's quip, Segal corrected the record by saying that The Tennessean had gotten it wrong, and that both Gore and his Harvard roommate, actor Tommy Lee Jones, had served as models for Love Story's male protagonist, but that Segal did not base any character on Tipper.
Simple, right? Three years later, Newsweek still could not figure it out. Busy documenting embellishments weeks before Election Day, the magazine's Bill Turque wrote that the vice president "was not the basis for the Oliver Barrett character in Love Story." That sentence continues, "... author Erich Segal says Barrett was a combination of Gore and his Harvard pal Tommy Lee Jones." So why, then, was Gore belittled for his association with Love Story? Turque concedes the sentence "could have been more artfully worded" but insists "it is not fundamentally contradictory."
Regardless, Gore's team should have "stuck a knife in those exaggeration stories early on," concedes Mark Fabiani, communication director for the campaign. Instead, the tales lived on in the press and ultimately "came back to haunt the campaign."
The consensus among the press corps, according to Bob Woodward, assistant managing editor of the Washington Post, was that there were enough instances of Gore playing loose with the facts that the legitimate issue was raised as to whether he "could apprehend reality." Says Woodward, "It set off alarm bells in reporters' heads, and it should."
Perhaps nowhere were those bells going off more loudly or more often than in the head of Washington Post reporter Ceci Connolly. Her dispatches, frequently heavy on spin and regularly filled with biting jibes, were often the talk of campaign journalists, not to mention Gore officials.
Connolly was one of the reporters who botched Gore's Love Canal quote more than once. In her first dispatch on the matter, she used the twisted quote to mock Gore for dissembling about his record, a theme she had been hammering for months. In her follow-up story the next day, she printed it again, jeering, "The man who mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie Love Story and to have invented the Internet says he didn't quite mean to say he discovered a toxic-waste site."
Incredibly, none of the three examples Connolly offered to highlight Gore's compulsion for exaggerating were based on fact. Eleven months later, and just three weeks before Election Day, the Post returned to the topic of Love Canal, reporting how Gore's "clumsy" statements "suggesting he discovered the Love Canal disaster" had made him an easy target for ridicule.
At the same time that the paper was busy propping up the Love Canal story, it suddenly decided that the Love Story hoax was no longer based in fact, pointing out on October 15th, 2000, "Gore never claimed he and his wife were the models for the book Love Story but instead referred to an article in which author Erich Segal was misquoted as saying so." It just proved, the Post emphasized, "how closely Gore's anecdotes and statements are being watched" and that his every utterance will be "fact-checked."
Connolly dismisses the criticism. "I was very tough on Al Gore," she says, "the same way I was tough on George W. Bush when I covered him briefly" during the campaign. Tough? Traveling for just a few days with the Bush campaign, Connolly wrote that the candidate "evoked memories of another governor-turned-president : Ronald Reagan." The young Republican candidate, with "just a bit of swagger for the party faithful," was a "cheerful patriot" with a "sunny disposition" who "jauntily plays to the cameras and crowds." Compare that to a single dispatch from the Gore trail, in which Connolly derided the vice president as "boring" and "programmed to the point of seeming robotic" and mocked his "rarely seen human side."
Nineteen months after putting words in his mouth and then disdaining him for his supposed Internet claims, and fifteen months after spinning pure fiction about his canoe trip down the Connecticut River, the press erupted over another trivial pursuit. During the first presidential debate, Gore told the tale of Kailey Ellis, a student at Florida's Sarasota High School, and how, due to severe overcrowding, "she has to stand" during her science class.
Forget that affluent Sarasota voters last year voted down a school-budget referendum, which left the district with a $17 million shortfall or that 100 of its teachers had been laid off or that high school classes in the fall of 2000 had nine more students per classroom than the year before. The fact that the acclaimed Sarasota school system was grappling with severe budget cuts and real overcrowding was of no interest to the pundit press corps. They only wanted to know one thing: whether Kailey "has to stand during class." The answer was no, but at one point, she did have to.
That was the extent of Gore's "exaggeration": He used the wrong verb tense, saying "has" instead of "had." Looking back, Randy Ellis, Kailey's father and a registered Republican, says the national coverage of the Sarasota incident was "bizarre" and "unbelievable." "They just wanted to get a story saying that Gore was an exaggerator," he says. "Two weeks later, they were still going over and rehashing it. We couldn't believe it. It was a trip."
The press also went into a tizzy over Gore's casual comment during that first debate that he had traveled with James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to Texas during a spate of wildfires. As vice president, Gore had traveled with Witt seventeen different times, but not on the date in question. Gore corrected the record the next morning, but the press treated his slip of the tongue as wildly important.
According to Fabiani, the Gore camp failed to perform a fundamental task : "The challenge of a campaign is to give people something to think about instead of the pre-existing story line. If you let people's pre-existing notions prevail, you deserve what you get."
"Gore felt like he won the debate," says Tony Coelho, "but what he did do was lose the spin." Gore's former campaign manager offers only praise for the senior Bush advisers, who, during that crucial period last October, deftly handled the press. "Karl Rove and Karen Hughes outmaneuvered and out-strategized us," he says. "We weren't in the same league with them at that point."
During the debates, though, Bush made a handful of blunders regarding military operations in the Balkans and Haiti, about the facts surrounding Texas' most celebrated hate-crime trial and about his own tax plan. Bush was free to botch facts about central policy issues and the press wouldn't question his intelligence. But if Gore were to misstate nonessential details, such as how long a student had to stand in a crowded Sarasota classroom, he was tagged a liar who couldn't be trusted.
Few journalists saw anything wrong with this double standard. In fact, some found it amusing. "You can actually disprove some of what Bush is saying if you really get in the weeds and get out your calculator, or you look at his record in Texas," Time magazine columnist Margaret Carlson told radio morning man Don Imus at the height of the campaign. "But it's really easy, and it's fun, to disprove Gore. As sport, and as our enterprise, Gore coming up with another whopper is greatly entertaining to us."
Who decided that covering presidential politics was supposed to be "entertaining" and "fun" for journalists?
The press responds to critics on the right by bending over backward not to look liberal," says Geneva Overholser, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and former ombudsman for the Washington Post, referring to the common conservative criticism of the so-called liberal media. "The cumulative effect is the opposite : They're tougher on Democrats." She, too, is convinced there was "something fundamentally wrong" with the 2000 election press coverage.
Last year, a review conducted by two nonpartisan groups, Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Research Center, found that a stunning seventy-six percent of the Gore campaign coverage in early 2000 centered around two negative themes : that he lies and exaggerates, and that he's tarred by scandal. "We call it the metanarrative," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Journalists are looking for a story line, a narrative device, that plays out over weeks and months and there's nothing wrong with that. The problem is if they let the narrative overwhelm the facts, then it becomes a distorting lens. It can lead journalists to ignore and mischaracterize facts as they try to fit them into the story."
Still, Beltway journalists defend their work. "I followed our coverage closely, and I thought it was excellent," says the Washington Post's Woodward. "It really was balanced." The former Watergate sleuth notes the challenge for reporters covering a fast-moving national election on a daily basis : "All these threads hang down - 'What about Bush's intelligence and Gore's truthfulness?' As a reporter, you don't know which one to pull. So you end up pulling on them all and ask, 'What is this?' If on balance you're pulling one set of strings too hard, then you have a problem." The truth is, while the press occasionally tugged a George Bush thread and ridiculed his garbled syntax, pundits were yanking on the Gore threads until they snapped.
What explains the press performance? All politics is personal, and as one theory suggests, Bush was simply friendlier and more open with the press, which translated into kinder, gentler coverage. Bush, the New York Times said last year, "not only slaps reporters' backs but also rubs the tops of their heads and, in a few instances, pinches their cheeks."
"There was a certain sort of hubris and arrogance how the Gore people handled the campaign," reports the Chicago Tribune's Warren. One senior Gore campaign aide agrees : "We clearly made some mistakes. Especially in the beginning, we were very guarded about access to him. It played into the idea that Gore was not at ease with the press." Journalists did little to hide their contempt. During a primary debate against former Sen. Bill Bradley in New Hampshire, Gore was openly booed - not by Bradley supporters but by reporters. "The 300 media types watching in the press room at Dartmouth were, to use the appropriate technical term, totally grossed out," said a 1999 Time report. "Whenever Gore came on too strong, the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of fifteen-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd."
Did bad press cost Al Gore the election last year? It's naive to think Gore's chronically caustic coverage didn't cause him to lose votes during a historically close election. Looking back, Gore's handlers accept responsibility for mistakes they made during the campaign.
When will journalists do the same?
When will journalists do the same?
The Gore Nightmare
ALBERT R. HUNT
December 1, 2001
The Gore Nightmare
We're lucky Bush is president -- and it's the Republicans' fault.
Share, for a fleeting moment, Al Gore's daily dream : that what counted in Florida a year ago was the intent, rather than the actual practice, of voters. And today he's the one running the White House.
The truth is that in the aftermath of Sept. 11 we're probably better off, in the short term, with George W. Bush. But not for the reasons usually cited.
The Bush foreign-policy team gets exceptionally high marks. But a Gore foreign-policy team -- Dick Holbrooke at State, Sam Nunn at Defense, Leon Fuerth as national security adviser and George Mitchell as a roving troubleshooter -- would be equal in experience, expertise and resolve. They also would be bolder.
The elements of today's basic policy formulation -- state-building, a strong reliance on the United Nations, and multilateralism -- all were articulated during the 2000 campaign by the Democratic candidate. "Bush has bought into the Clinton/Gore policy," notes Democratic Rep. Barney Frank.
A Gore economic team -- Larry Summers, former Fannie Mae CEO Jim Johnson and Wall Street whiz Steven Rattner -- would be vastly superior to Mr. Bush's team, as would their policies. Certainly, a Gore administration would have pushed a more coherent and comprehensive homeland security initiative.
A President Gore would micromanage the terrorist crisis but would be more knowledgeable. The imponderable would be whether Mr. Gore, in a time of crisis, would be inspiring and constructively challenging, or unctuous and pedantic.
But the real reason a President Gore would have more difficulty, under identical circumstances, is that the political right wouldn't have given him the leeway and support that President Bush has received.
In the same situation, the vocal right in Congress would have blamed Sept. 11 on the "weakness" of the Clinton-Gore policies. Jesse Helms would be ranting about the crippling of the CIA that began with Jimmy Carter and accelerated under Bill Clinton. (Somehow the Ronald Reagan, Bill Casey and George H.W. Bush years don't count.) The critics would go on to assert that capitulating to the Chinese with a semiapology when they downed a U.S. plane only encouraged Osama bin Laden.
If President Gore had waited almost four weeks to respond militarily --as President Bush prudently did -- does anyone doubt the congressional mullahs would have embellished the "weakness" charge with protests about the pitiful state of the American military? (Remarkable, isn't it, how quickly this administration turned a decaying mess into a lean, mean fighting machine -- just like the Kennedy administration 40 years ago when it rapidly closed the missile gap.)
Recent history provides a guide to the response of the congressional right once a conflict starts. In 1999, House Republicans refused to support the Clinton/NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo after it was launched. The GOP House and Senate whips, Tom DeLay and Don Nickles, both suggested the atrocities in Kosovo were more the fault of Mr. Clinton than war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. A few months earlier, when the U.S. bombed Saddam Hussein, Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott said it was done to deflect from President Clinton's impeachment problems -- presumably with the complicity of Defense Secretary Bill Cohen and Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
On homeland security there has been some criticism of President Bush, but it has been relatively mild. But suppose it had been Democrat Seth Waxman as attorney general and Robert Mueller as the new Gore-appointed FBI director when the same hijackers did exactly what they did.
Nawaq Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, who drove the plane into the Pentagon, were on the CIA's "watch list" of potential terrorists; Almihdhar, the government knew, met with the al Qaeda in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, nearly two years earlier. Yet this information wasn't shared and both men came into and traveled freely around the U.S. In August, the Justice Department turned down a request to search the computer of a Minnesota man -- who sought to learn to fly a plane without takeoffs or landings, and who was labeled a terrorist by French intelligence. He now is suspected of being an accomplice.
Perhaps all this is unavoidable in an open society. But envision the harangues from Orrin Hatch about the administration's ACLU mindset that gave the terrorists free rein.
Top House GOP sleuth Dan Burton, no doubt, would have found some Arab contribution to the Gore-Lieberman campaign and launched a new round of headline-grabbing witch hunts. When that fizzled -- all Burton investigations do -- he would have turned to a government that, eight weeks after anthrax attack, still couldn't tell us whether the culprit was foreign or domestic.
The full-moon crowd would have gone into conspiracy hysterics if these anthrax-laden letters had been sent to Dick Armey and a handful of radio talk show hosts.
Then there would have been the economic stimulus package. In addition to extended unemployment benefits, temporary tax cuts, New York City rebuilding aid and bailouts for the insurance industry, the Gore White House might have overreached for items like more highway security (building roads), or have placated labor allies by proposing collective bargaining rights for all public safety workers.
The DeLay-Armey criticism would have been vicious. Yet the Bush White House, under the guise of economic stimulus, is trying to pay off all of the campaign contributors and K Street lobbyists who didn't get a piece of the earlier tax cut, a move that is far more injurious and costly.
There would have been constructive critics in the Republican ranks. Dick Lugar, Chuck Hagel and John McCain would have been every bit as honest in any critique of Democratic war plans as they are today. Lawmakers like Fred Thompson would have avoided cheap-shot hearings and House Speaker Dennis Hastert would have sought the same bipartisan support that Democrats Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle are offering today.
There is a need for legitimate argument and disagreement over economic policy and the criminal-justice approach, and certainly over sending young American men and women into harm's way. Such a debate will escalate in the coming weeks and months, just as it did during previous conflicts.
But if Al Gore had been president, the narrow right would have turned that desirable debate into a vindictive, petty one.
Mr. Hunt is executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal. His column appears in the Journal on Thursdays.
Times Cries Eke! Buries Al Gore
December 17, 2001
The late Murray Kempton once noted that although the New York Times likes to pose as being above the battle, this position has never stopped the Times, once the battle's fought, from sneaking onto the field and shooting the wounded. November 12, krauthammers at the ready, Times persons swept through the electoral swamps of Florida, shooting those survivors who questioned "President" Bush's alleged plurality.
In the old Soviet Union, various Russian friends were often surprisingly well informed about the world despite the fact that their view of it was largely shaped by their New York Times, Pravda. When asked how do you find out what's really going on, they would give secret smiles : "You must know how to read Pravda." Now the USSR is gone and we are on our own, trying to sort out our Pravda's often contradictory mendacities, on such lurid view a few weeks ago in an edition that contained three or four not exactly synoptic tales of the findings of a "ballot review conducted for a consortium of news organizations." Apparently, 175,010 ballots from throughout Florida were examined. As always, when the Times's dread sharpshooters are slithering across a bloody no-man's land, one must first deconstruct the headline for clues. "Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote." So much for those conspiracy theorists who dared attack the Court's interference in the election when the Court was, simply, as always, anticipating the will of the majority of those people that the Court has, from the very first admiralty suits of the original Republic to now, cherished--property owners. Wall Street Journal headline : "In Election Review, Bush Wins Without Supreme Court Help." Conspiracy? No. They all think alike.
The story : Paragraph one : "A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year's presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward." That's pretty plain. State was always for Bush. No point in wading any farther into the joint prose of sharpshooters Ford Fessenden and John Broder (the second name suggests that the hereditary principle is at work not only at the presidential level but even at the humblest journalistic one -- but since John M. is not related to David M., was he, like a pope, obliged to change his name from ... whatever?).
Paragraph two : "Contrary to what many partisans of former Vice President Al Gore have charged ..." Note "partisan." Ugly word. Do anything to win. We know about them. Bushites compassionate. Dumb maybe but real nice. Sincere. "... close examination of the ballots" found that Mr. Bush would have won if the Florida court's order to recount had not been reversed by the Supreme Court. This is bald, bold. True? Keep reading the Times.
Paragraph three : Gist : Even if Gore had got his four-county hand count, which the Supreme Court denied him, Bush would have kept his lead. Get that, sore losers? Real Americans hate a sore loser. You may stop reading this story now because ...
Paragraph four : The Times's two scouts step on a landmine. Watch two scouts explode. "But the consortium, looking at a broader group of rejected ballots than those covered in the court decisions ... found that Mr. Gore might have won if the courts had ordered a full statewide recount of all the rejected ballots. ... The findings indicate that Mr. Gore might have eked out a victory. ..." Only someone truly slimy "ekes." A real man wins big with a 5-to-4 vote. "... if he had pursued in court a course like the one he publicly advocated when he called on the state to 'count all the votes.'" So after paragraph three's firm Bush wins without Supreme Court, the Times, on further evidence, finds Gore "eking" out a victory. What next?
Paragraphs five and six : "In addition, the review found statistical support for the complaints of many voters, particularly elderly Democrats in Palm Beach County," that the ballot was so confusing that "more than 113,000 voters cast ballots for two or more presidential candidates. Of those, 75,000 chose Mr. Gore and a minor candidate; 29,000 chose Mr. Bush and a minor candidate." Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, no fan of the inept lower orders, went on record : The butterfly ballot certainly seemed clear to her. But the Times story has now gone off the rails, and I suspect that at this point good Howell Raines, the new executive editor, must have realized that his gunmen were shooting themselves in the feet. So this sentence was added to ... clarify? annul? any suggestion that the ballot design was deliberately flawed, leaving the bewildered consortium to conclude that since "there was no clear indication of what the voters intended, those numbers were not included in the consortium's final tabulations." So here we are in paragraph five of what paragraph one told us was "a comprehensive review," only to learn that a significant number of ballots were not counted because the voter, confused by the design of the ballot, voted for both Gore and the Vegetarian candidate! So there is, we are assured, no way of knowing which of the two was wanted. No way? Surely the fact that Gore's name was listed first suggests that he was the voter's choice, unless, maddened by a surfeit of broccoli, his name was so placed as a tease.
As these paragraphs unfurl, the newspaper of cracked record begins to resemble one of Robert Benchley's hilarious movie shorts of yesteryear, The Treasurer's Report.
Paragraph seven : recklessly concedes that "the most thorough examination of Florida's uncounted ballots provides ammunition for both sides ... but it also provides support for the result : a Bush victory by the tiniest of margins. " No, Howell, it doesn't, as this fabulous story makes clear.
Paragraph eight : The Times starts to implode. First, a major concession. The consortium of eight news organizations, aided by professional statisticians, found that "under some methods [of recounting--which ones?] Mr. Gore would have emerged the winner; in others, Mr. Bush." Paragraph nine : The Times digs a trap and falls into it. Quotes from the Supreme Court's majority opinion denying Florida a full recount, as ordered by the Florida courts, on the ground that such a recount "using varying standards" (there are no standards other than varying in Florida) threatened "irreparable harm" to Mr. Bush. Yes. He would have been sent home to Crawford. With paragraph ten the Times rationale becomes surreal : "The consortium's study shows that Mr. Bush would have won even if the justices had not stepped in. ..." Too late, Howell. Too little. Schizophrenia now reigns in Times Square. Paragraphs eleven through thirteen quibble about voting machines. Fourteen repeats how Gore should have demanded a statewide count and how wise the Bushites were to resist. Paragraph fifteen : "In a finding rich with irony" (a vein of metal inaccessible to Times miners), "the results show that even if Mr. Gore succeeded in his effort to force recounts of undervotes in the four Democratic counties ... he still would have lost. ... a statewide recount could have produced enough votes to tilt the election his way" (a mere tilt? Well, that's one way of putting it) "no matter what standard was chosen to judge voter intent."
Finally, paragraph sixteen : "A New York Times investigation earlier this year showed that 680 of the late-arriving [overseas] ballots did not meet Florida's standards yet were still counted. The vast majority of those flawed ballots were accepted in counties that favored Mr. Bush after an aggressive effort by Bush strategists to pressure officials to accept them." I then got out this earlier story (July 15, 2001). It is somewhat less homogenized than the current account. "In an analysis of the 2,490 [overseas] ballots ... the Times found 680 questionable votes," of which "four out of five were accepted in counties carried by Mr. Bush," making him victor by 537 votes. Yet on July 15 the Times felt "all [680 votes] would have been disqualified had the state's election laws been strictly enforced." I suggest that the editors, to show good faith, should have used paragraph sixteen as their lead paragraph : Start with the crime and then unravel it--or deep-six it if that's your plan. Putting it as the coda to a confusing story suggests a desire to obscure, not illuminate, what happened.
In the end, thanks to the acceptance of 680 illegal ballots, Bush "won" by 537 votes, since at least that number were counted, rightly or wrongly, for Bush, otherwise -- brace yourselves -- why should such obviously illegal ballots be counted at all by his partisans? Put another way, if other magical counters had counted these ballots for Gore that would have taken away 537 votes from Bush's tally and given them to Gore, who would then, depsite the Supreme Court's ominous meddling, have become the 43rd President. The Times, having consulted the Delphic oracle and, presumably, a thorough examination of a mad cow's entrails, called in a Harvard "expert" who wisely opined -- a word creeping into newspaper jargon on "eke's" shoulders -- that there was no way to declare a winner with "mathematical certainty." That man was worth his fee.
November 12 was quite a day at the Times. After the Fessenden/Broder front-page story, there was the Richard Berke story headed "Who Won Florida? The Answer Emerges, but Surely Not the Final Word." I'll say. Where Fessenden/Broder begin with "A comprehensive review" of the ballots, Berke begins on a note of triumph. He changes the article "A" to "The comprehensive review of ..." etc. This may be much the same story, but it still sounds a bit thin as it tries to convince us that all is well in a wonderful world because after "the drama of those 36 days last fall, most of the country moved on long ago," marching as to war, one might say. September 11 is referred to as the moment of truth for all patriots, and "many partisan Democrats are loath to question the legitimacy of a president in wartime." The writer mentions President Grover Cleveland's defeat in 1888 -- won popular vote, lost Electoral College, re-elected four years later. Case not applicable. Cleveland was not robbed of election like Gore. A closer analogy is with New York Governor Samuel Tilden -- a Democrat -- who won the election of 1876 with a plurality of a quarter-million votes and then was well and truly robbed of the election by the Republican Party, whose troops still occupied parts of the South. ... etc. Since the Times refers to its victories, I shall draw the reader's attention to my novel 1876, in which I describe how the election of that year was hijacked and how Tilden went quietly, as did Gore. Tilden was never heard of again.
The most depressing aspect of this whole story is how little interest the people seem to have in the unconstitutional usurpation of a presidential election by a rogue Supreme Court majority. It is also striking how little moved they are by the rights we are so rapidly losing in the never-to-be-won war against never-to-be-defined "terrorism." The current confusions of the New York Times are not so much that paper's usual problems with honest reporting but what looks to be a perfect indifference to the welfare of this Republic, as opposed to corporate cheerleading for the new homeland that November 2000, not September 2001, made possible. Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney, in his "undisclosed" bunker, is no doubt wondering whether or not to postpone the certain-to-be-divisive presidential election of 2004. After all, homeland security comes first.