By October, the races were going strong in
New Hampshire, site of the nation’s first primary.
The eventual winners were still hard to spot. But the preferences of the national press were quite clear.
Where did the two parties’ races stand? On the Democratic side, Bill Bradley had come on strong in the state. He had pulled ahead of Gore in a string of polls, though only by single-digit margins. Among Republicans, Bush retained a commanding lead, though McCain had emerged as his chief opposition. On October 6, a new poll showed McCain gaining ground in New Hampshire–to within twenty points of Bush.
The Granite State races were going strong. In Manchester, Nashua, Concord/Rye/Derry, reporters scuffed the autumn leaves, trailing behind the various candidates. But back in Washington, a well-known colleague was rolling his eyes at their efforts.
Fred Barnes, the well-known conservative pundit, chuckled at the primary coverage in a column entitled, “Puff Daddy.” (Barnes was executive editor of The Weekly Standard, a leading conservative journal. His piece appeared in early October, as New Hampshire began heating up.) Barnes rolled his eyes at his colleagues’ efforts–and he wasn’t complaining about liberal bias. How do reporters cover the candidates? “Gathered in a pack they can be cruel and unfeeling, but not when they’re on their own,” he scoffed. “They’re softies, easily schmoozed, ever susceptible to being fooled by appearances.”
Say what? The nation’s reporters were easily schmoozed? Were “susceptible to being fooled by appearances?” That was the world according to Barnes, who said the problem stemmed from what he called “the liking problem.” According to Barnes, reporters tend to flatter (or “puff”) those candidates whom they personally like. But when he listed the corps’ current favorites, the names he offered were somewhat surprising. “At the moment, the likability award is shared by George W. Bush and John McCain,” Barnes wrote, thus naming the leadingRepublican candidates. “Bush is fun to be around,” Barnes explained. He “gives everyone, including reporters, a nickname.”
According to Barnes, Bush and McCain had “gotten along famously with the press largely because reporters like them.”
Back in June, Paul Gigot had called Bush’s coverage “adoring.” Now, a second major conservative figure was calling Bush a press corps favorite–and he said the softies who make up the press corps tend to get fooled by such candidates. And Barnes’ suggestion about the Bush coverage was, on balance, quite fair. Before the primary races were done, fickle reporters would show the world that it was McCain whom they most truly loved. In the meantime, a number of candidates were getting “puffed”–and Bush was plainly among them.
Consider the way he was being covered in the famously “liberal” New York Times.
Frank Bruni’s fawning treatment of Bush would peak in late November. A former film critic and features writer, Bruni became the Times’ regular Bush reporter in late August 1999, just as the Texan emerged from a week-long flap about prior drug use. Starting with the 1988 campaign, most White House candidates had been asked if they’d used illegal drugs in the past. In August, Bush became the first major candidate who refused to answer the question. Late in the month, several clumsy half-answers by Bush triggered a short but dangerous frenzy.
Bruni began to cover Bush as these events played out.
At 35, Bruni was somewhat younger, and much less experienced, than the typical Times campaign reporter. His lack of experience may have been showing in his coverage of Bush.
His first report appeared on August 26. “Shrugging Off Pressure, Bush Regains His Form,” the article’s upbeat headline declared. Did Bruni have a “liking problem?” If you were hunting for liberal bias, you wouldn’t be finding it here:
On his first campaign swing since he found himself besieged by questions about whether he had used cocaine as a younger man, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas seemed unbowed and unworried today, making only the subtlest allusions to the tense events of last week and reconnecting with the loose, relaxed demeanor that is his hallmark on the stump.
Under the circumstances, the report could hardly have been more cheerful. “I reject the campaigns of personal destruction,” the candidate had declared, and Bruni was quick to explain his meaning. Bush’s remark “seemed to represent a jab at opponents and reporters who had hounded him for detailed answers about the extent of his drug use, if any,” the Timesman wrote. Bruni thus adopted an unusual stance: His fellow reporters were “hounding” Bush, and Bush was just jabbing back at tormentors–while showing the “relaxed demeanor” which had served him so well on the stump.
According to Bruni, Bush had answered questions on various topics “in a brief conversation with reporters.” Bush’s wife Laura “was snug at his side,” the Timesman cheerfully wrote.
Was something wrong with this friendly report? Not necessarily, though Bruni’s tendency to interpret freely–standard practice at the undisciplined Times–was on display in this maiden effort. Indeed, in subsequent reports from the Granite State trail, Bruni routinely explained how Bush “seemed” and “appeared” and, to the credulous young Timesman, the Texan often seemed pretty good. As the fall campaign proceeded, almost every move by Bush received an upbeat appraisal from Bruni. The headlines on a few early pieces conveyed their cheerful flavor:
August 26: Shrugging Off Pressure, Bush Regains His Form
August 28: Bush Fund-Raising Machine Plows AheadSeptember 14: Riding High, Bush Seeks GravitySeptember 29: Bush Is In Terrific Health, Doctor’s Report Proclaims
How upbeat–how silly–were Bruni’s reports? Bush’s “monogrammed cowboy boots” had proven to be “the perfect accessory for his folksy affability and casual self-assurance,” the scribe reported on September 14. “As Mr. Bush presses forward with his almost preposterously charmed quest for the Republican Presidential nomination, he has plenty of confidence, evident in his easy swagger.” Bruni also drew considerable meaning from Bush’s “shiny black loafers” this day. The footwear “seemed to reflect more than the pants cuff above them,” the Timesman improbably judged.
Through early November, the fawning continued. “In New Hampshire, Bush Is the Image of Scrappiness,” the headline said on one report. (Bush had just finished “a feverishly busy visit to New Hampshire that saw him log hundreds of road miles, lunge for every hand in his path and, above all, look less like a carefree front-runner than a scrappy contender who had indeed broken a sweat.”) But it wasn’t until the end of the month that Bruni achieved Total Pander. His report appeared on the Times’ front page–and its headline gave Bush a minor promotion: “Levity Is at the Soul Of Bush, the Puck In the Political Pack.” Bush was thus re-imagined as Puck, a famous figure from Shakespeare. Reporting from the Granite State hustings, Bruni compiled an almost comical laundry list of the candidate’s manifest charms.
“As George W. Bush loped through the headquarters of the Timberland Company here, he might have been any candidate,” Bruni wrote. “But there was something different about Governor Bush’s approach, something jazzier and jauntier.” But the candidate wasn’t just jazzy and jaunty to Bruni's practiced eye this day. He was also “folksy and feisty,” “physically expansive and verbally irreverent”–“a politician more playful than most of his peers.”
“Interestingly,” Bruni opined, “it is sometimes Mr. Bush’s most mischievous moments that demonstrate how astute he can be.”
By now, McCain was gaining ground fast in New Hampshire polls. But judging from Bruni’s front-page report, Bush had never seemed better. He was tireless, affable, dutiful, warm. Blessed with a light, nimble style, he had a disarming demeanor. He was exuberant, mischievous, buoyant–and his eyes had a prankish glimmer. He “seems to operate from utter confidence,” Bruni wrote, “a happy and lucky man for happy-go-lucky times.” And sure enough! Having fawned throughout his report, the cheerful young Timesman closed out with a bang. “With every wink, hug and bit of effortless banter, he projects a spirit as mirthful as many voters would undoubtedly like their futures to be,” Bruni declared.
Not that reporters at the Times ever gave their endorsement to candidates!
At the famously liberal Times, Bruni puffed Bush through the fall. Only a fantasist could have seen the young scribe in the grip of that famed liberal bias. Nor was Bruni alone in this stance at his famously liberal newspaper. The occasional foolishness of the pre-Bruni period reached its peak on August 21, when veteran Timesman R. W. “Johnny” Apple wrote a lengthy “Political Memo” lauding Bush’s vast skill on the stump–while taking a gratuitous early shot at his likely Democratic opponent.
Apple’s profile prefigured Bruni, with a bit of an anti-Gore twist. After praising the enthusiasm with which Bush “plunges into crowds,” the veteran scribe penned a catty comparison. “Nobody would ever mistake him for Vice President Gore,” Apple wrote–and that was his entire third paragraph
Whatever this Meow Mix was intended to be, it plainly was not liberal bias.
The veteran Apple openly fawned in his profile of Bush. At great length, he praised Bush for the “relaxed discussions” he’d conducted with two groups of second-graders. He praised Bush for the masterful way he’d toured a farmer’s market. (“Nothing seemed to faze Mr. Bush in the slightest as he moved slowly past market stalls stacked high with peaches, pole beans, Japanese eggplants and Silver Queen corn, the bounty of late summer in the Virginia Piedmont,” Apple fruitfully wrote.) Bush “demonstrated real mastery of one-on-one campaigning,” Apple opined, and he proceeded to count the ways Bush had displayed this transcendence. On the one hand, the Timesman described the “chummy punch” Bush landed on one voter’s upper arm; on the other, he described “an arm draped fraternally across the Governor’s shoulder” after a school event. “Where did this come from,” Apple finally asked, “this knack for putting people at ease, this common touch?” (It must have come from his Texas upbringing, the candidate thoughtfully judged.) Apple even recycled that sound-bite from June, the one comparing Bush to Eisenhower–though he seemed to say that Bush’s early appeal surpassed that even of Ike. In the course of his Bush highlight reel, Apple even mentioned one of his own cohort’s puzzling new habits. Bush was “now referred to by newspapers around the country not as George W. Bush or even George W. but simply as W.,” he wrote.
Apple showed no sign of thinking that this might be an unprofessional practice.
When he profiled Bush, Apple fawned. But in October, he profiled Candidate Gore–and now he was eye-rolling, sour. Would Gore “let it all hang out” on the trail, as he had pledged? “The very phrase sounds unnatural coming from a man whose shoes are always polished, whose hair is always combed,” the Timesman weirdly groused. “All? He doesn't even let his shirt-tail hang out.” For the record, very few candidates seek the White House with uncombed hair, scuffed shoes, shirt-tails flying. But Apple was highly acidic this day, having puffed Bush weeks before.
By October, it was widely agreed. McCain and Bill Bradley (whom Barnes didn’t mention) were getting remarkably favorable coverage. In November, Newsweek posed the pair on its cover, extremely familiar terms of endearment emblazoned across their chests. (“Straight Shooters,” said the text on the cover. “How Bradley and McCain Are Scoring With the Politics of Authenticity.”) But Candidate Bush was getting puffed too, a matter Barnes may have helped explain with his shot at scribes who are easily schmoozed. (Bush’s nickname for Bruni: Panchito.) By October 1999, in fact, only one of the four major White House contenders stood outside the circle of puffery; that lone exile was Candidate Gore, the Democratic front-runner. (Gore still held a substantial lead over Bradley in national polls.) We’ve already seen the punishing coverage Gore had received from March through June. Had matters somehow improved by the fall? Consider the first Democratic debate, an event at which the press corps’ misconduct achieved an astounding new low.
Candidate Bush was getting puffed. He was a press favorite, Barnes had now said. But Candidate Gore would now be jeered–would be literallyjeered–by a profoundly undisciplined press corps. When it came to Candidate Gore, did the press have a “liking problem?” Consider their astonishing conduct at that first debate, as described in separate reports by three different major journalists.
Gore and Bradley debated at Dartmouth College on Wednesday evening, October 27, 1999. The event was produced by CNN in a familiar “town hall” format, with the two candidates taking questions from two dozen Granite State voters. (A Republican forum was held the next night, involving five GOP candidates.) The pair were questioned on a wide range of topics; most notably, they spoke in some detail about their respective health care proposals. Due to limited space in the venue, 300 journalists were forced to watch on large-screen TVs in an adjacent press room.
And how did the press corps conduct itself during this ballyhooed first debate? Inside that press room, a highly instructive event occurred, an event which suggests the state of play as the race in New Hampshire took shape.
Did the press have a liking problem when it came to Candidate Gore? The following week, Howard Mortman, managing editor of the Hotline, described the scene inside the Dartmouth press room. “The media groaned, howled and laughed almost every time Al Gore said something,” Mortman said, during a panel discussion on the Hotline’snightly cable program. What happened when Bradley spoke? he was asked. “Stone silence, really,” he said.
Mortman described astonishing conduct. But Eric Pooley had already described a similar scene, in his full-length report for Time about that first debate. “Whenever Gore came on too strong, the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd,” Pooley wrote, referring to "the 300 media types watching in the press room at Dartmouth." Oddly, Pooley showed no clear sign of thinking this conduct was inappropriate–except for the way he described his colleagues as “a gang of Heathers.” But in early December, a third reporter described this strange scene–and this reporter expressed his surprise, and his plain disapproval. Appearing on C-Span’s Washington Journal, Salon’s Jake Tapper responded to a viewer's question about–what else?–liberal bias:
I can tell you that the only media bias I have detected in terms of a group media bias was, at the first debate between Bill Bradley and Al Gore, there was hissing for Gore in the media room up at Dartmouth College. The reporters were hissing Gore, and that’s the only time I’ve ever heard the press room boo or hiss any candidate of any party at any event.
Tapper had never seen such conduct before. But then, “gathered in a pack they can be cruel and unfeeling,” as Fred Barnes had already said.
Who knows? Perhaps they were simply “tainting” Gore, “probably subconsciously at a minimum.” It may have been their latest way of “making him jump through the hoops.” But if the press corps’ deportmentat this debate was astounding, their subsequent public commentary would be more remarkable still. By the weekend which followed this first debate, a bizarre assortment of harsh complaints were being widely directed at Gore. Routinely, these wildly hyperbolic complaints contradicted the things reporters had said on the night of the actual forum. Out of the emerging mish-mosh, several peculiar Group Stories emerged–punishing stories which were widely recited, cutting very hard against Gore. One portrait of Gore which began to emerge would drive a great deal of the future press coverage–the negative coverage which would hound Gore to the end of this fateful campaign.
The press corps’ reactions to this first debate thus raise an obvious question. How had the press corps reached the point where reporters would hiss and jeer a major candidate at a debate, then concoct peculiar Group Stories about how bad his performance had been? What had become of the mainstream press corps' most basic professional standards?
Alas! It seemed that Fred Barnes had gotten it right in his “Puff Daddy” piece. As New Hampshire's primary races unfolded, the national press corps would display an obvious set of “liking problems." But the press also had a jeering problem–and its jeers were still aimed right at Gore.
How to explain the press corps' jeering–this
stunning breakdown in normal deportment? Two suggestions might be offered before we return to the gruesome coverage which made a persistent, yowling joke of the 2000 White House campaign.
As noted earlier, this campaign started ten years after the Cold War’s demise. During that decade of peace and prosperity, the culture of the mainstream press corps had tracked a steady decline. Within the world of Establishment Washington, journalistic opinion leaders were increasingly wealthy, and TV-famous. Increasingly, these opinion leaders displayed the values associated with such elites down through the annals of time.
Within the nation’s upper-end press corps, an insipid, fatuous culture grew. Consider the work of Maureen Dowd, one of the press corps’ most heralded tribunes as Campaign 2000 began.
Dowd was a twice-weekly columnist at the New York Times, the nation’s most influential newspaper. In April 1999, she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, her profession’s top award. The official citation praised Dowd for her "fresh and insightful columns on the impact of President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky.” But then, by this time, few other topics could command the press corps’ attention.
In late July 1999, Dowd resumed her column after an absence of nearly a month. What was on her prize-winning mind? These are the topics the columnist tackled upon her return to the wars:
On July 28, she described her recent lazer eye surgery. Three days later, she reviewed a new movie, Runaway Bride. On August 4, Dowd discussed a Talk magazine piece about the state of the Clintons’ marriage–a topic to which she would return many times over the years. (On August 11, she compared and contrasted two “blond icons”–Marilyn Monroe and Hillary Clinton. On September 12, she returned to the Clinton’s “marital pratfalls,” their “kooky connubial bliss.”)
Might Warren Beatty run for the White House? That was her focus on August 15. But then, in fourteen columns running into September, Dowd discussed no truly serious topic. On September 1, she focused on Monica Lewinsky’s plan to launch a lipstick line. "I ran into Kato Kaelin the other night," she said at the start of this column.
Dowd’s typical column was witty but fatuous–a hodgepodge of personality, sex chat and gossip. She often slammed the culture’s celebrity focus, while betraying few other interests herself. In terms of the actual White House campaign, the public interest was better served the farther she was kept from the candidates. In April, she had written a column, “President Frat Boy,” scolding Bush for trivial misconduct as a Yale undergraduate, thirty-one years before. Three weeks later, she scolded Gore for allegedly telling unnamed friends that he had enjoyed the hit movie, The Matrix. What made Gore’s review so troubling? A few weeks after Gore’s alleged comment, three students committed mass murder at Colorado’s Columbine High School, wearing a type of clothing they may have seen in the film. Gore had no way to foresee this tragic event–but Dowd managed to tease a critical column from his remarks all the same. But with Dowd, there was rarely a topic too pointless to consider, a judgment too unfair or foolish to render. And in the summer of 1999, this was, in Establishment Washington’s view, the best the national press had to offer. The Pulitzer Prize awarded to Dowd was a portrait of an elite in a headlong decline–a portrait of a floundering press corps in love with high tone and sheer trivia.
Over the course of the previous dozen years, Dowd had been one of the most influential, and most copied, major mainstream journalists. But whatever the source of the press corps' decline, fatuous values and frivolous judgment increasingly defined the group's work. As the summer of 99 proceeded, this melded with the insider press corps’ continued obsession with All Things Bill Clinton. Impeachment had ended in February, but the "outrage" Sally Quinn described in 1998 had lingered on. How noxious was the resulting brew? In August, two major cable news programs–Hardball (CNBC) and Hannity & Colmes (Fox News Channel)–presented programs devoted to claims about Bill and Hillary Clintons' alleged serial murders. During the Clinton years, these accusations had come from the deepest fever swamps of American political culture; such claims been stoked by irresponsible hit-men and enabled by press corps silence. Now, in the case of these two cable programs, the accusations were being advanced by Gennifer Flowers, who continued to claim that she had enjoyed a torrid, twelve-year love affair with Governor Clinton. (Even in a full-length book, Flowers never presented specific evidence supporting this highly implausible claim.) In early August, Hardball gave Flowers a lengthy, half-hour segment to make her transparently ludicrous claims, including her inexcusable charges about the Clintons' murders. One week later, Hannity & Colmesupped the ante, giving her a full hour to advance her cuckoo's nest claims.
These programs represented a gruesome new low in American TV "journalism." Incredibly, no mainstream journalist voiced a word of complaint about these disgraceful events, which had of course been presented by two major cable "news" channels. By now, the press corps’ judgment was astoundingly poor, especially so when it came to Bill Clinton. Each of these factors augured quite poorly for Clinton’s vice president, Gore.
As noted earlier, Dowd had played a leading role in the invention of theLove Story narrative–the silly, factually-bungled tale which helped launch the GORE, LIAR narrative. The press had invented similar tales in several previous campaigns, aimed at candidates of both parties; Dowd had sometimes been at the heart of those bungled stories too. But never before had the press been so gripped by what Barnes called “the liking problem”–or by its equal-but-opposite force, the outrage which still fueled the press corps' reactions to Clinton. Result: All through Campaign 2000, the press corps’ peculiar group judgments would punish Gore, to whom they seemed to have transferred their rage. At the same time, pundits displayed obvious “liking problems” when it came to other top candidates. In at least two cases, it must be observed, they were being well schmoozed by these men.
Did the mainstream press have a “liking problem?” Consider the coverage being extended to Candidate Bradley–coverage which was the fault and doing of the national press corps, not of Bill Bradley himself.
The press corps’ high regard for Bradley had long been a matter of open discussion. In early December 1998, the former New Jersey senator announced that he would likely be seeking the White House. That same week, the National Journal’s William Powers reviewed his colleagues’ past treatment of Bradley, an exceptionally famous, admired public figure since his days as a Princeton hoops star.
“True Confessions: We Love the Big Lug,” read the title of Powers’ piece. With sly humor, but with substantial prescience, Powers foresaw “how this particular affaire de coeur may affect the 2000 race.”
Powers took it right to the hoop. “One of the targets of our collective affection may be about to run for president,” he wrote. “He is the object of one of the modern media’s most intense and long-lasting crushes.” “Let’s not beat around the bush,” Powers wrote. “Bill Bradley slays us.” Criticizing his colleagues, not the candidate, Powers penned a searching review of the way the political press had always treated this most-favored pol.
Powers listed the qualities which, he said, had always made Bradley attractive to journalists. “The attraction has resulted in a body of journalism unlike anything seen since” the days of Candidate John F. Kennedy, Powers wrote. “Over the years, Bradley has been covered in a manner most unusual for a politician, with barely disguised excitement, admiration, and something approaching awe.” Powers quoted from fawning profiles of Bradley which had appeared through the years–and yes, there were many to choose from.
When it came to Candidate Bradley, would the press have a liking problem? Ten months before Barnes' “Puff Daddy” piece, Powers used stronger if whimsical language. “It's a fact that sometimes we newsies are driven by feelings so remote from hate that one can only call them . . . love,” he wrote. “This weakness is rarely mentioned by journalists themselves; the pack's little passions are perhaps the last love that dare not speak its name.”
Barnes would describe a liking problem. Ten months earlier, picturing Bradley's campaign, Powell foresaw something stronger: amour.
Sensibly, Powers said there was a middle ground “between giving someone a free ride and tearing him down.” But by the fall of 1999–by the time of the first Democratic debate–establishment journalists were showing few signs of interest in such moderation. Might New Hampshire perhaps be for lovers? By the fall of 1999, Candidate Bradley was being puffed as few major White House contenders had ever been puffed before. In strikingly repetitious profiles, he was said to possess a type of “authenticity” which set him apart from his sole rival, Gore–and, of course, from President Clinton, around whom the press corps still framed such discussions. In this, the press corps was repeating the prime talking-point of the Bradley campaign itself; from the fall of 1998 forward, the claim that Bradley had high “authenticity” had clearly been the central claim made by the campaign's spokesmen on behalf of the candidate. But then, scribes also followed the campaign's talking-points in defining the essence of this “authenticity.” Most typically, Bradley was described as a man of superb high character who never built his life around a devotion to politics, the way Gore and Clinton had supposedly done.
“I had a life before I got into politics and a life after I left the Senate,” Bradley often told reporters in the first six months of his campaign. (In a February 1999 profile, USA Today described this frequent remark as “a tacit reference to Gore's inside-the-Beltway childhood and career.”) This high-blown claim was a bit of a stretch when it came to Bradley's life afterthe Senate; this second "life outside politics" lasted less than two years, during which time Bradley planned and organized a full-blown White House campaign. (As would later be revealed, he also earned $2.7 million giving speeches to corporate groups, and an additional half million dollars in consulting fees, mainly from Morgan Stanley.) But all through the spring and summer of 1999, Candidate Bradley and his spokesmen advanced such comments. And by the fall, major parts of the mainstream press were repeating variants of this proclamation, plainly taking their basic frameworks straight from Bradley himself. (In its widely-discussed “Straight Shooters” issue, Newsweek praised Bradley for “the aura of authenticity that comes from a life that starts outside politics.”) By the fall, invidious comparisons to Clinton and Gore were routinely a part of this press corps package. Indeed, pundits frequently stressed a key point as they puffed Gore's only challenger: Bradley's remarkable “authenticity” defined him as Bill Clinton's opposite. Bradley was “a quirky, non-political type,” Newsweek said. Within long strings of mainstream profiles, this admirable quality, widely affirmed, made Bradley the un-/anti-Clinton.
Did journalists have a liking problem? As Bradley performed his early campaigning, the press corps did seem to “love the big lug,” as Powers had truly confessed. “Bradley may turn out to be too good for this world,”Time's Eric Pooley wrote in April 1999. “He isn't running a campaign so much as testing a thesis: finding out whether he can win without losing his soul.” (This came six weeks after USA Today's front-page profile, which listed Bradley's many small kindnesses, then compared him to Mr. Rogers.) Through the rest of the calendar year, swooning analyses of this type made Powers a bit of a prophet. They also defined a growing breakdown within the national press.
Pundits fawned over Bradley's high character in every conceivable way. Given the press corps' increasingly fatuous culture, everything seemed to prove Bradley's “authenticity”–his rumpled clothing; his beat-up old shoes; all manner of body language. When he arrived late for town meetings, answered gruffly, then left, this proved his high authenticity too! It should be stated for the third time: These silly analyses were the fault of the press corps, not of the candidate himself. But how ludicrous could such analyses get? On three Hardball programs in September alone, host Chris Matthews praised the way Bradley's receding hairline and five o’clock shadow made him seem like “a gritty, real guy,” like a "regular" fellow. And even here, in the press corps' most ludicrous moments, a certain comparison did seem required. This was Matthews on September 20, mooning about the candidate’s hair, which set him apart from Bill Clinton:
I think that receding hairline of his is gonna be a lot more popular than Clinton’s Maginot Line hairline, because a lot of guys say they can’t figure out Clinton because he never seems to lose any hair. And look at this guy, Bradley! [Showing videotape] He looks like a regular guy you’d bump into!
And no, that wasn't a tongue-in-cheek comment. On three different programs that month, Matthews made similar claims about the political meaning of Bradley’s hairline and/or his five o’clock shadow.
Hardball would be a prime location for ludicrous claims about Bradley’s high character. (And for stunningly invidious comparisons with "the bathtub ring," Gore.) But repeatedly, major journalists portrayed Bradley as the anti-Clinton in ways which were less overtly ridiculous. Through the summer and fall of 1999, Time and Newsweek penned fawning profiles which identified Bradley as the answer to Clinton’s presumed moral squalor. (Here too, journalists were adopting a framework which seems to have started within the Bradley campaign itself.) Bradley supporters “seem relieved to find a Democrat who could keep the White House but cleanse it after Bill Clinton,” Newsweek's Howard Fineman wrote in early September. (Synopsis: “Bill Bradley is offering Democrats a chance to cleanse themselves of Clinton.”) Three weeks later, Pooley voiced a similar judgment in Time. (“More and more it seems that Bradley’s inscrutable nature–high-mindedness, dogged integrity and apparent indifference to the game of politics–might be tailor-made for the post-Clinton era.”) Appearing on CNN’s Capital Gang, liberal columnist Al Hunt described Bradley as “the antidote to Clinton's slick, manipulative brand of politics.” One week later, in Newsweek's “Straight Shooters” edition, a photo of Bradley bore a short caption: “The Anti-Clinton,” it said. (The caption under another photo simply said this: "For Real.")
Bill Bradley was the antidote to Clinton's slick politics! By now, this general framework was so widely expressed that it served as virtual background noise for the unfolding New Hampshire campaign, with Gore routinely cast as the Clinton-like foil in the drama. Simply put: By the fall of 1999, the mainstream press corps, by and large, was acting as a proxy for Bradley. Incredibly, a larger "swoon" for McCain would emerge a few months later, when he rose in the Granite State polls.
The notion that Bradley had high “authenticity” had started in 1998, as a talking-point of the Bradley campaign. By the fall of 1999, the word was on leading pundits' lips, virtually defining the press corps' coverage of the Democratic primary. By the time of the first Democratic debate, major pundits were standing in line to repeat–and advance–this Bradley framework. The framework had come from the Bradley campaign. Now it belonged to the press corps itself–a press corps which would jeer Bill Bradley's opponent all through this first debate.
Bush was liked–Bradley was almost loved–as the autumn leaves fell in New Hampshire. But when Heathers report a White House campaign, they tend to compose different types of stories about those candidates whom they love, as opposed to those whom they jeer. Before we look at the stories the press corps churned about this first Democratic debate, a few key facts should be recorded about the voters’ reactions.
First point: Two days after this first debate, Gallup released a poll of New Hampshire Democrats who had watched the event on TV. These voters scored this first debate a draw. No other polling appeared about the public’s reaction.
Second point: Within roughly a week of this first debate, Gore had retaken the lead over Bradley in a string of New Hampshire polls. Before the debate, Bradley had held the lead over Gore in eight of the last nine statewide polls, extending back to the start of October. But within a week of this first debate, Gore had shot ahead of Bradley in three major statewide polls. (The AP had him ahead by seven; Newsweek had him up by ten.) Gore won every subsequent poll in the month of November. In short: Despite the derision aimed at Gore when pundits critiqued this first debate, it seems clear that this first debate, and the discussions it started, rekindled Gore’s slumping campaign.
It’s fairly clear that Gore, not Bradley, gained from this first debate. But inside that Dartmouth press room, Eric Pooley's "gang of Heathers" had laughed and jeered at Gore for the hour. Within a few days, they had invented a set of wildly hyperbolic Group Stories about how bad Gore's performance had been. They offered bizarre critiques of Gore; they insisted that Bradley had been "more appealing." As they advanced the latter claim, they kept ignoring the Gallup poll which had scored the session a draw.
By the time of this first Democratic debate, New Hampshire seemed to be for lovers when it come to the coverage of Bradley. But by now, the state was also for Heathers. Within days, their jeers had turned into puzzling stories–Group Stories, which made war on Gore.
After they finished their hour of jeering, how did
the press corps describe this debate? Let’s briefly consider the forum itself, in which two experienced, intelligent pols took 26 questions from New Hampshire citizens on a wide range of serious topics.
The event gave Democratic voters their first real chance to see Gore and Bradley side-by-side. What they saw should have been reassuring. The pair discussed health care policy in substantial detail. (Gore said Bradley’s plan was too costly.) They discussed special ed funding and violence in the schools; they discussed the principles their country should follow in entering foreign conflicts. One citizen asked Bradley how to fund “high-quality home and community-based care for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and their families.” The candidate ripped off a detailed reply, drawn from his previous work on the subject. But then, both men offered lucid statements on a wide range of policy matters. Even a staunch conservative, National Review editor Kate O’Beirne, praised the breadth of the Democrats’ knowledge. “Both were completely conversant on the issues, impressively so,” she said on CNN’s Capital Gang, three nights later.
But Gore and Bradley’s prescriptions for health care would play little in the subsequent commentary. What did pundits discuss instead? One major pundit discussed Gore’s wardrobe, a subject the press had been flogging for roughly a month (see chapter 5). Mary McGrory was a veteran, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist–a highly respected veteran voice at the influential Washington Post. On October 31, she reviewed the debate in the Sunday Post. Remarkably, she started like this:
Vice President Albert Gore came to his fateful encounter with newly menacing challenger Bill Bradley carrying heavy baggage. He was wearing an outfit that added to his problems when he stepped onstage at Dartmouth College: a brown suit, a gunmetal blue shirt, a red tie–and black boots.
“Was it part of his reinvention strategy?” she asked. “Perhaps it was meant to be a ground-leveling statement: ‘I am not a well-dressed man.’” The public’s access to quality health care seemed like the least of McGrory’s concerns. “It is hard to imagine,” her column continued, “that he thought to ingratiate himself with the nation’s earliest primary voters by trying to look like someone seeking employment at a country music radio station.” A hail of similar insults followed. Four days later, McGrory returned to this topic, and to her collection of insults, complaining about Gore’s “distracting new suit, a three-button brown affair that caused much nostalgia for navy-blue serge.”
McGrory's reactions were stunningly frivolous–an insult to the public interest. But major pundits approached this campaign in this puzzling way from its start right through to its end.
Indeed, McGrory was hardly alone in her frivolous response to this forum. At the upper end of the national press corps, the bulk of reaction involved highly subjective claims about perceived differences in the candidates’ “styles,” and the press corps’ peculiar complaints were still aimed directly at Gore. Example: Three nights after the Democrats clashed, Margaret Carlson appeared on CNN’s Capital Gang, a high-profile weekly discussion program. Carlson mocked Gore as an “Eddie Haskell Energizer Bunny,” then offered several odd critiques of his performance. By now, some of Carlson's complaints were so common, she advanced them in virtual shorthand:
You know, I would say he looked–he looked over-anxious...And in this forum, Bradley comes across as more authentic than Gore does because he has been told to adopt some of the Clinton personality tics–getting off the stool, asking for the name–and that’s the last, that worked in the last election.
Bradley had seemed more “authentic” than Gore–and Gore had seemed like Clinton! By now, such judgments served as virtual scripture here at the top of the press corps. Indeed, Gore had even adopted one of “the Clinton personality tics” when he rose from his stool to answer his questions, Carlson seemed to say. But in fact, seven candidates, two Democrats and five Republicans, had taken part in CNN’s forums this week. And as common sense would suggest–as the tapes clearly show–every candidate got off his stool to answer every question. No matter! Gore was said to be Clintonesque for conduct in which all engaged. By the way: Was it odd when Gore addressed questioners by name, another of Carlson's shorthand complaints? Gore was widely criticized for this conduct, but what really happened at these debates? Gore addressed four of his thirteen questioners by name; the next night, at the Republican forum, six of the first ten questioners were so addressed. To state the obvious, there was nothing wrong with addressing these voters by name–they stated their names before asking their questions–and Republicans did so more often than Gore. But Gore was widely mocked for the practice. And by some act of group clairvoyance, big pundits could tell that he’d done this strange thing to mimic his slick, phony boss.
Pundits conjured a stunning array of complaints about Gore’s performance, all the while failing to note that voters had scored the session a draw. One such comment earned instant hall-of-fame status. A few hours after the forum ended, CNN’s William Schneider was asked to assess Gore’s performance. “Gore talked about fighting for people,” he said. Then, after quoting something Gore said, Schneider advanced a brain-jangling judgment. “He even perspired, perhaps that was planned,to make himself look like a fighter,” he said (emphasis added). “What Gore wants to do, clearly, is energize the Democratic political base.”
Gore had perspired–perhaps that was planned! Why would Schneider voice such a strange thought? By now, the press corps was endlessly warning the public about Gore’s lack of “authenticity.” Gore’s phoniness was a Standard Press Theme and, to pundits who had just spent an hour hissing and jeering the Clinton-like candidate, everything he said and did seemed to confirm their judgment. Gore was criticized for getting off his stool, and for walking to the front of the stage when he spoke. (All seven candidates walked to the front of the stage, which was quite shallow.) He was criticized for addressing citizens by name, and for taking questions before the debate. (One night later, the Republican candidates also took pre-debate questions.) He was roundly mocked, by a long list of scribes, for staying to answer additional questions after the formal debate had ended. (Granite State citizens stayed for two hours, directing more questions to Gore. By now, Gore was running all his town meetings this way, pledging to stay as late as it took to answer each citizen's question.) And his wardrobe of course was appalling. These “analyses” came from the cuckoo’s nest. But from start to finish in Campaign 2000, frivolous work of this type would define this press corps’ performance.
Readers will perhaps be impressed by the absurdity of these complaints. The heartlessness of some major pundits also deserves a quick mention. Gore’s second questioner, a young woman named Corrie Martin, told him she had a child who suffered from diabetes. “I spend a lot of time dealing with the insurance companies,” Martin said, “and it eats up a lot of time and effort. So I'm wondering, if you were to implement health care reform, who would be the decision-makers?” Gore asked Martin how old her child was (five), and if she had good insurance (she did). He then proceeded to answer her question–and was criticized by a wide range of pundits for having asked Martin these questions.
“What did you make of the vice president's sort of inquiry of people about what grade their kids were in?” Chris Matthews sneered the next evening on Hardball. “I thought it was sort of almost like Bill Clinton at work.” (By now, Gore’s every move was said to be “sort of almost like Clinton,” as will become quite clear.) Later, Matthews’ comments turned a bit harsher. “What does it matter whether the kid's in the sixth or the eighth grade?” he demanded, not seeming to know the age of the child about whom Gore had inquired. In the New York Times, columnist Gail Collins also mocked Gore for asking the age of Martin’s sick child (text below); she too could see that Gore’s question had been all about aping Clinton. (It was one of Gore’s “attempts to create Clintonesque mind-melds with the audience.”) In Time, Pooley mocked Gore for questioning Martin, while offering the Standard Assessment of Motive. (It was a “faux-Clintonian personal question.”) By Saturday evening, this complaint about Gore had become so common that Carlson barely felt the need to explain it. She simply tossed it onto the pile of gripes about Gore’s performance, which had seemed less “authentic” than Bradley’s effort–especially since Gore had been told to adopt Bill Clinton's tics.
In short, reporters and pundits took turns mocking Gore for asking two questions about a sick child. And everyone knew what his two questions meant: Al Gore, an inauthentic phony, was trying to be like Bill Clinton. Heartless scribes could think of no other reason why Gore might inquire about a sick child. They knew why Gore had done this thing. As a group, they rose to explain it.
The nation’s top pundits were mind-reading nicely. But by now, their task was remarkably simple. There was nothing Gore could say or do that didn’t somehow remind them of Clinton, and there was nothing Gore could do that they wouldn’t pretend to find troubling. By contrast, Bradley’s performance was praised, sometimes comically, even after that Gallup poll had scored this first debate a draw. (The result was released on Friday morning. It was routinely ignored by upper-end pundits, who kept insisting that Bradley had “come across” better.) “At this stage, people are liking Bradley not being negative and not being aggressive,” Carlson explained on Saturday's Capital Gang, “and his way, which is to channel the insouciance of Dean Martin and the iciness of John Malkovich, is appealing.” (Yes. She actually said that.) “That's very appealing right now,” Carlson continued. “And the Eddie Haskel Energizer Bunny of Al Gore is not as appealing at the moment. Maybe in September, when people are really concentrating, the sweaty guy who wants it more might work in those debates.” Gore was mocked as “the sweaty guy” again–and Carlson failed to mention the fact that Granite State voters had rated this session a draw. She simply announced that “people” were liking Bradley more–were finding Bradley more "appealing." Actual surveys of voter reaction no longer seemed to be relevant.
In this way, the press corps got busy inventing the stories they wanted the voting public to hear. And, to a striking extent, the stories they told would be standard group stories–scripted tales which were widely repeated, despite their wild hyperbole, their blatant foolishness or the mind-reading needed to reach them.
Gore was slammed for speaking to voters by name. When he perspired, perhaps that was planned. But it wasn’t just these transparently clownish complaints which showed the gap between puffing and jeering. The problem had become clear by the weekend, by which time the upper end of the pundit corps had adopted a dominant set of Group Stories–their latest harsh scripts about Gore.
These newest Group Stories were widely repeated, and they were brutally hard on their subject. And oh yes: They flew in the face of what pundits had said when they discussed this debate in real time. By now, a gang of Heathers was inventing Group Stories about the man at whom they had jeered. Given the press corps’ declining culture, this type of conduct would be on display right through November 2000.
By the weekend, the nation's top pundits had one
of their stories down cold.
The Democratic debate had taken place on Wednesday evening, October 27. Forty-eight hours later, on Friday evening, NPR’s Elizabeth Arnold described the event on Washington Week, the high-toned PBS program. Contrasting Gore and Bradley’s performances, she sketched an unflattering portrait of Gore–a portrait which had become Standard Issue wherever press corps opinion was sold. In effect, it had become the press corps’ Standard Account of this first Democratic debate–the debate during which they had hissed and jeered at one of these well-known candidates.
Their account of Gore's effort was highly unflattering. Oddly, it flew in the face of what pundits had said on the actual night of the forum.
What was the press corps’ Standard Portrait? “I would say that Vice President Al Gore was so determined to appear relaxed and connecting with the people that he was practically leaping off the stage for the personal details of the questioners’ lives,” Arnold told her host, Gwen Ifill. “Bradley, by contrast, came across as calm, subdued, almost like he was the incumbent, and came off, a few people said to me today, as someone who really believes in what he says and isn’t telling people what he thinks they want to hear.”
According to Arnold, Gore had seemed manic, over-bearing. He had triedto seem relaxed–though plainly, he had failed. By contrast, Bradley was calm, and he seemed like someone who really believes the things he is saying. By the weekend, pundits were widely repeating this Standard Account–although they’d said substantially different things just forty-eight hours before.
For starters, note the way some in the press were now assembling their evidence. According to Arnold, “a few people” told her that Bradley seemed sincere, so she went on TV and restated the judgment. For the record, this is the oldest trick in the book; such selective quotation allows a reporter to state her own view, while seeming to stay “objective.” (She’s only reporting what someone else said.) At any rate, Arnold assured PBS viewers that “there really wasn’t that much difference between them in terms of substance; it was more in terms of style.” This, despite the candidates’ dispute about their dueling health plans–a dispute which would end up driving much of the Gore-Bradley race.
Instantly, another panelist, the Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Birnbaum, asked Arnold to play it again. His sentence ran on, but his longing was pure: “Can you talk a little more about the style and how the audience, at least as you can judge for them, how they reacted to Gore and the way he was almost leaping off the stage at them, and whether they really warmed to Bradley, who isn’t known as a warm type of politician, but nevertheless might have been more attractive?” In short, Birnbaum asked Arnold to play it again–to say again that Gore “was almost leaping off the stage,” while Bradley “might have been more attractive.” By now, this was the press corps’ Standard Story. One scribe longed to hear it again.
Politely, Arnold repeated her tale, and the Gallup poll went unmentioned. But by now, many pundits were painting similar portraits of this first debate. Example: One hour before Arnold’s recitation, PBS viewers had heard a similar story from the conservative pundit David Brooks, appearing on the NewsHour. Brooks took part in the Friday “Political wrap.” He spoke with host Jim Lehrer:
Brooks: I'm a little outside what I see the polls are today. I thought Bradley wiped the floor with him. I thought Bradley came out and said, “I’m a grown-up guy. I’m sitting here telling you what I believe.” Al Gore struck me–he took the focus group Viagra.
Lehrer: What? You said “focus group Viagra?”
Brooks: Yes. Somebody compared him to an animal that has been caged up and they let him loose and he came out oozing empathy and doing these cheap tricks.
To his credit, Brooks made a glancing reference to the Gallup poll, whose result was hard to square with the notion that Gore had behaved like a newly freed animal. But like Arnold, Brooks stressed the idea that Bradley, in contrast to Gore, had said the things he really believed. And he reinforced the portrait of a hyper-animated Gore, who had been working off focus group data. (Translation: Wasn’t sincere.) But then, Gail Collins had painted a similar picture in that morning’s New York Times. (Where Arnold had Gore “leaping off the stage,” Collins had him “crashing into the wallboard.") Note the way Collins ridiculed Gore for asking about Corrie Martin’s sick child–and for asking one of his questioners, a blue-collar worker, if he belonged to a union:
Al Gore has a personality without a thermostat, and when he tries to look animated he practically crashes into the wallboard. On Wednesday he hijacked the auditorium early on, begging for a chance to do a pre-debate Q-and-A. (“This person has a question! Do we have time for his question?”) He tossed in a little Spanish and a long joke, and made endless attempts to create Clintonesque mind-melds with the audience. (“How old is your child, Corey?” “Are you unionized, Earl?”) At the end, he refused to be dragged offstage. (“Can I say one more word? I would like to stay ”) He bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the kid who asks the teacher for more homework.
Brooks agreed with Collins’ portrait. In fact, he agreed with her portrait so much, he borrowed from it that night on the NewsHour. “I thought the trick of staying late after the cameras and going on for another 90 minutes–somebody said it looked like a kid who volunteers for more homework,” Brooks said. “I though it just looked artificial. And that plays into the line the Bradley people have been pitching, which is that he's the authentic candidate and Gore is the synthetic candidate.”
Once again, Gore “looked artificial." Though Brooks revealed an intriguing fact–this widespread press judgment matched “the line” the Bradley camp had been pitching. (By now, as the Nexis record makes clear, the Bradley campaign had been pitching this line for roughly a year.) For the record, pundits never tired of comparing Gore to the kid who asks the teacher for homework. Inauthentically cribbing from each others’ papers, they recited this jibe for two years.
By the weekend, the portrait of Gore was remarkably consistent. He had been “hyper-animated,” “over-caffeinated,” “over-stimulated,” “manic.” He was “practically leaping off the stage,” like “an animal that has been caged up and they let him loose.” He was “practically crashing into the wallboard” (Collins), an “Eddie Haskell Energizer Bunny” (Carlson). He was “programmed to relax” (McGrory) and “determined to appear relaxed” (Arnold), but plainly, his effort had failed. And Brooks said Gore had been on Viagra, turning to the sexual imagery which was becoming remarkably common in pundit discussions of Gore. One day after the debate, Tony Blankley smutted up the emerging portrait to service Hardball’sincreasingly trashy needs. “Gore looked like he was the kind of person who’s doing sex after reading a book about how to do it,” Blankley insultingly said.
The image of a hyper-animated Gore became remarkably common. In subsequent columns in the Washington Post, Geneva Overholser referred to Gore’s “manic bearing at the New Hampshire debate,” Richard Cohen scorned Gore’s “sometimes manic behavior,” and Robert Novak referred to “Gore’s frenzied efforts to be dynamic,” saying his “fervor border[ed] on the goofy.” In her nationally syndicated column, Arianna Huffington said that Gore “maintained his manic approach during the debate, making small talk with his questioners, gesturing exuberantly.” On the NewsHour, Mark Shields said we had seen “sort of the hyper Al Gore who was like John Kasich on speed.” (If sexual imagery wouldn’t suffice, some pundits turned to drugs.) And Pooley sketched the same portrait in Time, in the report in which he described his colleagues jeering at Gore. Referring to Gore’s “exhibitionism” and “adrenaline rush,” he said the vice president had been “grinning fiercely and sweating like the hardest-working man in show business.” Indeed, Gore “seemed stoked enough” that it was like he was singing an old Motown hit: "Please, baby, please, baby, please, baby, please.” Pooley extended his group’s Standard Portrait–and sexualized Gore once again.
Was Pooley infected with liberal bias? In June, the cheerful scribe had assured Brian Williams that Bush was “the most likable guy in the world.” Two months earlier, he wondered if Bradley might be “too good for this world.” Now, he extended his colleagues’ jeering of Gore in a relentlessly negative profile. Like the others, he recited a standard Group Story: Gore had been manic, on a rush–and he was trying to be like Bill Clinton. But then, Pooley was only one of many who pushed this unflattering portrait of Gore. By the weekend, this punishing narrative had plainly emerged as the pundit corps’ latest Group Tale.
Let’s state the obvious–it’s remarkable to see a sitting vice president described as an uncaged animal who has taken Viagra after reading a book about how to have sex. In these insulting representations, the press corps’ jeering gave way to contempt, presented in public for voters to see. After this date, there could be little serious doubt about the press corps’ Group Judgment of Gore–at least, about the judgment of that part of the press which came from Establishment Washington.
But what was most striking about this Group Portrait? Just this: Major pundits said nothing like it on the actual night of the forum. Immediately after this first debate, two dozen pundits trooped onto TV, offering their instant expert appraisals. No one offered anything like the portrait of Gore which would soon be so common. Was Gore manic, frenzied, hyper-animated? Was he practically bouncing off walls? No one said so in real time, and a string of journalists said the opposite, specifically saying that Gore seemed relaxed. As such, this first debate presented an intriguing case study in the way the press corps assembles Group Stories. In the case of Gore’s performance, the corps had adopted a punishing narrative–a narrative no major pundit had voiced in real time, before a puzzling group dynamic had produced the eventual tale.
Had Gore been “bouncing off walls” at the forum? No one said so in real time. First up was Gloria Borger (U. S. News), reporting from Dartmouth on Larry King Live moments after the forum. “I think it was a good night for both of them,” Borger told King. “I hate to be so mooshy about this, but I think that both did what they wanted to do.” Borger went on to praise Gore’s performance; even when King requested “the buzz” among the press, she didn’t say a word about him seeming manic or rehearsed. This put her in line with NBC’s Lisa Myers, who appeared on MSNBC at the same time. Myers’ assessment flew in the face of the portrait which ruled by the weekend:
I think both men did very, very well and probably accomplished what they set out to do. The pressure was really on Al Gore tonight. He had to prove that he isn’t a stiff. And I think he came across as relaxed. He told a joke, which a few people laughed...He did a good job. He had a fact and a program for every answer without seeming too programmed...I think that both men should be very happy with the way the evening went.
Gore “came across as relaxed,” Myers said. She said he hadn’t seemed “too programmed.” And her host, Brian Williams, seemed to agree. “Good points all,” he replied. “Gore was looser, and Bradley was Bradley.” But then, that’s what the nation’s top pundits were saying beforetheir Group Story congealed.
Back inside that Hanover press room, print reporters were typing stories for the Thursday morning newspapers. How did they describe the debate? “Both men appeared relaxed throughout,” Ceci Connolly wrote in the Washington Post. By now, Connolly had begun to emerge as Gore’s leading detractor among the nation’s print reporters–but, like Myers, she specifically said that Gore had seemed relaxed. Many reporters said that Gore had been more aggressive, specifically in his criticism of Bradley’s health care proposal. But it was hard to find a hint of the portrait which would soon be so standard. Had Gore been manic and Bradley calm? In the Boston Globe, Michael Kranish called it “an evening when both candidates, through their answers to voter questions, mostly underscored how similar they are in temperament…both candidates appeared comfortable on stage, straying from their stools to respond to questions.” Indeed, to Bill Sammon in the Washington Times, it wasBradley whose demeanor may have seemed a bit odd: “Mr. Gore seemed more animated than Mr. Bradley, who took a professorial approach that sometimes neared detachment.”
Simple story: In the morning newspapers, on real-time TV, you couldn’t find the portrait of Gore which would be dominant by the weekend. You couldn’t find the candidate who was “practically leaping off the stage” as he “maintained his manic approach.” On Wednesday evening’s Nightline,for instance, David Gergen didn't seem to have spotted that fellow. Gore “was both relaxed and scored debating points,” he told his host, Ted Koppel. Gore “helped himself by the energy he brought to this debate tonight.” On the Fox News Channel, even the conservative pundit Barbara Olson praised the vice president’s performance. “One of the things tonight people were looking at was to see if Al Gore is electable as a candidate,” Olson said. “I think he did come across as a new Al Gore who is more electable than perhaps we thought.” Coming from Olson, this was high praise indeed. As one of the conservative world's most aggressive Clinton detractors, she would have few kind words for Gore at any point in this long campaign.
At any rate, roughly two dozen pundits appeared on TV shortly after this first debate ended. Quite literally, no one described the manic fellow who would be widely mocked by the weekend. Where was the Gore who was “bouncing off walls,” “practically leaping off the stage?” In real time, that candidate didn’t exist, once again raising a seminal question:
Where do these Group Stories come from?
Where does the press corps get its Group Stories? Coverage of the 2000 campaign would be dominated by this syndrome, in which a wide array of major journalists adopt a remarkably similar line about some candidate or event. Absent some sort of group dynamic, there's no real chance that a wide array of observers will see an event in some highly uniform way. And yet, throughout Campaign 2000, the press corps displayed this improbable conduct, even when their standard Group Stories were absurdly hyperbolic, or seemed to stray in obvious ways from the obvious facts.
Back in the spring of 1999, the press corps had adopted a set of tortured Group Stories which defined Candidate Gore as a LIAR. New sets of uniform Group Stories would emerge from this first Democratic debate. These widely-recited accounts punished Gore–and lionized Candidate Bradley.
Where does the press corps get its Group Stories? In this case, one major part of the answer is clear. One on-line pundit did describe a wildly hyper-animated Gore on the evening of the forum. For reasons no one has ever explained, the press corps’ eventual standard Group Portrait was quite plainly drawn from his work.
The pundit in question was Jacob Weisberg, a 35-year-old political journalist writing for the on-line magazine, Slate. Weisberg’s review appeared two hours post-debate. In a word, it was brutal. “Gore arrived on stage like some sort of feral animal who had been locked in a small cage,” he wrote. “Upon release, he began to scamper furiously in every direction.” (Two nights later, on the NewsHour, Brooks borrowed this remarkable image.) “Gore came across as a kind of manic political vaudevillian,” Weisberg wrote. “He oozed empathy from every pore, getting all over every questioner like a cheap suit.”
In this single on-line piece, Weisberg introduced virtually every theme which would be Standard Fare by the weekend. He criticized Gore for taking pre-debate questions, and for taking extra questions later. He criticized Gore for asking questions of people like Corrie Martin. He said Gore “would respond with an explosion of gesticulation” after receiving each of his questions. And he knew why Gore had done such strange things. Gore was trying “to achieve Clintonian union with his audience,” Weisberg wrote. Gore was trying “to emulate Clinton’s audience-meld technique.” In Friday morning’s New York Times, Collins seemed to adapt this particular language. Gore had engaged in “endless attempts to create Clintonesque mind-melds with the audience,” she wrote, thus creating a mind-meld herself.
By the way: Gore seemed “insincere, inauthentic,” Weisberg predictably wrote.
To Weisberg, Gore had behaved like a feral animal, like a “manic political vaudevillian.” In real time, no one else said anything like this. And just for the record, Weisberg’s portrait is remarkably hard to square with the actual tape of this forum. That tape shows Gore offering lucid answers to policy questions, left hand resting in his pants pocket as he casually gestures with his right. Simply put, Candidate Gore does not “get all over every questioner” this night; indeed, some of his questioners get ignored as he finishes answers to previous questions. One hates to speak quite so directly, but the videotape is abundantly clear on yet another point; there are no “explosions of gesticulation” as Gore answers questions from voters. Does Gore “scamper furiously in every direction,” “like some sort of feral animal who had been locked in a cage?” Observers might wonder how Weisberg managed to conjure such astonishing images–images which simply can’t be squared with the tape of what really occurred.
Weisberg’s portrait can’t be reconciled with the tape of the actual forum. This may explain why no one else said anything like this on the night of the debate, why so many reporters and pundits gave contrary assessments. But by the weekend, Weisberg’s remarkably negative portrait had become remarkably common. His ugliest insults were being repeated; his general tone had been widely adopted. By now, that hissing, jeering national press corps had adopted a hissing, jeering Group Story. Again and again, they described a manic, hyper-animated Gore–a feral fellow who, in real time, hadn’t been said to exist.
The press corps’ adoption of standard Group Stories would virtually define its coverage of this fateful campaign. In his classic best-seller, The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse had described something similar–the type of “pack journalism” which dominated the coverage of the 1972 White House campaign. This was the first topic Crouse explored in his book–and Crouse described parts of the group dynamic which had produced this "pack journalism." Crouse described a dynamic in which newspaper editors challenged reporters whose page-one stories didn’t track the judgments expressed at bigger news organs. And he described the result of this "herd" conduct; campaign reporters peeped over the shoulders of AP reporters, straining to copy their frameworks and outlooks. This groaning conduct produced a bland sameness within the nation’s newspapers, as Crouse quite richly observed.
Alas! Way back when Nixon defeated McGovern, Crouse had described a group dynamic which robbed the nation of varied perspectives. But Crouse described nothing like the nasty process unfolding at the start of Campaign 2000. In this brave new era, the press corps was adopting Group Stories plainly designed to damage one candidate, while advancing the interests of others–including the interests of several candidates who were quite plainly well-liked. (In the case of Candidate Bradley, major journalists were repeatedly using the very language with which Bradley himself had defined his campaign.) It’s hard to chart the precise dynamic which permitted the spread of the Uniform Stories which drove so much of this campaign's coverage. But influential cable news programs now seemed to function as breeding grounds for the pundit corps’ preferred story-lines; Hardball, a Washington-based discussion program, plainly served as one such petri dish. Meanwhile, it had never been easier for pundits to learn what their fellow pundits were saying. Each morning, the widely-read Hotline faxed excerpts of the previous evening’s cable programs to newsrooms all over D.C. Starting at 11 A.M., up-and-coming pundits–and newspaper editors; and TV producers–could learn what the press corps’ opinion leaders had said the night before.
By whatever group dynamic, standard Group Stories routinely emerged. Routinely, they were adopted all through the press. Standards of accuracy were often quite low when it came to these standard Group Stories; all that mattered was that the pundit should hew to the press corps’ emerging group line. This is plainly not the way a serious journalist would want to work; more closely, it defines the likely method of a jeering (or fawning) "gang of Heathers." But that was what Eric Pooley had seen when he surveyed the press room at Dartmouth. And as Fred Barnes had said in his “Puff Daddy” piece: By this time, the press corps' "Heathers" could be quite easily schmoozed.
In this instance, the press corps’ portrait of a wildly manic Gore would come and go quite quickly. Four days after this first debate, the Heathers moved on to a new, vastly damaging story. They would flog this Group Story for a full month; it would become an iconic part of this fateful campaign. (Naomi Wold told Al Gore to wear earth tones! See chapter 5.) But even before that new story hit, a second, highly significant portrait began to emerge from this first debate. This narrative would drive a great deal of future press coverage–and this coverage would be greatly harmful to Gore. In this widely-adopted Group Story, Candidate Gore would be portrayed as a nasty attack politician–a vicious hit-man, a “lover of blood sport.” This portrait began to emerge three nights post-debate, on CNN’sCapital Gang, one of cable’s most successful and influential discussion programs.
On this particular program, Al Hunt, a leading liberal columnist, came to accept a presentation by Robert Novak, a leading conservative. “I initially thought Gore won,” Hunt confessed, speaking to Novak. “But the more I talk to people, non-politicians primarily, I think the point that you have made and others have made tonight was more relevant.” In this moment, Hunt renounced his initial judgment about this debate, a judgment he'd reached on the basis of 34 years of journalistic experience. Instead, he came to accept a punishing line about Candidate Gore–an emerging line which would be quite harmful to Gore at key points throughout this campaign.
What point had Novak made that night? To what claim was Hunt acceding? It was the same point Novak had made for weeks, in columns describing Gore as “a relentless attack politician” with “a mean streak” whose opponents risked getting “a slit throat.” These claims reflected long-standing Republican claims about Gore, dating back to the first Clinton-Gore campaign. But by now, someone else was portraying Gore as a nasty attack politician; in the weeks before this first debate, the Bradley campaign had plainly adopted a version of this same line. As a wide range of news reports make clear, Bradley’s top aides had been warning reporters that Gore might be excessively negative at this first Democratic debate. How they knew that was never quite clear. But this prediction was widely reported in the weeks before the debate. It was routinely attributed, on the record, to several of Bradley’s top aides.
Three nights after this first debate, Hunt, a leading liberal columnist, acceded to this line. When he had watched the debate in real time, he thought that Gore had won it. Now, he could see that he had been wrong–that Novak’s claim was “more relevant.” For the record, the Gallup poll had given no sign that Granite State Democrats shared Novak's view. Neither would the subsequent polls, which showed Gore moving ahead in the state. But within a matter of weeks, this anti-Gore narrative had been widely adopted, all through the mainstream press. Within weeks, it was being applied to events in punishing ways, which were quite harmful to Gore (see chapters 6 and 7).
Al Gore was a "relentless attack politician"–a “lover of blood-sport!” (Novak used the latter language on the Capital Gang program.) For years, such claims had served as RNC cant; within weeks, these claims would become a press corps Group Story. That said, it’s stunning to think that this portrait of Gore could have emerged from this first debate, considering what was universally said immediately after the forum.
Had Gore behaved like “a relentless attack politician,” like a “lover of blood sport?” In real time, an endless string of major journalists had said precisely the opposite. “The event was rather amicable,” Richard Berke reported in the New York Times the morning after this first debate. Gore and Bradley “chatted amicably as they sat side-by-side on stools.” According to Berke, Gore “pointedly but gently pressed his rival” to defend his health care plan.
A companion piece bore a typical headline. “A Surprise Possibility,” the Times headline said. “A Dignified Democrat Race.”
But then, that had been the instant reaction all around the press. In that same day’s Washington Post, Connolly said the debate “was marked more by civility and general agreement...than by disagreement and rancor.” In the Washington Times, Bill Sammon agreed: “Despite speculation that last night’s town hall meeting would degenerate into attacks by Mr. Gore and counterattacks by Mr. Bradley, the two Democrats remained civil even during their few disagreements.” The headline in USA Today said the same thing: “Democrats’ first face-off is light on confrontation/Gore, Bradley trade criticism but not rancor.” And such assessments appeared all over the nation, even in newspapers normally critical of Democrats. Headline in New Hampshire’s famously conservative Union Leader: “Gore, Bradley tangle gently.” Headline in the conservative Boston Herald: “Democrat hopefuls staying positive.”
Shall we review our ABC’s? Here are additional Thursday morning headlines, drawn from the top of the alphabet. This is the way this first debate was described all over the press:
Atlanta Journal and Constitution: Democrats keep it cordial
Baltimore Sun: Democrats off to a mild startBoston Globe: Few moments of discord at N.H. forumChicago Tribune: Few Sparks Fly in 1st Debate Between Democratic RivalsCleveland Plain Dealer: Gore, Bradley’s First Debate a Rather Friendly EncounterDetroit News: Democrats' debate is pillow fight instead of brawl
And this: “Gore and Bradley Hold a Genteel Debate” (San Francisco Chronicle). Meanwhile, the nation’s top pundits had voiced the same judgment immediately after the forum. Indeed, moments after the debate, two major figures were fretting about a surprising problem: Gore and Bradley had been “way too nice” to each other! So said anchor Brian Williams, complaining to Newsweek’s Howard Fineman on his nightly MSNBC program. “When do the columns and articles and explanation pieces come along saying these guys have been way too nice?” Williams asked. When would such columns and articles say that “someone has to be highly critical to make this a race, to give the American public, Democratic voters, a choice?” In his reply, Fineman doubled down on Williams’ premise: “Everybody back in the [press room] behind me is busy writing those now, Brian."
Gore and Bradley had been “way too nice,” Williams and Fineman said. The problem was lack of blood sport! And sure enough! An even more famous pair of broadcasters voiced the same judgment ten hours later. On Thursday morning's Today show, Katie Couric and Tim Russert discussed the debate. They too marveled at Gore and Bradley’s relentless civility:
Couric: When it comes to these two guys, Tim, they were so civil and–and dignified to each other. Which is actually kind of a refreshing thing in politics.
Russert: It was the “Bill and Al” show. They were calling each other Bill, Al, Bill, Al.
Couric: But at some point, are they going to have to get tougher? Are they going to have to go on the attack a little bit more to get some attention?
Russert: You know, it’s a very fine line…I think they’ve been on very good behavior and will stay that way.
On the CBS Morning Show, host Hattie Kauffman expressed a similar view. Gore and Bradley’s “first public meeting...was surprisingly congenial,” she said.
All across the North American land mass, journalists of the left, right and center noted the forum’s polite, civil tone. Everyone said so, even Olson, the conservative partisan who appeared on Fox right after the forum. “It stayed on a very even keel,” she said, “neither candidate really going for the jugular.” But three nights later, one of the nation’s most famousliberal columnists adopted a long-standing RNC line: Candidate Gore had been too nasty at this first Democratic debate! Within weeks, this framework would spread throughout the press, tracking back to this first debate (see chapters 6 and 7). Ironically, this conjured framework would soon be used to lodge “relentless attacks” against Gore.
But so it would go throughout this campaign as the press corps’ jeering Heathers kept producing their standard Group Stories. Almost three decades earlier, Crouse had described a foolish brand of “pack journalism.” Now, the “pack journalism” Crouse had described was being repackaged with a ruthless partisan edge. As the New Hampshire campaign took form, a gang of Heathers liked George Bush, and they may have loved Bill Bradley. A larger swoon for McCain would emerge.
And they were jeering Al Gore.
The primary races were taking shape as scribes
scuffed autumn leaves in New Hampshire. Everyone knew how the coverage was going, although it was rarely discussed.
By the fall of 1999, the mainstream press corps rarely discussed its declining standards or its appalling group conduct. That said, one reporter was still asking questions about the puzzling coverage of Gore. That lone pilgrim was Howard Kurtz, media reporter for the Washington Post.
In June, when Bush and Gore launched their campaigns, Kurtz had written a searching piece about the "stark contrast" in the way the pair were being covered. He marveled at the “harsh coverage and punditry” being directed at Gore.
By October, the primary races had come center stage. On the Democratic side, Kurtz was now asking about the coverage extended to Bradley and Gore.
Alone among such major reporters, Kurtz came close to doing his job. On two separate occasions that fall, he asked about the press corps' strange conduct on Reliable Sources, his weekly CNN program. On October 17, Kurtz described the fawning coverage of Candidate Bradley, saying this amid a panel of journalists: “Roger Simon, you were on the trail of Bill Bradley just a few days ago. If you took all of the positive and negative coverage of Bradley and put it on a scale, I don’t think it’s any question it would be wildly unbalanced on the plus side. Why is that?” On November 27, Kurtz raised the topic again, again addressing a panel of journalists: “Melinda [Henneberger], it’s no surprise that Al Gore’s campaign has gotten some rough treatment from the press for some months now.” A bit later, Kurtz went into more detail. “Before the show, I was trying to think of, you know, what the candidates have been criticized for,” he said. “And I was trying to think of one area where Bradley had gotten slapped around by the media and I couldn’t come up with one. I mean, glowing coverage, for example, of that Madison Square Garden fund-raiser. Why does he seem to be exempt, at least for the moment, from the tougher scrutiny that we’re supposedly famous for?”
According to Kurtz, Bradley was getting much better coverage. And no one on either of Kurtz’s panels tried to dispute this assessment. During the November program, for instance, the New York Times’ Henneberger said this: “There’s no question. There’s no question that Gore has gotten much rougher treatment than Bradley.” In October, Roger Simon (U. S. News) had expounded at greater length. “[Bradley] has had a string of positive stories, and Al Gore has had a string of negative ones,” he said, with perfect accuracy. “He has taken tremendous shots. From the day he announced until quite recently, there has been no good news with the Gore campaign.” But when Kurtz asked his panels to explain this imbalance, his panelists were strangely tongue-tied. Weirdly but typically, two panels of journalists couldn’t explain their own cohort’s unbalanced conduct.
By now, this was the way the code of silence worked in the mainstream press corps.
Luckily, on a few occasions, a few brave journalists broke the rules, if only for a few moments. On the September 24 Hardball, two major pundits–one from the left, one from the right–explained why Gore was getting trashed by the press.
It was due to Bill Clinton, they said.
John Fund, a conservative scribe from the Wall Street Journal, explained the facts of life first. "Earnest idealistic liberals are all in Bradley’s corner,” he told Chris Matthews. “Also the media, which I think has some buyer’s remorse for not looking closely at Bill Clinton in 1992.” Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the progressive journal The Nation, quickly agreed with Fund. “You know, I don’t usually agree with John Fund,” she said. “But it is interesting this week to watch the press coverage. I think there is, among the press corps, a Clinton fatigue and a Clinton backlash, that they are now taking out on Gore what they feel was put over on them by Clinton.”
On this program, major voices of the left and the right agreed on a basic point. The mainstream press corps was hammering Gore due to their attitudes about Clinton. In mid-November, William Kristol seemed to agree, also during a Hardball program. “All of this, in a way, is unfair to Al Gore, who I think is quite a–a decent man,” Kristol said. “But he is being tarred with Clinton. There's just no question about it.” Ironically, Kristol was speaking to Hardball’s Chris Matthews, one of Establishment Washington’s leaders in the relentless “tarring” of Gore. On September 7, as the fall campaign began, Matthews had offered these thoughtful remarks about Gore's situation:
You know what I think? I think the appeal of Bill Bradley is the same as this magical appeal of George W. Bush. They're not part of the Clinton team. Clinton's got a bathtub ring all around the ankles of his people. They're going to pay for this as long as they live. That's their problem, not mine.
All through the fall, Matthews directed fawning assessments at Bradley, and at the “magical” Bush. And he savaged the "bathtub ring" Gore, who was going to pay for this as long as he lived. Frequently, Matthews derided Gore in baldly dishonest ways; he was almost always insulting. Indeed: The evening after the first Democratic debate, the emergence of the press corps' Group Story got its start on Matthews' program.
It was Thursday night, October 28. Matthews spoke to Newsweek’sHoward Fineman, reporting live from New Hampshire. And sure enough! When Fineman spoke, a familiar framework appeared:
“This election's going to be about authenticity, Chris, at least here in New Hampshire,” Fineman said, answering Matthews’ first question. “I've been all around the state today, and that's what people are talking about.”
Intriguing! By some magical act of transport, Fineman had been "all around the state"–and everyone had said the same thing! The election was all about “authenticity,” everyone had told him! (Only in a crumbling press corps could such nonsense go unchallenged.) “Who’s the winner by the views of the people?” Matthews now asked. Acting as Bradley's beard once again, Fineman explained who had won:
I thought Bill Bradley, in terms of this authenticity thing I'm talking about, probably carried the day because he looked utterly secure in who he was, he knew exactly what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. And this morning, down in Nashua, he had a very good town hall meeting, in which he seemed remarkably relaxed and comfortable, as if he realized the whole ball game was coming to him.
Of course, the whole ball game wasn't coming to Bradley, whatever the merits may have been. On this program, Fineman offered the first of many assessments which misstated the drift of the race. Within a week,Newsweek's own poll would have Gore ahead by ten points in New Hampshire. (On February 1, 2000, he would win the state's primary, by five points.) But Fineman became perhaps the first to recite the press corps' emerging Group Story: "In terms of this authenticity thing," he thought Bradley had won the debate! Throughout the program, Matthews pounded away at a second emerging theme, insisting that Gore's answers in the debate had resulted from polling data and advice from consultants. (He never explained how he knew such a thing.) Later, Matthews brought on a second pundit, Robert Reich, who would endorse Bradley two weeks later. Bradley “was serene, he was comfortable with himself,” Reich opined. "And here's the word everybody's going to be using, Chris. Bradley seemed authentic.”
Robert Reich knew the press corps. On November 6, Dan Balz described the press corps' consensus in the Washington Post. This had become “a year when ‘authenticity’ has become a buzzword for what voters want,” he wrote. USA Today’s Walter Shapiro said the same thing on November 10. (“Authenticity” was “the newsmagazine buzzword for this campaign season.”) On the November 14 Meet the Press, the New Yorker's Jane Mayer took her turn. (“The buzzword, I guess, this year is authenticity.”) Two days later, Geneva Overholser said it too, in the Washington Post. (“Lacking specifics about what's motivating voters, the media have come up with a watchword: authenticity.”) On Face the Nation, it was Gloria Boger. (“Authenticity seems to be the buzzword now for our next presidential candidate.")Major newspapers wrote analysis pieces about the electorate’s search for authenticity–an alleged desire no one had tracked to actual polling data.
Simple story: The public's search for "authenticity" was always an artefact of the press. This framework had started with the Bradley campaign, in the fall of 1998. By the fall of 1999, the framework belonged to the press. In the wake of the first debate, they insisted that Bradley had seemed more authentic and, therefore, that the big lug had won. The voters never much seemed to agree. The press never much seemed to care.
With a few weeks of that first debate, Newsweek presented its widely-discussed “Straight Shooters” edition. Bradley and McCain appeared on the cover, terms of endearment across their chests. (Inside, Bradley got top billing.) Sadly, it was in this edition that Newsweek had to drop the bad news, in one fleeting line–according to its own post-debate poll, Gore was ahead by ten points. But nothing stopped the script machine, the machine that kept churning the Heathers' Group Story. The issue spilled with subjective assessments explaining why Bradley was greatly appealing. Thanks to his "aura of authenticity," it was Bradley the voters would want.
Was this press corps a “gang of Heathers?” If not, they were doing a good imitation as the New Hampshire campaign took its shape. At that ballyhooed first debate, they hissed and jeered Gore for the full hour, then went out and invented Group Stories. They insisted that Bradley had "come across" better. To judge from the polls, voters didn't agree. Result: The polls were ignored.
But by the time Newsweek's edition appeared, the press had moved on, to its newest Group Story. Four days after that first debate, the press corps siezed upon Gore’s brown suit, and on the vile woman they said had prescribed it. A month of lunacy ensued. In December, this month of lunacy spent, another Group Story emerged.
By now, New Hampshire was plainly for Heathers. The White House would be for George Bush.
About the author
Bob Somerby launched his web site, The Daily Howler, in March 1998.
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Table of contents
For the full table of contents,
with links to all chapters:
with links to all chapters:
Chapter 4: Puffing Bush and jeering Gore: New Hampshire was for Heathers
Chapter 5: "A virtual wilding:" The month of earth tones–and Wolf
(Next installment, chapter 5: coming June 29)
Chapter 5: "A virtual wilding:" The month of earth tones–and Wolf
(Next installment, chapter 5: coming June 29)