PLEASE, if you can afford to do so, sent some love ($$s) Bob's way.
Thanks - Mark
A campaign about clothing/A virtual wilding: The press corps' month of Wolf
The soul of Sinatra was guiding the zeitgeist
as the New Hampshire campaign picked up steam. Were some contenders being loved all the way? Consider the way the Sunday talk shows covered Bill Bradley's fund-raiser.
On Sunday, November 14, 1999, Bradley staged a fund-raising event at New York City's Madison Square Garden, the famous arena where he spent ten years as a star with the New York Knicks. More than seven thousand people attended, the New York Times reported, “many of whom said they had shelled out $100 to $1,000 per ticket for the chance to relive a glittering moment in Knicks history.”
The event featured “20 Hall of Fame basketball players,” the Times reported.
Plainly, the Bradley camp had planned a highly creative event. In the course of the celebration, the campaign netted $1.5 million. But on the morning of the event, all three network Sunday talk programs booked groups of famous NBA stars to sit in the Garden and talk about their former teammate and friend. (On CNN’s Late Edition, Wolf Blitzer interviewed Bradley himself, on tape from the Garden.) With varying degrees of absurdity and irrelevance, the famous hoop stars waxed and gasped about Bill Bradley’s high character.
The silliest exchanges occurred on Meet the Press, where Tim Russert conducted a lengthy discussion with four NBA legends.
Russert was, by all accounts, Washington’s most prominent broadcaster. Meet the Press was the nation’s most storied Sunday news program. But did Russert perhaps have a “liking problem” this day? Was his news judgment perhaps a bit skewed? In the course of the session, Russert posed questions like these to the former all-stars:
To Dave Debusschere: You were Bill Bradley’s roommate on the road for all those years. What kind of roommate was he?
To Bob Cousy: Is it true, Bob Cousy, that you have spotted in New Hampshire a bumper sticker which says, “Another Celtic fan for Bill Bradley?”
To Bill Russell: Bill Russell, they called Bill Bradley, “Senator,” “Mr. President,” while he was a basketball player. That's pretty unusual.
At one point, Russert quoted a recent Debusschere statement about former athletes' noble intentions. Debusschere authored a stirring reply, establishing the same point.
Moments later, an exchange with former Knick Jerry Lucas produced one of the silliest moments in the annals of Sunday news programming.
“You are known for memorizing telephone books,” Russert said to Lucas. “It is said that Bill Bradley can walk into a room and remember names because of something Jerry Lucas taught him.” As if to validate Russert’s premise, Lucas responded with a lengthy statement–a statement which had plainly been memorized. Arguably, it could have been billed at the going rate for 60-second campaign ads:
Well, I did teach Bill a few things, but Bill taught me a lot of things too. And, you know, Mr. Bradley has always been a hit in my book and in many other people’s as well. He’s always been a winner. And when I say the word “hit,” Tim, since I’m a memory expert, I’m going to teach you and America to remember something. He will be a hit as the president too. And that word “hit” is spelled H-I-T, and to me, that stands for Honesty, Integrity and Trust. And those are the qualities that I remember most from Bill, being a memory expert. And those are the qualities that America needs to remember, too, because he has the qualities to lead this nation in a tremendous way.
Even after this ersatz commercial, Russert bravely returned to the topic of memory, asking Lucas, “How would you rate his intellect, his memory–for retention, for detail?” Lucas attacked the basket again. “Super,” he replied. “Bill is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known.” Soon, Lucas mentioned “the very unique ways” he and Bradley communicated during Knick games. “Like what? Like what?” Russert excitedly asked. “Were these audio codes or finger signs or what?”
So it went all through this long segment, on America’s most storied news program.
Russert’s performance was an embarrassment, the segment a near-infomercial. During the session, viewers learned that Bradley was intelligent; very intelligent; very, very intelligent; compassionate, bright and a patriot. He was very strong and very concerned–a great leader and yet a great listener. Adding to the general air of absurdity, Russert voiced a disclaimer to start the next segment. “You should know,” he gravely announced, “we asked the Al Gore campaign to provide celebrities who would support him. They declined.” He then read excerpts from a 1996 newspaper column about what a lousy player Gore was on his high school basketball team.
Gore was also a selfish player, Russert’s excerpts said.
But if Candidate Bradley was possibly loved, Candidate Bush was well-liked. Or so it seemed when he got in a stew in the first week of November.
On November 3, Bush was hit with a classic “pop quiz” by Andy Hiller, a brash Boston TV reporter. (Boston stations provide TV coverage for many New Hampshire voters.) Hiller asked Bush to name the leaders of four countries then in the news–Pakistan, India, Taiwan and Chechnya. Bush answered correctly on Taiwan only. He was visibly uncomfortable during the exchange, and the unflattering tape aired widely, even on the conservative Fox News Channel. Conceivably, the awkward episode might raise questions about the inexperienced Texan’s capacity as a world leader.
Three weeks earlier, General Pervez Musharraf had staged a coup, seizing power in Pakistan. Should Candidate Bush have known his name? By normal standards, he probably should have, though such quizzes can offer just one indication of a candidate’s capabilities.
That said, the “pop quiz” episode came and went, doing little apparent damage. And there was an intriguing sidelight to the fleeting affair. With great uniformity, mainstream pundits took Bush’s side in the course of the five-day flap. One week earlier, a room of journalists hissed and jeered Gore during the first Democratic debate; by the weekend, they were offering strange group complaints about his awful performance. Now, the pundit corps stood in defense of Bush, Gore’s likely opponent. As always, major pundits spoke with one voice, reciting a trio of standard points. But this time, they spoke in defense of the candidate. Indeed, their trio of talking-points seemed to have come from the Bush camp itself.
The press corps’ Standard Account of this incident contained three basic parts. According to a string of pundits, these key points obtained:
Hiller had played a form of “gotcha journalism.”
Even the journalists couldn’t have answered Hiller’s nit-picking questions.
The country trying to pick a president, not a Jeopardy! champion.
A string of top pundits rattled these points, including the stylized Jeopardy! reference. As was common during this race, leading pundits spoke with one voice. In this case, that voice favored Bush.
The three points turned up everywhere. On seven of eight major weekend shows, at least one pundit announced that he himself couldn’t have answered Hiller’s questions. On TV shows and in newspaper columns, the quiz was scorned as “gotcha journalism” by at least eleven top pundits. Jeopardy! comparisons were also widespread, voiced by at least eight major journalists. One such statement, by Larry Sabato, was widely quoted in other news reports.
Was the press corps looking for ways to slam Bush, as growling scribes had declared in June? Again, the corps’ reaction to Hiller’s “pop quiz” gave the lie to this theory. That said, another familiar pattern emerged as pundits defended Candidate Bush. Fairly clearly, the trio of points these pundits recited had started with Bush’s campaign itself. More specifically, the points had been stated by Karen Hughes, a Bush spokesperson–and by Candidate Bush.
Hughes was quoted by the Associated Press on Thursday, November 4. “The person who is running for president is seeking to be the leader of the free world, not a Jeopardy! contestant,” she said. “I would venture to guess that 99.9 percent of most Americans and probably most candidates could not answer who is the president of Chechnya.” (Hughes’ statements went out on the AP wire. They also appeared in Friday’s Hotline.) Meanwhile, the claim that the quiz was “gotcha journalism” was attributed to Bush himself. “Bush Calls Quiz ‘Gotcha’ Journalism:” So said the headline on a Friday AP report.
The Bush campaign voiced three basic points. All three points were widely recited, without attribution, on the weekend news programs. Again, a striking pattern emerged. In this case, as in many others, the Bush campaign had little trouble getting its talking-points into the flow. Indeed, its talking-points seemed to provide the script for the weekend’s top news shows. Whatever one thinks of Hiller’s pop quiz, it’s hard to spot the “liberal bias” in this peculiar pattern.
But then, as summer turned to fall, reporters and pundits averted their gaze from other slips by Bush–and from some rather odd conduct. In early August 1999, Tucker Carlson, a well-known conservative journalist, published a profile of Bush in the new, much-discussed Talk magazine. He described Bush openly mocking a woman who had been executed in Texas one year before. “Oh, please please don’t kill me,” Bush had said in a mocking voice, imitating the woman’s pleas for mercy. (According to Carlson, Bush had also used the f-word at various points in the interview.) In a subsequent column, conservative pundit George Will savaged Bush for his behavior; Republican candidate Gary Bauer called Bush’s remarks “inappropriate, disgusting.” But the peculiar incident got very light play within the mainstream press. News reporting was very limited; very few pundits or columnists followed Will’s lead. The incident was never mentioned on Hardball or by any New York Times columnist.
It rated one sentence from Mary McGrory. She would be greatly troubled, two months later, by Candidate Gore’s brown suit.
Remarkably, this peculiar performance by Bush was followed on September 19 by an “astonishing” bit of behavior–or so it was described, years later, by the New York Times’ Frank Bruni. According to Bruni, Bush mugged and clowned for at least twenty minutes during a solemn memorial service for seven murder victims in Waco, Texas. (A deranged gunman had shot the victims, then himself, during a church service.) “It would be hard to imagine an event more somber,” Bruni wrote, describing the large outdoor memorial gathering at Texas Christian University. But according to Bruni, Bush repeatedly turned around to make faces at the press corps during the solemn service. “As preachers preached and singers sang and a city prayed, Bush turned around from time to time to shoot us little smiles,” he wrote. “He scrunched up his forehead, as if to ask us silently what we were up to back there. He wiggled his eyebrows, a wacky and wordless hello...At one point, when someone near our seat dropped a case of plastic water bottles and caused a clatter, Bush glanced back at us with a teasing, are-you-guys-behaving-yourselves expression, and he kept his amused face pivoted in our direction for an awfully long time.” Bruni said he was “taken aback” by this repeated behavior, which lasted throughout the service. “It was astonishing that he wasn’t more concerned that one of the television or still camera might catch him,” Bruni wrote.
Apparently, Bush had no reason to worry. Especially after his Talk interview, this was truly remarkable conduct. But Bruni didn’t report this incident until 2002, when he published a best-selling book about the Bush campaign. In real time, the New York Times never mentioned the incident–an event Bruni found so strange that he used it as the opening incident in his generally Bush-friendly book. No other major news org reported the peculiar conduct. (In 2002, some journalists seemed to confirm that the incident had occurred as they reviewed Bruni’s book.)
Was the press corps “conducting an inquisition?” Were Bush's mistakes being “broadcast in tongues?” By November 1999, this early boast was barely a memory, and Bush would soon be absolved of all taint from the awkward “pop quiz” incident.
On November 19, the Texan delivered his first major foreign policy address, taking no questions from reporters. Two days later, on CNN’s Late Edition, USA Today’s Susan Page reacted to Bush’s address by declaring the pop quiz episode closed. “I think that with the foreign policy speech he gave this week, he's gotten over that damage from that pop quiz,” Page, a major press figure, opined. She then advanced an odd assessment. “I don't think Americans want to necessarily like the president who is the most qualified on foreign policy,” she said. “They want to choose one who is sufficient on foreign policy. And I think that's a standard he probably met in that speech.”
No inquisition was underway here! According to Page, voters only wanted a president who was sufficient on foreign affairs–and Page said Bush had met that standard by giving his address. But in fact, Bush had merely read a speech, a task any adult could have accomplished. How strong was his personal grasp of foreign affairs? Plainly, there was no way to know from watching him read his address. But the limitations of this event were also glossed in the New York Times, which had assigned its fabled veteran, Johnny Apple, to cover Bush again. Once again, Apple gushed over a skillful reading performance by the Texan (see chapter 4). “Mr. Bush delivered his 35-minute speech with considerable aplomb,” Apple declared on the Times front page, “turning in a well-versed, well-drilled performance that on several occasions rose to a presidential level.”
Back in August, Apple had openly fawned over Bush in a lengthy profile. Now, he applied the same low standard Page would advance one day later. A few days later, Morton Kondracke lowered the bar even more, in an unintentionally comical assessment of the Texan’s address. “Critics can say it doesn't take a genius to read a speech written by others,” Kondracke wrote, in Roll Call and the Washington Times. “But Mr. Bush deserves credit for picking as advisers the best thinkers and operatives from the Reagan and Bush administrations and excluding all the kooks, dimwits and connivers of the era.”
Bush had hired no dimwits or kooks! He deserved credit for this good judgment! In this manner, major stars of the mainstream press defined an extremely low standard for Bush. But a vastly different set of standards still obtained for Candidate Gore, the Democratic front-runner. Indeed, one of the ugliest episodes of Campaign 2000 was three days old on November 3, when Hiller unloaded his pop quiz on Bush. This ugly episode revolved around Gore–and very few pundits would take his side in the month-long affair. It turned into one of the most consequential, and most famous, episodes of the campaign.
This episode involved the author Naomi Wolf, who, it was learned in late October, was advising Gore and the Gore campaign, much as she’d done for the Clinton campaign four years before. Even as pundits took Bush’s side in the aftermath of the pop quiz, the press corps pounded Gore in remarkably ugly ways concerning the role played by Wolf.
What happened during the month of November, a month which was largely devoted to Wolf? A sexual trashing was aimed at Wolf–and through her, at Gore himself. Absurd psychiatric theories were voiced, as pundits pretended to explain why Gore would hire Wolf as an adviser. Strings of smutty, inaccurate claims were bruited around about Wolf’s three books, two of which had been selected as New York Times “notable books of the year.” And in the part of this frenzy which became iconic, endless ludicrous judgments were made about Gore’s troubling wardrobe–a topic the press corps had already flogged for more than a month by this time.
The sexual trashing of Wolf may have been predictable, so obsessed had the press corps become during its year of Lewinsky. But the strangest part of this month of Wolf was the mainstream press corps' continued assaults on Gore’s clothing. We’ve already seen McGrory’s reaction to the first Democratic debate; Gore had arrived on stage wearing an outfit which made him “look like someone seeking employment at a country music radio station," the veteran columnist mused. But by that point in late October, the press corps had already spent a month debating various aspects of Gore’s wardrobe. On the day McGrory’s column appeared, the corps would launch its month of Wolf–a month in which they would vastly extend this odd group critique.
How might we understand the press corps’ conduct during this startling month of Wolf? Consider two possible frameworks:
In 2006, the New York Times’ Paul Krugman looked back on the coverage of Candidate Gore, attempting to explain “the determination of some journalists to make him a figure of ridicule.” According to Krugman, “those journalists [were] so determined to jeer Mr. Gore” because of “his genuine interest in facts, numbers and serious analysis”–and presumably due to their own devotion to personality issues and trivia. Quite correctly, Krugman explained where this foolishness led: “And so the 2000 campaign ended up being about the candidates' clothing, their mannerisms, anything but the issues.”
In Krugman’s correctly scornful assessment, the press corps turned the Bush-Gore race into a "campaign about clothing!" In recalling the campaign through this lens, Krugman most strongly evokes this “month of Wolf,” in which ludicrous claims about Gore’s wardrobe entered the public discourse–and stuck. (Naomi Wolf told Al Gore to wear earth tones! Sadly, there’s much more below.) During this episode, the press corps behaved as it did throughout this campaign; as a group, they used bogus facts about consummate trivia to advance pre-conceived tales about character. In this case, the trivia concerned this candidate’s clothing–his boots, his suits, his polo shirts, the number of buttons on his suit jackets (three). The height at which he hemmed his pants. The way he wore casual clothing to some events, business attire to others.
The press corps staged a campaign about clothing! Amazingly, this would be the more generous way to recall this month of Wolf.
Consider a second recollection:
In 2004, Boston Phoenix press critic Dan Kennedy recalled the coverage of Campaign 2000 in a darker way. “The coverage of the Gore campaign amounted to a wilding,” he wrote, using a term which had come to describe the amoral, criminal conduct of roving urban youth gangs. In 2009, Kennedy extended this metaphor in a Guardian column, referring to “the virtual wilding to which Al Gore was subjected.”
Kennedy’s thumb-nail description is darker than Krugman’s–but here too, November 1999 offers a striking example of the conduct he had in mind. All through this month, the mainstream press corps, as a group, engaged in stunningly ugly behavior. This did amount to a “virtual wilding”–a wilding of Candidate Gore.
November was the ugliest month–but then too, it was the most banal. Beyond that, it was a month in which the press corps applied vastly different standards to the four major candidates. Russert spoke with NBA legends, eliciting speeches about Bradley’s character. The nation’s top pundits averted their gaze from highly unusual conduct by Bush. A swoon for McCain was starting to form, although it wouldn’t gain full purchase until early in the new year.
And Candidate Gore was being savaged, in stunningly amoral ways.
November was the most vicious month, but only for one of the candidates. The month produced a virtual wilding and it produced a campaign about clothing. From this point on, the conduct of the mainstream press corps makes nothing resembling traditional sense. From this point on, it makes little sense to think of their work as a formk of traditional journalism.
Denial centers in the brain will insist that this couldn't have happened. But a “virtual wilding” did occur. George Bush ended up in the White House.
Month of Wolf: The background
The frenzy about Naomi Wolf began in the pages
On Sunday morning, October 31, just four days after the jeering of Gore, the magazine released a news report headlined, “GORE’S SECRET GURU.” Michael Duffy and Karen Tumulty reported an underwhelming fact: Author Naomi Wolf, the “secret guru” in question, was advising the Gore campaign. She'd been doing so since the start of the year, Time reported.
Within days, this underwhelming bit of news was driving a major press frenzy. For the next month, Gore and Wolf would be aggressively trashed, in ways which were often remarkably ugly. The frenzy took shape as pundits recited three points from Candidate Bush--as they kept praising Candidate Bradley for his "authenticity."
Michael Duffy’s report in Time was an instant press corps sensation. That said, the piece had some obvious flaws. “GORE’S SECRET GURU,” the headline screamed, and the report advanced a key claim: Allegedly, Gore had been trying to keep Wolf’s role in his campaign a secret. But how had Duffy learned about Wolf? She had just spent three days in New Hampshire, he said, prepping Gore for that first Democratic debate–the forum at which three hundred reporters engaged in their hour of jeering. “After [the debate],” Duffy continued, “while Gore spent 90 minutes answering questions from lingering audience members, Wolf sat half a dozen rows back in the auditorium, dressed in black, watching her client intensely.”
Question: If Wolf was sitting up front at this major event, observing her candidate into the evening, how intense could any secrecy effort have been? Reporters and pundits agreed not to ask, and the notion that Wolf was a “secret guru” became a central talking-point as the new frenzy took shape. Many pundits called the secrecy factor the most troubling part of the whole Wolf affair. They rarely mentioned how Wolf had been discovered–right in plain sight at a major event. But then, puzzling logic would routinely prevail in the frenzy surrounding Wolf.
In truth, reporters' professions of shock about Wolf were a bit hard to fathom. As Duffy noted, Wolf–an acclaimed, best-selling author–had also served as an adviser to the 1996 Clinton campaign. (Her husband, David Shipley, was a Clinton speech-writer.) Nor was her earlier service a secret. In his 1997 best-seller, Behind the Oval Office, former Clinton adviser Dick Morris showered praise on Wolf for her help in that winning campaign. “I myself met with Naomi every few weeks for nearly a year to get her advice on how to target women voters,” Morris wrote. “She also gave me remarkably prescient analyses of the social-cultural trends in the country.” In Time, Duffy listed some of the thoroughly mainstream suggestions Morris attributed to Wolf in his book. But in a typical bit of editing, Duffy omitted Morris’ praise for her “remarkably prescient” counsel.
The day after Duffy's piece appeared, Ceci Connolly wrote a report in the Washington Post which carried this drift even further. Connolly didn’t mention Morris’ book or its praise for Wolf's previous service; instead, she paraphrased something Morris had said in an overnight interview. “Morris said yesterday her input was limited to ‘cultural issues’ and stylistic matters,” Connolly wrote in her front-page report; this made it sound like Morris had disparaged Wolf's previous service. Alas! The war against Gore was picking up steam. As she had done throughout the year, Connolly seemed to be picking-and-choosing the facts which were fit for Post readers to hear.
What service was Wolf now providing to Gore? According to Duffy’s report, she was “working on efforts to involve younger voters–particularly women–in the campaign.” Inescapably, this sounded like the type of counsel she’d offered the Clinton campaign four years earlier. It’s hard to know why reporters were shocked to learn that Wolf was serving Gore the same way. But very few voters would hear about Morris’ praise for her prior advice. On Day One of the month-long frenzy, the New York Times included his "remarkably prescient" statement in a front-page news report. But across the entire press corps, the statement was cited just two more times in the month-long trashing of Wolf.
Morris had lavishly praised Wolf’s advice. Very few voters heard.
That said, the press corps’ frenzy about Gore's "guru" raises a much simpler question: Why were major reporters and pundits discussing Wolf at all? It’s very rare, in a White House campaign, for the press corps to focus so much attention on a mere adviser. This is especially true when the aide in question is someone who had long been respected within the mainstream press.
Set aside Wolf's work in the Clinton campaign. Instead, consider her long-standing role within the press corps itself.
Naomi Wolf was a 1984 graduate of Yale. For the next several years, she studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. By 1999, she had written three best-selling books, starting with The Beauty Myth in 1991. Her first two books were picked by the New York Times as “notable books of the year.”
From 1991 on, Wolf had been treated as a major figure by the nation's biggest news organs. In a special edition in December 1994, this same Time magazine had picked her as one of America’s most promising young leaders. In 1996, the New York Times' Sunday book section reprinted its original review of The Beauty Myth, including it among the “70 significant reviews” it republished to observe the book section’s centennial.
In 1998, the Times published a widely-praised volume, Books of the Century. The Beauty Myth was featured there too.
In short, Wolf had been a respected author since 1991. She had also been a familiar presence within the mainstream press. One appearance on Meet the Press illustrates her standing within the establishment press–until Time reported the fact that she was advising Al Gore.
In October 1997, Tim Russert launched a week of NBC news programs focused on gender issues. He had invited two expert guests to help him launch the project. “We're back on Meet the Press,” he said. “Joining us now, two writers, authors, who have long thought about the roles of men and women in our society. William Bennett, Naomi Wolf: Welcome.”
No Republican candidate was ever mocked for taking advice from Bennett, a pillar of the conservative world and a former cabinet member. But on this special edition of Meet the Press, Russert chose to match Bennett with Wolf, introducing her as someone who had “long thought about the roles of men and women in our society." This reflects the way Wolf was regarded within the press, until her connection to Candidate Gore triggered a furious backlash.
This isn’t a question of Wolf’s three books. (Some people loved them; some people didn’t.) This isn’t a question of her political views, which had often tended toward centrist positions. The question here is considerably simpler: In this campaign, every other major candidate had some adviser who was at least as “controversial” as Wolf; one striking example is cited below. So why was Wolf, and Wolf alone, subjected to a nasty assault? Why were snippets pulled from her books and widely burlesqued? Why were flatly inaccurate claims advanced about her views?
Why was a virtual wilding unloosed on Naomi Wolf?
Part of the answer is fairly clear. A war against Gore was gathering force. Alone among campaign advisers, Naomi Wolf would now be trashed, in ways which were truly remarkable.
In the discussion which follows, the sexual trashing of Wolf will come first. Then, it’s on to the press corps’ "campaign about clothing." After that, the press corps' doctors will be IN as Washington's various pseudo-psychiatrists psychoanalyze Candidate Gore, wondering why he would take advice from a ludicrous person like Wolf.
Simple story: After Duffy’s report in Time, the press corps staged a virtual wilding, a month-long journalistic breakdown of the most remarkable sort. Wolf and Gore would be brutally mocked.
George Bush would end up in the White House.
Month of Wolf: The sexual trashing
The trashing of Wolf had so many parts, it would
take a whole book to relate them. But how was the press corps conducting its business as the primary races took shape? Consider a November 2 column by Richard Cohen, one of the Washington Post’s best-known veteran columnists.
Two days had passed since Time reported that Wolf was advising the Gore campaign. Cohen offered an instant take on the meaning of this report. Like many pundits, he ran straight to the sex–and he led with a bungled “quotation:”
“The male body is home to me, my rocket, my whirlpool.” So wrote Naomi Wolf in her book, “Fire With Fire” which will soon be required reading along the campaign trail. Wolf–sometimes a feminist, sometimes not, but always controversial–has just been revealed as a secret Al Gore campaign adviser, apparently teaching the vice president how to be a rocket and a whirlpool.
Cohen continued along in this vein, mocking Gore and ticking off themes which had already become Standard Issue. But right from his opening paragraph, he portrayed Wolf as a “controversial feminist”–and as an over-sexed kook. To hear Cohen tell it, Wolf had filled Fire with Fire with racy sexual statements; Gore had displayed an array of character flaws by hiring such a strange person. Cohen’s tone was expressed in a mocking rhetorical question: “Who else is on the payroll, Al–Richard Simmons?”
Within two days of Duffy's report, Wolf had been transformed.
Even from someone who knew his stuff, Cohen's column would have counted as heavy ridicule. Sadly, Cohen wasn’t that person. The problem began in paragraph 3, as he explained how he knew so much about Wolf’s sex-drenched books. In particular, Cohen explained where he’d gotten his featured quotation–the one about the whirlpools and rockets. “The Esquire magazine piece from which I took that quote from Wolf’s book is full of other quotes, none of which I can repeat,” he wrote. “Wolf is awfully explicit about sex, and sex is a lot of what she talks about.”
Oddly, Cohen had pulled his key quotation from an old Esquire profile. As it turned out, the piece had appeared in February 1994; Cohen was citing it five years later. (The article wasn’t available on-line. Cohen didn’t explain who had directed him to it.) As best one could tell from his mocking column, this old Esquire piece was his sole source of knowledge about the ludicrous Wolf.
It seems odd to think that a major columnist would conduct his research in this way–pulling a quote from a musty old piece in a middle-brow men’s mag like Esquire. In fact, the Esquire piece had profiled eight young feminist writers; Cohen could have learned little about Wolf from the piece, even if he accepted its representations as gospel. But just for the record, Esquire included several quotations from Wolf’s books which were perfectly printable. There was no reason why Cohen couldn’t “repeat” them. Baldly dissembling by his third paragraph, Cohen made that part up.
Cohen skipped another fact which might have produced a more balanced column. In December 1993, Fire with Fire had been selected by the New York Times as a “notable book of the year.”
Cohen built a mocking column around a single quote. But there was something more striking about Cohen’s piece than his odd research and his instant dissembling. In fact, that sentence about “my rocket, my whirlpool” had not appeared in Fire with Fire, or anywhere else except Esquire. Cohen may not have known this fact, since he didn't seem to have looked at Wolf’s books. But in fact, the sentence with which he opened his column had appeared in the galleys of Fire with Fire; it was dropped from the book before publication. Relying on an out-of-date profile, Cohen built an entire column, filled with high ridicule, around a single “quotation”–a statement Wolf had explicitly chosen not to include in her book.
Could high school students get away with such slovenly research? The groaning episode perfectly captured the devolving standards on display as the Washington Post went to war with Wolf–and with Candidate Gore.
Indeed, Cohen wasn’t the only Post writer printing bungled tales about this Gore adviser. On November 7, Tony Kornheiser made a mess of his nationally-syndicated, widely-read Sunday “Style” column.
“Let me see if I have this right,” he began. But as it turned out, he did not:
Let me see if I have this right: Al Gore, who is running for president on the grounds that he is a regular guy who’s in touch with the people of this country, has hired feminist author Naomi Wolf to advise him on his campaign. Ms. Wolf, a big-haired cutie, is perhaps best known for her views on sex. She advocates teaching teenagers masturbation, mutual masturbation and oral sex–a subject in which, she brags in her book “Promiscuities,” she was rather adroit.
Unfortunately, Kornheiser didn’t have this right; he didn’t have it right at all. In Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood, Wolf described the coming-of-age of her teen-age peers in San Francisco during the 1970s. She routinely stressed the harm done to teens (and to younger children) by the over-sexed adult culture which defined the time and the place. But Wolf never bragged about being adroit at oral sex; simply put, her book contains no such passage. Puzzled by what Kornheiser wrote, The Nation’s Eric Alterman asked why he wrote it. “When I contacted [Kornheiser], he admitted that he had never seen the book and was quoting someone who made this claim on Imus, who in turn had not read the book but had seen it ‘in a wire story,’” Alterman wrote. “When the subject is blowjobs (or Naomi Wolf), that’s good enough."
Kornheiser was merely repeating a claim he heard someone say on Imus! In fact, whoever made this unfortunate claim had likely “seen it” in the New York Daily News. On November 4, columnist Sherryl Connelly hammered Gore extremely hard--and put an inaccurate claim into play. “There is no way Gore is going to be allowed to disassociate himself from Wolf’s provocative sexual opinions,” the columnist warned. “She wrote [Promiscuities] in what she called ‘the first-person sexual’ and described quite explicitly how good she was at delivering oral sex at 15.” It’s unclear why Connelly thought Wolf had done that; again, no such passage appears in Wolf’s book. But in predicting that Gore would be tarred with Wolf’s “sexual opinions,” Connelly proved an able prophet. As her own misstatement showed, the press corps was ready to flog Wolf’s “opinions” until they’d created a smutty tale of the type they now seemed to enjoy.
Let’s review: Cohen built an entire column around a bungled quotation” from Esquire. Kornheiser repeated a smutty claim because someone said it on Imus. And then there was the Post’s Ann Gerhart, who profiled Wolf for the November 5 “Style” section. Wallowing in the consummate trivia from which the press now drew so much meaning, Gerhart explained why a reviewer had spotted some styling gel in Wolf’s bathroom eight years earlier:
“Now we know that was because she finally had gotten in touch with her inner slut, according to her third book, “Promiscuities.’ ” Thus spake the Post's Ann Gerhart.
Wolf had “gotten in touch with her inner slut?” No such phrase appears in Promiscuities, but the press was now bristling with claims that Wolf “has very detailed programs on how a woman can get in touch with her inner slut” (Christina Hoff Sommers, Hardball, November 1) or had “urged women to release their inner sluts” (Maureen Dowd, November 3). The phrase “inner slut” doesn’t appear in Wolf’s books, but it had now reached the Washington Post, helping fuel an ugly frenzy from which scribes would take joy for a month.
It’s hard to find words to describe the work being done as the Post battered Wolf. In our leading political newspaper, journalists wrote smutty things about a respected figure because they heard them on Imus, or saw them in Esquire, or because Dowd had written them first. But then, such work was appearing all over the press as pundits began a ritual trashing, with few scribes showing the slightest sign of ever having looked at Wolf’s books.
Did pundits have the slightest idea what Wolf had actually said in her books? In Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood, Wolf explicitly decried assorted problems of sex-drenched American culture. She lamented the nation’s high divorce rate, which she called “destructive to us as a society.” She lamented the idea that the United States would “tolerate the highest teen abortion rate in the industrialized world.” Quite movingly, she described the way “the experiments of the [sexual] revolution, great fun for adults, were sometimes played out at the expense of children.” The book’s brief passage on sex education was presented as a way to help teenagers postpone intercourse and pregnancy (and abortion). And no, she didn’t “advocate teaching teenagers” to have oral sex, though scribes had a good time pretending.
What was the actual tone of Wolf's book? When Promiscuities appeared in 1997, Courtney Weaver reviewed it for the New York Times Sunday book review section. “Who besides Ms. Wolf,” Weaver asked, “has tackled in so personal a way the effect on children of the irresponsible behavior virtually mandated by the hippie revolution?” In her memorable opening chapter, Wolf describes what she and her friends encountered while coming of age in San Francisco in the 1970s, not long after the Summer of Love:
We would encounter the most harmful manifestations of the times in the shape of thirteen-year-olds wearing dominatrix costumes alongside the adults showing off their tattoos in the cold air outside The Rocky Horror Picture Show every Friday night, the affluent parents who would take their children out of school for a week at a time so as not to miss the good snow at Tahoe, and in the baggies of elephant-tranquilizer-laced Sensimillan that bearded men in their thirties sold with a joke and a mellow smile to fifteen-year-olds at Grateful Dead concerts.
In short, it’s absurd to portray Promiscuities as a wild-eyed tribute to sexual license. But that’s the predictable way the press corps played it in a mindless, month-long feeding frenzy which ought to go down as a lasting embarrassment to the quality of American discourse. Generally, mainstream pundits “reviewed” Wolf’s books in the schoolboy way Cohen attempted and bungled; they pulled stray quotes out of any sane context, then offered clownish accounts of what the statements supposedly meant. Everyone knows how foolish this is, but pundits seemed eager to show how adroit they were at the practice. And they seemed eager to showcase another skill too. Expressing the smutty culture of the Clinton-era press corps, they seemed eager to show how thoroughly they could conspire to tart up Naomi Wolf.
How extreme was the sexual trashing of Wolf? As noted, Wolf had written three best-sellers, two of them picked by the New York Times as “notable books of the year.” One of her books had been included in the newspaper’s Books of the Century. But in a mainstream press corps which showed few signs of ever having looked at these books, Wolf was dismissed in remarkable ways in the wake of Duffy’s report. (All descriptions which follow involve direct quotes.) She was a big-haired cutie, a crackpot, a kook, a bimbo feminist, an oddball. She was a feminist Rasputin and a Svengali–the political equivalent of Viagra. At least five major national pundits compared her to Nancy Reagan’s astrologer. In a pair of columns by Maureen Dowd, she was wacky, a flashy Culture Babe–the moral equivalent of an Armani t-shirt.
And, of course, she had urged women to release their inner sluts.
Wolf was also turned into a girl. Thirty-seven years old at the time of the frenzy, the married mother of a young daughter, she was described as “this girl,” this silly girl, a girl writer, a Valley Girl, a strange guru for a grown-up guy to be listening to. On CNN’s Capital Gang, she was dismissed by Margaret Carlson as “this silly book author.” For a taste of the press corps’ reliable tone, consider Maggie Gallagher’s column in the November 6 Washington Times. In this passage, Gallagher pretends she's speaking to Gore, and that it's Wolf who is smutty:
So now I hear you’ve gone out and hired a feminist babe with big hair, friend of your daughter, to help boost your MQ (that’s “masculinity quotient” to you outside the Beltway)...So you’ve got this pretty little writer thing (don’t get me wrong, smart too, gives real good pen), who’s going to teach you how to be a man, Al, and you are going to pay her 5,000 big bucks a month for the privilege.
Within a week of Duffy's report, Wolf had become a “pretty little writer thing” who “gives good pen.” But then, in the wake of their year of impeachment, a deeply dysfunctional Washington press corps was simply obsessed with oral sex, and they weren’t above casting Wolf as the slut of their latest confection. Indeed, in one of the most revealing parts of their breakdown, a cottage industry quickly sprang up in Wolf-as-Lewinsky comparisons. In her profile in the Washington Post, Gerhart said that Wolf’s hair resembled Lewinsky’s. On Hardball, Chris Matthews said that Wolf sounded like Lewinsky. In her nationally syndicated column, Kathleen Parker said that “at a glance [Wolf] could be the sister of another well-known, raven-haired former Washington belle.” Local columnists made the comparison in various regional newspapers. But the most elaborate Wolf-as-Lewinsky comparison came from conservative pundit James Pinkerton, writing in Newsday and the Los Angeles Times. Pinkerton opened his November 4 column with this unfortunate passage:
Naomi Wolf even looks like Monica Lewinsky. Same creamy cheeks, same bee-stung lips, same startled-fawn eyes. Indeed, Lewinsky, an obviously intelligent woman a decade younger than Wolf, could, if she puts her mind to it, aspire to write a book like “Promiscuities,” Wolf’s most recent tome.
Wolf's cheeks and lips now resembled Lewinsky's! And it was Lewinsky who could have written three best-sellers as her look-alike, the former Rhodes Scholar, had done. (Needless to say, Pinkerton didn’t mention the acclaim and success of Wolf’s books.) After quoting a negative review of Promiscuities, the pundit returned to his Monica reveries. “Just as a needy intern found an even needier president,” Wolf had somehow found Gore, he mused. He then compared Lewinsky’s “physical relationship” with Clinton to Wolf’s “fiscal relationship” with Gore.
Smutty pundits like Pinkerton and Gallagher wanted you picturing Wolf just one way. But what could have been in the minds of editors waving such ludicrous work into print–work comparing Wolf to Lewinsky for no other reason than sexual titillation? Again, it was the “liberal” Newsday amd the "liberal" Los Angeles Times which stooped to publish Pinkerton’s column. The papers discarded their liberal bias to join the ritual slaughter.
The transformation of Wolf was instant and virtually unopposed. It got its start with Duffy’s report in Time. Perhaps predictably, his report had included another misstatement about–what else?–oral sex.
Promiscuities includes a short section about sex education. In it, Wolf argued that sex education manuals in the first half of the twentieth century had often subtly encouraged teens to engage in “petting” (“sexual gradualism”) as a way of postponing intercourse. This culture was common in the twenties and thirties, she said, citing academic studies. She advocated a return to these strategies as a way to help teenagers postpone intercourse, as President Clinton’s surgeon general had suggested a few years earlier.
This was a minor part of Wolf’s book, consuming less than four pages. In most reviews of Promiscuities, the topic wasn’t mentioned; when reviewers did mention this part of the book, they typically gave it one sentence. But starting with Duffy’s report, this brief part of Promiscuities seemed to become the centerpiece of Wolf’s life and work–and a new, inaccurate claim was blasted all over the land.
Early his report for Time, Duffy offered a thumbnail account of Wolf's work. In the process, he authored a groaning misstatement:
In her most recent best seller, Promiscuities, Wolf argues, among other things, that schools should teach teenagers the techniques of "sexual gradualism"–masturbation, mutual masturbation and oral sex–because it is more realistic than abstinence and safer than intercourse.
This minor part of Wolf’s third book was elevated to Duffy’s third paragraph. Wolf’s predominant language about “necking and petting” was dropped for the harder stuff. (In her four-page passage on sex education, Wolf used the term "petting" 31 times. She used the term "masturbation" five times, “oral sex” not at all.) Most strikingly, Duffy included a flat misstatement: Naomi Wolf advocates teaching teenagers oral sex!
As best one can tell from the Nexis records, no reviewer had ever made this claim about Wolf's book. Duffy made it now.
Duffy’s statement was simply wrong, but the thrilling claim spread like topsy. On page one of the next day’s Washington Post, Ceci Connolly repeated the claim, elevating Wolf’s brief discussion of sex education to her report's second paragraph. (“Wolf is considered one of the more controversial feminists of her time,” Connolly now declared.) As noted, Connolly failed to include Morris’ words of praise for Wolf’s “remarkably prescient” campaign advice. “Controversial Feminist Paid By Gore Camp,” the front-page headline said.
Wolf was working on a project to recruit young voters, Connolly reported. But “Wolf's tentacles stretch far beyond that project,” she wrote, employing a strange choice of words.
Connolly’s front-page report appeared on Monday, November 1. From this point on, “controversial feminist” became Wolf’s middle name in most press corps discussions. Meanwhile, Duffy’s inaccurate claim–Naomi Wolf advocates teaching teens oral sex!–was bruited all through the land. To their credit, the New York Times and the Associated Press never repeated this bogus assertion. But on November 1, the claim appeared in news reports in the Washington Post and the New York Post and in the dueling on-line magazines, Slate and Salon.
In the frenzy’s first ten days, the claim was made four separate times in the Washington Post. And of course, it went straight to cable.
Naomi Wolf advocates teaching teens oral sex! For the next several weeks, the inaccurate claim was routinely advanced on the Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes. But the claim was advanced on many programs: by Bryant Gumbel on the CBS Early Show; by Mary Matalin on CNN’s Crossfire; by Kate O’Beirne on CNN’s Inside Politics; by Don Imus on his influential radio/cable TV show. Some major pundits played the fool as they embellished the bogus claim. Wolf was “a powerful advocate of onanism,” Tucker Carlson gravely declared on CNN’s Late Edition.
Well-known columnists advanced the claim in their widely-read columns. Mary McGrory and Tony Kornheiser did so in the Washington Post; Tony Blankley in the Washington Times; Michael Kramer in the New York Daily News; Sandy Grady and Dick Polman in the Philadelphia Inquirer; Kathleen Parker in her nationally syndicated column. (According to Pinkerton, Wolf had suggested teaching oral sex to "children.") The most squalid account came from conservative Cal Thomas, the nation's most widely syndicated political columnist. According to Thomas, Wolf had prescribed “teaching [children] to get naked with one another in school and to masturbate." According to Thomas, these were "two of her recommended strategies to keep them so preoccupied they won't give their parents or the country any trouble.”
So Thomas wrote on November 11. His deranged account of Wolf’s book appeared all through the land.
In some conservative publications, the ruminations about Wolf and Gore became substantially trashier. In a Weekly Standard piece released on November 8, Christopher Caldwell found himself troubled once again by Gore’s always-troubling wardrobe. This time, Caldwell took readers straight to the gutter. “We all know that the look he’s attained is that of the aging gigolo prowling...for young talent,” he thoughtfully wrote. But then, Gore “shows a keen need to be taken as a very cool guy by younger women,” Caldwell asserted. How could a journalist know such a thing? This was Saldwell's burlesque of evidence: “It is hard to remember seeing Gore quite so aglow as when his nomination was seconded at the 1996 convention by Michela Alioto, a 28-year-old wheelchair-bound beauty.” So it went as the press corps' disordered minds extended an ugly war. They met no challenge, comment or criticism from anywhere else in the press.
As his article continued, Caldwell’s insinuations became more direct. “Wolf’s friendship with Gore’s daughter Karenna is invoked to ward off speculation about any possible wandering eye,” he wrote, in what could only have been an attempt to encourage such speculation. But then, this undisguised gutter-prowl differed little from work which was being churned elsewhere. On the November 4 Hardball, Patrick Caddell hinted at the illicit conduct which simply had to be present. “I mean, there's something else weird going on here,” he declared, referring to the fact that Wolf was part of the Gore campaign. “There's a weird relationship somewhere here where the wife, or the daughter–I don't know what.”
The sexual trashing went on for a month, but this was only one part of the frenzy. As November became the month of Wolf, pundits found various ways to punish Gore for taking advice from his "sexpot counselor." A psychiatric assessment was widely recited about his troubling lack of self-knowledge. (Al Gore doesn't know who he is!) Major pundits recited a claim about his masculinity deficit. (Al Gore hired a woman to teach him how to be a man!) And again and again, the vehicle used to drive these complaints was Gore’s always-troubling wardrobe. Over and over, the month of Wolf permitted the press to extend an assault it had already waged for several months by this time–an assault on this candidate’s clothing.
Everything about Gore’s wardrobe suggested his obvious character problems. His boots; his suits; his polo shirts; the number of buttons on his suit jackets (three). The height at which he hemmed his pants. And of course, his soon-to-be-famous "earth tones"–that is to say, his brown suit.
November produced sexual trashing and it produced a "campaign about clothing." Most famously, the campaign about clothing led to one of this election's iconic claims: Naomi Wolf told Al Gore to wear earth tones!
Pundits said it again and again. George Bush ended up in the White House.
Month of Wolf: The campaign about clothing
Surprise! The campaign about clothing was two
months old by the time the press corps landed on Wolf. We’ve already seen the way major pundits mocked Gore’s suit at that first debate. But various aspects of his wardrobe had been thoroughly frisked by this point.
Let's start with his cowboy boots.
In fact, Al Gore had always worn cowboy boots, and the press corps had always known it. On the national level, the sightings date to 1988, when he first ran for the White House.
“He is almost as at home wearing pointy cowboy boots as clunky wing tips,” Time magazine reported that year, in a profile of the young candidate. Nor did subsequent years in high office affect Gore's inclinations. Starting in 1993, he was often described in those cowboy boots during his years as vice president. When he injured his leg in 1994, for example, he was described on crutches several times, wearing a sock on his injured foot and one cowboy boot, on the other.
News flash: Major southern pols of this era often wore cowboy boots.
Was it odd for Gore to wear boots on the trail? At CNN, Jonathan Karl didn’t seem to think so. In 1997, Karl reported from a trip Gore had taken to Iowa. “Is Iowa really ready for another presidential campaign? Al Gore seems ready,” the reporter began. The Iowa caucuses for Campaign 2000 were more than two years away, Karl noted. “But already, Al Gore is hitting the key Democratic constituencies.” What made Karl think that Vice President Gore might be doing some early campaigning? “Gore shed his suit and tie, put on the cowboy boots and by noon was hitting the cornfields,” the reporter observed.
CNN’s headline for the segment said this: “Al Gore's Visit To Iowa Looks Like Campaign Stop.”
Two years later, Candidate Gore was still wearing his boots as he began his real campaigning. In the first six months of his campaign, major papers described Gore-in-boots on at least twenty different occasions. On the June 18 Good Morning, America, Don Dahler profiled Candidates Bush and Gore, not failing to examine their footwear. “Gore wears cowboy boots sometimes and loafers sometimes,” the ABC newsman said.
The next day, the Seattle Times placed Gore at a local event, in “taupe suit and cowboy boots.”
In short, Gore had always worn cowboy boots. He had routinely worn such boots at the start of his White House campaign. But on September 29, 1999, Gore announced that he would be moving his campaign headquarters from Washington, D.C. to Nashville. The press corps saw this as–what else?–a sure sign that Gore was a phony. Reporters began describing the candidate’s move as part of his latest “makeover” (reinvention, transformation)–a makeover which was frequently said to include those tell-tale boots.
On the front page of the Washington Post, Ceci Connolly described “the new Al Gore” as he opened his new Nashville office on October 6. “Sporting a knit shirt, cowboy boots and a Palm Pilot clipped on his khakis, Vice President Gore cut the ribbon on a campaign headquarters,” she wrote. “It was the new Al Gore. He ditched the note cards, blue suit and even the title in front of his name.”
According to Connolly’s opening paragraph, “the new Al Gore” had “ditched the blue suit.” He was “sporting a knit shirt” this day–and those tell-tale boots. And Connolly wasn’t along in her attention to wardrobe issues this day; a string of other major newspapers stressed Gore’s casual clothing. They seemed to suggest that his casual dress was part of his latest make-over.
The notion that this was “a new Al Gore” spread through the mainstream press. But alas! This portrait was a trifle odd coming from Connolly. All the way back on March 27, she had described the old Al Gore on an early trip to New Hampshire. And how had Gore been dressed that day? In the Post, Connolly sketched the scene as “a casually dressed, off-the-cuff Gore fielded questions for half an hour” from New Hampshire residents. According to Connolly, Gore “rolled out many theatrical accoutrements” on this early trip, including “wardrobe (tan slacks and V-neck sweater).”
How strange! Even in this early outing, Gore had already “ditched the blue suit,” with Connolly calling it part of an act, an interpretation she would offer of virtually everything Gore said and did in his run for the White House. In fact, as Connolly reported from Nashville in early October, Gore had been stumping in casual clothes for six solid months. He had routinely worn the boots she flagged in her opening sentence.
To be honest, her “new” Al Gore sounded a lot like the old Al Gore–the one she’d described back in March.
For the record, Connolly wasn’t the only reporter who had described Gore’s casual dress when his campaigning began. In April and May, a series of major reporters penned detailed accounts of Gore’s early campaign trips. Frequently, these reporters described, and then explained, his casual dress on the stump. In mid-May, USA Today’s Susan Page authored one example, a lengthy portrait of Gore in Iowa. “In a bid to shed his image as a stiff campaigner more comfortable in Harvard salons than Hawkeye living rooms, [Gore] donned a short-sleeve, blue knit shirt and cowboy boots as he hopscotched by bus across southeastern Iowa,” Page reported.
Gore “has lost the suit and tie to demonstrate that he can connect with voters,” Page went on to explain.
At least half a dozen such profiles appeared as Gore did his early campaigning. As early as April 4, Muriel Dobbin did a detailed profile of Gore's first campaign appearances for the Sacramento Bee. She explained that Gore was stumping in casual dress to make himself more approachable. ("It was Gore the warm and fuzzy candidate, not Gore the stiff and formal vice president." According to Dobbin, Gore was hoping to "shed the image of the man in the dark blue suit standing stiffly behind the president.") On April 18, the Los Angeles Times’ Edwin Chen penned a similar profile from Iowa, though he said Gore had lost the suit partly due to advice from Bill Clinton. (“More than once, he has urged Gore to ‘go up there, take your jacket off and just be yourself, Al.’”) As the months went by, other scribes offered this second explanation for Gore’s casual dress on the trail. This let them stress Gore’s ties to Clinton, the man they loved to discuss.
In July, the AP’s Sandra Sobieraj penned a similar portrait of Gore-on-the-stump. “The dress shirt and necktie are gone,” she reported, like many others before her.
In short, Gore had campaigned in casual clothing from March 1999 on. A string of reporters had made it a point to describe and explain this approach. But then, as these reporters all knew, Clinton and Gore had routinely campaigned in casual dress during their winning campaigns in 1992 and 1996. In 1992, major reporters routinely described the youthful pair in knit shirts, polo shirts, khakis/jeans/chinos. By August 1996, a wistful older columnist discussed the way the political culture had left him behind. “I appreciate the fact that Clinton and Vice President Al Gore like to fly around and mix with the little people,” William Wineke wrote in the Wisconsin State Journal. “But I don't really understand why they insist on wearing blue jeans when they do."
Can we talk? By 1999, Gore’s casual dress on the stump was thoroughly unremarkable. In fact, this was the fourth straight campaign in which he’d stumped in casual dress. But by the fall of 1999, a war against Gore was picking up steam within the mainstream press corps. Journalists were looking for ways to extend their pre-conceived themes, including the treasured claim that Candidate Gore was “inauthentic,” unlike Candidate Bradley. Result? In October, Connolly helped invent the latest Group Tale: Candidate Gore has changed his costume, reinventing himself yet again! On a factual basis, this claim was false; from well-informed scribes, the claim was a lie. No matter! Reporters stood in line to repeat this new script right through the end of the year.
Once again, invented facts about consummate trivia were used to drive a powerful narrative. In October, this blather provided a powerful prelude to the upcoming month of Wolf.
Claims of Gore's make-over were widely advanced, his cowboy boots leading the way. On October 14, for example, the Washington Times’ Suzanne Fields announced in her syndicated column that “Al Gore has a new costume–cowboy boots and brightly colored shirts.” Ben Wattenberg, same day, same newspaper: “Transformation indeed. We are told that this is the new, the newest Al Gore...He has donned cowboy boots.” Pundits took turns reciting the script, searchinging for ways to make the tale even dumber. On October 15, Cokie Roberts and Steve Roberts accomplished the task in their nationally syndicated column. Skillfully, the pair included a series of guild-approved groaners:
Look at Al Gore, after almost 23 years in public life, suddenly searching for his “authentic” self and then finding it in cowboy boots and open-necked shirts.
Is this the same Al Gore who grew up in a fancy hotel in Washington, went to Harvard and now lives in the vice president’s mansion, a short walk from the elite prep school he attended? Somehow, we doubt that cowboy boots and polo shirts were part of the dress code at St. Albans.
Gore had worn boots throughout his career. He had worn those “open-necked shirts” in four straight White House campaigns. But now, according to Roberts and Roberts, Gore was “suddenly” dressing this way–and it seemed a candidate wasn’t “authentic” unless he followed his high school’s old dress code!
Team Roberts even cited the “fancy hotel,” scoring additional points.
That said, Roberts and Roberts were hardly alone in pushing this spin-drenched narrative. On October 10, Tony Kornheiser had flogged the same set of themes in his own national column, mistakenly saying that Gore had grown up in Washington’s Shoreham Hotel. On the day Kornheiser’s column appeared, Mary McGrory adopted a similar theme in her own piece in the Washington Post. “Al Gore has shaken the dust of Washington from his feet, turned in his shoes for boots and adopted brown suits,” the veteran columnist wrote.
Three weeks later, McGrory trashed Gore for wearing a brown suit to the first Democratic debate—the debate at which three hundred reporters hissed and jeered Gore for the hour. (She also sneered at his boots.)
Gore had “suddenly” lost the suit and pulled on his cowboy boots! As is clear from reams of published material, these derisive statements were flatly inaccurate, and many major reporters knew it. But by the time the assault on Gore’s wardrobe was done, almost every columnist at the Washington Post had recited the pleasing new tale. “This is not your father’s Al Gore,” Richard Cohen would write on November 23. “This is the new model,” which “comes in new colors...a bold black shirt and khaki pants and, on occasion, cowboy boots.” (Cohen’s headline: “The New Gore.”) Five days later, Marjorie Williams took her turn with the mandated theme, referring to “the new improved Al Gore, with the earth tones and the cowboy boots.” That said, Cohen and Williams were late to the party; Sally Quinn had written a column a few weeks earlier, pegged to this same theme. And Michael Kelly had advanced the theme on October 13, six days after Connolly's front-page report provided the narrative trigger.
This theme took the Post by storm. In October and November, at least a dozen columns and profiles cited Gore’s boots and casual dress as part of this “new improved Gore.” Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich advanced the same theme in their New York Times columns; tales of Gore’s reinvented wardrobe spread all through the land. How foolish could these profiles get? At the Los Angeles Times, two different writers described Gore’s boots as “too shiny” or “ultra-shiny;” presumably, this was intended to suggest that the boots were brand new. At least four publications waged a war over how high Gore was cuffing his pants–presumably, to showcase his boots for voters. On October 25, Karen Tumulty handled the topic in Time. “It was a different Gore campaign–and a different Al Gore–that New Hampshire voters saw rolling through their state last week,” Tumulty wrote. “Gone were the crisp navy suits, replaced by khaki pants hemmed short enough to display at least 6 inches of his shiny cowboy boots.”
“Gone were the crisp navy suits?” The crisp navy suits had been gone all year, as scribes had repeatedly noted. The suits were gone in 1997, as CNN’s Karl had reported. But by this stage of Campaign 2000, the most obvious facts were routinely ignored as the press corps found ways to advance preferred narratives. And pleasing new motives were swiftly invented, making Group Stories work better.
Why had Candidate Gore ditched the suits? In October, the press corps came up with its third explanation for this non-existent change in behavior: Candidate Gore has ditched his suits due to Bradley’s rise in the polls! This third explanation was plainly false, but it was quite widely voiced. In these baldly dishonest attacks on Gore’s character, we see the start of what Krugman would later describe as the press corps’ “campaign about clothing.”
That said, the clothing campaign took on many forms as journalists pounded away at Gore’s character. Example: Even amid the bogus claims concerning the candidate’s boots and suits, Brian Williams was treating himself to a small nervous breakdown concerning Gore’s polo shirts.
Candidates had campaigned in casual clothing for years, but Williams was suddenly troubled. Gore was “wearing polo shirts twenty-four hours a day,” the anchor groused on October 6, on his nightly cable program. The polo shirts “don’t always look natural on him,” he weirdly complained two nights later. For whatever reason, Williams thought Gore was wearing the shirts in some sort of effort to woo female voters. The anchor repeatedly stated this theory, asking guests when Gore’s strategy would “all start becoming so transparent [that] no one is fooled” (October 6) or (October 8) whether the strategy was going to “become absolutely transparent when they go out into the hinterlands and try to sell it.” On and on the grumbling went. Incredibly, Williams raised the question of Gore’s polo shirts on five separate programs in one eight-day period, with two nights off for weekend rehab. In such ways, the corps obsessed on Gore’s clothing for a full month before they landed on Wolf.
Tales of Gore’s make-over grew more derisive as the month of Wolf drew near. On October 31, Time’s report about Gore's “secret guru” would launch a month-long media frenzy. But that morning, before the new story broke, the New York Daily News' William Goldschlag penned the latest mocking portrait of Candidate Gore’s phony wardrobe. He openly mocked “the new Al Gore,” focusing on the “new Gore garb.” He cited Gore’s “black cowboy boots”–and those khaki pants. In fact, Gore had campaigned in khaki pants all year, as press reports make abundantly clear. But now, as the press corps’ animus grew, the troubling trousers were widely said to define “the new Al Gore.”
None of this astonishing nonsense had ever been worth discussing. But on October 31, Time reported a pointless new fact: Naomi Wolf, the well-known writer, was advising the Gore campaign, as she had done for the Clinton campaign just four years before. By the evening of November 1, the press corps’ “campaign about clothing” had sunk its long sharp teeth into Wolf, creating one of the most iconic episodes of Campaign 2000.
Within one day, the press corps was using Naomi Wolf to advance its wardrobe obsession. The campaign would adopt a ubiquitous cry: Naomi Wolf told Al Gore to wear earth tones! No evidence ever supported this claim, nor was it ever especially clear what “earth toned” clothing the corps had in mind. But this claim was quickly tied to several other new claims—remarkably odd group assertions about Gore’s alleged masculinity problems.
So the pack of journalists howled, all through the month of November.
Seldom have so many strange claims been recited by so many journalists. Seldom has the American press engaged in so public a breakdown. Gore’s “earth tones” would become iconic, but other claims were widely repeated:
Al Gore doesn’t know who he is!
Al Gore hired a woman to teach him how to be a man!
Naomi Wolf taught Al Gore to be an alpha male!
In modern times, no candidate had ever been savaged this way. Gore was trashed for wearing brown clothes. George Bush went to the White House.
Michael Duffy’s report in Time didn’t say a word about
earth tones. According to Duffy, Wolf was helping Gore target female voters, much as she’d done for the Clinton campaign. Later reports provided details: Wolf was working on GoreNet, a project aimed at younger female voters. The project was run by Gore’s daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, a New York City-based lawyer.
Duffy never mentioned the tones, but he made a brief reference to wardrobe. According to his report, an unnamed Gore “adviser” had said that Wolf was providing (Duffy’s paraphrase) “advice on everything from how to win the women’s vote to shirt-and-tie combinations.” But was this adviser’s claim correct? Duffy noted that Wolf’s role “remains a puzzle even to many inside the campaign.” (In part, this probably reflected the fact that Wolf was working with Schiff in New York. The Gore campaign had dbeen based in D.c., then in Nashville.)
In a brief aside, Duffy reported the claim of an unnamed “adviser.” He didn’t attempt to say if the claim was accurate.
Had Wolf been giving advice about wardrobe? If so, it’s hard to know why that should have mattered. Candidates do take wardrobe advice, after all, as do multimillionaire broadcasters, some of whom were having small breakdowns about Gore’s boots, suits and shirts. At any rate, Wolf flatly denied giving Gore such advice, and no one ever contradicted her. As the press corps began to rant and rave about the “mad genius” who was Gore’s “secret guru,” Melinda Henneberger interviewed Wolf for the New York Times. Wolf’s denial was unambiguous: “Contradicting reports from within the Gore camp, she also said she had not been telling him how to dress,” Henneberger wrote on November 5, “not a single fashion tip, or even so much as a ‘Nice tie, Mr. Vice President.’” Two days later, Wolf offered a similar denial on ABC’s This Week. Gore himself denied that Wolf had given wardrobe advice.
Again, it’s hard to know why this should have mattered. But Wolf’s denial had no effect on a rapidly spreading group story: Naomi Wolf told Al Gore to wear earth tones! Pundits loved the pointless tale, which let them recite a companion point: Al Gore doesn’t know who he is! Day after day, then into the evening, pundits recited these points.
In fact, this incident provides a good case study in the way the press corps of the Clinton/Gore era created its standard group narratives. In fact, there was never any actual evidence that Wolf had suggested that Gore should wear earth tones. Nor was it entirely clear what particular earth-toned clothing the press corps had in mind. Indeed, the story began with a lone “speculation”—a speculation passed on in the Washington Post. Though this speculation was never confirmed, it was instantly accepted as fact across the mainstream press. Within days, pundits were attributing the claim to Time, giving it the imprimatur of a well-known news magazine.
In fact, Time hadn’t mentioned earth tones at all. Let’s go back and review the way this iconic story took shape.
Naomi Wolf told Al Gore to wear earth tones! The story surfaced one day after Duffy’s report, offered as a “speculation” in Monday’s Washington Post. Reporter Ceci Connolly had spoken with Dick Morris, the former Clinton aide who worked with Wolf four years before. In a single sentence, an iconic tale received its national launch:
“Morris speculated that Wolf, who has long contended that earth tones are more ‘reassuring’ to audiences, is the person behind Gore’s recent wardrobe change,” Connolly wrote.
Morris had offered a speculation. But by 5 o’clock that afternoon, CNN’s Jonathan Karl was reporting his speculation as an established fact. According to Karl, Wolf’s advice to Gore had “included encouraging him to ditch his blue suits in favor of earth tones.” Karl offered no source for this factual claim. But the story would never look back.
Naomi Wolf told Al Gore to wear earth tones! The claim was treated as fact on that evening’s Hardball and in a New York Times editorial the next morning. Incorrectly, the editorial sourced this claim to Time. An enjoyable sound-bite had been born, one of the campaign’s most famous.
A question must be asked at this point: How accurate was the very premise of Morris’ speculation? In point of fact, had Gore made a “recent wardrobe change” in which he began wearing earth tones? In fact, it’s obvious from campaign reporting that Gore had worn earth-toned clothing on the trail all year, starting in March, in New Hampshire. (This should hardly come as a shock. People routinely wear “earth tones.”) Indeed, in April 1999, the Daily News Record, a fashion publication, reviewed the wardrobes of the various White House contenders, interviewing fashion mavens about the candidates’ duds. At one point, the journal quoted Fred Davis, “head of Dan Quayle’s image team,” about the wardrobe of Candidate Gore.
Davis’ judgment may seem surprising. “Gore needs to move from earth tones to black and dark grays,” he was quoted saying.
In short, all the way back in April 1999, Davis had said that Gore was wearing too many earth tones. And several reporters, Connolly included, had written profiles of Gore in the spring, plainly describing him on the trail in such hues. It’s true that Gore began to wear a brown suit to some campaign events in September. This seemed to trouble a few major pundits, though Gore had been described in taupe suits, olive suits and light brown suits at various times through the year. In late September, Newsweek’s Bill Turque offered one of the only reports which explained what journalists had in mind, if anything, when they claimed that Candidate Gore had recently switched to earth tones:
Election time is approaching, and once again Gore is trying to colorize his beige public image. This year, as in every national campaign since 1988, aides speak hopefully of a reinvented Gore. With warmer, earth-tone suits, a buffer build and a trimmed-down message, he is poised, they say, to reveal some of what family, friends and reporters working off the record often see: a spontaneous, engaging and even subversively funny man.
Had Gore really made a “recent wardrobe change” to earth tones, the premise of Morris’ speculation? At best, the claim referred to a few new suits; at worst, the claim was false. But the press corps had spent the month of October saying that Gore had just “ditched his blue suits and pulled on his boots” due to Bradley’s rise in the polls, a baldly inaccurate claim. If pundits were willing to peddle that tale, they’d run with this one too.
Gore had begun to wear a brown suit. This led to one of the strangest episodes in modern journalistic history.
For those who want to understand the way the press corps fashioned this tale, one last feature should be noted. That’s the way pundits began to source the “earth tones” story to Time.
Naomi Wolf told Al Gore to wear earth tones! To all appearances, no one wanted to say that the claim was based on a “speculation” by Morris, who was now building a new career as a Clinton-bashing “analyst” on the Fox News Channel. But for whatever reason, major journalists were soon saying–falsely, of course–that the claim about Wolf recommending earth tones had come from the pages of Time.
The error began in that New York Times editorial on Tuesday, November 2. The next day, Maureen Dowd made the same misstatement in her New York Times column. Clarence Page asserted the bogus fact too, in his syndicated Chicago Tribune column. (“It was Wolf, Time reported, who persuaded the president to wear more ‘earth tones.’”) Morris’ speculation was airbrushed away as journalists sourced their assertion to Time. Alas! According to a Nexis search, no journalist ever cited Morris as the source of the earth tones claim, while a string of major journalists falsely sourced the story to Time. Meanwhile, some scribes employed a time-honored way to avoid sourcing the story at all. Wolf had "reportedly" told Gore to wear earth tones, these slippery journalists said.
One last trick completed the package. Wolf’s flat denial was almost never mentioned in the endless earth tone discussions. Voters were told that she’d offered this advice. They weren’t told about her denials.
Naomi Wolf told Al Gore to wear earth tones! The mocking claim was widely repeated, mingled with another sound-bite. This second bite became famous too. It involved “alpha males.”
Surprise! The claim about Wolf and the alpha males actually
came from the pages of Time, although the reference was fleeting. At one point, Duffy described a bit of advice Wolf had given to Gore. “Democratic Party sources say it’s Wolf who, more than anyone else, has urged Gore to bare his teeth at the President he has served loyally for more than seven years,” Duffy wrote. “Wolf has argued internally that Gore is a ‘Beta male’ who needs to take on the ‘Alpha male’ in the Oval Office before the public will see him as the top dog.”
According to Duffy, Wolf had offered a bit of advice in which she used the term “alpha male.” The quoted statement was his sole reference to this topic. But Duffy’s “top dog” word-play would prove irresistible; his colleagues began to steal his joke as they expressed their deep concern about Wolf’s confounding advice. On November 3, Maureen Dowd’s column captured the catty tone of the mockery: “When a man has to pony up a fortune to a woman to teach him how to be a man, that definitely takes the edge off his top-dogginess,” she cleverly wrote, lifting Duffy’s language. Dowd had even phoned pop anthropologist Lionel Tiger, who walked her through the “alpha male” concept.
As many other pundits would do, Dowd pretended to be confused by this exotic concept.
That said, was anything strange about this bit of advice? Wolf addressed the burgeoning “alpha male” flap in her interview with Henneberger. According to the Times reporter, Wolf “did mention Alpha versus Beta males, she allows, but only once, in passing.” Wolf noted, with considerable justice, that the point she made to Gore was perhaps the world’s most obvious bit of advice. “It was just a truism,” she told Henneberger, “something the pundits had been saying for months, that the vice president is in a supportive role and the President is in an initiatory role. I used those terms as shorthand in talking about the difference in their job descriptions.”
It was hard to dispute Wolf’s point. In fact, the usual pundits had already voiced some form of this “truism.” They had noted that Gore, like every vice president who runs for the White House, would have to emerge from his president’s shadow at some point in the race. As early as November 1998, this topic was being routinely discussed on Hardball. By the fall of 1999, the comparison to Vice President Bush and President Reagan had already been beaten to death.
Some pundits had even used colorful imagery in making this stock observation. Back on March 16, for example, Hardball’s Chris Matthews discussed Gore’s need to separate himself from Clinton, asking a panel of guests when the vice president should “come out of that, that little caterpillar womb and become a butterfly.” Matthews liked his butterfly image so much, he used it again just a few moments later. But Matthews’ guests didn’t waste their time psychoanalyzing his figure of speech. Instead, they stated their views about when Gore should emerge from his subservient role as vice president.
Eight months later, Wolf and Gore wouldn’t be nearly so lucky. On October 31, Duffy’s report mentioned “alphas” and “betas;” the press corps took the expression and ran. The theme emerged that very morning, on Fox News Sunday, as Brit Hume expressed his deep concern about the troubling concept.
Frankly, Hume was worried. Wolf had “advised the vice president that he is the beta male to Bill Clinton’s alpha male in that relationship, and that it’s very important that he somehow reverse that,” he said in a panel discussion. “I mean, this all sounds a little strange.” Hume then advanced a punishing notion, one which would soon be widely echoed. Al Gore doesn’t know who he is, he suggested, two or three times:
I think what it suggests about Al Gore is...that this may be a man who doesn’t know who the heck he is, doesn’t have any idea who he is and is trying to find who to be.
Now, all politicians make adjustments continually on issues and positions and attitudes for political suitability. That’s all within the realm of reasonableness. But when you have somebody who brings in some exotic consultant from the, you know, feminist psychobabble movement, who’s trying to teach him about alpha male and beta male stuff, you wonder if Al Gore has any idea who he is.
Complaining about Wolf’s psychobabble, Hume produced some babble himself. In the process, he voiced a point which would soon be standard: Al Gore doesn’t know who he is! Within days, this tendentious diagnosis was being voiced by the usual gaggle of pundits. It was also voiced by the RNC, whose talking-points continued to track those of the mainstream press.
Al Gore doesn’t know who he is! A range of pundits were soon advancing this group diagnosis. And another claim was thrown in the stew, reflecting the frequengtly ugly gender obsession the press corps would display in its discussions of Wolf. Wolf had used the term “alpha male,” and pundits seemed to know what that meant: Al Gore had hired a woman to teach him how to be a man! Starting on the November 2 Hardball, this derisive claim was widely advanced, woven together with other key points as the nation’s mainstream pundits began to deliver their latest group thrashing.
During this same first week of November, major pundits were standing in line to defend George Bush in the pop quiz flap. Liberal bias was hard to find as the month of Wolf began.
Month of Wolf: A virtual wilding
For a sense of the trashing extended to Gore,
let’s return to Hardball, the Washington-based cable show which was influential within the DC press elite. In chapter 4, we watched as Chris Matthews and pundit guests puffed the virtues of Candidate Bradley. How did Matthews and his guests react to the news about Wolf?
In truth, they reacted quite poorly. As the month of Wolf unfolded, Candidate Gore would be widely assailed. But no one did it more harshly than Hardball—and no one else started so fast.
The onslaught began on Monday evening, November 1. As he started his discussion, Matthews compared Wolf to Nancy Reagan’s astrologer, although he did offer one mocking distinction. “At least [the astrologer] was providing actual information, astrological charts,” he said. “What exactly is this woman doing for Al except sort of building up his beefiness, or whatever—his masculinity?”
According to Matthews, Wolf had been assigned the task of building up Gore’s masculinity. Conservative writer Christina Hoff Sommers quickly seconded this notion. “Well, apparently Naomi Wolf has been hired by the campaign, by Al Gore, to help him assert his masculinity,” she said. “And this is pathetic. It's really sad that he has to operate at that level.”
A virtual wilding had begun. On this first evening of the onslaught, Matthews was helped by two conservative women—Sommers and Susan Molinari, the former Republican congresswoman. With their eager participation, the pounding of Wolf began at a very high level of insult. The basic claims were assumed to be true: Naomi Wolf had told Gore to wear earth tones, and to behave like an alpha male. On this basis, standard insults were fashioned: Al Gore doesn’t know who he is! And, of course, Al Gore hired a woman to teach him to be a man!
Al Gore hired a woman to teach him how to be a man! In effect, Sommers and Matthews joined forces this night to craft that standard insult. “You can imagine the serious people on this campaign must be mortified that he's listening to this young woman,” Sommers said. “And one thing,” Matthews quickly replied. “Bill Clinton may have had a lot of problems…But he didn't need anybody to teach him how to be a guy.”
A standard insult was struggling to be born. Moments later, Matthews and his conservative guest went where rubber meets road.
“Let's get to the issue that is really at the tip of our tongues,” Matthews said to Sommers. He warned his pundit guests that the issue in question was “very tricky to talk about, even an adult show like this one.” But finally, he popped the question: “Christina, what are some of the more outlandish proposals this woman has made about the upbringing of women in the sexual department?”
Sommers took over from there. “Well, now that you’ve asked,” she coyly replied, “is this a family show?” Urged to speak freely, she lowered the boom. “Let's just say she celebrates female sexual ecstasy,” Sommers said. “And she has very detailed programs on how a woman can get in touch with her inner slut.”
Wolf had “very detailed programs on how a woman can get in touch with her inner slut?” This notion came from the mind of Sommers; none of the language, and none of the tone, was drawn from Wolf’s actual work. But Matthews quickly affirmed this claim and Sommers was soon advancing another: “I mean, her views are very, very eccentric. Even among feminists, she's eccentric, unusual—a little bit outrageous.”
Naomi Wolf had always been a respected figure within the mainstream press. But now, she was advising Gore—and a wilding had started. “It's like Hillary changes her hair every two hours,” Matthews said, adding another colorful insult. “This guy changes his face every two hours.”
Other insults were offered this night, along with a bit of feigned confusion concerning the “alpha male” concept. But this first discussion of Wolf and Gore showed where Hardball was headed. By Tuesday evening, November 2, Matthews had his new set of insults down cold. “Hiring a woman to teach him how to be more like a man,” he sputtered. “This is like political Viagra!” Again, a few moments later: “Hiring this woman to teach him how to be a man, this alpha male thing, I never heard of before.” Later, he recited his script a third time: “I call it his political Viagra. Now he's got a woman telling him how to be a man!” For the next few weeks, Matthews would rely on these standard denigrations as he fashioned other insults which were uniquely his own.
The denigration was constant. Gore was mocked as “Bionic Al” and as the Incredible Hulk. He was described as “a man-like object;” this revived a favorite Hardball insult from the month of September. He was compared to Peter Pan; to Mr. Wizard; to the cartoon figure Clutch Cargo. According to Matthews, Wolf was helping Gore be “more Johnny Carson than Ed McMahon;” she was teaching him to be “more John Wayne and at the same time more Alan Alda.” Gore was “a bit like Jackie Mason,” he mused; the notion that Wolf was advising Gore was “like a Billy Crystal movie”—a very silly such movie at that. (Matthews went into great detail about what would occur in this film.)
For her own part, Wolf was “this sort of Svengali,” “a strange guru for a grown-up guy to be listening to.” She was compared to Nancy Reagan’s astrologer on three different Hardball programs. She was also compared to Miss Lewinsky; playing tape of Wolf’s appearance on This Week, Matthews said, “That sounds like Monica Lewinsky talking! That sounds like Valley Girl talk!” Meanwhile, the smutty jibes about Gore’s “masculinity” were being updated nightly. On November 5, Matthews sadly noted the “fact” that Gore “doesn’t have his gender straight.” The night before, he had said that Gore was “growing into this protean new person, this new today's man-woman.”
On that same November 4 program, Watergate burglar Gordon Liddy improved one of the corps’ standard insults. According to Liddy, Candidate Gore now had “a girl trying to teach him how to be a real man” (author’s emphases).
By the end of week one in this month of Wolf, Hardball’s banter had descended to a truly unfortunate level. By November 4, pundit guest Patrick Caddell was alleging that “there’s a weird relationship somewhere here with the wife or the daughter, I don't know what.” Liddy was opining that “at its most charitable, it’s a bit bizarre, being paid...to tell this guy how to be a real man.” The next night, Matthews was back on his Viagra kick. (“I call her the political equivalent of Viagra.”) Ending the week on a scripted note, he joined NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in an extended exchange about whether Gore even knew who he was. The pair of insider pundits agreed: In Mitchell’s words, “It's incredible that, after all these years in public office, that either he doesn't know who he is or that he doesn't like who he is.”
For the record, Mitchell was responding to this question from Matthews: “Who is Al Gore? Does he need advice, not on hair color or whatever, but on who is he? He's got a woman telling him how to be an alpha male, whatever that is.” (The notion that Wolf was helping Gore with his hair was advanced on four programs.)
It’s hard to capture the depth and the ugliness of the inanity spewed on this nightly program. But as the month of Wolf unfolded, how foolish could Hardball’s discussions get? Just consider the number of buttons Matthews had spied on Gore’s suits.
It’s true: As of November 1999, Candidate Gore was appearing in public wearing three-button suits. For the record, the three-button men’s suit was completely conventional at that point in time. On November 17, the Los Angeles Times noted that Gore “certainly isn’t in danger of getting out front of the voters in fashion...The three-button suit has been hot for so long now it's almost out.” Nor was the three-button suit the fashion preserve of our radical leftists. In the conservative Wall Street Journal, the conservative clothier Brooks Brothers was running display ads for its own three-button suits.
No matter! Such facts were going to make no difference as the jeering of Gore continued. On Hardball, Matthews spent the month of November counting the buttons on Gore’s troubling suits, routinely advancing bizarre accounts of what the buttons meant.
For one example, consider the program of Friday, November 12.
On this evening, Matthews had invited jury consultant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius to help him assess Gore’s connection to Wolf. (By now, this topic had driven his program for two solid weeks.) The following exchange occurred, an emblem of the sheer inanity consuming large parts of the press corps:
Matthews: You know, there's been a lot of talk about the new costuming of Al Gore. You know, he used to wear blue suits like I do, or gray suits. Now he's wearing these new olive suits. He's taking up something rather unconventional, the three-button male suit jacket. I always– My joke is, “I'm Albert, I'll be your waiter tonight.” I mean, I don't know anybody who buttons all three buttons, even if they have them. What could that possibly be saying to women voters, three buttons?
Dimitrius: Well, I, I think that–
Matthews: Is there some hidden Freudian deal here or what? I don't know. I mean, Navy guys used to have buttons on their pants. I don't know what it means. Go ahead.
To her credit, Dimitrius seemed puzzled by Matthews’ questions. After some initial fumbling, she took a diplomatic approach to the problem, suggesting that Gore might understand that “olive green, dark green is much more approachable” than dark blue in a man’s suit. “Is that why Peter Pan wore green?” Matthews quickly responded. As Dimitrius fumbled again for an answer, her host finally asked a relevant question:
“How does my mind work that way,” he asked his puzzled guest.
Whatever the answer may have been, Matthews’ mind kept “working that way” all through the month of November. He raised the topic of Gore’s three buttons on half a dozen Hardball programs, running through November 24. On five of these occasions, Matthews said the three-button suits made Gore look like a waiter; he told his “I’m Albert, I’ll be your waiter” joke on three different programs. Nor was Matthews the only major press figure counting the buttons on Gore’s troubling suits; on November 9, Arianna Huffington attacked Gore for wearing four-button suits. “The way he's now dressing makes a lot of people feel disconnected from him,” she told a panel of pundits on Geraldo Rivera’s nightly CNBC show. “It's just not the way most American males dress.”
Gore hadn’t worn any four-button suits. Huffington simply added a button, making her nonsense stand out from the pack. But a virtual wilding was now underway. Chris Matthews was setting the standard.
On cable, Matthews was the leading face of the NBC news behemoth. For reasons no one has ever explained, he was now making an ugly joke of a critical White House campaign.
But then, the national press corps had Wolf on the brain
during the month of November. Reporters found ways to talk about Wolf in every conceivable context. A few examples:
On November 21, Bush did the full hour on Meet the Press, the nation’s most influential news program. He wasn’t asked about the pop quiz he had failed. But Tim Russert did ask him to comment on Wolf, two separate times.
On November 22, the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani wrote a lengthy, front-page report about the various books the major candidates had written. She devoted roughly 900 words to Gore’s 1992 best-seller, Earth in the Balance. In a weirdly disjointed and hostile account of the once-heralded, best-selling book, Kakutani mentioned Wolf, or earth tones, or alpha males, three separate times.
Naomi Wolf had nothing to do with Gore's environmental best-seller.
Elsewhere, the lunacy wore no disguise. On November 11, Cal Thomas devoted his nationally syndicated column to Wolf’s role in the Gore campaign. “[I]t appears the unofficial theme will be ‘Victor/Victoria,’ ” he wrote in his opening paragraph, “with Al Gore in the lead role of a man playing a woman playing a man.” Later, Thomas said that Wolf prescribed “teaching [kids] to get naked with one another in school and to masturbate.” According to Thomas, these were “two of her recommended strategies to keep them so preoccupied they won't give their parents or the country any trouble.”
Thomas was the nation’s most widely-read political columnist. According to the Nexis archives, no press critic ever challenged the astonishing things he had said.
Then there was the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher, writing a column for the Post magazine on Sunday, November 28.
Four weeks into this month of Wolf, Fisher remained deeply troubled. Why in the world had Candidate Gore decided “to hire an oddball like Naomi Wolf?” So Fisher asked, describing Wolf as “a controversialist” with “perfectly teased hair.” As he finished his rumination, he answered his question two possible ways. Once again, a major pundit recited the corps’ standard lines:
We have two choices: We can say Gore's a good man who's been duped by over-eager aides, or we can say this is a man who does not know himself, a man who is unknowable, unreadable and therefore not fit to be president.
A person who makes her living by writing pop philosophy about sex tells a man who would be president of the United States that he must be a different kind of man, that he must be more assertive, that he must wear a brown suit of a sort that is alien to virtually every American. And he says, "Okay."
To call him unreadable is to be charitable.
That was the end of Fisher’s column. Consider what he had said:
Over the course of the next three months, Gore would become the first Democratic candidate in history to win every party primary. He would go on to win the popular vote in November 2000. But Fisher just couldn’t get past that brown suit. It “was alien to virtually every American,” the troubled columnist said.
Needless to say, the brown suit told Fisher something else: Al Gore doesn’t know who he is! For a month, this had been a mainstream press script.
Fisher typed it up.
By now, it was hard to avoid an unpleasant thought:
The press corps was staging a war against Gore—a thinly-disguised journalistic war which would later be described as a wilding. The blatant phoniness of their crusade came clear a few months later.
During their month of Wolf, a long list of major pundits complained about the salary being paid to the "sexpot counselor." In Time, Duffy reported that she was being paid $15,000 per month—$180,000 per year. One or two ranking pundits noted that this was fairly typical pay for a major campaign adviser. But a long string of pundits marveled at this “astounding,” “amazing” amount.
On Hardball, Matthews expressed his concern. “That's a lot of money,” he said on November 1. “It's about six times the national average for a household.” Four weeks later, in the Post magazine, Fisher was still asking why Gore would pay Wolf such a sum.
That same month, People magazine reported that Matthews was being paid “an annual salary that exceeds $1 million.” This fact didn’t prove that the press corps’ concerns about salary were bogus. But before long, a news report did.
On February 8, 2000, USA Today published a report about Richard Quinn, John McCain’s campaign manager in South Carolina. (A crucial GOP primary was underway in the state.) Quinn was the long-time editor of Southern Partisan, a quarterly magazine with an unusual editorial viewpoint. That same day, a report in the New York Times described the views of this McCain adviser.
“A look at some of the articles in Southern Partisan shows why it has become the nation's leading journal of the so-called neo-confederacy movement,” David Firestone wrote. “In issue after issue, writers in Southern Partisan vilify Abraham Lincoln and other Union leaders...The magazine rarely writes about slavery, but when it does, its positions are usually not those of mainstream historians.” Other reports described the writings of Quinn himself. This included his praise for David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, and his claim that Martin Luther King was a man “whose role in history was to lead his people into a perpetual dependence on the welfare state.”
In Slate, Jacob Weisberg described Southern Partisan as “a magazine that publishes apologias for slavery and sells paraphernalia celebrating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.”
Whatever one may think of such views, Quinn was light-years farther from the mainstream than Wolf ever dreamed of being. Meanwhile, USA Today mentioned another fact. “McCain pays Quinn $20,000 a month for advice,” the paper reported, “and rents his state campaign headquarters from him for $2,120 a month.”
In November, the pundit corps had ranted and raved about Wolf’s salary. Now, McCain was paying Quinn substantially more—and the press corps was totally quiet. Just consider some numbers concerning the pay of these two advisers.
In the first two weeks after Quinn’s salary surfaced, it was cited six more times in the national press, according to Nexis records.
But consider what happened in the first two weeks after Wolf’s salary was reported. According to Nexis records, her salary was cited more than two hundred times in the national press. Wolf’s smaller salary produced a large uproar. Quinn’s substantially larger salary was almost completely ignored.
Nor did the press give birth to a cow concerning Quinn’s unusual views. All of a sudden, very few pundits seemed to care about “controversial advisers.”
McCain was questioned about Quinn’s views on This Week and Meet the Press. Elsewhere, the silence was deafening. Quinn was simply never mentioned on such CNN programs as Late Edition, Inside Politics and Capital Gang. He wasn’t mentioned on Face the Nation or on the PBS NewsHour. He wasn’t mentioned on Today or any other morning news program. According to Nexis, he was never mentioned on the Fox News Channel at all.
No columnist at the Washington Post ever mentioned Quinn or his views. At the New York Times, only Bob Herbert did.
One more cable show should be cited; Quinn’s views were never mentioned on Hardball. Chris Matthews had ranted and raved about Wolf for a month. But Wolf had been working for Candidate Gore—and an undisguised war was now on.
Gore was pounded all through November, the press corps’
month of Wolf. It no longer made much sense to pretend that the coverage being handed to Gore was a reflection of the corps' considered professional judgment.
Candidate Bradley was still getting puffed, as pundits praised his high character. Bush was praised for the flawless way he read a foreign policy speech. John McCain was in the early stage of what was already being described as "The Swoon." But Gore was now caught in a virtual wilding. He had three buttons on his suit. Beyond that, his suit was brown.
On December 1, the month of Wolf at last made way for a new invented scandal. This new scandal, built from a misquotation, brought AL GORE, LIAR back center stage.
In this, the month of Love Canal, the corps' most punishing portrait of Gore would harden. Then, it would turn to stone.
About the author
Bob Somerby launched his web site, The Daily Howler, in March 1998.
(To continue, click here.)
Table of contents
For the full table of contents:
A question: How did he get there?
Chapter 1: A search for bias: Bush and Gore hit the trail
Chapter 2: Inventing a LIAR: In love with Love Story
Chapter 3: Washington Post at war: It was the mainstream press, stupid!
Chapter 4: Puffing Bush and jeering Gore: New Hampshire was for Heathers
Chapter 5: A campaign about clothing/A virtual wilding: The press corps' month of Wolf
The Daily Howler
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