Al Gore formally launched his campaignon June 16, 1999. The theater critics said he had yelled–that he had perspired too much. He was Bill Clinton’s “bathtub ring.” He was like a Nazi collaborator.
Two days later, a profoundly fact-challenged editorial appeared in the New York Post. Its headline captured the terms of an ongoing war–a war which had already raged in the national press for three months.
The editorial bore a remarkable headline:
"AL GORE, LIAR," it said.
Officially, he’d been in the race for two days. But already, Gore was a LIAR.
In fact, that headline defined a powerful narrative–a widely-repeated, standard Group Story which largely defined the press corps’ coverage of Campaign 2000. Al Gore was a liar–just like Bill Clinton! Voters had heard such claims for three months by the time of Gore's formal launch. And one point is abundantly clear:
This punishing narrative was largely developed within the mainstream press corps. A conservative tabloid, the New York Post, would aggressively push the theme this day. But in large part, the notion that Gore was a troubling LIAR had come from the mainstream press.
How did Gore get defined as a LIAR–as someone who had “a problem with the truth?” It’s one of the most remarkable, and most consequential, stories in modern press history. Without question, the press corps’ devotion to this theme was the single most important element in the coverage of Campaign 2000. Persistently, this punishing theme would re-emerge at key junctures during this twenty-month race. In particular, this theme shaped the coverage in September 2000, and then again in October, as Election Day drew near.
If Gore’s campaign began picking up steam, this punishing theme would reappear. Candidate Gore’s ascending prospects would clatter back to earth.
AL GORE, LIAR! The punishing theme drove much of the coverage, especially when it mattered the most. But the theme took shape in just a few weeks in March 1999. It was driven by three peculiar claims–tortured claims about absurdly trivial things Gore had said.
By June 18, this trio of alleged LIES had been endlessly flogged in the press. The New York Post featured all three claims in the editorial which carried that striking headline. By that date, all three of these peculiar claims would have been familiar to readers:
Al Gore said he invented the Internet!From that peculiar set of claims, a punishing theme had been built around Gore. As will be clear in later chapters, this theme would come to define the coverage of this long race.
Al Gore said he inspired Love Story!
Al Gore said he grew up on a farm. But he really grew up in Washington!
This chapter will thus describe the events which first sent George Bush toward the White House.
Warning! The trio of LIES ascribed to Gore involve remarkably trivial matters. Examination of these claims will sometimes involve tedious issues of fact. But there is no way to discuss this campaign without reviewing this trio of claims. The press corps’ coverage of Campaign 2000 turned on a string of peculiar claims. Trivial though these charges may seem, they defined, and decided, this race.
Did Al Gore say he inspired the book Love Story? Did he lie about chores he had done as a child? By normal journalistic standards, it’s odd to think that such odd claims could drive the coverage of a White House campaign–could generate powerful, widely-voiced claims against a major candidate's character. But the press corps’ war against Candidate Gore would return to these claims again and again. This peculiar theme would reappear at each stage of this race.
Gore was a liar, the press corps said, sometimes selecting their words with more care. The theme was assembled, with startling speed, in just a few weeks, in March 1999. This theme was already quite familiar by the time Bush and Gore kicked off their campaigns. The press mocked Gore at the time of his speech, hounded him about Clinton/Lewinsky. But a vastly more damaging theme had already locked into place.
In effect, the press corps invented a LIAR, often following narrative frameworks invented by the RNC. In what follows, the press corps' conduct will sometimes be hard to believe. And yet, the record is clear.
At the start of Campaign 2000, the national press corps invented a LIAR. This is the way it occurred.
The press corps' war against Candidate Gorebegan on March 11, 1999.
On March 9, Gore had been interviewed for a special, week-night broadcast of Late Edition, CNN’s Sunday morning talk program. Gore was sitting vice president of the United States, odds-on favorite to win his party’s nomination for president. For that reason, CNN promoted the special Tuesday night broadcast. It would feature Gore’s “first on-camera interview since filing as a candidate,” one network promo said.
Gore was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer, regular host of Late Edition. Two days after this first interview, the press corps’ war began.
A year of impeachment had come to an end; Gore’s informal campaigning had started. And a propaganda campaign from the Washington press corps would follow in extremely short order. This campaign would be built on a nasty charge–the charge that Candidate Gore was a LIAR. This theme would dominate coverage of Gore for most of the next twenty months.
It all began with something Gore said in that March 9 session with Blitzer.
Midway through the 15-minute interview, Blitzer asked Gore what set him apart from former senator Bill Bradley, his sole opponent for the Democratic nomination. Somewhat clumsily, Gore offered a list of his accomplishments during his sixteen years in Congress. (He was now in his seventh year as vice president.) One part of Gore’s answer drew more attention than any statement by any candidate in the entire 2000 campaign. Given the relentless way it was flogged, this single remark may well have decided the outcome of Campaign 2000.
Gore's statement to Blitzer would become famous–indeed, iconic. But at the time Gore made the remark, no one showed the slightest sign of thinking he'd said something odd.
“I’ll be offering my vision when my campaign begins,” Gore said at the start of a rambling answer. “But it will emerge from my dialogue with the American people.” He continued: “I’ve traveled to every part of this country during the last six years. During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth, environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.
“During a quarter century of public service, including most of it long before I came into my current job, I have worked to try to improve the quality of life in our country and in our world,” Gore said, nearing the end of his answer. “And what I've seen during that experience is an emerging future that's very exciting, about which I'm very optimistic, and toward which I want to lead.”
On the whole, this was the kind of stirring statement candidates routinely produce on the stump. The statement was also poorly formed; at one point, Gore clumsily used the world “initiative” three times in just two sentences. (Gore said he "took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives.") But as anyone who followed this campaign knows, Gore’s sixteen-word statement about the Internet was widely dissected for the next twenty months. Almost surely, it was the most widely-discussed statement in all of Campaign 2000.
Few off-the-cuff statements from any candidate have ever been so widely discussed. Or so consequential.
Gore’s statement would become iconic during Campaign 2000. For two years, it would be paraphrased, tortured, misquoted and spun, presented as a major indictment of the candidate’s troubling character.
But Gore’s comment received no attention at the time it was made. No one in the national press corps said boo when Gore made his remark.
For starters, Blitzer showed no sign of surprise at what his guest had said. He simply moved to his next question. (Why were Bush "and even Elizabeth Dole" ahead of Gore in the national polls?) Nor did CNN react to the comment; in its promotions for the taped interview, the network showed no sign of thinking that Gore had “made news” with his comment. Meanwhile, major news orgs which covered Gore’s interview completely ignored the remark. On March 10, the Washington Post published a full news report about the session, but only discussed Gore’s remarks about relations with China. On March 11, the conservative Washington Times discussed Gore’s interview in an editorial and in a separate political column. Neither piece mentioned the Internet comment at all.
The Associated Press filed several reports about the interview. None of them mentioned Gore’s Internet statement. The Hotline, a widely-read daily political digest, excerpted roughly forty percent of Gore’s remarks–and skipped the Internet statement completely.
Why did Gore’s statement pass without comment? The answer is fairly clear: Throughout the press corps, journalists knew that Gore had been the leader, within the Congress, in developing what we now call the Internet. Gore was explicitly describing his achievements in Congress, and if “I took the initiative” meant “I took the leadership,” his statement was perfectly accurate. (Extemporaneous speech doesn’t always parse perfectly. Every journalist knows this.) Indeed, when Gore’s remark finally came under attack, a wide array of Internet pioneers described his key role, within the Congress, in developing what we now call the Internet. On March 18, Gore explained what he'd meant by his comment in an interview with USA Today. “I did take the lead in the Congress,” he said, before describing his congressional work on the Internet in some detail.
This interview with USA Today put Gore’s explanation on the record. But in the weeks which followed, the explanation seems to have been cited by no other major news organization. By this time, the notion that Gore had made a troubling misstatement was being adopted all over the press corps. Pundits wasted little time repeating Gore’s clarification.
Gore's explanation came and went. The uproar would last for two years.
What are the facts about Gore’s work in this area? Quite plainly, Gore was the leader, within the Congress, in the development of what we now call the Internet. In the March 21 Memphis Commercial-Appeal, veteran reporter James Brosnan reviewed Gore's history with the Internet's development. He recalled a chronology which was well known within the Washington press corps.
As a young congressman, Gore began introducing bills to create a “data highway” as early as 1979. (In the late 1980s, he coined the term “Information Superhighway,” helping raise public and political awareness of the Internet’s potential. At the time, the Net was the province of research scientists. It was virtually unknown to the public.) In 1986, as chair of a Senate subcommittee, he passed legislation creating five super-computer centers; this led to National Science Foundation grants linking the centers to other universities. (At the time, there were only about 20,000 computers within the existing network.) In 1990, Gore offered a series of speeches and op-ed columns about the possibility of turning the Internet into a research tool for students. That same year, he offered legislation to create the high-speed National Research and Education Network. In 1991, when Gore’s bill finally passed, the Los Angeles Times described its scope. “The project would...replace the slower Internet, a group of 2,000 commercial, academic and government networks,” the Times reported.
In his 2000 biography of Gore, Bill Turque said this $1.7 billion measure “expand[ed] the capacity of the information highway to connect government, industry, and academic institutions” and “directed the National Science Foundation to assist colleges, universities and libraries in connecting to the new network.” At the time Gore was doing this work, the Internet bore little relation to the entity we know today–an entity which developed in substantial part due to Gore’s congressional efforts.
How clear was Gore’s leadership role in this area? The press corps was full of experienced scribes who knew all about his congressional work. According to Nexis records, major newspapers began describing the Internet in the late 1980s, explaining its probable future significance to generally uninformed readers. (In 1988, the Washington Post’s apparent first report of this type explained what a “virus” is.) When this discussion began in the national press, Gore’s role in promoting and funding the system’s development was a frequent part of the story.
By 1993, Gore was the newly-elected vice president. Given his background in high-tech issues, journalists asked if he would be the new administration’s “technology czar.” That April, in the Washington Post, financial columnist T. R. Reid recalled Gore’s congressional history:
Back in 1979 a junior congressman from Tennessee dropped a bill in the hopper calling for creation of a “data highway” across the nation–basically, a big fiber-optic transmission network to let computers exchange huge amounts of data at extremely high speeds. Nothing much came of the concept at first, but that congressman kept plugging away, enhancing the idea and its name. Over time, data highway gave way to sexier labels like Information Superhighway”...By 1994, the Net was becoming better known. In December of that year, the Washingtonian’s Alison Schneider looked back on its years of development. "Internet. There’s no escaping it," she whimsically wrote. "It seems like only yesterday that Al Gore was preaching the merits of the I-way to a nation that still thought the Net was something used only for catching butterflies."
[T]hree months ago, that man from Tennessee became the vice president of the United States. Suddenly, Al Gore's old dream took off. Today, you can find the idea enshrined [in] the Clinton administration's blueprint for its economic program, A Vision of Change for America.”
In short, Gore’s leadership role in this area had always been well understood in the press. And journalists weren’t the only ones who understood this history. Near the end of Campaign 2000, one of Gore’s best-known political foes described his long-term work on the Net. On September 1, 2000, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich addressed the American Political Science Association. He was asked about the Internet flap, which had now wasted the public’s time for roughly eighteen months. In response, Gingrich told the truth about a long-time political foe:
In all fairness, it’s something Gore had worked on a long time. Gore is not the Father of the Internet. But in all fairness, Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet, and the truth is...the fact is, in the Clinton administration, the world we had talked about in the ’80s began to actually happen.So spoke Gingrich, in praise of Gore. In fact, by the time Gore became vice president, he and Gingrich had become long-standing, largely friendly rivals concerning their work on "futurist" matters like the Internet. In 1995, the New York Times’ Peter Lewis, attending a national cyberspace conference, quoted a set of Gingrich supporters who said their man had now stolen Gore’s crown. “A number of participants said Mr. Gingrich had effectively seized the mantel of top Government cyberspace visionary from Vice President Al Gore,” Lewis wrote. His report helps show what reporters had long understood–that Gore had enjoyed a long-standing reign as the federal government’s King of the Net.
Experienced journalists had always known this. Presumably, that’s why no one batted an eye when Gore made his comment to Blitzer.
Had Gore somehow misstated his role? This notion would be aggressively promoted all through Campaign 2000. Over the course of the next twenty months, the attacks on Gore which derived from this comment would come to define this campaign. But in fairness, you had to work extremely hard to tease a LIE from Gore’s remark–or even a significant misstatement, a misstatement worth discussing.
Gore said this: “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” Eighteen months later, Gingrich said this: “Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet.” In the interim, a well-known journalist, now a Gore biographer, had completed the Rule of Three. “Gore really was instrumental in developing the Internet,” the Washington Post’s David Maraniss said in August 2000, in a CNN interview. “He was the one congressman who understood the whole thing in the late 1970s, when no other congressman gave a darn about it.”
Had Gore misstated his Internet role? His initial statement had been slightly jumbled, though no one seemed to find it strange at the time. His subsequent clarification had been perfectly accurate. And here, we must note an important point: By traditional standards of American journalism, that clarification should have marked the end of this pointless affair. This "scandal" should have ended there, with the clearer statement of a fact which everyone knew all along. Indeed, in a more normal time, Gore’s long-term congressional work on the Net would have counted as one of his major achievements. It would have been listed with Candidate McCain’s work on campaign finance reform, to cite another example.
But Gore’s campaign was not beginning at a normal time in our history. As the vice president sat for his session with Blitzer, President Clinton’s impeachment trial had ended just three weeks before. Feelings of "outrage" about this affair were still roiling the Washington press corps. Three months after his session with Blitzer, Gore would officially launch his campaign; he'd be showered with questions from national journalists about Bill Clinton’s misconduct. One major scribe would tell the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz that reporters were "going to make him jump through the hoops" until he’d trashed Clinton sufficiently.
In June, when Gore formally launched his campaign, the press corps’ "outrage" was still quite apparent. One can assume that these feelings of outrage had only been stronger in March.
At any rate, Gore’s remark about the Net would become a cause celebre. Completely ignored at the time it was made, it would become an iconic example of an alleged character problem–the candidate’s "problem with the truth." For the next two years, Gore would be savaged as a LIAR; his off-hand remark about the Net would routinely be Exhibit A in the press and pundit attacks. But look again at what three men said, and convince yourself that it really did happen. Convince yourself that, for almost two years, Gore was denounced by the press as a LIAR–denounced for a statement which produced no reaction at the time it was made:
Al Gore, March 1999: During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.Two of these men remained major pundits. One of these men stood condemned as a LIAR. "We’re going to make him jump through the hoops," Roger Simon soon told Howard Kurtz.
David Maraniss, August 2000: Gore really was instrumental in developing the Internet. He was the one congressman who understood the whole thing in the late 1970s, when no other congressman gave a darn about it.
Newt Gingrich, September 2000: Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet.
How did Gore become a LIAR? His statementto Blitzer occurred on March 9. After two days of press corps silence, the criticism started on March 11. It began at a Republican press conference–a session in which Republican leaders largely joked about Gore’s remark.
On March 11, 1999, a war began. At mid-day, the first volley sounded.
On the wire of the Associated Press, Michelle Mittelstadt filed a news report about the Republican press conference. She began her report with a colorful paraphrase–a paraphrase which seemed to embellish what Gore had actually said. "Vice President Al Gore’s claim that he is the father of the Internet drew amused protests Thursday from congressional Republicans," Mittelstadt wrote. So began a long campaign which ended with Bush in the White House.
Mittelstadt had written a colorful lead, using language Republican leaders were using to mock Gore’s Internet comment. But had Gore really claimed he was "the father of the Internet?" The language was surely entertaining, but it wasn’t drawn from Gore’s actual statement. Instead, it seemed to be drawn from Gore’s Republican critics, who had jokingly stated their concerns about Gore’s troubling comment. Mittelstadt began with House majority leader Dick Armey, who complained about Gore’s "outrageous claim." She included some jokes the Republican leaders had told about Gore’s allegedly ludicrous statement. In her own voice, she even included some pseudo-history taken straight from the GOP leaders–silly, irrelevant pre-Internet history the press corps would parrot for years.
Much of Mittelstadt’s report came straight from these GOP leaders–including overwrought language, and tortured history which she now stated as fact.
The next day, the AP quoted a press release from Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson. "Al Gore the father of the Internet?" he asked. Gore was "claim[ing] credit for other people’s successes," the troubled chairman now said.
In her report, Mittelstadt had committed a common journalistic offense. She engaged in a bit of colorful paraphrase, making her story a bit more striking–and a bit less accurate. She took a hazy statement by Gore and paraphrased it in the most tendentious way possible–which happened to be the very way his GOP rivals were spinning it. Had Gore ever claimed to be “father of the Internet?” The language wasn’t drawn from his actual statement, but it now led an AP report which ran in newspapers all over the country. And now, the press corps–having ignored Gore’s remark for two days–began to file excited reports which cut-and-pasted the GOP’s most tendentious claims and comments.
As with Mittelstadt, so with many others: Some of the GOP’s most tortured constructions were simply adopted, word-for-word, by major reporters and broadcasters. The GOP’s mocking version of Gore’s remark was now being turned into fact.
On March 11, for example, a typical GOP press release carried this headline: "DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR: VICE PRESIDENT GORE TAKES CREDIT FOR CREATING THE INTERNET." The next evening, Lou Dobbs seemed to channel this press release on Moneyline, his nightly CNN program.
“A case study tonight in delusions of grandeur,” Dobbs intoned at the start of his report. But then, in his tease for the segment on Gore, the CNN host had already adopted more of the RNC language. "Father of the Internet? He apparently thinks so," Dobbs said, channeling Nicholson’s earlier statement. Like Mittelstadt, Dobbs offered that embellished account of what Gore had said–an account which echoed Gore’s GOP critics. But he made no attempt to describe Gore’s long-term congressional work on the Net. His viewers heard the GOP’s mocking language, offered now in Dobbs' own voice–and none of the background information. But so it would go all through this campaign, confounding stereotypes about who runs the press corps. By March 12, the GOP had accused Gore of "delusions of grandeur," of thinking he was “the father of the Internet.” That night, Dobbs said the same things, in his own voice, right on CNN's air.
Dobbs’ report showed what was to come. Pundits rarely wasted time explaining Gore’s congressional record. Instead, in three easy steps, the candidate’s unremarkable comment became "delusional," the first of his LIES.
First, Gore’s explicit reference to the congressional context was dropped from most press accounts. To the extent that he was quoted at all, his sixteen words turned into eight: “I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” Soon, eight words were whittled down to three: Gore had said he "created the Internet." Most dramatically, the word "invented," which Gore never said, became the press corps’ verb of choice. All across the national press, citizens heard a comical story: Al Gore said he invented the Internet! In the Nexis record, this formulation first appears on March 11 and 12, voiced by three Republican members of Congress. But in the days amd weeks which followed, the mocking formulation was repeatedly featured in RNC press releases–and in reports by the national press.
Al Gore said he invented the Internet! On March 16 alone, three different writers in the Washington Times attributed the colorful phrasing to Gore. Two days later, the Times used the same phrase in a mocking editorial. “Everyone now knows Mr. Gore invented the Internet,” the paper sarcastically said. Strangely, the Times had failed to mention Gore’s statement in real time, when the paper offered two reviews of the vice president's session with Blitzer. But then, no one else had noticed Gore's alleged statement either–until the RNC began to broadcast its tendentious accounts.
The Washington Times was a conservative paper. For the next twenty months, it would batter Gore on all conceivable matters–large, small, real and invented. But with startling speed, Al Gore said he invented the Internet became a piece of mainstream press dogma too. USA Today used the colorful phrase in a March 15 editorial. (Headline: "Inventing the Internet.") That same day, Al Kamen used the phrase in his column in the Washington Post. On March 16, Hardball’s Chris Matthews ridiculed Gore for having said he "invented the Internet." One day later, CNN’s Judy Woodruff mocked Gore as "inventor of the Internet" on her influential daily show, Inside Politics. The colorful-but-unuttered phrase reached the Los Angeles Times (and Newsday) on March 18; the Boston Globe on March 20; the Associated Press on March 22. On cable, the formulation jumped to CNN's Crossfire on March 19, the same day it made its debut on the Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes.
Use of the phrase became quite standard, even within "Establishment Washington." By March 28, Ceci Connolly was using the embellished construction in a Washington Post news report. By April 22, Cokie Roberts and Steve Roberts were chiding Gore, in their nationally syndicated newspaper column. Gore “didn't need to claim to have invented the Internet,” these ranking insiders now said. In June, as Gore made his foremal launch, an array of major mainstream papers attributed the statement to Gore. "He has clumsily stated his accomplishments, claiming, for example, to have invented the Internet." So wrote Ann Scales in the "liberal" Boston Globe, on the day of Gore's formal launch. Two days later, another Globe writer mocked Gore for having said this strange thing. ("His assertion that he invented the Internet speak of poor instincts, an odd self-image, and a clumsy tongue.")
Al Gore said he invented the Internet! The comical phrase went double iconic, adopted by reporters and pundits alike. One high (or low) point in this spreading burlesque came a few months later, in USA Today, as Bush and Gore’s announcement speeches loomed. In a June 2 news report about problems afflicting the Gore campaign, Mimi Hall passed through the looking-glass with this account of the candidate’s now-famous statement:
A couple of Gore gaffes, including his assertion that he “invented” the Internet, didn’t help.Remarkably, that’s how the report appeared: The one word Hall (or her editors) put inside quotes was the one word Gore had never said! Nor was Hall alone in this blunder. On June 16, the day of Gore’s launch, Newsday’s Elaine Povich derided his alleged “gaffes” while matching Hall’s earlier bungle:
It was another gaffe in a series of missteps so far in Gore's campaign–including...his widely mocked assertion that he “invented” the Internet.The New York Post would do the same thing in its June 18 editorial (text below). But the practice had gotten its start back in March, when The Hill, a daily Capitol Hill newspaper, permitted a conservative commentator to “quote” Gore in this inaccurate manner. All over Capitol Hill, reporters and politicians saw Gore derided as "the 'inventor' of the Internet." The one word the candidate never said, The Hill had now placed inside quotes. But so it would go for the next two years as the press corps embellished the news to build drama. For the next two years, this embroidered paraphrase would be the statement of record, routinely repeated as if Gore really said it. Millions of voters would come to believe that Gore really made the laughable statement. And voters were told, again and again, that this statement defined a character problem–quite possibly, a psychiatric problem. It showed that Gore had a “problem with the truth.” It defined a new man: AL GORE, LIAR.
What had become of the corps’ "liberal bias?" With blinding speed, the RNC’s mocking account of this trivial incident became the corps’ Standard Account. Of course, one "lie" couldn’t make Gore a LIAR. And so, again with remarkable speed, the press corps added two more lies to the hopeful’s account, thus assembling the trio of LIES the New York Post would be flogging in June.
A rumor of war could be heard around Gore. His farm chores "lie" came next.
The invention of the farm chores "lie" followedwith startling speed.
On March 15, Gore sat for an interview with David Yepsen, the respected veteran political reporter for the Des Moines Register. Iowa would be holding the first presidential caucuses; former senator Bradley had been criticizing Gore as he campaigned around the state. According to Bradley, Gore was really a creature of Washington. He, Bradley, had supposedly led a more varied life. “I grew up in a small town and had a life before I got into politics,” Yepsen quoted Bradley saying. “I think the vice president has had much of his life in Washington.”
Bradley had been making such statements since late 1998, when he announced his intention to seek the White House. Coming from Bradley, a veteran senator, the remarks were at least slightly odd.
“I think the vice president has had much of his life in Washington?” In fact, Bradley had just spent eighteen years of his own life in Washington, serving three terms in the Senate. He left the Senate in 1997, then proceeded to plan the White House run which he announced the next year.
“A life before politics?” After graduating from Princeton and Oxford, Bradley had spent ten years in the NBA; he then ran for the Senate in 1978. But then, Gore’s story arc as an adult wasn’t massively different. After graduating from Harvard, he had spent two years in the army and five more years as a journalist in Tennessee; he then ran for the House in 1976. In fact, before these two men were elected to Congress, the major difference in their adult lives involved Gore’s service in Vietnam, and Bradley’s skill with a 15-foot jump shot. At any rate, since Bradley had spent the bulk of his own adult life inside Washington, his comments seemed to make clear reference to Gore’s childhood years, when Gore lived in Washington during the school year because his father was serving in Congress. “I grew up in a small town,” Bradley had said, trying to stick it to Gore.
As a senator, Bradley had raised his own daughter in Washington. Now, he seemed to criticize Gore for having been raised the same way.
Yepsen reported his interview with Gore in the March 16 Des Moines Register. Asked about Bradley’s ongoing criticism, Gore noted his Vietnam service and his subsequent work as a reporter in Nashville. He then addressed the broader thrust of Bradley’s comments. "Gore said Bradley may also refer to the fact that Gore’s father was a U.S. senator," Yepsen wrote. "He said his father 'taught me the importance of courage' in standing up for civil rights and against the Vietnam War." Gore then made a further remark, one which stressed his rural Tennessee origins, potentially helpful in a farm state like Iowa. (The small town in which Bradley grew up was found in Missouri, next door.)
"I’ll tell you something else [my father] taught me," Gore was quoted saying. "He taught me how to clean out hog waste with a shovel and a hose. He taught me how to clear land with a double blade ax. He taught me how to plow a steep hillside with a team of mules. He taught me how to take up hay all day long in the hot sun and then, after a dinner break, go over and help the neighbors take up hay before the rain came and spoiled it on the ground.
"I wonder if Senator Bradley had any of those life experiences?" Gore continued, throwing the cudgel back at his foe. In short, Bradley had grown up in a small town in Missouri; Gore had worked hard as a youth on the Tennessee farm. This was politics at its most familiar–and its most trivial. In Yepsen’s telling, Gore had "indicated...that he's prepared to swing back when Bradley throws punches."
At any rate, in describing these youthful experiences, Gore was citing a part of his life which had long been described by the press corps. Gore became a national figure in 1987, when he first sought the Democratic nomination for president. In that campaign, and in his 1992 run for vice president, Gore was frequently profiled in major publications. Those profiles routinely described a basic part of his life story: Wanting his son to know the value of work, Gore’s father made him work hard, every summer, on the family’s Tennessee farm. In 1988 and in 1992, this part of Gore’s life had been widely described, by a wide range of major reporters. Within the national press, it had long been part of the standard Gore bio.
But a funny thing now happened to Candidate Gore as he began his run for the White House. On March 17, the RNC attacked again, this time saying that Gore had been "shoveling it" in describing these youthful experiences. According to the RNC press release, its chairman, Jim Nicholson, was "making hay" over Gore’s "latest exaggerated claim." "Gore, who last week claimed to have invented the Internet, again laid it on thick in an interview with the Des Moines Register," Nicholson said. He thus reinforced one growing attack while trying to jump-start another.
It’s hard to know what was supposed to be "exaggerated" about the things Gore said to Yepsen. The youthful history Gore described had been described many times in the press. But the press corps, suffering a strange group amnesia, quickly began attacking Gore for his troubling "farm chores" remarks. For more than a decade, reporters had routinely described these chores. Now, reporters and pundits savaged Gore for having described them himself.
Once again, Gore was portrayed as delusional–even though his statement to Yepsen had been perfectly accurate.
The press corps’ outrage was widely expressed. An editorial in the Weekly Standard called Gore’s comments to Yepsen "preposterous." In the Washington Times, Donald Lambro said the remarks "showed the deeply dishonest side of Al Gore" and his "powers of demagoguery." These were conservative publications, but mainstream papers published similar reviews of Gore’s troubling comment.
In a USA Today op-ed column, Michael Medved said that Gore’s "fanciful recollections of a rustic boyhood" showed his "delusional view of himself." But then, this weirdly inaccurate script about Gore's remarks was already blanketing cable. On the March 17 Inside Politics, Tucker Carlson and Margaret Carlson mocked Gore’s statement about the chores. ("It's hard to imagine, you know, what steep hillside at St. Albans he was plowing," Tucker Carlson said, referring to the Washington school Gore had attended during the school year.) Two days later, CNN’s Bruce Morton followed suit, also on Inside Politics. "Does Gore misstate? Does he just exaggerate?" Morton asked–and those were the only two choices he offered. As in the RNC’s press release, Morton linked Gore’s "farm chores" remarks to his widely-flogged Internet statement. But then, so had the Carlsons before him.
The attacks on Gore for his "farm chores" remark continued into the summer. In June, Diane Sawyer even played this improbable card in her 20/20 interview–an interview she conducted in Tennessee, while sitting with Gore on his farm!
Three minutes into the hour-long program, Sawyer launched an unexpected "pop quiz," designed to test the candidate’s knowledge of life on the farm. Her insinuations were hard to miss. "My cousins are all tobacco farmers and cattle farmers," she told Gore. "So I have a test for you." Even her mother had submitted a question about farm life for Gore, Sawyer improbably said.
Predictably, several of Sawyer’s questions made no apparent sense. At one point, she asked Gore for the current price of cattle, as if the vice president had somehow claimed to be an active trader. But the plain suggestion that Gore had dissembled was once again broadcast for millions to see. The Washington Times took delight in Sawyer's gift, printing the full transcript of the pop quiz; an editorial thundered anew about Gore’s troubling, three-month old comments to Yepsen. Gore had "reminisced" about "plowing the fields of Tennessee as a boy," the editorial said, when "in reality" he had grown up in Washington. But then, variations on that misleading theme had appeared ever since Gore made his original comments. In the March 20 New York Times, for example, reporter Katharine Seelye had referred to Gore’s "suggestions that he spent a rustic boyhood as a farmhand in Tennessee. He actually grew up in Washington."
Journalists said or implied it, again and again: Gore claimed he worked on the family farm. But he actually grew up in Washington!
A few major pundits who trashed Gore’s remarks seemed truly ignorant of his life story. But many others lacked this excuse. This included an influential columnist who mocked Gore’s remarks in a punishing, widely-copied piece in our leading political newspaper.
On March 24, the late Michael Kelly wrote a mocking column, "Farmer Al," in the Washington Post. The column, written as a "Boy’s Life" style biography, pictured young Gore waking up in a "vast penthouse" in D.C., then trudging off to do his chores in the fields along Connecticut Avenue. Kelly’s column appeared right at the time when Gore’s honesty had come under harsh attack. Surely, many readers took the column as the latest presentation of the standard claim: Al Gore said he worked on the family farm. But he actually grew up in Washington! About a week later, having been challenged, Kelly wrote in the Hotline that he "did not write a column accusing Mr. Gore of lying;" he had "merely parodied the vice president, precisely along the lines he so generously provided." That may or may not have been Kelly's intent. But if Kelly didn’t mean to call Gore a liar, there was little way for a reader to know that.
What was so striking about Kelly’s column? (Its mocking imagery was widely copied.) In December 1987, as a reporter, Kelly had written a lengthy profile of then-candidate Gore for the Baltimore Sun. And that profile had included a detailed description of the very chores Kelly now "parodied!" Kelly’s profile included the part of Gore’s youth which had routinely been described in the press–until 1999, when Gore began his second race for the White House.
"Every summer, and during some congressional races, the Gores would head down to the family farm," Kelly had written in the Sun. "Down on the farm, at the insistence of his father and over the objection of his mother, life was different." In substantial detail, Kelly had then described the very same chores he now held up to ridicule. "By all accounts, Mr. Gore was from early youth unusually serious and hard working," he had concluded. But twelve years later, writers were making Gore jump through the hoops–and Kelly wrote a mocking column which fueled the portrait of Gore as a LIAR. But as with the Internet, so too with the chores: Many reporters now seemed to be playing dumb about subjects they understood well.
Gore’s exchange with Yepsen had been trivial, barely worthy of comment. Bradley, who raised his own daughter in Washington, had trivialized the new campaign when he criticized Gore on this basis. But Gore’s rebuttal had been perfectly accurate–and as a group, the press corps knew it. But so what? Instantly, following the RNC’s lead, the comment was tagged as Gore’s second misstatement–as a sign he was "deeply dishonest." Amazingly, no major columnist rose to restate the well-known facts as the press corps advanced this theme.
For whatever reason, the national press corps was now inventing a LIAR. But by the famous "Rule of Three," a third LIE was needed to nail down the theme. And sure enough! With vast speed, and at the RNC’s urging, the national press corps now recycled a bungled old tale from two years before. This factually-bungled, foolish old tale would now serve as Gore’s third LIE.
This bungled old tale involved pointless remarks Gore had once made on a pointless old topic. His remarks had been misreported in 1997; now that the press was inventing a LIAR, they would be widely misstated again. But the sheer inanity of this process raises a couple of basic questions. Why was this particular theme being assembled against Al Gore? And this: Why weren’t reporters pushing back against the press corps' misstatements–against the the developing warfare?
Gore was being turned into a liar. Years later,the sheer inanity of the process remains a thing to behold.
The press corps was full of experienced journalists. They knew all about Gore’s congressional work in developing the Internet, the history which had now disappeared. But no one voiced a word of challenge as journalists adopted the RNC’s frameworks, often on a word-for-word basis.
The "farm chores" flap was even sillier. It too involved widespread memory lapses on the part of experienced journalists. People like Kelly, who knew the history, seemed to be pretending they didn’t. And even as the press corps thundered about Gore’s troubling statements, there seemed to be nothing the RNC wasn’t permitted to say. Example: In one press release involving the chores, the RNC distributed excerpts from a 1994 New Yorker profile, offered as proof that Gore had misstated about this matter. (These excerpts described Gore’s life in Washington as a child.) But what had the RNC edited out of these excerpts? A vivid description of Gore’s youthful farm chores, the very matter being disputed in the RNC press release! This was profoundly dishonest conduct–on the part of the RNC, not on the part of Gore. But incredibly, these doctored excerpts ended up in the Weekly Standard, then in a Washington Post news report, cited as proof that Gore had misstated. The RNC had "widely distributed" the excerpts, the Washington Post report said.
Truly, this was remarkable conduct. Why was it occurring?
Republican strategies and motives are fairly easy to discern. On the one hand, some in the party were trying to turn Al Gore into Dan Quayle. With considerable justice, Republicans felt that their own party’s former vice president had been mercilessly, and sometimes inaccurately, ridiculed by the mainstream press. Despite decades of talk about liberal bias, Republicans now seemed to feel they could get the press corps to treat Al Gore the same way.
A new word had even crept into the language. Republicans were hoping to “Quayle-ize” Gore, some columns and news reports said.
From March 1999 on, a string of Republicans and conservative columnists openly pushed the Gore/Quayle linkage, even as major mainstream pundits played along with the gambit. From the week of March 11 on, Republicans and conservatives accused Gore of making ridiculous comments. (Al Gore said he invented the Internet!) Repeatedly, they said they knew what the press would have done had Quayle made such ludicrous statements. This framework came from conservative figures, but it was quickly adopted by mainstream press outlets. One example: As early as March 24, The Hill asked four pundits to answer this question: "Is Gore’s Internet gaffe like Quayle’s potato(e)?" The question referred to a meaningless spelling error by Quayle, for which he’d been ceaselessly ridiculed.
Was Gore’s alleged "gaffe" like Quayle’s spelling error? Three of these pundits, conservatives all, said Gore’s gaffe was just as bad. One even said it was "much more serious." This went out to Capitol Hill.
Gore was being linked to Quayle. On April 14, the Associated Press directly attributed this general framework to a group of Republican leaders. ("In their recent retreat, some Republican state chairmen used the term 'Quayle-ized' to describe the fate facing Gore if jokes persist about his political miscues," the AP reported.) On May 19, Alison Mitchell became the latest reporter to describe this general approach to Gore. Quoting several Republican leaders, she described the GOP's thinking in the New York Times:
For years [the Republican] Congress ran multiple investigations of Mr. Clinton. But with Mr. Gore, Republicans are betting that well-timed ridicule can be more devastating than any inquiry. In essence, they are trying to do to him what Democrats tried to do to former Vice President Dan Quayle.By now, a long string of Republicans and conservatives had encouraged this linkage: Al Gore is really Dan Quayle.
But if some dreamed of turning Gore into Quayle, many conservatives quickly began portraying Al Gore as Bill Clinton. The notion that Gore had been making ridiculous statements morphed into a more dangerous claim–the claim that he'd been telling LIES. For many conservatives, Clinton’s misstatements about his affair with Lewinsky had cemented long-standing claims about the president’s alleged lack of honesty. Now, conservatives began saying Gore was a LIAR too, like his now-humbled boss.
At the time, Cal Thomas was the nation’s most widely syndicated political columnist. Was Candidate Gore like President Clinton? Thomas made the connection on March 19, in his first published reference to Gore’s Internet comment:
Like his boss, Gore also has problems with the truth.So said Thomas, just ten days after Gore's "first interview" with Blitzer. In the next few months, so said a string of conservative columnists, sometimes in less decorous ways. Had Republicans tried to turn Gore into Quayle? Others quickly upped the ante. They said something substantially different: Al Gore is really Bill Clinton!
Republican motives and frameworks were reasonably clear. Routinely, the RNC embellished, embroidered, misstated and clowned in its pursuit of these anti-Gore themes. Sometimes, the RNC simply lied; major journalists failed to notice this problem, despite those ringing statements to Sally Quinn, just a few months before, about their vast love for the truth. But the RNC was a political organization, devoted to winning the next election. This brings us to the more remarkable part of this rapidly unfolding drama: The press corps’ agreement to adopt or accept the RNC’s frameworks, no matter how foolish or tortured.
The press corps was full of experienced scribes who knew all about Gore’s Internet history. They knew his "farm chores" remarks had been accurate–and when it came to inane subject matter, the claim that he'd LIED about Love Story would be more ridiculous still. Despite these factors, no significant figure in the national press ever stepped forward to challenge or question the claims now being advanced against Gore. At our biggest national papers, "liberal" columnists–Dionne, Shields, McGrory, Frank Rich, Al Hunt–made no attempt to challenge the growing attacks on Gore’s character, or even to clarify the facts which undercut the punishing claims. Indeed: On TV discussion programs, pundits sitting in "liberal" chairs routinely advanced these tortured attacks. In some cases, they misstated facts which they plainly knew well. Laughter–and war–filled the air.
Out in the provinces, a tiny number of local columnists did push back against the claims being advanced against Gore. A few even asked an obvious question: Wasn’t it really the RNC which was misstating the facts? In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Marsha Mercer wrote a column in which she reviewed the basic facts involved in these early episodes. "If anyone’s re-inventing Al Gore, it’s the Republicans," Mercer now judged. In the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, James Brosnan wrote a similar piece, criticizing Nicholson by name, suggesting that the RNC head "may be overplaying his efforts to discredit Gore." Brosnan was right on his basic facts, but hopelessly wrong in a larger prediction. "Nicholson's charges will only cause more reporters to examine Gore's background," he said. Alas! Brosnan was predicting normal journalistic behavior. Such conduct never occurred.
Out in the boondocks, two pundits spoke. But deep inside Establishment Washington, famous figures were silent. No significant figure ever stepped forward to question the stories the RNC, and the mainstream press, were now pushing hard against Gore. In February, Nicholson had apparently lied in the press corps’ faces, saying Gore had never criticized President Clinton for his conduct with Lewinsky. (“He’s the only politician in America who hasn’t done that,” Nicholson said, baldly misstating the obvious facts.) Now, the chairman churned strings of silly claims about Gore’s deeply troubling statements. Pundits routinely adopted his frameworks, or maintained a courteous silence as their colleagues did.
Al Gore said he invented the Internet! Nicholson kept sending out press releases attributing this comical statement to Gore. The press corps kept repeating his frameworks, even slipping the unuttered word "invented" inside quotes. As early as March 22, Time magazine published a "Candidate Truth Watch," awarding various numbers of "shovels" to Gore for his various troubling statements. "HONEST, AL," the magazine wrote. "Presidential mendacity is not a pretty sight."
Time gave many shovels to Gore. Rather plainly, the imagery echoed Nicholson’s earlier claim that Gore had been "shoveling it" with his (accurate) farm chore remarks. Two days later, Michael Kelly’s influential "Farmer Al" column appeared in the Washington Post. And sure enough! Despite a stated plan to examine all comers, Time never aimed a "Candidate Truth Watch" at any other candidate.
Al Gore was being turned into a LIAR. Gore’s third LIE, concerning Love Story, would be more ridiculous still.
The Love Story nonsense was Gore's third LIE.The press corps worked hard to invent it.
The tale begins in November 1997, as Gore wings his way back to Washington after a trip to Texas. While in Texas, Gore had visited actor Tommy Lee Jones, one of his college roommates. On the flight home, a conversation with a pair of reporters briefly focused on Gore’s famous friend, who began his film career with a part in a hit movie: Love Story.
The best-selling book, and the later screenplay, had both been written by Erich Segal, a visiting professor at Harvard when Gore and Jones were seniors there. Segal was friendly with the pair at the time–and he was writing Love Story.
Having seen Jones the previous day, Gore briefly discussed his famous friend during the flight back to Washington. A few weeks later, one of the two reporters on the plane briefly mentioned Gore’s remarks as part of a Time cover story. Karen Tumulty's lengthy report was released on December 8, 1997. This is the only place in the seven-page piece in which she mentioned Love Story:
Around midnight, after a three-city tour of Texas last month, the Vice President came wandering back to the press compartment of Air Force Two. Sliding in behind a table with the two reporters covering him that day, he picked slices of fruit from their plates and spent two hours swapping opinions about movies and telling stories about old chums like Erich Segal, who, Gore said, used Al and Tipper as models for the uptight preppy and his free-spirited girl friend in Love Story; and Gore’s Harvard roommate Tommy Lee Jones, who played the roommate of the Gore-like character in the movie version of Segal’s book.When it came to Love Story, that was all she wrote. Gore’s comments on the topic amounted to "two or three sentences, tops, in a two-and-a-half hour conversation," Tumulty would recall two years later.
Tumulty seemed to attach little meaning to Gore’s fleeting remarks. She tossed them off as a minor aside in a much longer, 3600-word piece which focused on much larger issues. She betrayed no sense that Gore had a reason for making these comments–fleeting remarks made late at night in the course of a long conversation.
But far away, in Washington, D.C., Maureen Dowd had a good ear for motive. The New York Times columnist hadn’t been on the plane, so she hadn’t been able to hear what Gore said. She hadn’t been able to judge his tone, his attitude or his intention. And she didn’t know a significant fact; she didn’t know Gore had been slightly misquoted, a point which emerged a bit later. No matter! In her December 13 column, Dowd hailed Tumulty’s fleeting Love Story aside as "the week’s most stunning revelation." After summarizing Gore’s remarks, Dowd delivered a juicy account of the motives which lay behind them.
The famous pundit was mind-reading hard, of that there can be no real question. Somehow, she knew that Gore had "chosen this moment" to "drop the news" about Love Story. (The triggering visit to Jones wasn't mentioned.) She seemed to know why Gore had done this; he hoped to give himself "a romantic glow" "going into 2000," she said. On December 17, Dowd discussed the trivial topic again, seeming even more sure of Gore’s motives. But then, why shouldn't she do a bit of mind-reading? On December 16, her colleague Frank Rich had played Carnac too, in his own New York Times column.
Rich knew why Gore had made his remarks. (He had been "boasting" and "bragging.") He seemed to assume that Gore had been lying. ("Prevaricating," he said.) Most important, Rich could see what this incident meant; the incident showed the "disingenuousness" which was Gore’s "real character problem." Rich didn’t note the fact that Gore was misquoted, though by now this fact had been established in a New York Times news report. No matter! Working from an inaccurate account of a fleeting remark, a major pundit alerted the world about Gore’s "character problem."
Gore’s remark was barely worth mentioning. Truth to tell, by traditional standards, it wasn’t worth mentioning at all. But given the press corps’ increasingly fatuous culture, interest in Gore's comments grew. By December 21, 1997, the "stunning revelation" consumed a full segment on ABC’s Sunday morning program, This Week. (Worried reporters grilled a Gore spokesman about the disturbing event.) As she introduced the segment, Cokie Roberts authored a sad confession about the values of insider Washington. “Al Gore and Love Story really have been the talk of the town this week,” the pundit revealingly said.
Again, this was happening in December 1997, long before the start of Campaign 2000. But just that quickly, Rich and Dowd had created the Love Story narrative–an iconic story which pundits would flog all through the Bush-Gore campaign. In March 1999, Gore’s informal campaigning began–and mainstream pundits returned to this story, instantly making it Gore’s third LIE. As future chapters make painfully clear, its potency mushroomed from there.
Back to 1997: Like many others in her circle, Roberts offered a standard assessment of the vice president’s motives. Gore had been "reinventing his image" when he mentioned Love Story, she smoothly pronounced on This Week. Silly though this claim may have been, it couldn’t have made Gore's statement a LIE. That vine grew from a bungled report, again in the New York Times.
Alas! As the Love Story nonsense began to gain purchase, the New York Times had assigned a reporter to research the stunning development. On December 14, 1997, Melinda Henneberger authored a lengthy report on the tedious topic. It spanned an entire page in the Sunday Times, with a banner headline and several large photos. To this day, Henneberger's report provides the definitive record of this utterly silly affair. It also provides the only interview author Segal ever did on this subject.
In the course of her reporting, Henneberger had learned two key facts.
First, she learned that Gore had been slightly misquoted in the long profile in Time. What had he actually said on the plane? That a newspaper story once quoted Segal saying that the Gores were the models for his famous old book. Repeat: Gore only said that he once saw such claims attributed to Segal, the author. In their interviews with Henneberger, both reporters on Gore’s plane affirmed this basic point. (The second reporter on the plane was the New York Times’ Richard Berke.)
The second fact was more significant: When Henneberger interviewed Segal, he agreed with the things Gore had said. There had been such a newspaper story, he said, long ago, in the Nashville Tennessean. According to Segal, he had told a local reporter that Gore was one of two models for the book’s leading male character. (Jones was the other.) The reporter invented the part about Tipper Gore being a model. (The reporter was “exaggerating,” Segal said, “playing the local hero angle.”) In his remarks to Henneberger, Segal didn’t challenge or contradict the substance of anything Gore had said. Quite the contrary–at one point, he sardonically criticized Time for having misstated Gore’s comments. “Al attributed it to the newspaper,” Segal was quoted saying. “They conveniently omitted that part. Time thought it was more piquant to leave that out.”
This time, Segal was mind-reading motive. But in fact, he defended Gore.
Repeat: Segal agreed with what Gore had said. He said there had been a newspaper story like the one Gore had described. Presumably, this would have settled any questions about Gore’s truthfulness in this pointless affair–except for the way Henneberger’s report buried what Segal had told her.
Alas! Segal’s comments appeared fairly deep in Henneberger’s long report. (She started with a trivial fact: Tipper Gore really wasn’t the model for Segal’s female lead after all!) Much worse, Henneberger’s jumbled reporting, and a misleading headline, gave the impression that Segal had actually contradicted Gore. The headline was especially unfortunate: “Author of 'Love Story' Disputes a Gore Story.” This headline plainly conveyed the sense that Segal “disputed” the things Gore had said. That impression was false. But within the press corps, it stuck.
Perhaps because of that misleading headline, the carping queens of the Washington press corps began to say that Segal contradicted Gore. Even in 1997, the word “lie” began to creep into print, along with unflattering comparisons to Bill Clinton. Sixteen months later, in March 1999, Gore began his run for the White House. The press corps revived the Love Story tale, instantly turning this consummate piffle into the hopeful’s third LIE.
It became his third LIE with remarkable speed. As noted, the RNC began mocking Gore for his Internet comment on March 11, 1999. Within the next few days, major pundits began linking that comment to Love Story, echoing RNC press releases which were making the same connection. With stunning uniformity, journalists retold the Love Story tale in the same bungled way–the way Bruce Morton told it on CNN’s Inside Politics, to cite one high-profile example.
On March 19, Morton flayed Gore for his Internet comment (see above). Then, he added this bungled account of Gore’s Love Story remarks:
Then there was Love Story. Gore once claimed the two characters in the movie Love Story were based on his wife, Tipper, and himself. The author said, “News to me,” and Gore backed off.But that just isn’t what happened. Segal didn’t say “news to me” (or anything like it) when he spoke with Henneberger. Nor did Gore “back off” from his (misquoted) comment. But by the time of Morton’s report, a long string of reporters and pundits were connecting Gore’s well-burlesqued Internet comment to the earlier Love Story nonsense. With startling uniformity, they told the old story this same bungled way–with Segal contradicting Gore, and Gore being forced to back off. The mocking word “inspiration” began to appear, taken from RNC press releases. Inspired scribes were happy, as always, to copy off each others’ papers. Note just these three perfect copy-cat choices, selected from many others which conveyed the same bungled idea:
New York Post editorial, 3/19/99: Gore, recall, claimed that he and wife Tipper were the inspiration for the 1970s best selling novel "Love Story"–which came as news to the book’s author, Erich Segal.Journalists offered endless variants of this bungled account. Al Gore had now said that he "was the inspiration for" Love Story–which "came as news" to Segal, the author. Many others, like CNN's Morton, tagged on accounts of Gore "backing off."
Philip Gailey, St. Petersburg Times, 3/21/99: A year ago Gore told reporters that he and his wife, Tipper...were the inspiration for the novel Love Story. That came as news to the befuddled author, Erich Segal.
Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe, 4/5/99: Gore claimed in 1997 that he was the inspiration for Oliver Barrett IV, the preppy protagonist in "Love Story." That came as news to Erich Segal, the book’s author.
The use of the mocking word "inspiration" was being pushed by the RNC. Soon, it became a familiar part of a mocking, embellished claim: Al Gore said he inspired Love Story! In this deeply unfortunate way, Gore's third LIE was born.
The Love Story matter was always pure piffle. No serious press corps would waste its time on "stunning revelations" of this ludicrous type, especially after it became clear that the subject had been misquoted. (By the weay: If Gore was such an inveterate LIAR, why did they have to go back two years to find a third "example?")But in this case, the press corps’ conduct was especially striking, because Tumulty had gone on the record, back in real time, to say how foolish the whole thing really was.
As the initial flap began to grow in December 1997, Tumulty spoke with Matt Miller, a writer for U.S. News & World Report. Later that month, Miller discussed the flap in his nationally syndicated newspaper column. "Karen Tumulty, the Time reporter whose account of Mr. Gore's comment set off the tempest, told me the incident has been misleadingly overblown," he wrote, blasting his colleagues for what he called "the descent unto idiocy of American pundits." Miller quoted Tumulty’s view: "What I think has gotten completely out of hand is the significance people are reading into it," she had said. She also noted that Gore's brief remarks had turned out to be "basically true."
Tumulty actually heard what Gore said. She could judge his attitude, his tone and his intention. She thought her colleagues’ reactions to Gore's remarks had "gotten completely out of hand"–and she voiced this same judgment three years later, as Election Day 2000 drew near. In September 2000, Tumulty appeared in a journalism forum at American University. (The session was nationally broadcast on C-Span.) In response to a moderator's question, she restated her view of the Love Story flap, which by now had contributed greatly to the notion that Gore was a LIAR.
"I was sort of appalled to see the way it played in the media," Tumulty said. "I mean, it was an off-hand comment made during a two-and-a-half hour conversation that was mostly about other things. I mean, he was a model, Erich Segal said, for the preppy character in Love Story, and it had been reported in Tennessee newspapers that it was modeled on both of them [Gore and his wife]." Gore’s comment had turned out to "true in most respects," she once again noted. (For the record, Tumulty never identified anything Gore said which he hadn’t believed to be accurate.) "The degree to which it became a symbol of the man’s integrity I thought was very unfair," she said. "And I say that as the person to whom he made the comment and who wrote it."
The treatment of Gore had been "very unfair." Tumulty had been "sort of appalled" by her colleagues' conduct. But by the time Tumulty made these remarks, Candidate Gore had been badly harmed by the press corps' relentless flogging of this silly and bungled old tale. Worst of all, two months remained in the White House campaign–and Candidate Gore would be badly harmed by the Love Story nonsense again.
Those events would all come later, as Election Day drew near. But back in March 1999, the press corps was busy inventing a LIAR. Taking their cues from the RNC, they clucked about Gore’s Internet comment, then played the fool with his "farm chores" remarks.
Love Story served as Gore’s third LIE. George Bush ended up in the White House.
The week which followed his broadcast with Blitzerwas a real "week that was" for Al Gore.
On March 11, 1999, Republicans began to mock his Internet comment. By the week which ended on March 19, he was being portrayed as a serial liar–and beyond that, as a "delusional" person, a man with "delusions of grandeur." Just that quickly, standard accounts of Gore’s three statements were being churned all over the press. They constituted the national press corps’ first portrait of Candidate Gore.
On cable, the work was appalling.
On the March 16 Hardball, Chris Matthews was joined by USA Today reporter Tom Squitieri and Republican congressman Joe Scarborough. Quickly, the trio began mocking Gore, in ways which would become familiar over the next twenty months. What follows is one short excerpt:
Scarborough: Now he’s the Father of the Internet, or the fifth Beatle, or whatever it was. And–Al Gore had said he invented the Internet! And Matthews clowned, in typical ways, about the Love Story nonsense. (Scarborough's remark about the "fifth Beatle" was straight from a GOP press release.) But then, Cokie Roberts had conducted a similar conversation two days earlier, on This Week. And similar sessions were soon being held on all the cable news channels.
Matthews: He invented the Internet, he said!
Scarborough: He invented the Internet! And, also, you know, he was in Ryan–you know, Ryan O’Neal’s story.
Squitieri: Love Story!
Matthews: Yeah, he was the guy who was making the snow-prints there with Ali MacGraw!
On March 17, Gore was mocked by a four-person panel on CNN’s Inside Politics. Co-hosts Judy Woodruff and Bernard Shaw welcomed Tucker Carlson and Margaret Carlson as guests. (Margaret Carlson was cast as the "liberal.") For pundits eager to ridicule Gore, the “farm chores” had now reached the play-list:
Tucker Carlson: You had Gore, yesterday, telling voters at a campaign stop about how he spent his childhood plowing steep hillsides with a mule team...First, it’s terrible for the environment to be plowing steep hillsides with anything. And second, it’s hard to imagine, you know, what steep hillside at St. Albans he was plowing.Gore had never lived at the Ritz-Carlton, as Margaret Carlson surely knew. But she threw the claim on the pile, then worried about the possibility that Gore might start to seem "hyperbolic!" Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson misstated the circumstance of Gore’s interview with Yepsen, then cited the irrelevant fact that Gore had attended St. Albans, a private school in DC. (Translation: He actually grew up in Washington!) And of course, Gore had said he invented the Internet! On this program, Woodruff herself introduced the claim when her laughing guests didn’t.
Shaw: You’re referring to the private school he attended here in Washington.
Tucker Carlson: I am. In Washington, where he grew up at the Fairfax Hotel. So it’s sort of an implausible image.
Margaret Carlson: Well, there were mule teams at the Ritz-Carlton, where he lived.
Tucker Carlson: For hire!
Margaret Carlson: You know, Al Gore has made a few gaffes, the unforced errors that sometimes can define a person if there are enough of them. Dan Quayle–potato. Al Gore–Love Story! Not exactly the hero of Love Story.
Woodruff: Inventor of the Internet!
On March 18, four "all-stars" ridiculed Gore on the Fox News Channel’s nightly newshour, Special Report. Fred Barnes, a well-known conservative pundit, got things off to a roaring start. "Now he claims, not only did he invent the Internet, but he's a guy that–he was a big-time farmer who would plow the hills with mules," Barnes mockingly said. But even at this early date, these narratives weren’t for conservatives only. Mara Liasson, an NPR reporter, harmonized nicely with Barnes:
Liasson: Gore’s problem looks like it’s turning into hyperbole, because of course he had a role in pushing the Internet. He was one of the people in Congress who at a very early stage understood–"But he said he invented it," Liasson said, accusing Gore of hyperbole. From there, she jumped straight to Love Story. The pounding continued on March 19 as Morton appeared on Inside Politics, reciting his thoroughly standard versions of Gore’s disturbing trio of lies. In his commentary, Morton acted out the inverted ethics which would be routine through the next twenty months. He misstated or embellished a long string of facts, then lamented Gore’s lack of truthfulness.
Barnes: Mara, he said he invented the darn thing!
Liasson: But he said he invented it, which is not true. And the problem is that it was the same thing where he said he was the model for Love Story.
"Does Gore misstate? Does he just exaggerate?" After misstating a large pile of facts, Morton demanded to know.
By any traditional measure, these were startling journalistic performances. In these high-profile cable sessions, we see Washington’s biggest insider pundits reciting inaccurate, tortured scripts–silly, hyperbolic narratives which had come, in significant part, straight from the RNC. But the themes expressed in these standardized sessions were now seizing the press as a whole. From March 16-19, major journalists stood in line to ask the same leading questions:
Bruce Morton, CNN: Does Gore misstate? Does he just exaggerate?The foolishness grew as the weeks rattled by. Routinely, Gore was described as mentally unbalanced. Henry Miller, Washington Times, April 5: "There is something profoundly disturbing here...Al Gore is delusional. We have seen again and again that he has real difficulty in discriminating reality from fantasy." A week later, Medved also called Gore "delusional," this time in USA Today, citing his (accurate) farm chores remarks. But then, the New York Post had expressed a similar concern on March 19: "Lately, the vice president seems to have purchased a one-way ticket to fantasy-land," an editorial said. Regional newspapers pushed the theme too. On March 24, William Rusher asserted, in his nationally syndicated column, that "Gore’s fantasy life has become so overpowering that he is beginning to confuse it with reality...the cuckoo clock in Mr. Gore's forehead has popped open again."
Calvin Woodward, Associated Press: Is he one to embellish his past?
Deborah Orin, The New York Post: Does he have a tendency to fake his past to burnish his image?
Chris Matthews, Hardball: Why does he do this stuff? Why does Al Gore keep making these preposterous claims?
Had work of this type ever been seen in the annals of modern campaign reporting? It’s hard to think of any real precedent, but such work now appeared all over the press. And even with Gore widely denounced as unbalanced ("a chronic fantasist," Rusher opined; "Vice President Goofy," Paul Greenberg wrote), it’s impossible to find a Washington pundit who spoke up to challenge the diagnosis, or even to clarify simple facts involved in these burgeoning scripts. "Liberal" columnists sat mutely by, letting misstatements continue. At this point, the psychiatric commentary was largely confined to conservatives, though that would change as the campaign progressed. But by June, when Gore formally launched his campaign, a powerful narrative had been established. Two days after his June 16 kick-off, the New York Post published the editorial which bore that remarkable headline:
"AL GORE, LIAR," it said.
This piece displayed the journalistic standards which would come to define this campaign.
The editors began with a flagrant misstatement: Gore had "suddenly decided," just that week, that Clinton’s conduct with Lewinsky had been "terribly wrong," they said. (Since Gore had never said this before, this meant that he was “lying.”) The editors' claim was flagrantly false; presumably, it was simply a lie. But many pundits had made the same claim that week, and the editors themselves were just getting started. What follows is their hapless (or dishonest) account of Gore’s how-famous trio of LIES. By the time of Gore's formal launch, this thoroughly bungled Standard Group Story had been widely advanced for three months:
This is only the latest of Gore's fibs and flubs. Remember his claim that he and his wife, Tipper, were the models for the couple in Erich Segal's "Love Story"? (Segal said they weren't.) His "memory" of spending his youth on a farm? (The son of a U.S. senator, he was raised in Washington's Fairfax Hotel.) And on "Larry King Live," he said he was instrumental in inventing the Internet. (The Internet was "invented" eight years before Gore entered Congress.)The standards of a broken press corps are captured in that bungled passage.
The editors put "invented" in quotes–the one word Gore never said. They seemed to say that Segal contradicted Gore–though in fact, he stoutly defended him. They rolled their eyes at Gore’s "memory" of those youthful farm chores–a memory which was perfectly accurate. But then, they even said that Gore made his Internet comment on Larry King Live! Truth to tell, the press corps was now in "a fantasy-land." Journalists no longer seemed to feel the need to get even the simplest facts right.
Two of Gore’s statements were perfectly accurate. A third murky statement had quickly been clarified, and no one had thought it was wrong in real time. But by June, these statements had all been transformed into LIES. The press had invented AL GORE, LIAR–a troubling character who would play the lead role in the rest of this long campaign.
In June, the "theater critics" would mock Gore's launch, complaining that he had yelled and perspired. Vastly greater damage to Gore had already been accomplished.
By June, the press had invented a LIAR. Oneconsequence of their unfolding war had begun to show up in the press.
On April 18, a headline appeared in the New York Daily News: GORE’S RATINGS DIP 11 POINTS. A Pew poll showed that 47 percent of Americans had a favorable impression of Gore. This was down from 58 percent just four months before. On June 10, a poll by CNN/Time showed similar erosion in Gore’s standing. Gore’s "unfavorable" rating had been 26 percent at the start of the year; it now stood at 43 percent. And the Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll was closely tracking those figures. In December 1998, 55 percent had a favorable view of Gore, with only 30 percent unfavorable. By June, the margin had shrunk to four points: 45/41.
In the June poll from CNN/Time, Gore's numbers stood at 48 percent favorable, 43 percent unfavorable. This was down from 58/26 in January.
George Bush: 62/21.
In short, when the press corps mounts a group slander campaign, voters’ perceptions get altered. As Gore was savaged for accurate statements, the eventual outcome of Campaign 2000 was already being affected. Meanwhile, it should be noted that this sort of treatment was not being aimed at the other contenders. During this period, Candidates Bradley and Bush each made statements which "embellished their pasts" and thereby "burnished their images." But when such embellishments and outright misstatements occurred, the press corps behaved in journalistically normal ways. They didn’t attempt to build character scandals out of relatively minor matters. That approach was reserved for the candidate with whom they had now gone to war.
In this war–this growing journalistic war–several patterns had been established. These patterns would rule this campaign:
First, we saw the press corps’ remarkable instinct for voicing Standard Group Judgments. In the twenty months of Campaign 2000, the press corps’ uniformity of thought and expression would be a real sight to behold. (This will be seen, again and again, in the chapters which follow.) As a simple matter of fact, journalists don’t think and say the same things, absent some powerful group dynamic. In this campaign, journalists walked away from a basic professional obligation–the obligation to offer the public their own independent perspectives and judgments. Out of some powerful group dynamic, they thought, spoke, reported and judged as a group.
Could it be that this stunning sameness of thought emerged from some form of group "outrage?"
Second, we saw the central irony of the press corps’ conduct in Campaign 2000. Endlessly, major journalists embellished or misstated basic facts, then complained about Gore’s lack of honesty. Gore grew up at the Ritz, Margaret Carlson falsely declared, in the passage quoted above. In her next breath, this well-informed pundit worried that Gore might start to seem "hyperbolic."
Another central problem emerged in these early episodes. That is the problem of accurate paraphrase. Journalists will always be forced to paraphrase the various things major candidates say. But what counts as fair and reasonable paraphrase? Any statement can be made to sound foolish, if it’s paraphrased wildly enough. In this campaign, tendentious paraphrase was routinely adopted, at least when it came to statements by Gore. In a string of high-profile cases, the most ludicrous version of Gore’s remarks would be adopted by the press as a group. All too often, these tendentious accounts of the things Gore had said tracked to the RNC.
Did Gore really say he invented the Internet? Did Gore really say he inspired Love Story? As will be clear in later chapters, the coverage of Campaign 2000 would turn on this simple matter of logic–as would this campaign’s outcome.
Another central tendency: In these early episodes, we see the relentless attraction to mind-numbing trivia which would define the press corps’ performance. Again and again in this long campaign, the press corps would do what it did in these cases: The press corps would use a tortured account of some trivial matter to drive a Group Judgment about someone’s character. In the case of favored candidates (especially Bradley and McCain), these silly group judgments were frequently fawning. But in the case of Candidate Gore, the pattern was set from the campaign’s first week: Bungled accounts of trivial matters were adopted to savage his character.
And so, verily, it came to pass: Within a few days of Gore’s "first interview," the press corps was deeply in love with Love Story. Sixteen months earlier, in November 1997, Gore had made an off-hand remark about a thoroughly trivial matter–an utterly pointless, off-hand comment which turned out to be "basically true." Sixteen months later, journalists churned a bungled account of this consummate nonsense, making it Al Gore’s third LIE.
The press corps was in love with Love Story. George Bush would end up you-know-where.
In June, Gore was mocked throughout the presswhen he made his formal launch. The "theater critics" said he had yelled–that he had perspired too much. He was Bill Clinton’s "bathtub ring." He was like a Nazi collaborator.
By way of contrast: "George W," as reporters called him, was "the most likable guy in the world."
Gore was battered at the time of his launch. But back in March, three months before, something much more serious happened: Candidate Gore was turned into a LIAR. This punishing theme would harden to stone in December 1999, when the press, with the RNC's help, deftly invented another odd LIE: Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! From that point forward, this punishing theme would drive the press coverage, right on through the closing days of this closely-fought, two-year campaign.
And make no mistake, because many will: Conservative critics were pounding away. But right from the start, this punishing war–this "War Against Gore"–was a work of the mainstream press corps.
Two days after Gore’s formal launch, the New York Post, a conservative paper, was pounding away at AL GORE, LIAR. But opposition from that sector could not have sent George Bush to the White House. Mainstream press organs had gone to war too, driven perhaps by a high sense of "outrage." Consider the work being done at the Washington Post–more specifically, the early work which was being done by the Washington Post’s Gore reporter.
This Post was the heart of the "mainstream" press. And this Post–the Washington Post-had marched off to war with Al Gore.