In the spring of 2006, American citizens were forcedto confront a set of puzzling new images. New portraits appeared of two major figures–recent foes in an already-famous, twenty-month White House campaign.
Those confounding portraits help define an important part of the world's recent history.
On the one hand, we confronted an image of George W. Bush, the second-term American president. Then too, we confronted new images of Al Gore, Democratic candidate in the 2000 race which first sent Bush to the White House.
That campaign was historic in several ways. Much of this history has been discussed within the national press.
For starters, although Candidate Gore won the popular vote, Candidate Bush ended up in the White House. This had happened only once before in all of American history. Then too, there was the Florida mess, a five-week recount which ended in an historic Supreme Court decision.
Speaking of Florida, the TV networks made history there too, with some colossal Election Night bungling. Although the state was too close to call, the networks managed to call it twice, first saying that Gore had won the state, then declaring that Bush had done so.
All these aspects of this campaign have been widely discussed by the press.
At any rate, Candidate Gore won the popular vote, but Candidate Bush ended up in the White House. And Gore returned to private life, where he became an object of ridicule for much of the national press corps. In the summer of 2001, he grew a beard on a family vacation; pundits mocked him for his misconduct. He also seemed to gain some weight. This troubled the press corps too.
In September 2002, the former vice president suffered a more serious episode. In a major speech, he warned against going to war with Iraq. Within a few years, most Americans would come to agree with the judgments Gore expressed in this speech. But major pundits declared him unhinged in the days and weeks after he spoke.
How rough were the mainstream press corps’ assessments? Consider a column by the late Michael Kelly, an influential Washington journalist–a well-connected, twice-weekly columnist at the influential Washington Post. What follows is part of Kelly’s column about Gore’s speech on Iraq–the speech whose judgments American citizens would largely come to share.
The columnn appeared on September 25, 2002. It helped stampede D.C.'s elites toward a glorious war:
Gore's speech was one no decent politician could have delivered. It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts–bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible. But I understate.To help you recall the era’s pathologies, Kelly dismissed Gore’s speech as a cynical attempt to set up another run for the White House. Many pundits dismissed Gore’s speech that way. The future race never occurred.
Again, that screed appeared in the Washington Post, written by a ranking member of Washington’s journalistic elite. But then, Gore had been subject to a stranger, more primal critique from these quarters just one year before.
Shortly after the September 11 attacks, NBC’s Chris Matthews savaged Gore, in a truly remarkable way, on the much-quoted Imus in the Morning radio/cable TV program. "He doesn’t look like one of us," Matthews complained to the program's host, Don Imus. "He doesn’t seem very American, even." But even as Gore was trashed in this way, Bush’s approval ratings were soaring. After the September 11 attacks, his ratings hit 90 percent.
So things went in the first few years after Campaign 2000. But by the spring of 2006, time had passed–and judgments were changing. This brings us to the confounding new images Americans had to confront.
One image captured the stunning decline in Bush’s political fortunes. In April, the president appeared, in cartoon form, on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. He sat on a stool, dispatched to a corner, wearing a tall, pointed dunce cap. "Worst President in History?" the cover asked. "One of America’s leading historians assesses George W. Bush." That leading historian, Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, was generally considered a political liberal. But his judgments didn't seem especially partisan, given the way this president was now being judged by much of the public.
"Many historians are now wondering whether Bush...will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history," Wilentz wrote, saying he was describing the views of a range of scholars. But then, by the time the Rolling Stone cover appeared, Bush’s approval ratings had dropped into the low 30s. Within weeks, a new best-seller, The One Percent Doctrine, would focus on the peculiar ways Bush had formed his judgments concerning Iraq–the judgments which brought so him low in the polls.
Soon, another best-seller described his war planning. It bore a short title: Fiasco.
Could George Bush be the worst president ever? In April 2006, that Rolling Stone cover suggested as much. But even as Bush sat on that stool, other new images, this time of Gore, were also confronting the public.
The former vice president was now being featured on magazine covers too. But inside these magazines, journalists were hailing Gore as a clairvoyant world leader. Bush’s approval ratings had fallen as those of few presidents ever had done. But for Gore, an opposite process had occurred–a process fueled by a surprising hit film, the Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. While Bush slumped on that Rolling Stone cover, Gore stared out from the cover of Vanity Fair–and Time, and Wired, and American Prospect. Inside these magazines, he was praised for his vision about climate change, one of the world’s most pressing concerns.
Tragically, Gore was also being praised by this time for his foresight concerning Iraq.
In the New York Review of Books–Gore’s film, and its best-selling companion book, were featured on that cover too–one of the world’s most renowned climate scientists reviewed Gore’s decades of work on that subject. Here’s what James Hansen said of the man who "hadn’t seemed very American, even" only a few years before:
Gore was prescient. For decades he has maintained that the Earth was teetering in the balance, even when doing so subjected him to ridicule from other politicians and cost him votes. By telling the story of climate change with striking clarity in both his book and movie, Al Gore may have done for global warming what Silent Spring did for pesticides.Make no mistake–Gore had been ridiculed about global warming. But the ridicule had come from major journalists almost as much as from rival pols. Republicans had mocked Gore about warming–but by the time he ran for the White House, the press corps was often along for the ride. But by the spring of 2006, scientific consensus had become so clear that even the press corps had largely stopped clowning. This helped produce the set of images Americans had to confront.
Let’s be clear: Not every American thought Bush was a dunce, a dud, or some sort of disaster. Not every voter thought Gore was a seer, a savior or a shaman. But many Americans had come to believe that Bush really was an historic disaster–and there was Gore, his original rival, increasingly hailed as a global giant. As Gore looked out from those magazine covers, he’d been judged right about global warming. Widely, tragically, people now judged that he’d also been right on Iraq.
One year later, in October 2007, Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was received at the White House by President Bush, whose numbers had ticked down even further.
Back to the spring of 2006: Bush appeared in Rolling Stone described as perhaps the worst president ever. Gore appeared on other covers, portrayed as a savior, a seer. Not every American saw things this way. But for many of those who did–for many of those who had seen Gore’s film–a punishing question had started to form:
How did George Bush ever get to the White House? We'd once had a choice between these two men. How in the world, how in God's name, did George W. Bush ever get there?
How did George Bush get to the White House?By the spring of 2006, we already had a standard answer, recited by much of the press corps.
This basic question was quite intriguing, as journalists well understood. After all, when Bush announced his candidacy in June 1999, he was a relatively inexperienced, fifth-year Texas governor. He carried with him a famous name–and a reputation as a bit of a lightweight. By contrast, Gore was deeply experienced, plainly competent; he’d literally written the book on warming. In 1992, when Earth in the Balance appeared, it was hailed as a work of vast erudition. The New York Times wasn’t describing Earth in the Balance as Gore's “mid-life crisis book”–yet.
Meanwhile, Gore would be the nominee of the incumbent party at a time of apparent peace and prosperity. True, Bush led Gore by fifteen to twenty points in the national polls when campaigning began, in the spring of 1999. But by most conventional calculations, these other factors should have given Gore the edge in the 2000 race.
So how did Bush end up in the White House? By the spring of 2006, helpful journalists had repeatedly told us: Candidate Gore ran an awful campaign, blowing a sure election. The press had expressed this standard view ever since the end of the 2000 race. Running as the incumbent vice president, Gore had been handed “this great situation” (Michelle Cottle, of The New Republic). The economy was strong–and the world seemed at peace. Unaccountably, the hapless Gore blew it.
This book will suggest a different theory about the outcome of Campaign 2000–one of the narrowest, and most consequential, elections in U.S. history. That theory involves the part of this race which hasn’t been widely discussed in the press–the remarkable, deeply dysfunctional way the press corps reported this twenty-month drama. How did George Bush reach the White House? In an election decided so narrowly, endless theories can be offered about matters which might have tipped the outcome. Professional pundits have done so for years, typically at Gore’s expense.
This has given the press corps a way to avoid the discussion which follows.
In fact, Candidate Gore ran a generally competent campaign, as did Candidate Bush. In some ways, Gore campaigned with remarkable discipline. He might have gained votes if he’d stressed the Clinton administration's record more, a favorite claim of professional critics–but in the wake of President Clinton’s impeachment, he might have lost votes that way too. (This remains the official view of top Gore campaign staffers.) And no, the evidence doesn’t suggest that the public found Gore impossibly wooden/stiff/robotic/boring, another claim the national press corps has generally loved to recite. As with his highly successful convention speech–ridiculed by the press in real time–Gore often fared best, throughout this campaign, when the most people were watching.
In fact, until November produced its historic dead heat, only one part of this campaign had stood out as truly remarkable. That was the truly remarkable way the press corps reported the race.
For reasons this book will explore in detail, when Gore began to campaign in March 1999, the press corps landed on him and his campaign like a cartel of sabre-toothed tigers. For the next twenty months, they staged what I have long described as a journalistic “war against Gore.” (Dan Kennedy, then Boston Phoenix press critic, once called it a “press corps wilding.”) No other modern White House candidate has ever been trashed in so thorough, or so baldly dishonest, a manner. As one studies this twenty-month war, a certain conclusion is hard to avoid: Given this campaign’s razor-thin outcome, it’s hard to believe that the press corps’ misconduct didn’t decide this election.
But what a surprise! From November 2000 right up to the present, journalists have grimly avoided this topic. In fairness: If you had behaved in the manner described in this book, you’d focus on other things too.
The press corps' coverage of Campaign 2000 will thus be the subject of this volume. This book will argue that this remarkable coverage almost surely sent Bush to the White House. Surely, a President Gore would have governed quite differently from President Bush–with respect to Iraq, for example. Almost surely, recent world history was massively changed by the earlier war I'll describe.
But could it really be true? Did George Bush actuallyreach the White House because the press corps conducted a war against Gore? For some, the notion will seem absurd on its face. Surely, some readers will think, we have a varied, professional press corps. If some big newspapers landed on Gore, then others must have landed on Bush. And what about the press corps’ famed “liberal bias?” For roughly five decades, we’ve been told that mainstream journalists favor liberal policies–and Democratic candidates. Surely, Rush Limbaugh made mincemeat of Gore, some will think. But could it be that the mainstream press corps also waged war on this candidate?
Well yes, as a matter of fact, that’s what happened, in one of the most remarkable episodes in modern journalistic history–a twenty-month breakdown which ought to be studied as long as we have a republic. Because this notion may seem surprising, a bit of background should be considered.
By the time Campaign 2000 began, the press corps’ ballyhooed “liberal bias” was, in most ways, a thing of the past. By now, many big news orgs had corporate owners. Often, these owners had reason to favor conservative interests–and Republican candidates. Meanwhile, opinion leaders of the mainstream press were frequently multi-millionaires, famous celebrities in their own right, with the fatuous values and frivolous concerns so often displayed by this class. They gained vast sums from Bush’s tax cuts; beyond that, their lackadaisical approach to this campaign’s key issues seemed to reflect their baronial standing. (Campaign 2000 made one thing clear: It’s hard to tease a discussion of health care from people with excellent health care.) Indeed, in the years which followed the Cold War’s demise, some of these worthies had come to believe that the “end of history” had fallen upon us. With the threats and fears of the Cold War dispatched, they seemed inclined to hand the public entertainments–silly personality tales–in place of traditional news.
Who would you rather have a beer with? Within an increasingly fatuous press corps, this had become a standard measure of a candidate's worth.
Given this largely frivolous focus, the thrilling year of the Clinton impeachment had driven this cohort half-wild. President Clinton’s impeachment trial ended in February 1999. Three weeks later, his vice president, a fellow named Gore, began his own run for the White House. By June of that year, two major journalists were quoted saying that the “harsh coverage and punditry” being handed to Gore represented a form of punishment for the fact that he wouldn’t condemn Clinton's conduct strongly enough. (Even though Gore had long condemned the president's conduct.)
Was this group less "liberal" than it once might have been? Clearly, it was less constrained by traditional standards–of fairness, coherence, relevance, decency. Simply put, this was no longer a serious group, as the chapters which follow make clear. But whatever their motives, whatever their mind-set, their performance in Campaign 2000 was startling. As a candidate, Gore was trashed as a liar–just like Clinton, pundits said–from his first TV interview forward. The “harsh coverage and punditry” would continue for years, even after the public had voted.
Even now, it’s hard to comprehend the sheer inanity of the press corps’ work–or the degree of blatant deception in which they engaged as a group. At various times in the chapters which follow, their conduct will seem hard to believe. And yet, the record is clear.
How awful was the press corps’ performance? For months on end, reporters staged absurd discussions about Candidate Gore’s deeply troubling wardrobe–the number of buttons he wore on his suits, his disturbing appearance in earth tones. They wrote a stream of punishing profiles about how “stiff” he seemed. Most important by far, they invented a string of punishing tales about his deeply compromised character. In particular, they called him a liar–just like Clinton–all through the twenty-month campaign. (Many chose their words with more care. The overall message was clear.) In a string of famous cases, the claims of Gore's lies were simply invented; if Gore wouldn’t utter the lies they desired, the press corps would simply invent his lies for him. And the press corps was nothing if not persistent in its pursuit of this punishing theme. As we’ll see in the pages which follow, whenever one of their tales broke down, someone would “misquote” Gore again, thus creating another vile lie.
At times, this book will seem hard to believe. And yet, the record is clear.
Some will find it hard to believe that America’s press corps would, or could, behave in such a manner. But in the wake of President Clinton’s impeachment, a perfect storm seems to have formed within the establishment press corps. Anger at Clinton rained down on Gore–and George Bush ended up the White House. And yes, this was the mainstream press, not Fox News, not the Washington Times.
Almost surely, the mainstream press corps’ stunning misconduct determined the outcome of Campaign 2000. Journalists have avoided this story for years. It’s time that the story was told.
Which brings us back to the odd new imageswhich appeared in 2006. George Bush may be the worst president ever, one major magazine cover now said. But Gore was on magazine covers too, increasingly hailed as a major world leader. Even the press corps sometimes acknowledged that Gore had been right about climate change. Most Americans had come to believe that he’d also been right on Iraq.
The story which follows took place before that. It’s a story of massive public dysfunction–of stunning journalistic misconduct. But at its heart, it’s the story of a consequential White House campaign.
In 2001, George Bush entered the White House. This volume explains how he got there.
To continue:Chapter 1. A search for bias: Bush and Gore hit the trail