As Bush and Gore did their early campaigning,the whole world wasn't yet watching. Research kept making this clear.
In early September 1999, for example, the Pew Research Center asked 1205 adults if they could name any candidates for president. (They were prompted to name as many as possible.) Forty-eight percent couldn’t name any Democrat, though Gore and Bradley had been stumping since March. Thirty-seven percent couldn’t name any Republican, despite a larger GOP field. According to Pew, 54 percent of respondents named Bush as a candidate; 46 percent named Gore. Only 16 percent named Bradley or Elizabeth Dole, one of Bush’s higher-profile opponents.
In early September 1999, only seven percent of Pew’s respondents named John McCain as a candidate.
Other surveys seemed to suggest an odd possibility. When asked about “George W. Bush,” some respondents seemed to think they were being quizzed about his father, the former president. In June 1999, pollster John Zogby asked respondents to give a one-word, top-of-the-head description of the various candidates. (This is a common type of survey question.) Asked to describe “George W. Bush,” 11 percent said “ex-president.” There was no way to know if all these people had the governor confused with his father. On the other hand, people who voiced some other reaction may have had the two men confused too.
This phenomenon was rarely discussed in the press, though it had surfaced several years earlier, when Bush shot to the top of early Republican preference polls for the party's nomination. According to a later report in Time, these early surveys “were a bit fluky: a Republican working for Bush conceded that some 40 percent of those who picked Bush in the early days thought they were voting to bring back the Old Man, not Junior.” In short, Bush may have gotten an early boost in the GOP race from being confused with his dad.
Another intriguing point showed up in that Zogby poll. In June 1999, only seven percent of respondents said “dull,” “stiff” or “boring” when asked for a one-word description of Gore. Yet the notion that Gore was hopelessly stiff formed the basis for many early profiles. This included the trio of mocking pieces which appeared in the Washington Post at the time of Gore’s formal launch. (Gore was “the vanilla pudding of the species.” See chapter 1.)
Some voters had Bush confused with his father, but this syndrome was rarely discussed. By way of contrast, the notion that Gore was boring seemed sexy–within the mainstream press corps. A few reporters even fudged a few facts to reinforce this disparaging portrait. For example: In a June 15 piece in the New York Times, Katherine Seelye described “boring” as “the word that most people said in a Pew poll was the one that immediately came to mind when asked about Mr. Gore.” In fact, only 66 respondents, out of nearly 1800, had volunteered the word “boring” when Pew asked for a one-word description of Gore (although no other word was offered more often). In this manner, 3.7 percent of respondents turned into “most people” as Seelye embellished Gore’s reputation for dullness. Alas! A familiar pattern appeared again as Seelye mismanaged these facts:
Perhaps most important, [Gore's announcement] gives him a chance to present himself in human terms...and to try to overcome the perception that he is a wooden technocrat, or, in the word that most people said in a Pew poll was the one that immediately came to mind when asked about Mr. Gore, “boring.”Gore would fight the perception he’s wooden, Seelye opined–even as she toyed with facts to heighten that very impression. But then, as noted in Chapter 1, several Washington Post reporters had already engaged in this general practice. In mocking profiles which discussed nothing else, they asked if Gore could overcome his reputation for dullness. One day before Gore's formal launch, a Timeswoman played the same card.
In short, “vanilla pudding” putdowns of Gore were hardly confined to the Post. At the New York Times, several reporters wrote early and often about Gore’s stiffness and dullness. Many voters weren’t paying attention as these early profiles appeared. But other reporters were reading the Times, and basic themes of the campaign’s coverage were taking shape in the process. Over the course of the next two years, the claim that Gore was wooden/stiff/boring would endlessly appear in the coverage, forming one of the campaign’s key frameworks. In the early months of the Gore campaign, our highest-ranking mainstream newspapers helped establish this theme.
The notion that Gore was boring was sexy–especially at the New York Times. In the campaign’s early months, the paper devoted a good chunk of time to such subjective assessments. Reporters felt free to include “stiff jokes” in early paragraphs of news reports. They questioned Gore about his stiffness; asked aides to explain why Gore was so stiff; then quoted voters and politicians insisting that Gore really wasn’t wooden. The sheer absurdity of this “reporting” came to a head on July 24, as Melinda Henneberger penned a lengthy report about a Gore campaign trip to New Hampshire.
Two days earlier, Gore had taken a canoe ride on a New Hampshire river with Jeanne Shaheen, the Granite State's governor. Clearly, the event was designed as a photo-op, intended to attract attention to Gore’s environmental proposals and record. A few newspapers used the occasion to discuss Gore’s record, along with the environmental backgrounds of several other candidates. But Henneberger paid little attention to Gore’s record, or to the day’s policy statements, or to a manufactured flap about the canoe ride itself. (The local power company advanced a water release by two hours, helping Gore’s canoe stay afloat on the drought-stricken river.) Instead, Henneberger focused, in heroic detail, on various aspects of Gore’s body language, including the “hesitant” way he kissed Granite State babies–Gore tended to ask their mothers’ permission–and the “perfectly erect posture” he had somehow maintained in a trio of different settings. As such, the piece became the Times’ latest account of Candidate Gore’s wooden ways on the stump–of “the condition now known as stiffness,” as Henneberger put it.
The event “was supposed to be a friendly and photogenic river trip,” Henneberger wrote, “a chance for Al Gore to be seen in a less formal setting.” But sure enough! The effort had backfired, the watchful Times reporter opined:
The informality of the settings...seemed only to accentuate Mr. Gore’s natural reserve. His perfectly erect posture held good on the canoe ride, and even fielding questions from folks sitting cross-legged on the floor of a barn on Thursday night. He seemed shy shaking hands, and noticeably low on patter, quietly saying to most prospective voters simply, “How do you do?”Candidate Gore had said, “How do you do!” To Henneberger, this peculiar choice of words made Gore seem “low on patter.” But were Granite State voters reacting that way? Commenting further on Gore’s “physical tightness,” Henneberger noted a point with apparent surprise–many citizens at the Thursday evening event “said that they did not particularly care if the man looks like he cannot dance.” (Here, an obvious point must be offered: If any voters really said such a thing, they almost surely didn’t do so without journalistic prompting.) Nor was it clear that voters were judging Gore in such a fatuous manner. Indeed, at three separate points in her profile, Henneberger seemed surprised when voters didn’t share her concern about Gore’s alleged dullness. “They seemed to listen carefully as he gave detailed answers to questions on campaign finance reform, the gap between rich and poor, education, sexual abuse on college campuses and a number of other matters,” she marveled, thus observing these citizens, and this well-informed candidate, as if she were an anthropologist who had just flown in from Mars.
As would often occur in this campaign’s coverage, Henneberger seemed surprised by a puzzling fact: These voters seemed to care about serious issues, not about body language!
Henneberger’s disquisition on “the condition now known as stiffness” droned on and on–and on. She didn't report what Gore said at the Thursday event, only the way he seemed as he said it. (The way he seemed to her.) Eventually, she quoted one of Gore’s former aides discussing a truly remarkable subject–the type of posture Gore had maintained during his 1990 Senate campaign. According to Henneberger, Gore had campaigned in all 92 Tennessee counties that year. Nine years later, she helped Times readers understand the way Gore had positioned himself in his car during long rides through his very wide state. “The rest of us were always slouching in the car, and he’d maintain perfect posture the whole time,” the former aide was quoted saying.
So it went in the paper of record at the start of a fateful campaign.
The sheer frivolity of this reporting can hardly be overstated. To state the obvious, voters can decide for themselves if they think a particular candidate is dull, stiff, wooden, robotic or boring. This isn’t a topic on which a voter will likely need expert advice. But in the Times, subjective assessments of Gore’s alleged stiffness helped drive reporting from March through August. And this focus helped fuel a second theme–the paper’s near-obsessive attention to President Clinton. When Gore and Clinton appeared together, reporting in the Post and the Times heavily stressed Gore’s dismal dullness, as compared to the more charismatic president. When the two men didn’t appear together, reporters wondered why that was, thus finding a way to talk about Clinton even when he wasn’t present–even when he wasn’t relevant. Gore was running for president now. But mainstream reporters–obsessed with Lewinsky?–longed for more talk about Bill.
An essential point must be made at this juncture: This was the shape of the early reporting at the top of the mainstream press corps. No conservative paper obsessed on Gore’s dullness to the extent that the New York Times did–and the Washington Post wasn’t far behind in the race to examine this characteristic. This silly, dismally dull reporting was being driven in our big mainstream outlets. Eventually, Times writers would start describing this journalistic syndrome–even as they and their frivolous colleagues kept driving the syndrome along.
On August 1, for example, Gail Collins accurately described this journalistic pattern in a Times op-ed column. “The public has been hearing for weeks now that Mr. Bush is a natural, charismatic politician while Mr. Gore is stiff and a boring speaker,” she correctly wrote, forgetting to say that she herself had written several such columns. (In one piece, she had compared the wooden Gore to a soul-mate–Howdy Dowdy. Another full column expressed the idea that Bradley was really quite dull.) But then, Henneberger had beaten Collins to this particular punch; she had made a similar observation about the coverage almost four weeks earlier. “So far, most of the press about Mr. Gore on the stump could run under the headline ‘Stiff Guy Still Stiff,’” she wrote on July 9, perhaps overstating the matter a bit. And she had said the same thing just three days before that, once again noting that voters' interests seem to differ from those found within the press corps. “While commentators have primarily looked at the ways in which Mr. Gore is not enough like Mr. Clinton as a campaigner,” Henneberger wrote on July 6, “his audiences seemed to be focusing more on what the Vice President said than on how he said it.”
Voters were focusing on what Gore said, not on the way he said it! It would be hard to think of a stranger, or a sadder, commentary about a campaign's early coverage.
At any rate, these statements by Collins and Henneberger were largely accurate. American voters did keep hearing that Bush and Clinton were more charismatic. They did keep hearing that Gore was boring–wooden, stiff, dull, robotic, vanilla. Voters did keep saying, at various functions, that they didn’t understand why reporters and pundits kept saying such things about Gore. Reporters did keep reporting these comments, thus reinforcing the focus.
This came from the heart of the mainstream press. This observation brings us to the heart of a basic concept.
Some will assume that a “war against Gore” must have been waged by conservative outlets–by the Washington Times, by the Fox New Channel, by radio talkers like Rush Limbaugh. Anyone who makes this assumption misses the essence of Campaign 2000. In November 1998, it was mainstream figures in “Establishment Washington” who were “outraged” about President Clinton, as Sally Quinn reported, in detail, in the Washington Post (see chapter 1). This leads us to the next part of this drama: Starting in March 1999, it was mainstream press organs in “Establishment Washington” which began to wage a long, strange war against Bill Clinton’s vice president, the man who hadn’t condemned Clinton harshly enough. “We’re going to make him jump through the hoops,” Roger Simon would soon announce. But Simon came from the mainstream press corps–from U.S. News & World Report–not from its conservative counterpart.
Right from the start, one major paper stood out as this war took shape. That paper was the Washington Post, the heart of the mainstream press establishment. Right from the start, the Washington Post seemed to be in a state of war with Candidate Gore. And Ceci Connolly was destined to serve as the paper's most visible soldier.
Connolly was the Post’s Gore reporter for the full twenty months of Campaign 2000. From her work in the campaign’s first few months, it began to seem that a war was being waged from inside the mainstream establishment. The New York Times was often fatuous as the long campaign began–but the Washington Post was baldly aggressive. Right from the start, the war against Gore was a war of the Post–a war of the mainstream press corps.
Connolly was 35 years of age when Campaign 2000 began. She had graduated from Boston College in 1985; she then had worked for a string of mainstream news organizations, including the Associated Press. In 1996, she covered Bob Dole’s presidential campaign for the St. Petersburg Times. The next year, she was hired away by the Washington Post, heralded as a “rising star” in the star-savvy Washingtonian.
In March 1999, Connolly was assigned to cover Gore, a post she would hold throughout the campaign. In the early months, she too wrote analyses of what she called Gore's “widely known wooden caricature.” She did the Clinton/Gore contrast pieces, focusing on “the body language between the empathetic president and his ramrod stiff deputy.” Needless to say, “Clinton and Gore were a study in contrasts," with “Gore's stylistic weaknesses...magnified by Clinton's strengths.”
In June, Connolly wrote her mocking profile of Gore. In it, “the man best known for his statue imitation” had “even giggled like a girl” at an issues conference, “positively wallowing in the sheer density” of the subject matter “while his aides struggled to stay awake.”
These were fairly standard portraits, widely churned in the press. But Connolly did a set of early news reports which truly stood out from the pack. In retrospect, these pieces seem to suggest that the Washington Post was at war with this candidate right from the start. The mainstream press corps as a whole would soon be marching to war with this man–a man they would portray as a LIAR. But at the start, it was Connolly, and her editors, who made the call to arms clear.
For the most part, Connolly's early attacks on Gore failed to shape the subsequent coverage. It wasn't until the fall of 1999 that her sour tone, and blatant mistakes, began to drive the wider coverage, in deeply unfortunate ways. But Connolly’s early reports did help establish the tone of the coverage. The Washington Post was at war with Al Gore–and Connolly's early work showed it.
As noted earlier, Connolly would eventually be criticized for her coverage of Gore. (Though never in ways which produced wide discussion.) By the summer of 2000, the London-based Financial Times would savage her work, saying that she and two other reporters were “hostile to the [Gore] campaign, doing little to hide their contempt for the candidate.” A September 2000 report in the Columbia Journalism Review criticized her willingness to mind-read Gore’s motives. On several occasions, the ombudsman for the Washington Post would criticize her work, saying that her bungled reporting helped make a “whipping boy” of Gore. But in the fall of 1999, Connolly would be the source of several errors which were deeply damaging to Gore’s campaign. In her puzzling string of mistakes, Connolly was almost surely the most influential–and the most troubling–print journalist in this campaign.
That said, Connolly’s penchant for dissembling was on display in the campaign’s first months. A set of articles in the spring and summer of 1999 gave a taste of what would come in the fall, when Connolly’s work would sharply tilt the press corps' wider coverage. For those who hold to the theory of “liberal bias,” the presence of such work in the Washington Post surely calls for explanation. And for those who want to see the way Campaign 2000 was shaped by the press, Connolly’s early work shows the animus that seemed to be present, at the top of the mainstream press, right from the start of the race.
To all appearances, Gore was “jumping through hoops” at the Washington Post from the campaign's opening weeks. What follows emerged from the Washington Post–from the heart of the mainstream press corps.
Consider, please, Connolly's cover story in theWashington Post's April 4 Sunday magazine, an extremely long report about Gore's fund-raising plans.
Filling the magazine's cover, an illustration showed Gore in a Superman suit–with a large dollar sign on his chest. The color of Gore's suit was green–and it wasn’t a reference to Earth Day.
“THE $55 MILLION MAN,” screamed the text on the magazine’s cover. “AL GORE'S RELENTLESS HUNT FOR CAMPAIGN DOLLARS.” bUT INSIDE THE MAGAZINE, In her lengthy report, Ceci Connolly’s tone was relentless. And her message was relentlessly clear: Al Gore was a slave to Big Money.
Connolly went after “The Gore Machine” all through her 8000-word report. (That’s what Gore’s fund-raising operation was called in the article’s headline) Her insinuations about Gore’s character were abundant, and abundantly clear. “Al Gore would seem an unlikely star in this curious world of political hustling,” she wrote near the start of her piece. But: “Friends and colleagues describe him as focused, driven, disciplined and seemingly inured to the seamy side of the business.”
According to Connolly, Gore “never says no, never complains; he just goes about his business like the dutiful political son he is."
Candidate Gore seemed “inured to the seamy side of the business?” The statement was remarkably stark–and inside the magazine, three more full-color illustrations portrayed Gore's devotion to cash. One illustration showed Gore in a Boy Scout suit–saluting a $500 bill. Another portrayed Gore as a game-show winner, beaming broadly as he held a big sack of cash aloft. (He was shown winning $55 million.) Yet another employed a meat-grinder theme: In this illustration, executives were being fed into the top of Gore’s head, and money was pouring out his left ear.
The four illustrations, on their own, offered a deeply unflattering portrait. But so it went as the Washington Post displayed its intense “liberal bias.”
Needless to say, journalists are free to portray a candidate in any way they think appropriate. But they shouldn’t feel free to deceive their readers, and Connolly’s piece was a masterwork of misdirection and outright misstatement. Repeatedly, she engaged in bits of tortured semantics to promote two baldly disingenuous charges. These charges were also sustained by selective presentation of facts.
Connolly's charges? First, Gore was trying to “stretch” and “exploit" federal fund-raising laws, she said. And not only that: In the process, he was trying to raise a “staggering,” “unprecedented sum,” thus pursuing a fund-raising plan which was “fraught with danger.” These charges were potentially damaging to Gore–and in many ways, they were baldly absurd. This cover piece was thus an early shot in the long war which was forming.
Gore had been on the trail for three weeks when this remarkable piece appeared. It signaled the start of the outright dissembling which would drive a good deal of Connolly’s work during Campaign 2000. Candidates Bradley and McCain were “already seeking to portray the vice president as just another sleazy, business-as-usual politician,” Connolly wrote at one point in her piece. But then, Connolly seemed to be working hard to paint that same portrait herself.
The insinuations started quickly in Connolly’slong cover story. After suggesting that Gore was “inured to the seamy side of the business,” Connolly repeatedly said that Gore was trying to “stretch” and “exploit” federal law in his fund-raising efforts. In the aftermath of the 1996 presidential race, campaign finance rules “have been stretched beyond all recognition,” she wrote. “But so long as these rules are in place, Al Gore will exploit them.” And then, her nugget statement appeared. “Gore’s team hopes to stretch federal fund-raising rules as far as possible to collect an unprecedented $55 million,” Connolly wrote. At a later point, she said it again. Candidate Gore “is stretching the rules as far as he can."
Gore was “stretching” and “exploiting” the rules? Without question, these sounded like serious claims, especially given the historical context. In the aftermath of the 1996 campaign, the Clinton/Gore campaign had been accused of a wide array of fund-raising misconduct. A long investigation by the Justice Department produced convictions of several Democratic fund-raisers. Republican-run congressional investigations produced a great deal of public clamor. Two specific accusations were still hounding Gore as the new White House race began.
In April 1996, Gore had attended a luncheon at a Buddhist temple and community center outside Los Angeles. Though the press routinely described it as a “fund-raising luncheon,” there had been no charge to attend the event, nor had there been any appeal for contributions at the luncheon. But in the days which followed the event, laundered money from the temple's director entered DNC coffers, solicited by a Los Angeles-area Democratic fund-raiser. In the spring of 1999, questions were still being asked–and asked, then asked again–about Gore’s role in this event. In February 2000, federal prosecutors would say, in open court, that Gore had played no role in this illegal conduct–any more than Candidate Dole had played a role in the misconduct which led one of his 1996 finance vice chairmen, Simon Fireman, to plead guilty to similar federal crimes. But insinuations, and misstatements, about Gore's alleged conduct would continue all through the 2000 campaign. (See chapter 11.)
Beyond that, Gore had made about forty fund-raising phone calls from his office during the 1996 campaign. Critics railed about this too, although no illegal conduct was involved.
At any rate, complaints about Gore’s 1996 fund-raising had been aggressively bruited for years. In saying that Gore was “stretching the rules” in his nascent campaign, Connolly was raising a sensitive subject. But in saying that Gore was “stretching the rules,” Connolly herself was grossly stretching the English language. And in saying Gore's plans were “fraught with danger,” she was adopting a punishing alarmist standard–a standard her paper would labor hard to avoid applying to Bush.
A review of the “logic” behind Connolly's charges lets us take an early look at a major newspaper at war.
In what way was Gore supposed to be “stretching the rules” in his fund-raising strategy? You had to read Connolly's piece with great care to make out the meaning of this accusation. But here it was: By an odd twist of logic, Connolly reasoned that Gore was “stretching the rules” in a very unusual way–by trying to raise the full amount permitted for a White House campaign by the Federal Election Commission. In short, in Connolly’s odd lexicon, Gore was trying to “stretch the rules” by explicitly following FEC regulations. Even in this early piece, Connolly’s tortured logic prefigured the ways she’d hound Candidate Gore over the next twenty months.
Deep inside her lengthy report, Connolly outlined the FEC’s basic rules–rules which regulated spending by any candidate who accepted federal “matching funds” to help finance his primary campaign. (This would cover a candidate’s spending right through his party’s national convention in the summer of 2000.) As Connolly noted, the FEC defined three separate categories of spending for hopefuls who accepted such federal funds. For openers, such candidates would be allowed to spend roughly $33 million on basic expenses–TV ads, travel, polls and the like. Two other types of spending were permitted–roughly $7 million for fund-raising expenses, and the same amount for legal and accounting fees. Total spending in the primaries, then, would be limited to $47 million. For candidates willing to observe these limits, up to $16 million would be available in the form of those federal “matching funds."
Given these rules, a candidate could raise a maximum of roughly $31 million from individual donors for the primary campaign. These donations would be augmented by the $16 million in “matching funds” from the federal government. Beyond that, candidates were allowed to raise $8 million for a general election legal accounting fund (a GELAC fund). “This money can't be used until the general election, and its main purpose is to pay fines and penalties if any rules are violated,” Connolly explained.
Those were the rules–so how was Gore “stretching” them? You had to read with exceptional care to capture Connolly’s exotic meaning. But here goes: Playing a semantic version of “gotcha,” Connolly said that Gore was “stretching the rules” because he hoped to raise the full amount allowed by the FEC!
Midway through her piece, Connolly noted that Gore “plan[s] on raising and spending every penny permitted under the FEC’s complex set of rules.” This hardly seemed like a startling notion; presumably, every candidate would like to raise as much money as the rules allow. But in Connolly’s lexicon, the fact that Gore hoped to raise the full permitted amount meant that he was “stretching” the rules–as you might be said to “stretch” the speed limit if you drive 65 on a highway. Around this tortured bit of semantics, Connolly built a lengthy report in which Gore was said to be “stretching” and “exploiting” federal fund-raising laws.
To heighten the effect, Connolly repeatedly feigned amazement at Gore’s astonishing fund-raising prowess. He even sends thank-you notes to contributors, she marveled at one point in her piece. He even knows “that a ‘candid’ souvenir photo is worthless if the donor and the vice president aren't smiling into the camera.” Such nonsense was marbled throughout the piece, mixed with damaging insinuations about Gore’s troubling character.
It’s strange to think that a candidate could “stretch the rules” in the manner described–by explicitly obeying their limits. But that was the thrust of Connolly’s piece, and you had to read her report with great care to discern what she meant by these statements. Indeed, she had made the same point in a more egregious way in an earlier, front-page report–a news report which had appeared in the February 28 Post. In the second paragraph of that report, Connolly had penned a startling accusation. Gore “plans to exploit every available legal loophole to collect far more money than the basic spending limits allow,” she had written.
Gore was planning to “collect far more money than the basic spending limits allow?” Again, Connolly seemed to be making an exceptionally serious charge. But again, the “logic” behind her statement was simply absurd–and you had to read all the way to the end of her piece to learn what she actually meant by this statement. As she explained in her closing paragraphs, Connolly had dropped the fund-raising, accounting and GELAC funds from her self-invented “basic spending” category. Therefore, when Gore raised and spent money in those three areas, he was, by Connolly’s strange definition, exceeding the “basic limits!”
In other words, by raising types of money the FEC expressly permitted, Gore was said, on page one of the Post, to be “exploiting every available legal loophole” and “collecting far more money than the basic spending limits allow.” It’s hard to find words for such disingenuous work, for work so baldly designed to mislead. But Connolly, the Washington Post’s Gore reporter, would churn out such work for two years.
In her April 4 magazine piece, Connolly was simply repeating a later version of this unfortunate earlier charge. But her magazine story was even stranger in a second key respect. In the magazine piece, Connolly repeatedly stressed the problems involved in the “unprecedented” sum Gore was hoping to raise. Here again, she toyed with readers–readers whom she baldly deceived.
How much money did Gore hope to raise? Early on, Connolly said he hoped to collect “an unprecedented $55 million.” (This included the $16 million in federal matching funds–money he would simply be given.) “It’s an unprecedented sum in American politics,” she wrote again a bit later. Peter Knight, Gore’s chief fund-raiser, was “amassing the largest campaign treasury in history,” she wrote at another point. Meanwhile, throughout her piece, she stressed how “seamy,” “unattractive” and “odious” the pursuit of such big money was. (At one point, she pictured former congressman Mel Levine on the phone, “hustling for Al Gore.”) And Connolly quoted campaign watchdog Fred Wertheimer, saying how dangerous Gore’s goal was. “Wertheimer fears that by setting its fund-raising target so high, the Gore campaign is asking for trouble,” she wrote. (Once again, she failed to note that Gore's “target” had been set by the FEC itself.) Meanwhile, what about Gore’s individual fund-raisers, people who were being asked to raise $50,000 from various donors? That too was dangerous, Connolly said. “It’s a spider’s web,” Wertheimer was quoted saying, and Connolly extended the point: “Wertheimer is concerned that the role of [individual] fund-raisers in bundling donations increases the potential for influence-peddling.”
Danger was everywhere in Gore’s plans. But then, the fundamental gist of Connolly’s piece had been clear from the start. At the start of her piece, she said that Gore’s troubling plan–his plan to follow the FEC’s rules–was “fraught with danger."
How disingenuous was Connolly’s work? Start with the claim that Gore was chasing an “unprecedented sum," the “largest campaign treasury in history.” This statement was technically accurate, but only because the FEC had been raising its spending limits for each new White House campaign, essentially to allow for inflation. In this sense, candidates had been trying to raise “unprecedented sums” in every recent White House election. But there was something even more disingenuous about Connolly’s treatment of this point. By the time she wrote this piece, it was abundantly clear that Candidate Bush would likely be raising more money than Gore–a great deal more money, in fact. As Connolly noted very briefly, in passing, the Bush campaign had long discussed forgoing use of those federal “matching funds.” Under the rules of the FEC, that would free the campaign to spend as much money as it wished in the primaries. (Spending limits only existed for campaigns which accepted federal money.)
Bush's plan was perfectly legal, and it made perfect good sense. One of the Texan’s Republican opponents, near-billionaire Steve Forbes, would be paying the bills for his own campaign. Because his effort would be self-financed, Forbes could ignore the FEC's spending limits altogether. (He had spent $37 million on his 1996 primary effort.) In theory, Forbes could outspend Bush in every primary state if the Texan was forced to observe the FEC’s spending limits. But note well: Unless Bush planned to raise at least $50 million from individual donors, it made no sense to reject the federal matching funds. By contrast, Gore was trying to collect about $31 million from individual donors, the most a candidate could raise if he accepted the federal money. (Each campaign would also be raising the $8 million GELAC fund.)
There was nothing improper about Bush’s plan. It made good sense, given Forbes’ vast wealth. But it was abundantly clear, by early April, that Bush would likely be raising more money than Gore–a great deal more money, in fact. And Connolly understood this fact well; she had reported Bush’s likely plan in her February 28 news report. (Bush was “considering giving up federal money so [he] can spend unlimited sums,” she had written that day. “By one Bush adviser’s estimate, the governor would need to raise an additional $17 million if he chooses not to take matching funds.”) But these elementary points of logic and fact slipped Connolly’s mind in her magazine piece, in which she repeatedly stressed the danger involved in the “unprecedented,” “staggering” sums Candidate Gore was pursuing. At one point, Connolly even said that “his [Gore’s] fund-raising machine is bigger, tougher, faster” than Bush’s. By any rational calculation, that statement was very hard to sustain by this point.
At no point did Connolly ever explain that Bush would likely be raising more money. But then, the entire premise of her piece would have been undercut by that point.
Connolly’s high-profile cover story was remarkably disingenuous–an early sign of the tortured work with which she would litter this White House campaign. The illustrations themselves drove a potent message–and many people who didn’t read Connolly’s lengthy report examined that cover portrait of Gore, the guy with the large dollar sign on his chest. Connolly didn’t create the illustrations, of course. But they neatly captured her message.
Connolly had written a deeply disingenuous piece, gracing the Sunday Post's magazine cover. But just how bad were things at the Post as coverage of Campaign 2000 was starting? Three days later, reporter Susan Glasser compounded the problem, displaying the groaning double standard at the heart of the Post's early coverage.
On April 7, Glasser wrote a 2400-word news report about Bush’s fund-raising plans. She discussed the large sums Bush hoped to raise–but her attitude and her analytical frameworks differed vastly from Connolly’s. Three days earlier, Connolly had scolded Candidate Gore for his staggering fund-raising plan–for fund-raising goals which were “fraught with danger.” Now, Glasser lavished praise on Bush for his effort to raise larger sums. “Bush is assembling the most ambitious Republican presidential fund-raising effort ever,” Glasser wrote, “hoping to raise $20 million more than the previous record.” The lengthy article quoted Bush aides describing their plan to raise at least $50 million from donors–a much larger sum than Gore hoped to raise. This of course assumed that Bush would forgo federal matching funds, a point Bush’s finance chairman made explicit. "If you go non-matching, you're assuming you can raise at least $50 million,” Glasser quoted him saying. “That's a huge jump over what anyone has done before.”
In short, Bush wasn’t planning to raise a sum which was merely "unprecedented." According to Glasser, Bush was hoping to make a “huge jump” over all previous records! But despite the length of her report, Glasser never said a word about any “danger” involved in this plan. Fred Wertheimer’s worries went missing this day; no campaign watchdog was cited at all as Glasser swooned over Bush’s “ambitious effort.” Nor did Glasser mention the fact that Bush would be raising more money than Gore if his campaign followed through on this plan. At one point, she even suggested the opposite, placing the pair on an equal footing. Gore “has embarked on his own plan to break the fund-raising record,” Glasser misleadingly wrote.
What a contrast! On April 4, Gore’s plan to raise $31 million was seamy, odious, fraught with danger. Three days later, Bush’s plan to raise $50 million (or more) was ambitious, aggressive, impressive. By the way: According to Glasser, Bush’s fund-raisers were being asked to raise $100,000 apiece, twice as much as Gore’s fund-raisers. But this too had now ceased to be dangerous. “[T]he number of recruits so far is impressive,” Glasser cheerfully wrote–and that was the extent of her comment. But then, the upbeat tone of Glasser’s report was captured in its cheerful headline. “Bush’s Dash for Cash,” it said. “Family, Friends Join in $50 Million Goal.”
At the Post, it was Gore with the big dollar sign on his chest, even as Bush pursued much larger sums. Gore's smaller goal was fraught with danger; Bush's much larger goal was headlined as family and friendly. the newspaper’s editors turned a blind eye to the disconnect displayed in this work.
Something seemed rotten inside the Post building as Connolly’s cover story appeared, followed by Glasser's chaser. But in July, Connolly found a way to top even this effort. This time, Connolly and Glasser joined forces for a pair of front-page reports about the two candidates' spending. Once again, these news reports savaged Candidate Gore–and heaped big praise on Candidate Bush. The deception involved in selling the Post's new claims was perhaps more stark than before.
By July, it was abundantly clear. Bush was raisingmore money than Gore–a great deal more money, in fact. Official totals were released on July 15. In just six months, Bush had raised $37 million, more than twice as much as Gore. Indeed, Bush had already raised more money than any candidate ever had raised in a full, 18-month primary cycle! So much for Connolly’s foolish claim that Candidate Gore’s “fund-raising machine” was “bigger, tougher, faster” than Bush’s. And so much for any pretense that the Washington Post found such sums to be odious, dangerous.
On July 15, Bush made it official. He would forgo federal matching funds, freeing himself to raise and spend unlimited amounts through the primary season. Remarkably, he had already raised the “unprecedented sum” which had troubled Connolly’s sleep back in April. At that time, the Post trashed Gore, on its magazine cover, for just hoping to raise such amounts. In July, the newspaper changed its tune, now that Bush had accomplished the task.
On July 3, Glasser gushed about Bush’s haul in another fawning news report. Journalistic double standards are rarely quite so clear:
Interviews with [Donald] Evans and other key fund-raisers offered a window into how the Bush campaign managed the spectacular feat, ending up with more than $36 million and 75,000 donors by June 30. The campaign...created a special category of "Pioneers" who pledged to raise $100,000 or more–and, according to sources, more than 100 have already met that daunting goal, bringing in more than $10 million.The Post's double standard was striking:
In April, Gore’s mere pursuit of $39 million had been “odious,” “fraught with danger.” Three months later, Bush had collected a comparable sum. It was deemed a “spectacular feat.”
In April, Connolly had discussed “the potential for influence-peddling” when Gore asked aides to raise $50,000 each. When Bush’s men raised twice that amount, they’d “met a daunting goal.”
Double standards are rarely this clear. But here again, at the heart of the mainstream press, it was Bush who was favored, not Gore.
Back to Connolly. Now that it was Candidate Bush was raising the record amounts, the scribe adopted a new tack. In a new set of articles, she claimed that the Gore campaign was spending its money quite wildly. In a pair of punishing front-page reports, she and Glasser compared Gore’s “massive” spending to that of the “notoriously tight-fisted” Bush. Here’s how the writers stated their premise in their initial, July 16 report:
New campaign finance reports...revealed yesterday that Gore has spent far more than either Bradley or Bush, waging a consultant-heavy campaign that spent heavily to raise the money it took in. Although Gore has raised $17.5 million–about $1 million less than his campaign estimated two weeks ago–he had just $9.3 million left, more than $2 million ahead of Bradley.Gore had “spent far more” than Bush. (“Vice President Is Spending at Fast Pace,” the headline said.) By contrast, the Bush campaign was a model of restraint. “Bush raised a total of $37 million–more than any presidential candidate ever–but spent only $7.2 million on his frugal, hot-dogs-for-dinner operation,” Connolly and Glasser wrote.
The next day, in a second front-page report, the writers fleshed out their thesis. The headline offered the latest stark contrast: “From Peanuts to Posh: A Tale of 2 Campaigns/Bush Hoards Cash; Gore Spends Heavily.” In their opening paragraph, Connolly and Glasser compared the two candidates’ ways. “In the opening week of his presidential campaign, Texas Gov. George W. Bush served peanuts and potato chips to the high-rollers pouring millions into his treasury,” they wrote. “Vice President Gore’s announcement featured an open bar at New York’s lavish Pierre Hotel.”
Bush’s events had been held at posh hotels too, but the pair neglected to say so. Instead, they drew a second striking contrast between the rival campaigns. “Bush made his maiden voyage to Iowa and New Hampshire with a single paid advance man leading the way,” they marveled. “Gore’s traveling entourage included about 32 advance staff, half a dozen White House aides, his pollsters, speech coach and media adviser.”
Good lord! What a spendthrift! More than forty staff had accompanied Gore, compared to one paid advance man with Bush! But so it went throughout the piece, as the writers described Gore’s free-spending ways and marveled at Bush’s frugality. According to Connolly and Glasser, Gore had spent more on polling; more on food; more on ballrooms; more on staff. He’d spent more on travel; more on “filming;” more on mailing; more on booze. And, according to several examples, he’d sometimes spent much more than Bush. Gore had spent $228,000 on polling, the writers said. Bush had spent $53,000.
In paragraph 3, Connolly and Glasser restated their thesis. Gore had filed a “massive money report,” showing he had “spared no expense in a campaign that is still attempting to find its footing.” He was “spending at a far faster clip” than Bush. Later, after detailing Gore’s wild spending, the writers again praised Bush’s frugality. A pleasing anecdote, one of several, showcased the Texan’s wise ways:
Bush is almost ostentatiously cheap. When Bush hosted a thank-you party last month for Texas contributors, they were greeted with a simple note card: “Enjoy your peanuts and snacks! Texas money will be saved for Iowa and New Hampshire.” His inaugural tour cost less than $200,000–half the cost of Gore’s, according to estimates from the two campaigns.Once again, Gore had spent twice as much as Bush. Soon, the writers described one of the colorful characters responsible for the governor’s success, repeatinging an amusing, unverifiable anecdote which reflected his “Dr. No” ways.
These back-to-back front-page reports mocked Gore as a wild, undisciplined spender. By contrast, Bush was “notoriously tight-fisted,” “almost ostentatiously cheap.” He was surrounded by a savvy crew which was wisely “saving for Iowa and New Hampshire.” Gore had “spent far more,” had “spared no expense,” and had filed a “massive spending report.”
Gore was “posh” and Bush was “peanuts,” according to the Post’s headline.
As in April, so in July: These front-page reports pounded Gore. But there was one small problem with these reports; their basic premise was bogus. Connolly and Glasser had painted a picture which was grossly misleading at best–and the pair had sustained their tortured thesis in a truly remarkable way. In two consecutive front-page reports, they failed to include the most basic statistic–the amount of money Gore’s campaign had actually spent to this point in the race. Had they included this basic statistic, their premise would have failed from the start.
Was it true? Had the Gore campaign “spent far more” than Bush? Simply put, the claim was a joke. As the AP reported on July 15, the Gore campaign had spent $8.1 million through the June 30 reporting date. The Bush campaign had spent $7.2 million, a difference of roughly 11 percent. This modest disparity was largely explained by the difference in the campaigns’ launch dates. As of June 30, Bush had been traveling for just 18 days. Gore had begun campaign-paid travel in March, almost three months earlier.
Had Gore filed a “massive spending report,” showing he had “spared no expense?” Had he “spent far more” than Bush? On their face, these claims were absurd, but Connolly and Glasser sustained them in a remarkable way–they failed to include Gore’s spending total in either of their reports. On July 16, they noted Bush’s $7.2 million total (see the passage quoted above). But in two straight days of front-page reporting, they failed to cite the corresponding figure for Gore's campaign. Instead, they offered punishing characterizations of Gore’s “massive spending,” supporting their claim with a string of examples in which Gore was heavily outspending Bush. (The “32 advance staff” accompanying Gore, compared to the “single advance man” with Bush.) By the way: If the spending totals were so close, how were they able to cite such examples? Simple! The examples they’d chosen were unrepresentative! Examples can be grossly misleading–if you're careful to pick the right ones.
Why was Gore’s spending total omitted? Is it possible that Connolly and Glasser, two professional writers, simply forgot to include this statistic? Did their editors fail to notice? The notion seems absurd on its face, but there was the Post, in two front-page reports, driving another attack on Gore, while omitting the simple statistic which would have queered the tale.
For the record, it’s amusing to note just how misleading these reports turned out to be. On September 30, third-quarter estimates were released. How frugal was the Bush campaign? Bush had now spent $19 million, compared to $14 million for Gore. In the Post, Glasser noted that “the [Bush] campaign has greatly stepped up its spending, shelling out $12 million in just the past three months.” But two days later, the Post’s Dan Balz placed the new figure in wider context. “After proclaiming itself a frugal beer-and-peanuts operation, Bush’s campaign also was revealed as perhaps the freest-spending presidential campaign in history,” he wrote, coming close to taking a shot at his own newspaper’s prior reporting. On October 16, Glasser and Balz reviewed the official third-quarter reports. “Texas Gov. George W. Bush is now running the most lavish-spending primary campaign ever,” they wrote. “Already, Bush has laid out more than $19 million this year, the most ever spent at this point in a presidential race.”
Eventually, problems arose. By February 2000, news reports in the Post and the New York Times described the way Bush’s “unprecedented spending” had begun to drain his campaign’s coffers. Some Bush supporters were griping about the campaign’s spending, including outlays described by one supporter as “a huge misuse of our resources.” In the Post, Ruth Marcus reported that Bush’s “spending spree” had “eroded his expected financial advantage over Vice President Gore if both front-runners win their party's nominations.” The campaign had “squandered its once-daunting financial edge,” the New York Times reported, “spending $60 million on a campaign that has so far netted 57 delegates.”
Please note: By now, Bush had already raised and spent $60 million. Back in April, Connolly had written a punishing cover story when Candidate Gore had merely hoped that he might raise half that amount. Did the Post now present a screeching report about the terrible “danger” involved in Bush’s “unprecedented, staggering” haul? Those who ask still don’t understand the way this campaign was reported.
In the end, there was nothing fatal about Bush’s spending. Presumably, his heavy spending helped him win the GOP nomination. But in the campaign’s early months, the Post had run a pair of front-page reports slamming Gore for massive spending, and the paper sustained its tortured premise by withholding a basic statistic. So it went at the start of a fateful campaign–at the top of the mainstream press.
Connolly's inventive early reporting wasn't restrictedto matters of money. In a groaning report on August 21, she misled readers, in puzzling ways, about polling issues as well.
In this report, Connolly assessed Gore’s chances in the still-distant New York state primary. Bill Bradley, Gore’s Democratic opponent, had enjoyed a storied career with the NBA’s New York Knicks. As a result, Gore’s chances in the state weren’t looking real good, Connolly seemed to be saying. “The vice president finds himself battling unusually long odds in the March 7 primary,” she wrote. “Bradley’s advisers and several neutral analysts say Gore is playing catch-up in a state he grossly misread the last time he ran for president.” In standard disparaging fashion, Connolly proceeded to describe the way Gore had bungled the New York primary in his 1988 White House campaign. And she quoted an unnamed “Democratic Party leader” with a sour review of Gore’s current effort. “There were a number of missteps early in the Gore campaign that they’re trying to overcome,” this unnamed leader said.
Once again, Connolly helped Post readers see the sorry state of Gore’s fumbling effort. But what was the actual state of the polling as she offered this gloomy assessment? In fact, Gore was leading Bradley in the state of New York, by nine points, 47-38. Those were the “unusually long odds” Gore “found himself battling” as he “played catch-up” in the state! But it would have taken a careful reader to ferret this fact from Connolly’s report, which was typically murky in its language–and typically deceptive. In fact, Connolly never presented those actual polling numbers, the numbers on which her report had been based. What follows is the only place in her report in which she alluded to them at all:
In a Quinnipiac College poll earlier this month, Bradley closed the Democratic primary gap to 9 percentage points. Perhaps more significantly, he led Republican George W. Bush by 7 percentage points, whereas Gore led the Texas governor by just 2 points.From that, a careful reader might have seen that Gore was actually ahead of Bradley by nine. (Connolly quickly directed attention to the largely irrelevant match-ups with Bush.) But this murky account of the polling data only came in paragraph 8–only after Connolly said that Gore was “battling unusually long odds” in the state, only after she quoted “neutral analysts” saying Gore was “playing catch-up” there. By the way: If Gore was actually ahead by nine, in what way was he “playing catch-up?” Such questions never seemed to bother Connolly, or the editors who kept waving her remarkable work into print.
For the record, Connolly’s tip-sheet proved worthless again. Come March, Gore beat Bradley in New York state by a margin of 32 points. That November, he out-polled Bush in the Empire State by some 25 points.
As best one can tell, none of Connolly's earlyreports directly affected the outcome of Campaign 2000. In the fall of 1999, Connolly’s error-strewn work would start to drive major themes in the wider coverage. Her early reports had less direct effect; they didn’t produce any long-range themes in the broader coverage. But these early reports did reveal an obvious animus at the Post, an animus which seemed to be present at the paper from the campaign’s earliest days.
At the Post, Connolly seemed to be sending Gore “through the hoops” at least from April 4, 1999 on. The animus is hard to miss in her early profiles and news reports. And, assuming minimal competence, it had to be shared by her editors.
In some ways, Connolly seems to have gambled wrong at the start of Campaign 2000. The fund-raising matters she chose to flog would end up playing no role in this contest. Throughout the course of Campaign 2000, there was no allegation that either candidate, Bush or Gore, engaged in any fund-raising misconduct. And of course, when it became clear that it was actually Bush who was raising those “staggering” sums, her newspaper’s sense of the danger involved in such odious hustling ended.
These early reports didn’t transform the coverage. But by the first summer of this long campaign, it was fairly clear that something was wrong with Connolly’s work at the Post:
She battered Gore as a slave to Big Money, when she knew that Bush would likely raise more. She trashed Gore for his crazy spending, when Bush and Gore’s totals were roughly the same. Looking ahead to the primary races, she said Gore was “battling unusually long odds” in New York, when he actually held a nine-point lead there.
She wrote the standard silly pieces about Gore’s "ramrod stiff" body language. In June, she profiled Gore for the Post’s Style section. Her profile was openly mocking.
Except in their unfortunate tone, Ceci Connolly’s early reports didn’t shape the long-term coverage. But they did help show the kind of influence she would have as the campaign proceeded. In July 1999, for example, no newspaper but the Washington Post saw a story in the Gore campaign's unremarkable level of spending. But when Connolly put Gore's “massive spending” onto the Washington Post's front page, major pundits started to cluck about the troubling matter. Even the Boston Globe's Thomas Oliphant, normally a sage and savvy observer, went on the PBS NewsHour and described this unremarkable matter as Candidate Gore's “biggest embarrassment of all, by a country mile.” Quite sensibly, Oliphant’s newspaper hadn't even bothered reporting the modest difference in Bush and Gore’s outlays. But Oliphant, and other big players, adopted the Connolly line.
Connolly’s possible influence seemed more vivid in the wake of her April 4 magazine story about Gore's “staggering” fund-raising goals. Five weeks after her piece appeared, Jill Abramson penned a mercifully shortened but similar report for the New York Times’ own Sunday magazine. Abramson's piece was much fairer than Connolly's. But at times, Abramson, a veteran Times reporter, almost seemed to be cutting-and-pasting directly from Connolly's work:
Connolly, Washington Post magazine, April 4, 1999: When it comes to fund-raising, no player on the national scene has excelled like the vice president...But Gore’s greatest strength could also prove to be his greatest vulnerability.Like Connolly, Abramson gaped at the “staggering $55 million” Gore "intends to raise," without ever telling readers that Bush would likely raise much more. She too quoted Fred Wertheimer, the campaign watchdog, fretting about Gore's big-bucks strategy. Like Connolly, Abramson oddly referred to “legal ways to skirt the rules”–Connolly used the word “stretch”–by raising specific types of funds the FEC expressly permitted. Other aspects of the reports were notably similar.
Abramson, New York Times magazine, May 9, 1999: Gore’s facility with total-immersion fund-raising, then, may be his greatest strength. Yet it may also prove to be his greatest vulnerability.
Had Abramson copied off Connolly's paper? Or was this just the type of Group Thinking which would define this coverage of this campaign? Whatever explains the occasional copy-cat look of the Abramson piece, it foreshadowed what would occur in the fall, when Connolly's groaning errors–and growing influence–would drive the wider coverage. As the Washington Post's Gore reporter, Connolly's work would be influential throughout the campaign; this would be a disaster for Gore. Especially in the fall of 1999, Connolly would help invent a set of narratives which would send Bush to the White House.
That said, it's important to stress an earlier point, a basic point about this campaign: Connolly’s groaning early reports appeared in the Washington Post, at the top of the mainstream press corps. Even in the campaign's first months, it was clear that major parts of the mainstream press were headed for war with Al Gore. However one might explain their animus, the mainstream press was hounding Gore as he launched his campaign in June. And the mainstream press would continue this conduct until George Bush reached the White House.
The conservative press would oppose Gore too–sometimes in ways which were perfectly reasonable, often in ways which were not. But in the main, that work was delivered to conservative voters who were predisposed to vote against Gore. On its own, the conservative press could not have sent George Bush to the White House. Most simply put: When it came to the war against Gore, it was the mainstream press, stupid!
As Connolly's early reports appeared, something became increasingly clear: An important part of the mainstream press was marching off to war with Al Gore. By the time of Gore's formal launch, this animus would be quite evident.
This meant that Jim Nicholson, the RNC chairman, had won this campaign’s first round.
Nicholson sat in the cat-bird seat as Candidate Gore made his formal launch. His talking-points frequently ruled the day, even within the mainstream press. No matter how foolish his claims might be, many journalists were prepared to adopt them–and the rest of the mainstream press was willing to look away. Was this press corps driven by liberal bias? A ludicrous event on the day of Gore's launch helped display the powerful tilt which now obtained inside Establishment Washington, inside the mainstream press.
In fairness, this foolish event provides comic relief as we survey the end of this campaign's first round. But it helps display the array of forces now lining up against Gore.
On June 16, 1999, the first round of this longcampaign ended. Three months of punishment lay behind Gore as he made his formal launch. And sure enough:
Back in Washington, that very same day, Jim Nicholson staged a ludicrous tour of a fancy hotel, a string of journalists in his thrall. From this utterly foolish event, we see the sad state of the national press at the start of this fateful campaign.
Jim Nicholson was a 61-year-old Iowa native–a West Point graduate, a decorated Vietnam veteran, an attorney, a real estate developer. He was in his third year as RNC chairman as Bush and Gore launched their campaigns. He possessed a quirky sense of humor–and a less-than-obsessive regard for the truth. Given the “outrage” now driving the press corps, these traits made him the perfect man to script their developing war.
In the days before Gore’s launch, Nicholson flooded the zone with press releases pushing the claims which had come to define AL GORE, LIAR. From June 11 through June 16, the RNC issued at least five press releases reminding reporters of three troubling facts: Al Gore had said he invented the Internet! Al Gore had said he inspired Love Story! And not only that! Al Gore once said he did chores on a farm. But he actually grew up in Washington!
These were the silly, inaccurate claims which were already driving the coverage. In the days before Gore's launch, the chairman was pushing them hard.
For variety, Nicholson included some other misstatements in his pre-launch press releases. No, Gore had never advanced the “strange idea” of “eliminating the family car.” But this utterly stupid claim was now becoming an RNC favorite; it was even getting some play in the press. Result? In Nicholson's June 15 press release, it joined the line-up of silly claims about the Net and Love Story. On June 17, another RNC release flatly misquoted a recent Gore statement. Through his blatant misquotation, Nicholson made it sound like Gore had admitted “remain[ing] silent” about Clinton’s affair. This bogus claim was also being widely advanced in the press.
In short, the nonsense–and the flat misstatements–were flying around thick and fast. But then, Nicholson would misstate or torture facts all through the course of this long campaign, as when he had absurdly claimed that Gore was “the only politician in America” who hadn’t “shown the courage or character” to criticize President Clinton for his conduct with Monica Lewinsky. In November 1998, press insiders had blubbered to Sally Quinn about their love affair with the truth. But Nicholson endlessly toyed with the truth. And now, as the campaign's first round ended, the press seemed to love the man for it.
This brings us to Nicholson's ludicrous tour, and to the ease with which the chairman now seemed to be scripting the press corps.
On June 14, Nicholson invited “credentialed reporters” to join him in a tour of a luxurious D.C. hotel. In the process, the chairman advanced his latest claim about Candidate Gore’s troubling background. What follows is the full text of that press release, issued two days before Nicholson’s tour. The release included the standard claim about Gore having said he “invented the Internet.” Beyond that, Nicholson continued to play the fool about Gore’s three-month-old, accurate "farm chores” remark. But in this latest press release, the chairman seemed to make a peculiar new claim–a claim which was untrue, of course. He seemed to say, two separate times, that Gore had been raised at the Ritz:
!!!RNC’s Nicholson Invites You to Come See Al Gore's REAL “Homestead”!!!Nicholson would conduct a tour of Gore's “real homestead,” the press release said, “the rooms that used to be the Gore suite of the former Ritz Carlton.” That was a weirdly jumbled locution, but it seemed to convey a clear message. Just for good measure, the short press release seemed to say it again: The fancy hotel reporters would tour was “previously called the Ritz Carlton."
Washington (June 14)–As Al Gore kicks off his presidential campaign on the front porch of his family's hobby farm near Carthage, Tennessee, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson will lead credentialed reporters on a tour of the real Gore homestead–the 8th floor hotel rooms that used to be the Gore suite of the former Ritz Carlton on Washington's Embassy Row.
“We’ll show reporters the bedroom where young Al invented the Internet, the kitchen where he ate breakfast at dawn before plowing the steep hillsides of Massachusetts Avenue with a team of mules, and the living room where he enjoyed restful moments after taking in the neighbors' hay,” Nicholson promised.
Nicholson will arrive at the hotel (now known as the Westin Fairfax and previously called the Ritz Carlton) in a mule-drawn carriage at 10:30, and will then hold a news conference at the hotel's “Terrace Room” before giving reporters a tour of the former Gore suite.
True to his word, Nicholson arrived at the Westin Fairfax on June 16, driving a mule-drawn carriage. He led reporters through three hotel rooms on the building’s eighth floor. (The RNC had rented the rooms for $189 apiece.) And when he staged his ludicrous tour, something quite remarkable happened: A host of reporters were foolish enough to describe the event with straight faces, just as they had been cued by the chairman. Major newspapers reported the farcical tour, implying or stating–falsely, alas–that Gore had been raised at the Ritz.
The foolishness of the Washington press corps has seldom been put on such vivid display. In fact, the Gores had lived in the building in question in the 1950s and 1960s, three to four decades earlier. At the time, it was a venerable old residential hotel, known simply as the Fairfax. Years later, in 1977, the Fairfax was sold to James Coleman, a wealthy hotel developer. In 1982, it was licensed as a Ritz Carlton. But this new designation only came after a massive renovation, which apparently shut the hotel and cost “about twice the purchase price of $5 million,” according to a 1980 report in the Washington Post. (Repeat: The old Fairfax was sold for roughly $5 million. The subsequent renovation cost about $10 million more. The hotel’s “interior...was gutted and reworked in meticulous and expensive detail,” the Post reported.) In 1985, the Post reported extensive new renovations, producing “an even grander Ritz Carlton.” According to the Post and the Washington Times, as much as $15 million may have been spent on a third round of renovations in 1989.
In that 1980 report, the Post described the new owner’s business practice. “Since 1974, Coleman has brought three old buildings back to life and converted them into small, luxurious and profitable hotels,” the Post reported. One of these newly-luxurious, transformed old buildings was, of course, the old Fairfax.
In June 1999, when Nicholson staged his tour, the Westin Fairfax was a luxury hotel. But by all accounts, the old Fairfax wasn’t a fancy hotel when the Gores had lived there, in a small apartment, during congressional sessions. And quite plainly, it wasn’t the Ritz. In 1999, at the time of Gore's launch, the press corps was full of experienced reporters who knew these facts of Washington life. Indeed, the Washington press had reported these facts repeatedly down through the years.
Just how fancy was the old Fairfax? In February 1998, Marjorie Williams profiled Gore for Vanity Fair, looking ahead to the 2000 race. “Although the Fairfax Hotel later became the Ritz-Carlton,” she wrote, “it was not a posh place at the time Gore was growing up.” But then, the Washington Post had said the same thing in 1992, when Gore was nominated for vice president. (Gore “lived with his parents in the Fairfax Hotel, a modest building with residential units that since has been refurbished and renamed the Ritz-Carlton.”) In 1993, the Washington Times told a similar story, describing the Fairfax as it was in the days when the Gores had lived there. (“It was a classic residential hotel geared to family life, and many families had children,” the paper fondly recalled. “The dining room served home-style cooking and no alcohol.”) Bill Turque seemed to agree in his biography of Gore, released in 2000. “The bare linoleum floor and thick steel doors suggested transience and utility,” he wrote, describing the place that had billed itself as “Washington’s Family Hotel.”
Washington journalists had always known these facts of Washington life. In April 1999, as the trashing of Gore began, Charles Peters tried to remind them. Peters was the long-time editor of the liberal Washington Monthly; he recalled the old Fairfax in a published retort to Michael Kelly’s mocking “Farmer Al” column, which had appeared–Where else?–in the Washington Post (see chapter 2). Kelly’s column pictured young Gore in a “vast apartment” (perhaps a “penthouse”), perched atop a fancy hotel stuffed with “Louis XV furniture.” After Kelly’s unfortunate column appeared, Peters rejected the portrait. The Westin Fairfax “is a luxury hotel today, but back in the '50s and '60s when the Gores lived there, there was no Louis XV furniture and nothing remotely luxurious,” he wrote. “I know because Al’s sister Nancy was a friend and my wife and I visited the Gores' apartment. The Fairfax was, in fact, a moderately priced residential hotel,” Peters wrote, recalling a fact which many scribes knew. He offered one more reminiscence: “Among its tenants was a young journalist named Meg Greenfield who wasn't making enough money in her job at the Reporter magazine to afford anything fancy.”
By 1999, that “young journalist” had served for twenty years as editor of the Washington Post’s editorial page. (Meg Greenfield would succumb to cancer just a few weeks later.)
Peters was restating well-known facts. In Washington, journalists had reported these facts for years. Why had the old Fairfax been “a favorite with Foreign Service families?” Because its “hotel apartments were the only ones with kitchens that were within the State Department’s usual stingy temporary-housing allowance,” the Washington Post reported in 1998, in a fond retrospective when the old domicile was sold yet again, this time becoming a Westin. Meanwhile, how luxurious had the Gores’ "vast apartment" been? In his later biography, Turque described “Apartment 809" as “a smallish, two-bedroom suite.” In May 2000, Melinda Henneberger unpacked the meaning of that description in a New York Times profile of Gore.
“Some of what is generally assumed about Mr. Gore's life is not true,” Henneberger wrote; “he did not, for example, live in luxury back in Washington during the school year.” She then described life at the Fairfax: “Some summers, the Gores had to pack up their four-room suite and put their belongings in storage so the place could be sublet while they were in Tennessee. And Al shared a bedroom with his sister, Nancy, who was 10 years older, both before and after her college years.” In short, young Gore had lived in so vast an apartment that he shared a room with his sister! But this shouldn’t have been a huge surprise to anyone in the Washington press corps. In her 1998 Vanity Fair piece, Williams had debunked the idea that the Gores were wealthy when Gore was a child. “[Gore’s father] would become rich after he left the Senate,” she wrote. “But the senior Gore’s correspondence is full of suggestions that, when Al was young, the family’s upper middle-class existence was a stretch.”
To state the obvious, none of this trivia should have had any bearing on the question of who should serve in the White House. But for those who wanted to deal in the facts, the old Fairfax wasn’t a fancy hotel–and it most certainly wasn't the Ritz. Why then did Nicholson's short press release mention the “Ritz Carlton” two separate times? Almost surely, this takes us back to 1988, when Gore had first sought the White House.
Early that year, Gail Sheehy profiled Gore, again for Vanity Fair. By this time, the young candidate had earned some good reviews in some early Democratic debates. How should the GOP handle Gore if he became the Democratic nominee? Sheehy quoted Kevin Phillips, the well-known Republican strategist. Phillips said his party should portray Gore “as a spoiled rich kid from St. Albans who smoked marijuana and had a soft job in Vietnam.”
Four years later, in 1992, Gore ran for vice president under Bill Clinton–and his opposite number, Vice President Quayle, seemed to take Phillips’ advice. Just as Bill Bradley would do in 1999, Quayle played the humble “small town” card against his fancy-pants rival. “He went to the most expensive private schools in Washington, D.C.,” Quayle said about Gore on the stump. “I grew up in a small midwestern town called Huntington. I went to public school and I'm proud of it. I was raised with midwest values.” And just to heighten his humble attack, Quayle repeatedly made a false statement. “His home when he was growing up in D.C. was the penthouse of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel,” Quayle repeatedly–and falsely–said.
With Gore as the number-two man on the ticket, Quayle’s false statements drew little attention. According to Nexis archives, no pundit repeated his claim. But seven years later, Chairman Nicholson seemed prepared to play the “spoiled rich kid” card again–and by now, outraged journalists seemed prepared to help him advance his portraits. And so, on the day of Gore’s formal launch, he conducted a tour of a fancy hotel–a hotel which literally didn't exist when Gore’s family had lived at the Fairfax, more than forty years earlier.
In his short press release, Nicholson said and suggested, two separate times, that Candidate Gore had been raised at the Ritz. Ironically, this was precisely the kind of misstatement the press had been railing about for three months, while pretending that Candidate Gore had been making such statements, of course. Meanwhile, the Washington press corps was full of reporters who knew that Nicholson’s insinuation was bogus. All around the Washington press corps, journalists knew a basic fact: Except in The Land of the Tortured Locution, there had never been any such place as “the Gore suite of the former Ritz Carlton.”
Journalists knew the chairman’s statement was false. Again, as a group, they agreed not to say so. Despite their love affair with the truth, reporters arrived at a fancy hotel to take Jim Nicholson's ludicrous tour. A goodly number then stampeded off to recite the chairman's new howler.
The foolishness involved in this tour was self-evident. On June 16, 1999, who could possibly think she was touring the “suite” the Gores had called home some forty years earlier? Sadly, Jennifer Harper could think such a thing–or she was prepared to pretend. The morning after Gore's formal launch, Harper penned this bungled report in the Washington Times:
RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson rolled up to Washington’s swank Westin Fairfax Hotel in a mule cart yesterday morning to mock Mr. Gore’s oft-cited references to his farmhouse upbringing...The son of a powerful senator, Mr. Gore spent much of his childhood living in the hotel–called the Ritz Carlton in those days–in a suite on the eighth floor.Except the hotel wasn’t “called the Ritz Carlton in those days,” nor had it been “swank.” No matter! Harper wrote the story just as the RNC chairman had cued it. But then, Nicholson got a string of reporters to state or imply the latest false claim he wanted the public to hear.
Most problematically, the claim that Gore was raised at the Ritz went out on the AP wire. (“Republicans noted that most of Gore's youth was spent living in the former Ritz-Carlton in Washington.” No clarification was offered.) The Copley News Service bungled in style, reporting that Gore had lived “in the antique-filled Ritz-Carlton.” (This may have derived from Kelly’s column.) The Hill misled official Washington, discussing Gore’s “privileged upbringing in the Gore suite of the Ritz Carlton.” (This language tracked Nicholson’s press release.) The Boston Globe put on the Ritz too. According to reporter Anne Kornblut, Nicholson “staged an event at a onetime Gore residence, the former Ritz Carlton hotel.”
Candidate Gore had been raised at the Ritz! The claim appeared in a host of newspapers, most of them part of the mainstream press corps. No, Al Gore wasn’t raised at the Ritz. But you likely thought otherwise if you read the allegedly liberal Boston Globe or the plainly conservative Washington Times–or Newsday, or the San Francisco Chronicle, or the San Diego Union-Tribune, or several major Tennessee papers, or papers which ran the AP or Copley News stories. Elsewhere, reporters avoided saying “Ritz Carlton,” but touted Gore’s fancy hotel all the same. In Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Hartford, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Nashville, major papers discussed the fancy/posh/elegant/ritzy/luxurious hotel where Gore spent his youth.
In this way, Nicholson achieved a minor score in his attempt to “define” his opponent. And we saw how easy it was for the RNC to script the mainstream press.
Reporters touring remodeled rooms does make for a comical image. Inspector Clouseau would have felt right at home among these bumbling scribes. But Charles Peters wasn’t alone; the Washington press corps was full of big famous stars who knew the chairman was running a con. Once again, these journalists failed to complain. Nicholson was being held to a stunningly low standard, making a joke of the pious cries about Al Gore’s troubling LIES.
How does such nonsense affect the republic? Two weeks later, a letter appeared in the New York Times, sent by a reader in Los Angeles. The letter helped display the political value of Nicholson’s ludicrous tour.
“No matter how decent he is,” the letter said, “Al Gore’s patrician upbringing has left him unable to connect with the vast majority of Americans. Raised in a luxury hotel as the child of a senator, Mr. Gore spent his formative years in the rarefied confines of Washington, a place that has nothing in common with other American cities in terms of appearance, demography, industry or life style.”
The letter writer’s musings continued. “Voters connect with Bill Clinton because he is a quick-thinking poor boy from a broken home,” his letter said. “Most of us have no similar feelings of empathy for Mr. Gore's life experience other than a bit of envy over a childhood with room service.”
The letter went into more detail about the writer’s impressions. It ran beneath an ironic heading: “Do Voters Care About Character?” Two of the four letters under this heading were critical of Gore. None of the letters were favorable to Gore. No one else was mentioned.
Al Gore was raised in a fancy hotel! In America’s most influential newspaper, that’s what many voters read, two weeks after Nicholson’s tour.
In his ludicrous tour of a fancy hotel, Nicholsongained a minor score in his drive to send Bush to the White House. And we saw the state of the mainstream press at the start of this long campaign.
This wouldn’t be Nicholson’s biggest score in this twenty-month campaign. But this comically foolish event illustrates some basic facts about the reporting of Campaign 2000. To wit:
By this time, there seemed to be nothing the press wouldn't say–if it came to them from Nicholson.
If it was silly and pointless enough.
Most important, if it cut against Gore. If it drove a developing war.
Al Gore said he invented the Internet! This mocking claim appeared quite widely as Candidate Gore made his launch. Already, the claim had come to define a troubling new man–a man called AL GORE, LIAR. As future chapters will make clear, this would turn out to be the claim which sent George Bush to the White House.
But the mainstream press corps’ broken procedures were on full display in Jim Nicholson's tour–and in Ceci Connolly’s early reporting and profiles. The work she produced a few months later would start to drive this campaign’s coverage–from the heart of the mainstream press corps.
The reader can put tired notions aside. On the week when Bush and Gore launched their campaigns, the mainstream press corps, led by the Post, was building a war against one of the candidates. Was “liberal bias” driving this group? The war the mainstream press was building was aimed, not at Bush, but at Gore.
A few days before Gore’s formal launch, Thomas Mann described the campaign to date. (Mann was a widely respected scholar at Washington’s Brookings Institution.) Candidate Gore had experienced “two or three months of really bad press,” Mann was quoted saying, in a Tennessee newspaper. Two weeks later, Howard Kurtz would second the observation. He puzzled about the "harsh coverage and punditry" being directed at Gore.
Two or three months of really bad press! Mann was describing the campaign's first round. Come autumn, things would get worse.