Part 5—At the Post, interest wanes: Last Saturday, we thought we detected an unpleasant smell. We thought we might have detected the smell of total war in the morning.
We don’t like the smell of total war, not even in morning newspapers. Were we right about what we thought we detected?
Last Saturday, we detected the smell of total war in a long, ridiculous front-page report by the New York Times’ Deborah Sontag. It smelled so much like an earlier, front-page “bombshell report” that it gave us the feeling of war.
In yesterday’s Washington Post, another puzzling, front-page report had rather clearly been crafted in the same press corps coloring book. But then, we first detected the smell of war in the Washington Post last summer, when the paper offered a puzzling set of reactions to a certain non-candidate’s book tour.
Are the muckety-mucks of the insider press corps actually staging a war at this time? Without any question, they have behaved in such ways in the past, even if our favorite heroes have always agreed not to say so.
These plutos have waged total war in the past. Are they so engaged once again? A report in this morning’s Washington Post brought this question to mind again.
Yesterday morning, Post readers were told about an obvious outrage right on their front page. For our background report, click this.
Rather plainly, Rosalind Helderman’s front-page report came straight from the coloring book which defines the lines of the total war we think we keep detecting.
To us, her report makes little sense, but that’s the essence of press corps war. The message her puzzling report conveyed was wonderfully, perfectly clear:
Those greedy, mammon-loving Clintons accepted a big sack of cash!
If a total war is under way, that’s its battle cry. Sixteen years ago, a different war was being waged, principally under this claim:
Candidate Gore is the world’s biggest liar, just like President Clinton!
There were ancillary claims, of course: Candidate Gore didn’t know who he was! He was constantly reinventing himself! He was annoyingly wooden and stiff! The gentleman wasn’t authentic!
Back then, a total war was under way, scripted by a coloring book. Is a total war under way now?
We’ll only say this:
Yesterday, the Post ran a ludicrous, puzzling report about the greed of the Clintons. Except as an example of script, the report made little sense.
Yesterday’s puzzling report ran on the Post’s front page.
Later that day, something significant happened. Candidate Clinton went to Texas and made a major speech about a major policy matter.
In fairness, the Washington Post reported the speech. But in this morning’s hard-copy Post, it does so on page A6.
The candidate’s major policy speech didn’t make the front page. Meanwhile, these are the respective word counts for the two reports:
Confusing, jumbled attack on greed of candidate’s husband:People, we’re just saying!
1842 words, page A1
Report about candidate’s major policy speech:
1442 words, page A6
Each person can assess these journalistic decisions for him or herself. In our view, the treatment of the policy speech falls within the reasonable range. Yesterday’s puzzling front-page report looks more like the deranged artifact of undeclared total war.
That said, we had to chuckle at the placement of the policy speech. We remembered the way denizens of this same newspaper reacted in April to this same candidate’s brief announcement video, with various columnists crazily screeching that the candidate hadn’t included any policy proposals.
As we all know, Ruth Marcus is “a fan of Hillary Clinton,” who she describes, in fan-girl fashion, as “a gluttonous pig.”
After Clinton’s short announcement video appeared, Marcus offered a 600-word post bearing these headlines: “Hillary Clinton's insultingly vapid video/The announcement made no attempt to offer specific goals.”
We're taking those headlines from Nexis. To read the post, click here.
According to Marcus—and she’s a fan!—“the video was relentlessly, insultingly vapid.” It was also “vacuous” and “disrespectful” to voters, mainly through its failure to articulate policy goals.
Yesterday, Clinton made a major policy address. It got pushed inside the Post, unlike the ludicrous character slam from the day before.
Whatever! The analysts chuckled, recalling an episode from roughly this stage of Campaign 2000. We offer what follows for amusement purposes only—and perhaps to offer a bit of perspective on the way the “press corps” works:
Candidate Gore made his formal announcement in June 1999. He was met with a hail of profiles describing what a liar he was and how fake and phony he seemed.
Also, how wooden and stiff!
Apparently, Gore’s staff was urging the press to write about substance instead. This produced a mocking report in the New York Times, with Katharine Seelye explaining how silly it is to discuss matters of substance at such an early point in such an endless campaign.
Seelye started by listing Gore’s “blizzard of positions,” which she also described as an “avalanche of positions.” Then, she explained how silly it was to talk about substance so soon:
SEELYE (7/29/99): Mr. Gore's advisers say they have been disappointed that news organizations have dwelt on his political problems despite his focus on issues, although a recent poll by The Dallas Morning News suggests that voters at this point seem to put little stock in issues. The poll found that even though most Americans admit they know little about Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the Republican front-runner, they strongly favor him over Mr. Gore and former Senator Bill Bradley, Mr. Gore's rival for the Democratic nomination.Silly Gore! Seelye ridiculed his “avalanche of positions.” She tortured that Dallas News poll to wring from it the unfounded conclusion she wanted.
But since mid-May, Mr. Gore has delivered five speeches that his aides call major policy addresses, covering education, crime, the economy, faith-based organizations and cancer research.
Many of his positions follow routes laid out by President Clinton, including insisting on a balanced budget. Some bump up against Democratic orthodoxy, like his advocacy of teacher testing. But perhaps the most striking thing about his positions is the sheer volume of them, especially so early in the campaign.
Mr. Gore becomes almost indignant when asked if his avalanche of positions might be overwhelming voters.
"When people say, 'You're giving too many details, you're offering too many specifics,' my response is, too many compared to what?" he asked. "Compared to nothing? And how did we get in a situation where it's considered odd to offer a detailed set of policy proposals for the challenges we face?"
Mr. Gore, who last year floated and then abandoned the slogan of "practical idealism," has not adopted another that melds his various proposals into an overarching theme. Asked what he stands for, he offered the following: "Keep the prosperity going, make certain no one's left behind, bring revolutionary improvement to our public schools, build stronger families and more liveable communities."
She said Gore became “almost indignant” when asked if his blizzard of policy stands might be “overwhelming voters.” Skillfully, she turned his complaint, using it to note that Bush was way ahead in the polls.
Eventually, she offered a direct criticism:
Candidate Gore hadn’t come up with a catchy slogan yet!
Sixteen years later, other insiders ridiculed Candidate Clinton because she didn’t include enough policy stands in a brief announcement video—a brief video which appeared in mid-April, not in late July. Arguably, these contradictory feigned complaints are markers of total war.
Was yesterday’s ludicrous front-page report a marker of total war? It extended a run of front-page reports in the Post and the Times devoted to the Clintons’ greed—reports where it’s rather hard to discern the offense which is being alleged.
This morning, the Post was substantially less enthralled with a major policy speech. If these are markers of total war, history says that this total war will continue through next November.
Two final humorous notes from Campaign 2000:
Why might the Gore camp have been annoyed with the way the Times was reporting matters of substance?
On July 12, Gore had given a policy speech about crime flanked by members of the Boston police. Below, you see paragraphs 3 and 4 of the New York Times news report.
Paragraphs 3 and 4! Of the paper’s news report!
HENNEBERGER (7/13/99): In an address at police headquarters, surrounded by uniformed officers who made the Vice President look unusually loose, Mr. Gore also pledged to push for a Federal law establishing "gang-free zones" with curfews on individual gang members and a ban on "gang-related clothing."Because a war was under way, Menino shouldn’t have made those comments. That said, the New York Times knew what to do with the gift.
After giving Mr. Gore a Fenway Park T-shirt for his newborn grandson, Mayor Thomas M. Menino called the Vice President a "visionary" and a "friend of American cities" who with the President had helped push crime in Boston to its lowest rate since 1971. Recalling a speech Mr. Gore made at a St. Patrick's Day event two years ago, Mr. Menino, a Democrat, added, "They say he's wooden! Huh! I wish I was as wooden as he was that morning!"
In closing, consider Gail Collins.
Early in Seelye’s report, she quoted a statement in which Gore described his sense of how a campaign should work. We’ll highlight the chunk the wonderful Collins chose to have some fun with:
SEELYE (7/29/99): The blizzard of positions is the essence of the Gore-for-President campaign, designed to show voters that the Vice President has ideas and experience and, by contrast, to suggest that his opponents do not.Silly Gore! When you’re a target, you can’t say things like that to someone in the press! In her column that Sunday, the wonderful Collins shortened the quote, then gave us a good solid laugh:
"I'm campaigning this way because I believe that campaigns ought to be based on ideas, and I think voters have a right to know exactly what a candidate for President is proposing to do as President," Mr. Gore said in an interview. "Our democracy is ill-served by an over-reliance on generalities and fuzzy rhetoric and is much better served by specific, detailed discussions of the tough choices we have to make."
COLLINS (8/1/99): Vice President Al Gore is eager to have voters notice that he is being specific about the issues. "Our democracy is ill-served by an over-reliance on generalities and fuzzy rhetoric," he told The Times's Katharine Seelye last week, in an interview where he proudly pointed to his detailed proposals on things like gun control, classroom computerization, tax cuts and cancer research.The candidate’s statement was perfectly sensible. The columnist took out her scissors and made it sound inane. But this is the way these life forms work. They’ll be working in similar ways right through next year’s election.
Finally, a man who dares to speak out on the fuzzy rhetoric controversy!...
Last Saturday, we thought we might have detected the smell of total war in the morning. These last two mornings, did the puzzling Washington Post possibly make us seem right?
Still coming: Becker does disclosure