Al the thug

How the media transformed Gore from hapless hack to ruthless pol overnight.


Eric Boehlert
January 27, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Thankfully, Democratic candidate Bill Bradley made it safely out of Iowa after suffering an electoral beating at the hands of Vice President Al
Gore
at Monday night's caucus. But readers of the
Beltway press could be forgiven if they worried the former New Jersey senator might be found
bloodied and dazed, wandering around an abandoned Des Moines parking
lot. After all, the media's verdict is in: Al Gore is a thug.

Maureen Dowd said as much in her New York Times column on Wednesday when,
in an effort to explain his Iowa victory, she compared the vice president to TV mob boss Tony Soprano. The same day on
the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, former Reagan speech writer
Peggy Noonan agreed there was only one reason for Gore's Iowa win: "He
is aggressive and tough, and he is also mean."

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This conventional wisdom is hardly new. Pundits have been crying foul all winter, trying to get an imaginary referee to blow
the whistle on Gore's supposedly trashy tactics. According to the press,
Gore has done little over the last three months but dish out an
"onslaught" of "cheap shots" (Time's Eric Pooley), and hatch a
"diabolical" strategy in which he "passed up no opportunity to whack
Bradley" (Slate's Jacob Weisberg), and he's been busy "demagoguing"
(Washington Post's Juan Williams). Gore is "a savage campaigner" (Fox
News' Brit Hume) who's been "mangling the truth for political gain"
(National Journal's Stuart Taylor Jr.) and "relentless in attacking
Bradley, hammering, needling, hectoring" (Washington Post's Mary
McGrory).

Worse, the VP has been "trafficking in fear-mongering" (USA Today's
Walter Shapiro) and seems content to fight a "scorched-earth war" (San
Francisco Examiner's Chris Matthews). Bottom line? Gore's a "really
vicious politician" (National Review's Kate O'Beirne) who "coarsens
every political campaign he enters" (Chicago Sun-Times' Robert Novak).

Despite the cartoonish hyperbole, most opinion makers have relayed to
readers only the sketchiest of details as to what exactly Gore has done to
earn these indignant rebukes. Dowd and Noonan offered up little proof of the vice president's presumed campaign sins.
Instead, both women simply cited other journalists' complaints about Gore, in comical if incestuous laziness. Noonan pointed approvingly to a
New York Times Magazine piece that opined, "Gore is ruthless," while
Dowd noted Time magazine had already come to the conclusion that "the
single most dramatic change has been Al Gore's transformation from
wooden soldier to junkyard dog." What more proof should readers require?

It is safe to say that most of the media's objections have been to
Gore's characterization of Bradley's universal health-care proposal. The
vice president has argued that because the plan would scrap Medicaid, it
would leave too many poor people with only $150 monthly vouchers to pay
their health insurance costs. The Bradley camp answers they're not
vouchers, and that eligible families would receive $417 a month.

No
doubt the truth is hiding in there somewhere. Has Gore played hardball
during the health-care debate? You bet. But as the Washington Post's
E.J. Dionne reported, "Even some Bradley sympathizers concede that Gore
asked legitimate questions" about the senator's ambitious health plan.
In other words, Gore's opponents admit he's raising fair points, but the
press labels him "ruthless."

The pundits' depiction of Gore's mean-spirited campaign
doesn't square with a recent Boston Globe report on the flood of campaign
commercials hitting the New Hampshire airwaves, which it described as relentlessly ... nice. "It has been an air war -- so far -- in which hardly a
punch has been thrown. Instead the TV viewers in New Hampshire have
been blitzed with family-oriented ads featuring the contenders' personal
histories, their wives and children, and with high-toned spots focused
on candidates' favored issues," wrote Charles A. Radin. So don't go
looking for Nasty Gore on television; he has no attack ads to show you.

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Meanwhile, Gore scored big in Iowa when he caught Bradley flat-footed
with a debate question about an old Senate vote he cast against flood
relief. Newsweek cried that Gore "wrenched Bradley's flood-relief votes out
of context," but offered no explanation as to how. Dowd tsk-tsked that
Gore was "pounding Mr. Bradley as an insensitive man who betrayed
farmers by voting against a 1993 flood-relief amendment." Well, did he
or didn't he? Bradley has never denied voting against Sen. Tom
Harkin's 1993 amendment.

But could these benign back-and-forths between candidates, the kind
that punctuate every national contest, really be why campaign veterans
in the press are throwing around phrases like "vicious" and
"diabolical"? After all, only one Democratic candidate has been forced
to publicly apologize for a campaign pamphlet that accused his opponent
of "uncontrollable lying" -- and it was Bradley. It was also Bradley who swung
wildly and missed the mark when he suggested Gore poisoned the 1988
presidential race by introducing Willie Horton into the debates. (In
Bradley's own 1996 memoir, "Time Present, Time Past," he wrote that Gore
had been careful as a 1988 candidate to discuss Massachusetts' failed
furlough program "without racializing it.") But the boys and girls
on the bus saw nothing hurtful in those grenades, and gave Bradley a
pass.

The last time the media pack was this unanimous about a candidate was last summer, when it pummelled a leading Democrat for his campaign missteps, his wooden persona, his lackluster fund-raising and his general unworthiness compared with his surging challenger. Yes, that was Al Gore, too. His media makeover from hapless hack to ruthless pol is one of the great achievements of the campaign to date. Dick Morris would be proud.


Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

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