Right Hook

Al Gore gives a fiery speech and conservatives brand him "insane" -- again. Plus: Coulter defends Rush ... against O'Reilly!

Published June 3, 2004 12:08AM (EDT)

For a guy most conservatives have crowned the king of boring policy-wonk liberalism, former Vice President Al Gore sure has Bush boosters whipped into a frenzy of late. Last Wednesday he delivered a speech sharply critical of President Bush's Iraq war policy and called for the resignation of its key architects inside the administration. Gore's language was fiery and dramatic, and at 6,000-plus words there was plenty of it. But his essential argument was clear: Bush's foreign policy has imperiled American freedom and security, and fixing the problems wrought by it in Iraq and elsewhere now requires changing the primary players in Washington.

Across the board, conservatives deemed Gore's message the treasonous rantings of a mentally ill man. The latest barrage is strikingly similar to a "Gore is nuts" tactic used during the 2000 presidential campaign -- a coordinated assault detailed by ex-right-winger turned media watchdog David Brock in his new book "The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy." The current roster of high-profile pundits who have mobilized to tear down Gore -- a political figure many of them declare irrelevant but whom they also seem to regard as a serious threat -- is robust enough that you don't so much wonder whether tagging Gore "insane" was a talking point pushed by Bush operatives, as marvel at how quickly they were able to spread the message.

By Thursday morning, former Ashcroft Justice Department official and Republican National Committee strategist Barbara Comstock led the charge on National Review Online with a swerving attack so zealous that she could not contain herself to any single theme. In her column titled "Gore's Gone Wild: The Former Veep's Increasingly Bizarre Persona," she ran with the dismissive bit first. "Al Gore is proving to be the most irrelevant, comically absurd former vice president since Spiro Agnew," she scoffed. "This blustering 'Saturday Night Live' caricature is no longer a serious political figure." But in case that didn't do the trick, she also chained Gore to Vermont's most famous governor, and argued that Gore's call for better wartime leadership in Washington amounted to hatred of America as a whole: "In wild-eyed, Howard Dean-like fashion ... [Gore's speech] was an endorsement of a policy of appeasement, retreat, and good old blame-America-first extremism."

Later, Comstock veered in another direction, accusing Gore of acting with total contempt for due process.

"A former vice president has never engaged in such a simultaneously self-destructive, menacing, and factually questionable speech during war. Gore's speech was both an indictment and a conviction of the entire Bush administration leadership for events at Abu Ghraib. Gore claimed, 'What happened at the prison, it is now clear, was not the result of random acts by "a few bad apples," it was the natural consequence of the Bush Administration policy...' This is not what official investigative findings to date have revealed. Is Gore also indicting our military officials involved in the investigations?"

Even if the irony of that assertion is lost on Comstock in the long shadow of Bush war-on-terror legacies like Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, there's always the old stand-by aiding-the-enemy argument, or the sore-loser one.

"Outside of MoveOn.org, the biggest cheers for Gore must have been coming from caves in Afghanistan and diehards in Fallujah. Bitterness over Florida and exile from most of the leaders of your own party are no excuses for such irresponsibility."

The cavalcade of pundits marching alongside Comstock matched her hyperbole, but seemed to maintain better on-message discipline. Online watchdog Media Matters for America has put together an illuminating survey of the right-wing echo chamber crackling at full volume:

"It looks as if Al Gore has gone off his lithium again." -- Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer

"Maybe a National Psychological Council would be a good idea after all ... [Gore] ought to seek out for his own good a cool and quiet darkened room." -- National Review contributing editor and former Bush speech writer David Frum

"It is now clear that Al Gore is insane. I don't mean that his policy ideas are insane, though many of them are ... there is every reason to believe that Albert Gore Jr., desperately needs help. I think he needs medication, and I think that if he is already on medication, his doctors need to adjust it or change it entirely... Gore's speech is the single craziest political performance of my lifetime ... A man who was very, very nearly president of the United States has been reduced to sounding like one of those people in Times Square with a megaphone screaming about God's justice." -- New York Post columnist John Podhoretz

"Somebody needs to check this guy's medication. This guy has got a problem." -- syndicated columnist and retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, on Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes"

"He's really nuts." -- Fox News host Sean Hannity, responding to comments by guest Oliver North.

"Half the country thinks he's a mental patient ... They think he should go back to the dayroom he came out of." -- radio talk-show host Mark R. Levin, on Fox's "Hannity & Colmes"

"At one point I respected Al Gore, but I think he's lost his mind... I think he's gone daft because he's a sad little man now." -- CNBC host Dennis Miller

Even syndicated shock jock Michael Savage, who declared on the air recently that the U.S. should murder thousands of Iraqi prisoners and nuke a random Arab city, got in on the Gore "insanity" act last week:

"We are all sitting here asking ourselves, was there lead in Al Gore's silver spoon, because of the obvious tilt across the river of sanity. He has definitely pulled his raft across the river of sanity, or he has taken the side of the enemy, there's no other explanation for what he has been doing."

To ensure that the campaign to beat down Gore didn't die after the long Memorial Day break, National Review Online trotted out Dr. Henry Miller of the conservative Hoover Institution on Tuesday to add some expert testimony in a piece titled "Head Case: Al Gore Is a Sick Man." After refraining John Podhoretz's "analysis" from the New York Post, Miller offered his diagnosis of Gore's condition -- for which, he declared, there is no cure.

"John is not a physician, but he's half right. Al Gore appears to suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is not treatable with medications."

Miller then let loose a litany of psychology-speak buzz phrases to make his case against Gore ("pervasive pattern of grandiosity," "lacks empathy," and " requires excessive admiration"), followed by a rather strained deconstruction of Gore's pro-environmentalist book "Earth in the Balance" ("patronizing, apocalyptic, and overwrought ... manifests many of the diagnostic criteria listed above, offering disturbing insights into its disturbed author"). That set up his grim final prognosis: "Gore's Narcissistic Personality Disorder is one good reason that I wouldn't want him to be president -- or to live next door to me."

At least some right-wing bloggers, including ardently pro-gun Texan Kim Du Toit, were a bit more colorful, and perhaps more honest about the personal nature of their grudge against Gore.

"If there was ever a doubt that Gore is a raving Moonbat in a business suit, this would about settle that ... Gore still orates in lawyerspeak, the language of Democrats, with his ridiculous references to 'international law.'

"Note to the has-been VP: When protection of this nation and its people are at stake, we're not going to go to the World Court in the Hague for a ruling -- nor will we go to the United Fucking Nations to have yet another motion passed which will just be ignored by the affected party, again.

"What a prize fucking putz this guy is. Do not bother reading the whole tiresome Gore speech -- I did, and it cost me a couple hundred rounds of assault rifle ammo at the range."

Rush "speaks for America"
Radio host Rush Limbaugh had his own take on Al Gore's invective against the Bush administration last Wednesday.

"I guess those naked pyramids are just not in the national interest to Algore. [sic] [Laughing and laughing.] Okay. Well, you know, here's the thing, folks. Algore, this whole speech, he went nuts. He's flailing around wildly there ... I mean, it says a lot about Gore. It says he's perverse ... I don't think anything of this kind has ever been done by a former vice president during a war, but our adversaries and our enemies would be badly mistaken if they actually believe that Gore speaks for this nation, because he doesn't. I speak for more of this nation than Algore does, and I will say it on this program."

Indeed, Limbaugh's speaking for "this nation" included comparing the stacking of "naked pyramids" of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers inside Abu Ghraib prison to a college fraternity prank, and calling such abusive tactics "pretty thoughtful" and "a brilliant maneuver." His troubling comments regarding the U.S. military's torture problem in Iraq date back to the beginning of May. However, in a short interview for the June 7 issue of Time magazine, Limbaugh has started to backpedal from some of those comments. "I was totally misinterpreted and taken out of context," he complains. "In a three-hour show, I would wager that two hours and 58 minutes were spent discussing the aspects of those photos that repulsed everybody, including me. The point I made was that this is not worth demeaning our entire war effort. And I think that these photos have been used as a political opportunity here by opponents and enemies of the President to discount the entire war in Iraq."

Limbaugh does not elaborate as to what was misconstrued about his statements that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were "no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation" or "anything you'd see Madonna or Britney Spears do on stage."

Meanwhile, in what surely must be the most absurd triangulation on the right to date, syndicated columnist Ann Coulter went on the air last week to defend Limbaugh -- against Bill O'Reilly. Among her various lines of reasoning, Coulter tried to convince the ratings-savvy Fox News anchor that Limbaugh never made the comments at all.

"O'REILLY: Now are you buying into the -- this is just a hazing thing at Abu Ghraib?

"COULTER: What, the media is hazing the American people by seeing how much we can take?

"O'REILLY: Some of the right-wing commentators say it's just hazing, what's the big deal? Are you buying into that?

"COULTER: No, I don't think anyone is.

"O'REILLY: No, they are. You know that. I'm not going to embarrass people but on the radio, talk radio, you have right-wing commentators say it's just hazing, what's the big deal?

"COULTER: If I know what you're referring to, there were two hours and 59 minutes not saying that and at one point making fun of liberals for making fun of -- if you're talking about Rush, but Rush went on...

"O'REILLY: ...program and he said it's not a big deal, it's just hazing.

"COULTER: If you're talking about Rush, he definitely didn't say that. What other talk-radio hosts say...

"O'REILLY: I compete against him every day on the radio and I know what he says. He said many, many times and not only him that it wasn't a big deal.

"COULTER: No, he didn't say that, but whatever -- no."

Still, O'Reilly and Coulter were able to find some common ground regarding the media's handling of the issue, as well as their own participation in the business.

"O'REILLY: What's your point of view on it?

"COULTER: I think that -- it was a bad thing, it's six malefactors in an army that is 1.4 million strong and if I hear about it again I'm going to leap out of my skin. This is the media trying to demoralize America. This is the new Tet Offensive.

"O'REILLY: I agree with you. I think it's been overreported. But you aren't diminishing the horror of the situation?

"COULTER: Of course not. But no one is, so what are they debating about? ... It's outrageous that the media will not shut up about this.

"O'REILLY: Kill the music. I got one more for Ann, here. You realize that some people don't listen to you because they think you're an extremist. You realize that?

"COULTER: Not according to my book sales, but go ahead.

"O'REILLY: You sell to a niche. You do.

"COULTER: A pretty big niche.

"O'REILLY: Well, answer my question. Here's my question. Wouldn't it behoove you -- to be heard by more people if you weren't as strident?

"COULTER: I don't think I am strident. I think I speak the truth and people are attracted to that, and judging by my book sales versus those who are less strident, I think I'm doing pretty well."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Al Gore Ann Coulter Bill O'reilly Rush Limbaugh