Al Gore's lucky it's not October.
Rumbling under the political radar, ready to explode in the next couple of weeks, is another retooling of the Veep's presidential campaign. Consider what's happened just in the last few days: on Wednesday it was reported that George W. Bush is now leading Gore in three separate polls, CNN/USA Today, Marist College and the Zogby America Poll. Respectively, the polls showed Bush with a lead of nine, five and four points. As the memory of Sen. John McCain's magical mystery tour fades, and attention is paid to the two actual nominees, Bush is beginning to regain the upper hand that he had over Gore for most of 1999.
Most of Gore's problems can be traced to the candidate himself, but even so, just like last fall when the media touted Bill Bradley as a possible upset winner, he can't catch a break. Gore's yo-yo act on the Clinton-Reno return of Elian Gonzalez to Cuban misery has earned him no respect: not from people of principle who believe in democracy, not from the Castro sympathizers of the left-wing. Instead, his contradictory statements have added girth to his reputation as a dishonest politician who'll pander to any constituency in order to get votes. Sort of like Bill Clinton without the oily charisma.
Gore's campaign chairman Tony Coelho's ethical problems won't go away any time soon, and so he'll most likely have to walk the plank; as might campaign manager Donna Brazile, which would be a blow to the Bush effort since she's almost brain-dead and can be counted upon to make more race-baiting gaffes. Maybe she'll be replaced by Jesse Jackson. And now, different unions are pissed off at Gore for his support of normalized trade relations with China. It's not as if AFL-CIO members will vote for Bush, but they might stay home on Election Day.
Gore's campaign will try to dump all the baggage they can as soon as possible, preconvention, so that it'll be old news by the fall. That worked in his fight against Bradley, but it's no lock that he'll be as fortunate again. True to form, the objective New York Times has enlisted, earlier than expected, as Gore's chief propaganda organ, having reporters essentially rewrite "talking points" from the Democratic National Committee and turn them into front-page editorials, but after a while readers might grow numb to the constant, and deceitful, cheerleading.
This is the Gore strategy, otherwise known as the Dukakis-izing of Bush. Every other day, expect compliant mainstream journalists to attack the GOP candidate on his record in Texas, especially issues of interest to women: health care, abortion, the environment, guns, Lone Star culture and excessive capital punishment. Gore just can't stand the possibility that Bush might close the gender gap that served Clinton so well in both of his elections.
Consider Adam Clymer's page-one lead in Tuesday's Times: "Texas has had one of the nation's worst public health records for decades. More than a quarter of its residents have no health insurance. Its Mexican border is a hotbed of contagion." Not surprisingly, considering the reporter, Bush declined to be interviewed for the story, so Clymer relied exclusively on the quotes of Democrats and men and women sympathetic to Gore, with the exception of Dr. William R. Archer III, son of Republican Rep. Bill Archer, who defended Bush's record.
Clymer apparently made no effort to talk to House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Whip Tom DeLay or Sens. Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, all Republicans from Texas.
On the same day in the Times was another front-page story about the Bush campaign, this one about Ralph Reed's consulting firm, Century Strategies, being hired by Microsoft to lobby the Governor. Bush knew nothing about Reed's new agenda. The following day, Reed, whose company has worked for Microsoft since 1998, apologized for what could be a potential conflict of interest and said he wouldn't lobby Bush. And, in fact, as Times reporter Joel Brinkley wrote on April 12, the Bush campaign had so far received just one letter on behalf of Microsoft from a Bush supporter. This was front-page news, again, in the Times. It didn't appear in The Washington Post until Thursday, on page A-4, a story that tweaked the Times for having to run a correction on their Tuesday story, clarifying that Reed's firm wasn't just hired after the government's ruling against Microsoft.
On April 13, Gore toady Richard L. Berke published a story in the Times headlined "Stakes High for Both in a Bush-Gays Meeting." In the second paragraph, Berke writes: "While the votes of gays will probably [italics mine] not tilt the election, the gathering is shaping up as one of the more remarkable events of the current campaign." The whole notion of this article is absurd: If Gore can't count gay voters as part of his base, he may as well give up now.
Meanwhile, in the April 11 Boston Globe, Walter V. Robinson and Michael Crowley published a lengthy story headlined "Record shows Gore long embellishing truth."
The reporters write, tongue in cheek: "Vice President Al Gore brings a remarkable life story to the presidential race: His father was such an unwavering supporter of civil rights that it cost him his Senate seat. His older sister was the first-ever volunteer in the Peace Corps, that heroic outpost on President Kennedy's New Frontier.
"By Gore's account: He was raised in hardscrabble Tennessee farm country. He was a brilliant student, in high school and at Harvard. And despite his political pull, he received no special treatment, opting instead to go to Vietnam where he was 'shot at.'
"After his Army service, he spent seven years as a journalist, and his reporting at the Tennessean in Nashville put corrupt officials in prison.
"As a junior member in the US House, he was a major force: He wrote and then spearheaded passage of the Superfund law. He even authored the US nuclear negotiating position. And at a time when President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev faced off on the superpower stage, Gore had his own meeting with Gorbachev.
"And, of course, he created the Internet.
"At various times in his political career, Gore, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has said all those things about himself and his family.
"None are quite true."
Robinson and Crowley concede that Gore has an impressive legislator's record, but add that "the facts have never been quite enough," and go on to debunk each of Gore's claims. This is the kind of material that exasperated Bradley during the primaries and led him to famously say in a New Hampshire debate, footage of which will undoubtedly be used in GOP commercials this fall: "Why should we believe that you will tell the truth as president if you don't tell the truth as a candidate?"
Left-leaning reporters and pundits continually write that there's no "Clinton fatigue," because the President's job approval ratings remain high. Guess again. While Clinton has been the beneficiary of a strong economy?helped immensely by Microsoft, the company his administration has tied up in litigation?his personal conduct in office has indeed left voters with a bad smell about the White House. If that weren't true, Gore would be leading by a dozen points. But despite Clinton's lying and womanizing, Gore's lies might even be worse for a candidate. Voters could excuse Clinton's involvement with Gennifer Flowers (the press largely ignored the more damaging accusations of rape by Juanita Broaddrick) and the fudging about his draft-dodging in the late 60s. After all, many men and women could identify with those failings; in addition, Clinton's determined climb from a lower-class environment is an embodiment of the American Dream. That he warped that grand notion, so much so that he was impeached, is why his personal approval ratings remain low.
But Gore, a child of privilege, is a congenital liar. Americans will have a harder time countenancing his constant self-aggrandizement, condescension and flipflopping on issues. Bush was also born into an aristocratic family, but his easygoing nature is apparent to campaign crowds, even if his speeches seem stiff, and it's clear he'd never exploit his family for political gain.
Gore is in such a pickle right now?and, to be clear, he's an expert at getting out of jams, which is why the election will be so close?that at an appearance before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, he gave the press some advice. On April 12, the day after Bush unveiled a limited (compared to Gore's) health care plan, Gore accused his rival of "political malpractice" and chided the assembled to pay closer attention to the wily Texan. He said in a speech: "Incredibly, implausibly, [Bush] is proposing to replace the economic policies that have succeeded beyond anyone's boldest predictions with the very policies that failed miserably eight years ago. Call it trickle-down, call it voodoo economics, call it supply side. Names don't matter because we tried it and it failed miserably... I worked in journalism long enough to know that some claims demand serious scrutiny... [Bush] wants us to believe he's committed to issues like education, health care and the environment. Let's face it. The Bush approach on these issues is a headline without a story."
Kind of like Gore's autobiography being three measures truth and three measures fiction.
An Old Man's Complaint I have little patience with journalism awards?usually the results are rigged by mutual admiration committees?but nonetheless it was gratifying to see that Paul Gigot won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. There are few pundits with the common sense of The Wall Street Journal's Gigot, and his Friday column "Potomac Watch" is essential reading for anyone with an interest in politics. It's not frothy?whereas last year's winner in the category, The New York Times' Maureen Dowd, is on the level of "Page Six," Gigot's essays have the intellectual heft of William Safire in his prime.
Newsday's geriatric hack Jimmy Breslin had a problem with Gigot's award. Writing on April 12, Breslin said: "[Gigot] writes one column a week. Next year, the prize for column writing will go to somebody who writes no columns a week. The award winner will be on bed rest." He goes on to praise deceased buddies like Mike Royko and Murray Kempton, who, like Breslin many years ago, wrote several columns a week, and often with flair.
Breslin also takes a shot at Michael Kelly, who writes a weekly column for The Washington Post and was a runner-up to Gigot. Breslin, whose mind is half-gone, doesn't do the legwork that he extols in old legends like Kempton and Royko. If he had, he'd have realized that Gigot, in addition to his column, writes editorials for the Journal and is a member of that paper's editorial board. Kelly, far from being the layabout that Breslin claims, edits two publications?The National Journal and The Atlantic Monthly?in addition to his Post column.
Both Gigot and Kelly are exemplary journalists in a field that boasts very few talented men and women. Breslin's scorn, I think, is a badge of honor: the bitter old crank, a step away from the nursing home, is unable to gracefully acknowledge a new generation of writers. Unlike the Times' Russell Baker, a gentleman who knew when it was time to retire, Breslin will kick out the occasional half-baked column when he musters up the energy. And should Newsday's editor realize the waste of space with this washed-up malcontent, Breslin will have no fear: another nostalgic boss will snap him up. It's the equivalent of the Bosox goading Ted Williams out of retirement.