But something happens when the press covers the Clinton White House. And that something is not pretty. Call it payback, passive-aggressive style. Frustrated by their Moby Dick pursuit of Bill Clinton, Sally Quinn's Beltway crowd, sensing a weaker opponent in Gore, now seems determined to exact some revenge. And who better to suffer for Bill's supposed sins than his VP?
Too conspiratorial? How else do you explain the breathless reports Bradley has all but landed the nomination, despite the fact that new national polls from ABC News/Washington Post, Zogby International and Gallup/CNN/ USA Today all show Gore widening his lead over Bradley, in some cases into 30- and 40-point margins? The latest numbers from the Republicans' favorite pollster John Zogby show Bradley lost one-third of his support among likely Democratic voters between May and September. Don't look for those results detailed in any major dailies or newsweeklies, though. The stories don't exist.
The truth is there's an unmasked contempt running through much of the Gore coverage, an out-of-context scorn that wasn't there the last time a vice president (George Bush) struggled to outdistance a party rival (Bob Dole) six months before the primary season. What began this summer with a series of high-and-tight fastballs aimed at front-runner Gore has morphed into an ironclad norm. The narrative has been selected: Clinton's No. 2 is doomed. Forget that Gore has money. (He's on track to raise $35 million by year's end.) Forget that he has endorsements. Forget that he's ahead. Gore's done. It seems the only thing left for journalists to do is detail Gore's demise. The question is, are some willing to finesse the facts in the process?
Kicking off the fall campaign season on Sept. 5, The Boston Globe reported its poll showed Gore and Bradley were deadlocked in New Hampshire. You can argue about New Hampshire's electoral importance since the state has a long history of bucking front-runners and giving false hope to candidates who don't have a prayer of winning national races, like Eugene McCarthy, Paul Tsongas and Pat Buchanan. Or that Bradley's cerebral style of reform politics appeals to white, upper-middle-class college graduates and seems custom-made to win over New Hampshire Democrats (not to mention DC journalists). But everyone knows the rules getting into the game; New Hampshire polls matter.
But writing for The Boston Globe, Michael Kranish wasn't satisfied with just poll results, so he opted for some heavy-handed spin, asserting, "The poll found several factors eroding Gore's standing, among them his stalwart support of President Clinton throughout the impeachment scandal." Pretty heady stuff, since the details seemed to finally put some flesh on the Clinton fatigue bones that had been rattling around the Beltway all summer. Problem was the poll offered no proof to support Kranish's claim. None. Which explains why, in the 1300-word, page-one piece, Kranish never once tried to back up his charge with any actual findings.
Not surprisingly, in his followup story the next day Kranish dropped any mention of impeachment damaging Gore in New Hampshire. But his initial point was made, and within hours CBS, AP, Reuters and others filed dispatches repeating the Globe's claim that the Lewinsky scandal was hurting Gore in New Hampshire, and a runaway conventional wisdom was unleashed. Amazingly, on the same day Kranish's page-one piece ran, Globe colleague Anne Kornblut filed a lengthy story dissecting the lingering effects of impeachment on the 2000 race. In a nugget lifted from the Globe's New Hampshire polling data, she revealed, "among Democrats, Gore's loyalty to Clinton throughout the impeachment process would make 29 percent more likely [emphasis added] to vote for Gore and 21 percent less likely to do so."
That's right: According to the Globe's own numbers New Hampshire Democrats were more likely to support Gore because of his allegiance to Clinton during impeachment. So why did Kranish, who had access to the same poll numbers, write that the Lewinsky saga was wounding the VP? Well, it sounded interesting, didn't it? Sort of like the often-repeated tale this summer about how Gore's eco-friendly campaign wasted millions of dollars' worth of water when it demanded gallons be released into the Connecticut River so a Gore canoe photo-op wouldn't run aground. As a handful of small New England dailies detailed it, though, none of the story was true. Nobody from Gore's camp asked for the water to be released (the Secret Service made the request), the routine dump was simply pushed ahead a few hours by local officials and the water wasn't wasted, it generated electricity. But the damage was done. Virtually every big-time news outlet found the metaphor for Gore's struggling campaign too irresistible to pass up. Was it fitting? Yes. Was it true? No.
But Kranish has hardly been alone in trying to flesh out the infamous Clinton fatigue syndrome, a malady affecting working journalists more acutely than registered voters. (What's more maddening today, the incessant chatter about Clinton fatigue or the tortured Bradley basketball metaphors?) Pollster Andrew Kohut has been peddling the fatigue theory all year. As proof it exists he points to the 74 percent of Americans who answered yes back in April to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press' question, Are you tired of all the problems of this administration? Which, when you think about it, is the equivalent of asking, Are you are tired of going to the dentist? It's an easy question to answer but it doesn't prove much in the end.
Other pollsters have tried to get their hands on the Clinton legacy issue. A post-impeachment Newsweek poll this year asked people if their feelings toward the major DC players (Bill, Hillary, etc.) had changed. Al Gore's "unchanged" score was off the chart, at 66 percent. (In a fitting twist, the media tied Bill Clinton for last, with 56 percent of adults coming away with less favorable feelings toward both.)
The same September Washington Post poll that found Gore leading Bradley by 45 percent nationwide asked people if they thought it was fair to blame Gore for Clinton's troubles. Eighty-three percent said it was not fair. Separately, 48 percent thought Gore was "too close to Clinton," but 49 percent thought he was not too close. Hardly blockbuster results. Without any hard numbers to support the Clinton impeachment fatigue, reporters have had to rely on man-on-the-street anecdotes, which are dangerous. Dangerous because readers have no idea, for instance, how many Democrats New York Times reporter James Dao had to interview in Iowa before he found one who thought, "If Al Gore were principled, he should have wanted to resign [during impeachment]."
Then again, Dao probably didn't have to search all that long, since in an effort to take rank-and-file Democrats' temperature on Gore, the reporter traveled?you guessed it?to a Bradley rally. And like so many filing from Iowa, Dao didn't find the space to point out the most recent Des Moines Register poll had Gore beating Bradley there by 40 points. No doubt that race has tightened, but some local context might be nice. Same goes for Virginia, South Carolina, California, Florida, Ohio and the dozen-plus states where Bradley and Gore will battle early next year.
Reading the daily dispatches you'd think New York and New Hampshire were the only states holding primaries next spring. Or are journalists just not interested in nuggets like respected Michigan pollster Steve Mitchell's mid-September survey that had Gore ahead of Bradley there, 60-25?
The coverage of Bradley and Gore endorsements has also been telling. When Friends of the Earth opted to back Bradley, the New York Post suddenly became impressed with the little-known environmental group and its $5000 campaign donation. (Wonder how Bradley's Iowa campaign manager felt about the news though, considering Friends of the Earth is a fierce opponent of ethanol, a hot-button Iowa issue that Bradley has already flip-flopped on.) It wasn't until the 12th graf of the Post's story that reporter Deborah Orin (perhaps the only person in America who thinks "Dan Quayle was able to whip Gore in [the '92] debate") got around to the fact that the same day Bradley snagged Friends of the Earth, Gore picked up the "endorsement of 521 Latino leaders nationwide."
The Post did a better job than The New York Times, which never even mentioned the Latino endorsements. It also took the Times three days to inform readers that Gore had picked up the backing of California Gov. Gray Davis, not to mention virtually every Democratic elected official in the state. (Imagine the coverage if Bradley had scored the coup.) California's March 7 primary will almost certainly determine the Democratic Party's eventual nominee. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's long-expected endorsement of Bradley drew lots of ink, particularly when the New York Senator told gathered reporters he was backing Bradley because Gore "can't be elected." When asked why he was helping Hillary Clinton's Senate run, Moynihan answered "I think she can be elected.''
So it turns out Moynihan, the esteemed intellectual dean of the Senate, has one requirement for candidates seeking his endorsements: electability. Who knew?
Meanwhile, Reuters was one of the few news services to put the Senator's backing in context, reporting that at the time, Bradley had been endorsed by one member of the House and three senators, while Gore was backed by 94 House members and 15 senators. And then there's labor. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post have all weighed in with similar stories about how Gore's much-needed nod from the American Federation of Labor might be in doubt, due in part to the VP's shaky poll standings. Well, that was more or less the vibe of the stories. When you actually read them, none suggested labor would go anywhere else. ("It is almost certain that Mr. Gore will eventually get labor's backing," wrote the Journal.) The Post's piece, with the loaded headline "Labor Holding Back on Backing Gore," argued the VP might not land an early endorsement from the federation when it meets for its annual convention in October. But how could labor be "holding back" if the deciding convention wasn't until October?
More importantly, if you didn't go back and reread an early Times piece you wouldn't have known that the federation had never before made an endorsement this early in the election cycle. So, Gore could very possibly land an historically early labor endorsement in coming weeks, but to hear the dailies tell it, his relations with the unions were severely strained.
It was two recent polls that sent the Beltway pack into Bradley overdrive. The first was the hardly shocking news that Bradley was doing well in New York state. Well, you wouldn't think it was shocking considering Bradley became a famous basketball player at Princeton University in New Jersey, starred in the NBA for the New York Knicks, served as New Jersey's senator for 18 years and lives 16 miles away from New York City. What's next, news that Bradley is doing well in New Jersey?
But smelling blood, the press played it big. Caught up in the conventional wisdom frenzy, the Daily News wrote about "Bradley's surge" in the Empire State. But careful News readers learned that since July, Bradley's rating has increased exactly six points during his "surge," barely outside the Quinnipiac College poll's margin of error. Then on Sept. 16, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Gore's campaign losing crucial ground both to Bradley and Bush.
The numbers soon became the peg for countless Bradley/Gore pieces, but their use raised an interesting question: If a series of major nationwide polls are released in the month of September, and three (Washington Post, Zogby and USA Today) all show Gore widening his lead over Bradley, what makes the others more valid?
And shouldn't political pros point out the discrepancies in print?
But Gore's soft NBC News/Wall Street Journal numbers were the only proof most reporters needed to confirm their own notions about his run. On Sept. 19, The New York Times' Richard Berke argued in print that he wasn't getting spun by Republicans who suddenly said they admired and even feared Bradley's candidacy. It was hard to swallow, though. Just as the GOP would have preferred to face Paul Tsongas in '92, privately, Republicans would certainly like to run against Bradley, a sleepy, nationally untested Northeastern liberal who hasn't scored an impressive Election Day victory in 15 years, and who actually told Cokie Roberts the reason he wouldn't ban all handguns as president was because American pentathlon athletes wouldn't be able to compete in the Olympics. (Lightly pressed on his puzzling response, Bradley flashed Roberts a glimpse of his signature temper.)
Meanwhile, how did the other September poll results play? USA Today, whose September CNN and Gallup poll showed Gore stretching his lead over Bradley to 33 points, opted for the old bait and switch. At a time when the press pack was in a tizzy over Bradley's swell, the paper's accompanying article ("Gore Continues to lag in Poll") simply shifted attention away from the Gore/Bradley matchup and highlighted how Gore trailed Bush, even though the paper's margin remained statistically unchanged since April. Talking heads have also shown a remarkable ability to ignore polls that don't fit the Gore-is-dead-meat narrative.
On Sept. 26, CNN's Wolf Blitzer lead a predictable discussion among his assembled pundits about Gore's electability after a new CNN/Time poll showed Bradley had inched ahead of Gore in New Hampshire. Of course Blitzer, like every other Sunday talker, stayed away from the accompanying CNN/Time poll question put to Democrats nationwide: Who would have a better chance against George W. Bush in the 2000 Presidential election? Democrats sided with Gore, 58-34. Suffice it to say Time's recent Bradley cover story also skimmed over the same information. Why muddy the waters with facts and context? (Speaking of not letting the facts get in the way of a good campaign story, how come so many pundits and reporters hyping the implications of a possible Warren Beatty run for the White House refuse to acknowledge the recent poll in Beatty's home state of California that showed the actor garnering an irrelevant 1 percent of support among Democrats?)
At this point in the Bradley fury, there is something to be said about the former Knick peaking too soon, giving Gore too much time to react, to move his campaign back to Nashville and to start spouting the Alice-in-Wonderland slogan about being the real underdog. But how could Bradley's camp have known that virtually every columnist and political reporter between DC and New York, spurred on by selective poll readings, feverish Clinton fatigue and the hunger for a race, was going to spill gallons of ink in a two-week September stretch exhaustively detailing how Bradley, as The New York Observer modestly put it, was "gaining momentum every day." By the time the crucial New York primary finally comes around five months from now, Bradley either has to beat Gore by, say, 40 points or suddenly it's Bradley who looks vulnerable. (Speaking of bumpy rides, not many scribes seemed interested when Bradley, who told NBC's Tim Russert race relations were the centerpiece of his campaign, stumbled badly after equating gays rights with civil rights, a major no-no among most African-American leaders.)
If it's any comfort to Gore, he's not the only walking target on the campaign trail these days. Hillary Clinton has encountered similar press nonsense in her undeclared run for the Senate from New York. In just one example of particularly shoddy reporting, The Washington Post's Lynne Duke, feebly trying to put the recent FALN clemency controversy in political perspective, wrote on Sept. 11, "Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Clinton's likely opponent in the Senate race, has characterized Clinton as a candidate running against herself. Citing polls that began to narrow throughout the summer from her wide early lead to a dead heat, he noted recently, 'The longer she runs against herself, the better we do.'"
Later, as proof that something was amiss on the campaign trail, Duke pointed to national polls indicating Hillary's negatives were increasing. So here's a national reporter for arguably the most sophisticated political reporting team in the country doing an in-depth piece on Hillary Clinton's campaign and she doesn't even bother to check the local poll numbers. Instead she lifts a dated and often-repeated quote from Hillary's opponent who insists the First Lady is slumping. More likely Duke did check the polls and, realizing the First Lady actually closed a 10-point gap between July and August to even the race (according to Zogby), the reporter simply inserted the Mayor's quote.
The day after Duke's story ran, though, Zogby's new September numbers were released. They showed despite "an accumulating list of missteps," as Duke put it in the Post, the First Lady remained in a statistical tie with the Mayor. And thanks to her listening tours, which were widely ridiculed among the media elite, Hillary had nearly pulled even with Giuliani among predominantly Republican upstate voters. Or did you think there was another reason why the Mayor recently morphed into a Jesse Helms art critic? (And surprise, it turns out Hillary's Talk interview and the FALN story, both endlessly criticized by the chattering class, are dogs that don't hunt for New York voters.)
As for Hillary's rising negatives, Duke never bothers to explain what the significance of national poll results would be for a statewide race, particularly in one as Democratic-leaning as New York. (That dishonest sleight of hand has become common among scribes eager to cast doubt on Hillary's New York chances.)
To hear the pundits tell it, both Gore's and Hillary's campaigns are already doomed. Yes, the DC pack botched America's mood on impeachment, never saw Democratic gains in '98 coming and misread the military strategy in Kosovo. But who knows, they could be right this time. The question, then, is why are they so eager to usher Bill Clinton's torchbearers off the stage before voters even have a chance to decide?