We may never know the real reason Al Gore opted to bow out of the presidential race. In his interview announcing this decision on 60 Minutes, the former vice president said he wanted the 2004 race to be about the future, not the past. While he had the "energy and the drive and the ambition" to make another bid for the White House, he realized it was not "the right thing" for him to do.
Left unsaid was how much Gore's decision was affected by his treatment from the press. In his 2000 campaign, Gore was dogged by his image as a "phony." Coverage of his recent re-emergence on the public scene continued that story line. "Are people going to say this is just another reinvention of Al Gore?" asked Karen Tumulty, the Time magazine reporter who profiled him recently. If by "people" she meant the Washington chattering class, the journalists and pundits who shape a candidate's image, the answer was clearly "yes."
Gore would have started another campaign with significant advantages -- such as his standing in the polls -- that would have led the press to anoint him the front-runner. But ultimately journalists' visceral feelings about him would have balanced out those advantages, and the coverage in 2004 probably wouldn't have differed much from 2000. The answer to the question of whether Gore could get a fair shake from journalists would likely have been "no."
Notice I don't use the term "the media" here, because what Gore was up against was not some grand corporate conspiracy, not orders from Rupert Murdoch and his ilk to give him bad coverage. It was something more insidious: Individual pundits and reporters, and lots of them, just didn't like Al Gore.
Flogging the Gore-as-Liar Horse
If there is a modern president who has gotten kinder treatment from the press than George W. Bush, he does not come readily to mind. Even putting aside the worshipful coverage that has persisted since September 11, there is a case to be made that, beginning in the 2000 campaign, Bush charmed national reporters into giving him soft coverage, overlooking his weaknesses and forgiving his mistakes. And to this day reporters seem to never tire of writing that Bush has "exceeded expectations," no matter how many political victories he piles up. But Bush got better press coverage in 2000 not simply because he was treated so kindly but because Al Gore was treated so poorly. While many factors influence the coverage a candidate receives, one is inescapable: You can't get good press if reporters hate your guts. And in 2000, reporters hated Gore's guts. They bristled at his inaccessibility, they derided his campaign's strategy and, most of all, they thought he was a phony.
Let's be clear about this: Did Gore sometimes exaggerate his importance in events, attempting to show that his role was more central than it actually was? Yes. Did he do this more often than other politicians? Arguable, but perhaps. Nevertheless, on this question, Gore got a bum rap.
Reporters decided before the 2000 campaign began that Gore was dishonest, and while he occasionally gave them support for this impression, he was also skewered for lies he never told. Although you wouldn't know it from the mainstream press, Gore never said that he invented the Internet or that he was, in fact, the model for the hero in Love Story; he likewise never claimed to have discovered toxic waste at Love Canal. As his campaign's research director, David Ginsberg, argued after the election, "Once something makes the leap from news to the late-night shows, it's completely out of your hands, and no amount of argumentation, of documentation, of proof, of pleading with reporters to write the real story matters, because it's already in the public psyche."
No one flogged the Gore-is-a-liar horse with more enthusiasm than the two reporters who had the most power to shape what other journalists thought and wrote: Katharine Seelye of The New York Times and Ceci Connolly of The Washington Post. Their writing dripped with a contempt unusual for establishment newspapers devoted to the ideal of objectivity. And no incident better demonstrates how harshly Seelye and Connolly treated Gore than the time they both misquoted him at a late 1999 event at a high school in New Hampshire, as Robert Parry chronicled in The Washington Monthly in April of 2000.
When Gore was asked by a student why young people should bother getting involved in politics, he told a story about how, when he was in Congress, a high-school student from the town of Toone, Tenn., wrote him a letter about pollution and high rates of cancer in her town. As a result, Gore said, "I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. Had the first hearing on that issue, and Toone, Tenn., that was the one you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all. And it all happened because one high-school student got involved." The meaning was pretty clear to everyone there: Gore described how the young woman's efforts spurred him to address toxic waste; along the way he held the first congressional hearings on Love Canal.
But when Seelye and Connolly wrote their stories, they decided Gore had claimed that he discovered the existence of toxic waste in Love Canal. To complete the tale, both reporters changed Gore's statement, making "That was the one that started it all" -- referring to Toone -- into "I was the one that started it all" -- implying that he had discovered Love Canal. Connolly wrote that Gore's remarks "were reminiscent of earlier attempts to embellish his role in major events."
When Gore protested, did Seelye and Connolly apologize? Hardly. Instead, Connolly wrote a story implying that Gore was now doing damage control and admitting he had lied. The lead of Connolly's story the next day read, "Add Love Canal to the list of verbal missteps by Vice President Gore. The man who mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie Love Story and to have invented the Internet says he didn't quite mean to say he discovered a toxic waste site." Connolly described her own misquote as a "verbal misstep" by Gore, then described his attempt to correct her error as an admission that he had lied.
Seelye and Connolly's misquotes were picked up by other news organizations. When the students at Concord High School saw how the press had distorted what occurred at their school, they put out a release titled, "Top 10 Reasons Why Many Concord High Students Feel Betrayed by Some of the Media Coverage of Al Gore's Visit to Their School." Note the care evident in their use of the words "many" and "some." They obviously didn't want anyone to get the wrong impression.
I have seen Seelye questioned about the Love Canal misquote in a number of public forums, and she always dismisses the complaint by saying that it was blown out of proportion, that it was only one word. She also continues to state incorrectly that Gore said he "invented" the Internet, and uses that as more evidence that Gore is a liar. After her distortion was revealed by the enterprising high-school students, Ceci Connolly argued that what was important was showing that Al Gore was dishonest, even if it meant distorting what Gore had said. "We have an obligation to our readers to alert them this continues to be something of a habit," she told The Associated Press. Long after the election, Connolly maintained, incredibly, that her misquote "did not change the context" of what Gore said.
Time magazine writer Margaret Carlson, who serves as a "liberal" on various Beltway gabfests, admitted to radio host Don Imus during the campaign that although Bush was lying with regularity, reporters simply enjoyed exposing Gore's fabrications more. "You can actually disprove some of what Bush is saying if you really get in the weeds and get out your calculator, or you look at his record in Texas," Carlson said. "But it's really easy, and it's fun, to disprove Gore. As sport, and as our enterprise, Gore coming up with another whopper is greatly entertaining to us." Other journalists described the ill will their colleagues held toward the vice president. "There was a fair amount of animus as time wore on with Gore," the Chicago Tribune's James Warren told Rolling Stone.
At one primary debate with Bill Bradley, reporters watching in an adjacent room actually booed and hissed at Gore's answers (although it should be noted that Gore's responses were at their most pedantic in certain instances). Slate.com columnist Mickey Kaus, no liberal by any stretch of the imagination, was surprised when he went to New Hampshire during the primaries and began talking with other reporters. "What I underestimated," Kaus wrote, "what, indeed, has startled me -- is the extent to which reporters aren't simply boosting Bradley for their own sake (or Bradley's). It's also something else: They hate Gore. They really do think he's a liar. And a phony."
After the same debate in which reporters booed Gore, CNN's William Schneider attributed even the vice president's bodily functions to manipulative calculation. Gore, Schneider said, "even perspired, perhaps that was planned, to make himself look like a fighter." Gore must be the only human being who can sweat at will.
Gore also suffered because the rigidity of the press' twin accounts meant that Bush was free to lie without consequence. "The story line is Bush isn't smart enough and Gore isn't straight enough," said Cokie Roberts, a reporter and commentator for ABC and National Public Radio. "In Bush's case, you know he's just misstating as opposed to it playing into a story line about him being a serial exaggerator." A false statement by Bush was assumed to be a mistake, while one by Gore was assumed to be a willful deception.
Why do reporters feel this way about Gore? The answer may be a complex one, but all indications are that it was not new in 2000. When he ran for president in 1988, the impression that Gore was too ambitious, calculating and manipulative was already taking shape. Reporters place a high value on "authenticity," a quality in which Gore, who has never felt at ease campaigning, lacks. A survey of reporters conducted during the 2000 primary season found that honesty was the trait they rated as the most important in a presidential candidate, beating out experience, moral character and having solutions to the nation's problems. Once reporters have decided -- fairly or not -- that a candidate is dishonest, there is little he or she can do to reverse that conclusion.
Just Another Phony Reinvention
Is there any reason to believe things would have been different had Gore chosen to run, or even if he decides to try again in 2008 (an option he didn't rule out in his interview with 60 Minutes' Lesley Stahl)? After all, the lives of defeated presidential nominees can have second acts. Richard Nixon -- a man far more dishonest, awkward in public and generally unlikable than Al Gore -- won the presidency after not only losing a close presidential race but hurling blame at reporters after a humiliating loss for governor two years later.
The answer -- based on Gore's coverage during his re-emergence earlier this year -- seems to be no. After Gore delivered a speech in April 2002 criticizing the Bush administration's economic and environmental policies, Connolly told Fox News Sunday that Gore should in effect keep his mouth shut. "If it were October of 2000, that would be a great speech," Connolly said. "Solid, substantive, good legitimate domestic issues to be talking about. In the current environment -- terrorism, war overseas -- it just doesn't quite seem appropriate right now." Connolly's bosses were sufficiently troubled by her remarks that a week later, the Post's ombudsman described the incident in a column (although without naming the reporter in question), writing, "Well, that is not appropriate, and she has been reminded by a top editor that commentary by reporters is against Post policy."
All politicians have their positions and statements pored over for hidden motives by reporters. Yet those same reporters never seem to question whether President Bush actually wants to invade Iraq, only how and when he will do so is up for discussion. But witness the way Brian Williams saw a speech Gore gave in September in San Francisco, questioning whether invading Iraq would inhibit America's efforts to combat terrorism. "Howard," Williams asked Howard Fineman of Newsweek, "one of your colleagues said that Al Gore has never made an uncalculated comment in his lifetime. How much gut decision was this on his part and how much is this Al Gore carving out a position?" We all know what the answer to that is, of course: Gore is thought to have no principles, no genuine opinions, no beliefs.
In fact, any time Gore opened his mouth, the pundits and reporters seem to have only two questions: What is Gore's political motivation, and is he reinventing himself again? Consider this paragraph from a New York Times story about Gore's San Francisco address: "For one thing, Mr. Gore's skepticism about the Bush administration's approach to Iraq would seem at odds with his frequent efforts to present himself as one of the few Democrats who voted to give President Bush's father the authority to oust Mr. Hussein more than 10 years ago."
The fact that Gore was one of the few Democrats who voted for the Gulf War is portrayed not as a fact at all, but as something that might be untrue, a way Gore has frequently made "efforts to present himself." The fact that he opposed an invasion in 2002, under utterly different circumstances, appears to make Gore a hypocrite in Times writer Adam Nagourney's eyes. "Gore's advisers," Nagourney wrote skeptically, "said he was adjusting his position to reflect the changing conditions in Iraq."
But this is nothing compared with the bile spewed at Gore from conservative columnists after his San Francisco speech. Here's Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly: "It distinguished Gore, now and forever, as someone who cannot be considered a responsible aspirant to power Gore's speech was one no decent politician could have delivered. It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible." Yow. And Kelly was merely part of the choir. "It was a disgrace -- a series of cheap shots strung together without logic or coherence," wrote the Post's Charles Krauthammer. Gore, said columnist Andrew Sullivan, "is fundamentally a political coward disgusting outrageous smear . All this speech does is show that he's one of the most naked opportunists in American politics." "Al Gore has shown he is not fit to lead," wrote the right wing's William Bennett.
Republicans and their allies in the conservative media knew that the best way to damage Gore was to keep hyping the "Gore is a phony" line, no matter what the topic. For instance, when Gore criticized the Bush administration's moves to inhibit Americans' freedoms in the wake of September 11, the New York Post wrote, "Al Gore's latest attempt to reinvent himself is as a champion of civil liberties." What the issue could possibly have to do with "reinvention" is irrelevant -- those who oppose Gore know where to focus their criticism, and the news pages were likely to report the attacks, keeping the question of Gore's trustworthiness in play.
Gore's recent flood of media appearances promoting the books he and his wife wrote and edited about the American family produced predictable comments from pundits. Newsweek's Fineman, whose sycophancy toward President Bush seems to grow with each passing week, was appalled that when Barbara Walters asked Gore whether he thought he got more votes in Florida than Bush, Gore said yes. "He's so bitter," said Fineman on The Chris Matthews Show. "He believes he won. He's nursing his bitterness. The bitterness is the well from which the energy will come for him to run again." "It's just another reinvention," said NBC's Andrea Mitchell. Nonetheless, Fineman declared, "He is arguably the best qualified candidate." Host Chris Matthews finished the thought, saying, "I think he's still the guy to beat." If Al Gore had gone after the White House, the story line would have been that he would have won the nomination -- and, oh, by the way, he's still a phony.
The Moment Gore Was Dreading
As hard as he would have tried not to, at some point in the 2004 campaign, Al Gore would have said something untrue. He would have done so not because he's a congenital liar but because none of us, no matter what our integrity and rhetorical gifts, could give a dozen speeches a day without slipping up once in awhile. Had he made a mistake, the fax machines at Republican National Committee headquarters would have hummed with a thousand press releases. Perhaps Dick Cheney would have offered, as he did in 2000, that he was "puzzled and saddened" that Gore told a fib. Republican pundits would have trooped to the studios of FOX, CNN and MSNBC to offer identical denunciations of Gore's mendacity. And chances are that with a collective, "Aha!," reporters would have pounced, declaring that "questions are being raised" about Gore's trustworthiness.
Reporters' view of Gore is an exaggerated version of their view of politicians in general: conniving, manipulative, driven by the lust for power, a persona rather than a person, someone from whom nothing can be taken at face value. The lesson of Gore's press coverage is that reporters' personal views about candidates matter, but not in the ideological sense of liberal reporters boosting Democrats and conservative reporters boosting Republicans. While it may be true that a majority of reporters vote Democratic, they savaged Gore and continue to give glowing coverage to John McCain, a conservative Republican who treats them like buddies, seldom refuses to go on record and is generally fun to be around. The men seeking the opportunity to face Bush in 2004 might consider this as they prepare their campaigns.