Al Gore and the Gaffe Wars

When Al Gore finished his brief statement to the press upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize last Friday, he walked from the lectern, ignoring the shouted questions from reporters about whether he would now make another run at the White House. Given how he was treated by the press eight years ago, it would be shocking if Gore had the stomach for another run. What the press has been up to lately demonstrates exactly why, and makes each new accolade Gore receives all the more poignant.

Distracted for a moment, the pundits soon turned their attention back to the tool with which they had made such mincemeat out of Gore -- the search for the latest campaign "gaffe," those moments in which a candidate violates the rules the press has established to separate acceptable from unacceptable behavior.

This week's perpetrator was Mitt Romney, who when asked in a debate whether military action against Iran's nuclear facilities would require authorization from Congress, quite sensibly said, "You sit down with your attorneys and tell you what you have to do, but obviously, the president of the United States has to do what's in the best interest of the United States to protect us against a potential threat." The response from his chief opponent, Rudy Giuliani, was predictable: Anyone mentioning "attorneys" must be some kind of sissy.

The press swung into action. "Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney's new smackdown," said Wolf Blitzer excitedly on CNN. "This time, the Republican presidential rivals are fighting over a so-called lawyers' test for national security." The rest of the journalistic village elders quickly made clear their contempt for Romney's impulse to at least consider the legality of a potential military action. "What are these, the Miranda rights for Iran?" asked Chris Matthews. "It sounded equivocal," said David Gregory of NBC News. "It makes him look weak." Margaret Carlson agreed: "You can't be too bellicose. That's why it was a gaffe." Asked by Matthews whether "we expect our future commander-in-chief to have a gut response as to presidential authority in wartime," Dan Balz of the Washington Post said, "We certainly expect him to have a different kind of response than Governor Romney gave last night." Indeed, because if the last seven years have taught us anything, it's that what we need in the Oval Office is less consideration for law and more "gut response."

No one can doubt that had Romney said something like, "If we need to attack Iran, we'll do so, and Congress isn't going to tell me how to defend America," the likes of Gregory, Carlson and Balz would have cheered enthusiastically, marveling at his manly willingness to ignore the Constitution. The same thing happened in April when Barack Obama was criticized for answering a question about a hypothetical terrorist attack by listing the things he would do in the wrong order. No, that isn't a joke: Obama's "gaffe" was that he started his answer by talking about the emergency response to handle the aftermath, then mentioned finding out who did it and going after them.

In that case, it was the Clinton campaign that convinced reporters that Obama had committed a "gaffe" by failing to demonstrate the proper eagerness for vengeance, while in Romney's case it was the Giuliani campaign that did much the same. We can stipulate that campaigns themselves will take any and every opportunity to criticize their opponents. But reporters ought to have the capacity for judgment, to say to campaign flacks, "You know what? That's just silly. No, I'm not going to write a story about that."

Yet watching these episodes, you might think that the typical presidential decision-making process involves someone bursting into the Oval Office and saying, "Mr. President, we have to make a major policy decision with far-reaching implications in the next five seconds! The first thing that comes out of your mouth will be the only course of action we can follow! Three, two, one, zero!"

One of the consequences is that what actually ought to be gaffes -- statements that reveal something truly problematic about a candidate -- almost always get ignored. For instance, when John McCain said in the same debate, in response to a question about interest rates, "I wish interest rates were zero," one might have thought it would merit some notice. After all, the comment suggests an alarming ignorance of the most elementary economic principles (if interest rates were zero, no bank would lend any money), raising serious doubts about whether a person so uninformed should be in charge of the federal government. Or contrast what Romney got criticized for this week with a what he said back in May: "They want to bring down the West, in particular us. And they're coming together as Shia and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda, with that intent."

That someone who might actually be the president of the United States understands so little about the religious and political cleavages within the Muslim world is nothing short of terrifying. Does Mitt Romney actual think that Shia and Sunni are "coming together" to attack us? Does he believe that Hezbolla, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Qaeda even have similar goals, let alone are in some kind of alliance? If so, he isn't qualified to make photocopies in the Beirut embassy, let alone chart our nation's strategy to prevent terrorism. Yet that statement caused no flapping of gums on "Hardball," no wagging of fingers from the seasoned reporters like Dan Balz, no prodding from the pundits to get with the program already and act like a serious candidate.

Which brings us back to Al Gore. With the possible exception of Barry Goldwater thirty-six years before, no presidential candidate in the television age has been treated with the kind of naked contempt reporters heaped on Gore during his 2000 run. While they portrayed George W. Bush as an honest and genial fellow who was "comfortable in his own skin" if not the sharpest tool in the shed, Gore was ridiculed as a liar and a phony whose very desire to be president was disqualifying in and of itself.

The story of Gore's evisceration by the media has been told before (this article by Eric Boehlert is the definitive exploration of the campaign press' disdain for Gore; Robert Parry dissected the alleged Gore lies that never were). But just to get the flavor, consider that according to Mickey Kaus, reporters watching a primary debate between Gore and Bradley in an adjacent room actually booed and hissed when Gore spoke. "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 debate, CNN's William Schneider said Gore "even perspired, perhaps that was planned, to make himself look like a fighter." Yes, Al Gore is such a calculating fraud he can sweat at will.

Looking back on the press' shameful performance in 2000, and all that hasn't changed since, is particularly distressing when we take the full measure of Gore today. Apart from being experienced and knowledgeable, Gore was that rare thing among politicians, a true visionary. He was sounding the alarm about global warming two decades ago, when talking about such matters made one an object of ridicule. And no, he never claimed to have invented the Internet, but he was its principal congressional champion. When it was but a tiny network linking a few universities, Gore saw its potential and set about procuring federal funds for its expansion, talking with what others considered embarrassingly geeky enthusiasm about the possibility of an "information superhighway." And of course, he opposed the Iraq war in 2002 with a passion few Democrats had the courage to muster.

But as substantial as his legacy will be, for progressives, Gore will always be a living reminder of the theft of the 2000 election, that brazen assault on the integrity of the American political system carried out not by a few shady operatives but by the entire Republican establishment, up to and including Supreme Court justices whose commitment to the Constitution was easily cast off in an act of partisanship so shameless they felt the need to state in their written opinion that it should never be used as precedent. Progressives will always look at Gore and feel pain, because 2000 is a wound that will simply never heal, particularly so long as the consequences of George W. Bush's catastrophic presidency remain with us.

One can only marvel that Gore himself was able to go about his life after coming so close to the goal for which he had prepared since childhood, only to see it stolen by a band of thieves, their leader a man so obviously Gore's lesser in every way. But perhaps he can look to a fellow Nobel honoree, Oliver Smithies, for some perspective.

Smithies, who shared this year's Nobel Prize in medicine, told NPR that when he heard the news, he felt a "sense of peace rather than excitement." He devoted his life to science, achieved extraordinary advances in gene therapy, and knows that his work has made the world a better place. The prize no doubt was one more assurance that it was a life well spent. At 82, he still goes to his lab every day.

It's hard to know whether Gore feels the same sense of peace. But he certainly deserves it.

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