Gillespie, Nick, Reason
What Gore's winning storyline tells us about politicians
As I write this, Al Gore, after being down by as many as 15 percentage points, is running neck and neck with George W. Bush in most national polls. More important, perhaps, he is being treated with newfound deference by the press. Over the past few months, he has metamorphosed from an overbearing, barely animated beta-male into a dedicated, savvy pol who even exudes a glamorous whiff of tragedy. However long- or short-lived Gore's successful makeover turns out to be, it is worth puzzling over, as it suggests just how expert politicians are at adapting their personal storylines to changing circumstances--and just how critically the public must read such narratives.
In 1998, I went to a workshop attended by a number of editors, writers, and publishers of high-profile national publications. Though the workshop had nothing to do with politics--it was a nuts-and-bolts look at how to launch new and to improve existing publications--I had a number of conversations there that led me to conclude that the Washington press corps would attack Gore relentlessly as he tried to make his move into the White House. The reason for the hostility? The vice president has a terrible reputation for being extremely ham-handed when it comes to managing his press coverage.
In a session on "ethical dilemmas" in publishing, the editor of a major women's magazine related an incident in which the magazine was interviewing the wife of a "big-shot politician" prior to a much-ballyhooed conference on raising children. In the question-and-answer period that followed, the editor allowed that the figures under discussion were Tipper and Al Gore. During the interview, Tipper Gore voluntarily brought up some difficult, highly publicized problems she'd had with her own children, most memorably the time one of her underage daughters was accused of drinking in public and mouthing off to the cops. Shortly after conducting the interview, but before it ran, the magazine got a furious call from one of the vice president's people, screaming that if any of the sensitive material saw print, the magazine would not only be disinvited to the kids conference, but would never again have access to any White House or administration figures.
Curiously, the ethical quandary the editor offered up for discussion was essentially, How quickly do you fold under such pressure while maintaining the smallest shred of professional integrity? (Such are the concerns of access journalism.) In the discussion that followed, I brought up widely circulated--and in England, published--stories about the vice president's son being caught using drugs in 1996 and suspended from school as a result. (Tipper had somehow failed to mention that difficulty during her interview.) As James Adams put it in an October 13, 1996, London Times story, "Reporters all knew[ldots]that Albert Gore III, the 13-year-old son of the vice-president, had been suspended from school earlier this year for smoking marijuana. A tearful phone call by Gore to senior editors [at The Washington Post] ensured the story was never published."
Forget about the on-the-record responses of the Second Lady, I suggested. Didn't journalists have a duty to report on such actions, especially when the politicians involved are hypocritically prosecuting a drug war that arrests less-well-connected kids for similar behavior? Most of the people in the room scoffed at the idea on the grounds that Albert III was not a public figure (though his father regularly uses him as a campaign prop) and that such stories would surely "ruin" the boy's future (a laughable suggestion, and one that ignores kids whose lives actually have been ruined by policies supported by Gore). Once the session was over, however, two writers for a large newspaper with a national readership (not The Washington Post) told me separately that their publication's gossip columnist was set to run a piece on the story until their publisher got a call from the vice president as well. …