The New Assault on Al Gore
An irony about Al Gore’s new book, The Assault on Reason, is that the former Vice President blames TV much more than the print media for America’s drift into the world of the irrational.
Yet, while author Gore has encountered mostly respectful interviews on TV, his book has been savaged by major newspapers and print reviewers, often distorting the contents and resurrecting one of the favorite press themes of Campaign 2000, that Gore is an obnoxious pedant.
Starting the ball rolling was a dismissively brief two-column review in the Washington Post’s Book World on May 27, largely ignoring what the book said while making clear that the Inside-the-Beltway hostility toward Gore endures.
“Al Gore possesses a skill that no other American politician can match – or would want to,” wrote Washington Post reviewer Alan Ehrenhalt. “He has a consistent ability to express fundamentally reasonable sentiments – often important ones – in ways that annoy the maximum possible number of people.”
But how Ehrenhalt ascertained that “the maximum number of people” felt annoyed by Gore’s book is not explained. Since the book had just hit the bookstores and no comprehensive public surveys were cited, Ehrenhalt appeared to be reflecting the conventional wisdom of the insular Washington dinner-party set, not the broader public.
Ehrenhalt also spotted Gore’s supposedly annoying personal traits in the global-warming documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which Ehrenhalt decried as “smug and self-centered” and guilty of having failed “to consider even moderately differing points of view,” though Ehrenhalt offers no examples of what should have been included.
New York Times columnist David Brooks picked up the assault with an op-ed on May 29 that accused Gore of writing long sentences. Brooks cherry-picked one verbose example from an otherwise highly readable book and then sneered: “But, hey, nobody ever died from contact with Gore’s pomposity.”
Brooks characterized Gore as an example of “exceedingly strange individuals [who] rise to the top.” Brooks called Gore “a radical technological determinist” who is more comfortable with machines than people.
To support this harsh judgment, Brooks cited Gore’s observation that the emergence of the printing press contributed to the rise of self-government, a view that is widely shared by historians but here is transformed into a reason for presenting Gore as wacky.
The rest of Brooks’s column about Gore’s book bears little resemblance to what I read. I found The Assault on Reason to be an intriguing, well-researched essay on how political demagogues, including members of the Bush administration, exploited America’s post-9/11 fears and waged an unprecedented attack on the Republic’s founding principles.
In the book, Gore urges the American people to resist irrational appeals and to reaffirm the nation’s commitment to the Constitution, the Bills of Rights and the rule of law. But none of that undeniable reality and reasonable advice shows up in Brooks’s New York Times column.
For his part, Brooks is famous for his semi-erotic man-love of George W. Bush, gushing after one meeting in September 2006 about how “every time I brush against Bush I’m reminded that this guy is different.”
“A leader’s first job is to project authority, and George Bush certainly does that,” Brooks wrote in praise of Bush’s animal magnetism. “Bush swallowed up the room, crouching forward to energetically make a point or spreading his arms wide to illustrate the scope of his ideas – always projecting confidence and intensity.” [NYT, Sept. 14, 2006]
To Brooks, Gore is the opposite. Instead of detecting Bush’s virility and leadership qualities, Brooks sees Gore as a cerebral weirdo who wants a “Vulcan Utopia” where “the upper, logical mind sits on top of, and should master, the primitive and more emotional mind below.” [NYT, May 29, 2007]
Yet, Brooks’s column could be cited as disproving at least one point in Gore’s book. It turns out that the written word can be as irrational as the content of any TV show.
The day after Brooks’s op-ed in the New York Times, Washington Post writer Dana Milbank also was portraying Gore as an overbearing smarty-pants in a Page-Two column entitled “Is It Wise to Be So Smart?”
“Reading Gore’s book, or listening to his speeches, may remind some [Gore] supporters what they liked least about him the first time he ran, in 2000. Gore is usually smart and sometimes prophetic – but, all too frequently, pedantic,” Milbank wrote.
Of course, The Assault on Reason might not remind Gore supporters of any such thing. Indeed, many Americans might be in the mood for a leader who actually knows stuff after six-plus years of listening to Bush speak in his trademark ill-informed didactic prose – and watching, in horror, the consequences.
But Milbank, like many Washington insiders, sees average Americans as stupid know-nothings who would be offended by know-it-all Gore.
“Imagine the Iowa hog farmer cracking open Assault on Reason, and meeting Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Paine, John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Lippmann, Johannes Gutenberg, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Jefferson and Marshall McLuhan – all before finishing the introduction,” Milbank wrote. [Washington Post, May 30, 2007]
In that line, Milbank reflected the elitist disdain toward the “Iowa hog farmer” and other common folk. But who knows? Maybe the great unwashed masses are smart enough to find Gore’s commentaries not only reasonable and engaging but respectful of their own intellects, that Gore is speaking up to them, not down to them.
As important as Gore’s new book may be – thoughtfully recounting the decline in reason inside the United States and the cheapening of American democracy – one legitimate complaint could be that Gore fails to fully recognize the crucial role of the print media in demeaning the nation’s political process.
From the anti-Gore “inventing the Internet”/“Love Canal” canards of 1999-2000 to Iraq’s “mushroom clouds” of 2002-03 to the infatuation with Bush’s “freedom agenda” in 2005, it has been the New York Times and the Washington Post, as much as Fox News and MSNBC, polluting the American democratic system with misinformation and lies.
While Gore is surely right that sitting in front of a television for four-and-a-half hours a day can’t help a person’s reasoning ability, it wouldn’t be much better to spend that time perusing the neocon editorials in The New Republic and The Weekly Standard – or reading the early coverage of the Iraq War in the Times and the Post.
Even during the 1980s when I was reporting on the conflicts in Central America for the Associated Press and Newsweek, I often found that the more Americans read about those issues in the prestige publications the less they knew – or, put differently, the more falsehoods they believed to be true.
That was because managing the perceptions of the Washington insider class was one of the early goals of the neoconservatives whose Straussian theories about information management were just taking hold in the nation’s capital.
By manipulating how key insiders saw things, the neocons knew they could influence the broader public that would read opinion columns and listen to many of the same pundits reprising their opinions on TV talk shows. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History or Secrecy & Privilege.]
Before long those prevailing Washington opinions would solidify into conventional wisdom and filter down to a broader spectrum of Americans who thought they were in the know because they kept up with the news and tuned in the pundit shows.
By Campaign 2000, this process had grown so immune from normal journalistic standards that political reporters felt no inhibitions from the traditional rules of objectivity to refrain from mocking Al Gore and even falsifying his comments.
At an early Democratic debate between Gore and his rival, Sen. Bill Bradley, the campaign press corps watching on a closed-circuit television collectively groaned and hooted when Gore spoke.
Though U.S. history was at a crucial juncture in 2000, the Washington press – led by print reporters more than their TV counterparts – transformed Gore into an unappealing caricature as a lying braggart. Simultaneously, most journalists depicted George W. Bush sympathetically as a natural leader and a straight shooter, albeit a bit inarticulate.
Without this pervasive media hostility toward Gore and fondness for Bush, it’s hard to imagine that Bush could have crept so close in the election that his powerful allies could award him the White House despite Gore winning the national popular vote.
Despite gracefully accepting the judgment of five pro-Bush partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court, Gore remained the butt of press ridicule.
So, in fall 2002 when Gore warned about the dangers of invading Iraq, his comments were ignored by the big newspapers except to the degree they were selectively trashed by columnists. [For details on this earlier press treatment of Gore, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The U.S. News Media’s War on Gore.”]
Even now, after grudging recognitions that Gore was often right and even prescient, the major news media still can’t let go of its reflexive habit of demeaning him, like a junior-high in-crowd forever making fun of some well-meaning nerd.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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