In a box seat above the stage of the Apollo Theater, Spike Lee enjoyed a perfect view of the Democratic Presidential debate on Feb. 21, and those sitting in the orchestra needed only to glance left and upward for a perfect view of Mr. Lee. Not one to conceal his emotions at any sporting event, the filmmaker cheered Bill Bradley and jeered Al Gore with the same antic partisanship he brings to his courtside appearances at Madison Square Garden. His presence certainly encouraged the Bradley supporters in the crowd.
About halfway through the Apollo show, Mr. Lee himself looked a bit discouraged-but he hastened to the spin session afterward to declare his man the winner. Echoing Mr. Bradley’s latest theme, he told reporters that Mr. Gore “is constantly trying to run away from his past.”
As the former Senator from New Jersey himself put it, the Vice President was a “conservative Congressman” beloved by the gun lobby and the antiabortion movement. Yet even if Mr. Bradley really believes his own silly rhetoric about his opponent-whose lifetime voting record actually differs very little from his own, and in some respects is more liberal-he forthrightly acknowledged that he would endorse Mr. Gore should the Vice President win the Democratic nomination.
That honorable concession was buried or ignored in most press accounts. It doesn’t encourage the kind of conflict that the political media tend to highlight, and it probably dismayed reporters who were hoping that Mr. Bradley would intensify his attacks on Mr. Gore.
Certainly that seemed to be the cue from both CNN analyst Jeff Greenfield and Time correspondent Karen Tumulty, who challenged Mr. Bradley to say plainly whether or not he believed the Vice President is morally fit to hold the nation’s highest office. Having declared more than once that Mr. Gore is a “liar,” Mr. Bradley had invited exactly such questions. His prudent hesitation when called upon to state the logical conclusion of those remarks may well have marked the beginning of the end of his campaign.
If Mr. Bradley truly believes that Mr. Gore is a “conservative Democrat” who “cannot be trusted,” then his conditional endorsement of the Vice President makes little sense.
More likely, the challenger is hoping to have it both ways. He knows that some prominent pundits have repeatedly attacked the Vice President’s veracity, and that he is the direct beneficiary of a lingering animus felt by many Washington journalists toward the Clinton-Gore Administration. To whatever extent possible, it is in his interest to amplify those attacks and cater to that animus.
Facing a highly partisan Democratic audience like the crowd at the Apollo, however, Mr. Bradley wisely backed off a little. While reading his own press clippings may convince him that the electorate is suffering from “Clinton fatigue,” opinion surveys that show Mr. Gore with a growing lead suggest a very different conclusion: that being the favorite of the Beltway press is no guarantee of political success.
For months, leading pundits have wishfully treated the Vice President’s every gaffe and mistake as if his doom were imminent. Supposedly impartial reporters for major newspapers have invented quotes and facts that make Mr. Gore seem to be exaggerating his own achievements. A glaring example occurred after Mr. Gore appeared at a school in Concord, N.H., where an innocuous reply to a student’s question was transformed by reporters for The New York Times and The Washington Post into a false boast about Mr. Gore’s work on Superfund legislation in Congress.
When the students checked the tape of Mr. Gore’s visit, they discovered that both newspapers had misquoted him-inciting tendentious commentary by the Republican National Committee and every televised windbag who depends on the accuracy of the newspapers of record, even after The Times and The Post admitted their mistakes.
In addition to an exposé on Bob Somerby’s web site, Dailyhowler.com, that incident also was the subject of a remarkable broadcast on the National Public Radio program “This American Life.” The NPR show’s sensitive interviews with many of the Concord students provided a clue about why Mr. Gore’s position continues to improve. Whatever they may think about the current occupants of the White House, the students sounded more disillusioned about the press than the politicians.
Few Americans have had such a startling firsthand experience with the media at its worst. But many have apparently learned to discount for the anti-Clinton bias that so gratingly intruded upon coverage of the Starr report and the impeachment fiasco. And most citizens seem aware that the persistent media portrayal of Mr. Gore as an unscrupulous fibber is unfair.
In the act of denigrating the Vice President, the media may have energized him. And in anointing Mr. Bradley, they may well have impaired the very “authenticity” for which they praised him.