TCS Daily

Pleading the Fifth Column

By James Pinkerton - December 4, 2002 12:00 AM

Maybe Al Gore ate some bad tofu. The Earth-in-the-Balancer has taken time out from his two-book media tour-which has given him fawning face time with Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, and just about every other major-media maven-to go "off message" and take a few swings at some relatively small media outlets, Fox News, The Washington Times, and Rush Limbaugh.

Isn't Gore supposed to be burnishing his credentials as a family man? So why take time off to play, instead, hatchet man? After all, Fox News, up-and-coming as it may be, is still dwarfed by the broadcast news channels. (Full disclosure: I'm a contributor to Fox News.) And The Washington Times-known to the outnumbered but unbowed band of Beltway conservatives as "The Good Times"-is tiny in comparison to The Washington Post. And yes, Rush Limbaugh has 20 million listeners, but if he was so all-powerful, how come Gore himself got 50 million votes in 2000? But maybe, just maybe, it's calculation, not indigestion, that's animating Gore.

To be sure, something has gotten under Gore's solar panel. And so while the former senator from Northwest Washington-oops, Tennessee-may still favor earth tones for clothing, his vocal tone is 100% Alpha male-or at least Alpha-male wannabe. It's one thing to say that Fox, The Times, and Rush are too conservative, too brash, too whatever. But it's quite another to say, as Gore said to The New York Observer, that these media outlets represent a "fifth column" in the Fourth Estate. Here's the full quote, from the November 27 edition of the Manhattan-based weekly:

Fox News Network, The Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh-there's a bunch of them, and some of them are financed by wealthy ultra-conservative billionaires who make political deals with Republican administrations and the rest of the media...Most of the media [have] been slow to recognize the pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranks-that is, day after day, injecting the daily Republican talking points into the definition of what's objective as stated by the news media as a whole.

"Fifth column." That's strong stuff, reaching back to the Spanish Civil War in the '30s, when the Madrid-based Loyalists, opposed to Gen. Francisco Franco's fascists, lamented that they were being attacked by four columns, from the north, the south, the east and the west. But, they said, the most dangerous column they confronted was the fifth column-the one in their midst, in the Spanish capital. Ever since, the "fifth column" has been code for fascist spies and saboteurs.

Now let's see here. Does the Fox/WT/Rush-complex advocate fascism? Didn't both parties in America unite to fight fascism in the '40s, and didn't 400,000 Americans die in that fighting? Does Gore really wish to equate elements of the media with such evil? Some might say that he is being irresponsible, that he's an anti-matter Joe McCarthy-recklessly throwing around charges while under the influence of some sort of intoxicant, be it ideological or alcohol-ogical. But nobody thinks of Gore as reckless or bibulous. Instead, the rap on him is quite the opposite, that he's so controlled and contrived that he reminds observers of the young Richard Nixon. Back then, in the '40s and '50s, "Tricky Dick" was notorious for his "sewer politics," for being a hurler of gutter-ball insinuations against Democratic opponents.

But Gore has escalated below that slimy level. Not only has he hurled tough imprecations at some in the media, but he's also trash-talked George W. Bush's America. "Our country is headed for very deep trouble," he told Time magazine earlier this month. Bush's economic agenda, he added, was "catastrophic," his foreign policy "horrible," his environmental stance "immoral." Smack. Pow.

Of course, not everyone agrees with Gore's assessment; in fact, most polls show the President's approval rating securely nestled in the 60s. But one group loves such shrillery: hard core Democrats, the kind of folks who happily troop through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire to participate in caucuses and to vote in primaries. Just like their Republican mirror-images across the partisan and ideological divide, these Democratic activists thrive on "red meat" rhetoric-even if they're vegetarians.

So perhaps the best parallel, in a looking-glass way, is between Gore at his goring-est and one of his rhetorically overkilling-est predecessors in the vice presidency, Spiro "nattering nabobs of negativism" Agnew. Agnew, who was Richard Nixon's #2 from 1969 to 1973, made himself polarizingly famous with his snappy-nasty references to "effete snobs" who "have a masochistic compulsion to destroy their country's strength." Not surprisingly, the left half of the country mostly hated him, but the right half mostly loved him-"Spiro our Hero." That intense support from the faithful was a change for Agnew, since he had been a liberal Republican from Maryland in the '60s. But his polemical pummeling, however opportunistic, annealed him to the right-wing fire-eaters, and so he was the strong favorite for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination until he was felled by a corruption scandal in the fall of '73. To be sure, Agnew's exuberant exhalations might have come to haunt him in the '76 general election, but the general rule for White House hopefuls is this: you have to get nominated before you can get elected. Accomplish the first mission, by any means necessary, and then worry about the second.

And so it is with Gore. His new policies seem to bolster that approach. In 1991, he supported George H.W. Bush's multilateral anti-Iraq coalition. But this September, the former senator from St. Albans-oops, Tennessee-traveled to San Francisco and denounced George W. Bush's handling of possible war with Iraq in impassioned "San Francisco Democrat" terminology, all without waiting to see whether Bush could secure war-support from such multilateral outfits as the United Nations Security Council and NATO-which, in fact, he did. And since the 2002 election, Gore has endorsed the "single payer"-the payer being Uncle Sam, with help from Auntie IRS-form of national health insurance. In other words, he now has the European-style Social Democrat stance on health care. So much, then, whatever pretensions Gore might have had, at one time or another in his multivariate career, for being a centrist "New Democrat." Gore now has a position well to the left of the position he took a decade ago, when he was Bill and Hillary's vice president.

By staking out such strong liberal-left positions-souped-up by Limbaugh-bashing-Gore is strengthening his front-runnership for the 2004 primary nomination. Indeed, a Washington Post poll released on November 29, showed Gore with the support of 49 percent of Democrats surveyed. The runner-up was Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, with just ten percent. Lieberman, of course, has said that he would not run for president if Gore decides to run again. In which case, Gore surges to 53 percent, according to the same poll, with Sen. Tom Daschle coming up next with just eight percent.

So yes, Gore might well be hurting his prospects for the 2004 general election, but so far at least, his left-base strategy is working fine. Moreover, no politician gets up in the morning unless he or she is endowed with a goodly degree of self-confidence. And so surely Gore sleeps with a White House strategy tucked under his pillow every night.

And if the strategy doesn't work, and Gore is through, presidentially? Then except for being four years older, he'll be no worse off for having made one more run than he is now.

Besides, as most retired politicians will say, one of the joys about being out of office is that one can finally say whatever one wishes, without having to worry about pollsters, handlers, and voters. So maybe Gore is thinking to himself, "Blasting my foes is a blast. It may help me get the nomination, even as it hurts me in November. But if I stake out my positions in bold colors, not pale pastels, even if I lose, I can still win. That is, if I can't gain the Oval Office, I can at least set myself up as another sharp-tongued rhetoricians-and maybe get the guest-host chair on 'Hannity & Colmes.'"

That may not be the best plan in the world, but at least it's a plan. Beats recycling and organic gardening. And who knows? It could garner for Gore a TV gig before Bill Clinton snags his.



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