Sunday, February 10, 2008

Earth Tone Al

Al Gore in earth tonesThere is no new column by Maureen Dowd today, so it’s a good chance to ransack the New York Times archives and put to rest some canards about Dowd. As the Democratic primary season warms up, the blogging masses are already heating up the tar and plucking the chickens to scapegoat Maureen for sabotaging the election as she allegedly did in 2000 to Al Gore. The Dowd Report is on the record about her lack of culpability in Gore’s inept tin-eared campaign.

Every time Dowd’s name is mentioned in the blogosphere, one particular smear gets Pavlovianly raised: Maureen Dowd tagged Gore as “Earth-Tone Al” by relentlessly ridiculing him on his fashion choices. The truth is more nuanced and Dowd’s role is far littler than her rabid haters would have us believe.

No blog has worked harder to document the media’s supposed culpability in Gore’s defeat than the Daily Howler. For the truly wonkish, feel free to wade through the exhaustive multi-part series that excruciatingly documents the obsession over the press’s obsession with Gore’s wardrobe. I intend to focus on Dowd’s contribution, but first a little background is required.

One of the campaign advisors Al Gore hired for his 2000 run was Naomi Wolf. This was reported in the November 1, 1999 issue of Time magazine by Jessica Reeves which was the first connection of "eart tones" with Gore and Wolf:

Oh, those elusive women voters: So crucial, so mercurial, so drawn to earth tones. It's a good thing Al Gore has secured the services of feminist commentator and author Naomi Wolf to guide him through the minefield of the second sex's voting patterns. Gore 'fessed up this weekend to hiring Wolf for a reported initial salary of $15,000 a month — although her pay was recently cut to $5,000 a month — calling her a "valued advisor." The best-selling author of "The Beauty Myth" and "Promiscuities" is said to advise Gore on issues ranging from escaping his "beta-male" caste to adopting a more "reassuring" wardrobe palette in order to heighten his attractiveness to women (hence the recent influx of greens and browns).
A week later, a much more detailed Time article by Michael Duffy any Karen Tumulty became Ground Zero of the Earth Tone meme. Here are a few of the more relevant quotes:
You won't find her anywhere on the Al Gore campaign roster. Nor is she listed in the internal campaign budget, where she appears only as "consultant." Yet the mere mention of her name has a way of rendering campaign officials nearly speechless. One offered only that she was "helping out" on "outreach." Another adviser downplayed her as a "wardrobe consultant."

Sources tell TIME that since Gore 2000 set up shop in January, Wolf has been paid a salary of $15,000 a month--all quietly funneled through a web of Gore-campaign subcontractors--in exchange for advice on everything from how to win the women's vote to shirt-and-tie combinations.

Wolf made her first foray into presidential politics in 1995, as an adviser to Clinton's own once secret consultant, Dick Morris.
Dick Morris is often cited as being the secret back-stabbing source behind the accusation of Naomi Wolf as being just a fashion consultant.

By now, the Gore/Wolf connection is all over the news with pieces in the New York Times and Slate detailing her very out of the mainstream new-agey opinions. Maureen Dowd's November 3, 1999 column cites both earlier Time articles:
Time magazine revealed that Al Gore hired Ms. Wolf, who has written extensively on women and sexual power, as a $15,000-a-month consultant to help him with everything from his shift to earth tones to his efforts to break with Bill Clinton.

"Wolf has argued internally that Gore is a 'beta male' who needs to take on the 'alpha male' in the Oval Office before the public will see him as the top dog," write Time's Michael Duffy and Karen Tumulty.

Of course, when a man has to pony up a fortune to a woman to teach him how to be a man, that definitely takes the edge off his top-dogginess.
So let's see how Dowd is to blame for the Wolf whistle-blowing. One, Dowd just cites previous reporting and makes no new claims about Wolf’s role in the Gore campaign. Two, the real issue wasn’t whether Wolf gave Gore fashion advice, it was that Gore went to such a far-out flake for any advice whatsoever.

When it comes to real reporting, Maureen Dowd sat down with Al Gore and had this synopsis in her November 10, 1999 column:
So Al and I are dishing about clothes.

I figured if I covered politics long enough, I'd have uncomfortable moments when a president or vice president would want to hash over something I didn't know much about, like helium reserves or the money supply.

Nah. With this White House, I'm safe. The deeply important issues are sex and clothes.

I ask the vice president about his new color palette. He's in his casual uniform, a blue shirt to bring out his eyes, a heathery brown sweater, khakis and black cowboy boots.

"Tipper picks out my clothes," he says quickly, before I have a chance to mention That Woman Naomi.
There you have it. Al Gore less than categorically denies that Naomi Wolf gave him wardrobe advice. Of all the media frenzy over the beta-sheep in Wolf’s clothing, Dowd actually got the word from the horse’s mouth. But more importantly, HE WEARS EARTH TONES!

It’s tough to deny that in the 2000 campaign, the very phrase “earth tones” became shorthand for “obsequious pandering in an attempt to portray a folksy, feminist-friendly regular guy and not at all a stiff robotic wonk.” Maureen Dowd herself stayed fairly far away from this broad brushing. For the next year, “earth tones” appears in her columns only a couple of times. On November 24, 1999, Dowd uses the phrase to kick-off coverage of Hillary Clinton’s presidential senatorial campaign:
We knew she was running when she showed up in earth tones.

Like Al Gore, Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped onto the stage in New York all toasty-looking in a brown suit. ''So the answer is yes,'' she said with a huge smile, like a blushing fiancee.
On May 17, 2000, she uses a call out in one of her trademarked faux-soliloquies to suggest maybe he needs to act tougher instead of softer:
Do women prefer bad boys? Is that what this is all about? Fine. I can be a bad boy. I can do a bad, bad thing.

Note to self: Drop the earth tones. Buy a black leather jacket.
She goes to that well again on August 23, 2000 with this Fake Al Gore thought:
What do I have now that I didn't have before? Which new me works best for me? Were they wowed by Wednesday's earth tones or Thursday's business attire? Do they prefer Al the Lover to Al the Fighter? L.A. Al must not revert to D.C. Al!

I must focus-group myself. The important thing is not to panic. There's a throb in my deltoid. I'll pop an Altoid. But I need a factoid.
In both cases, the emphasis is on Gore’s over-emphasis on honing his image to broaden his appeal, particularly with women. This image stuck and George Bush successfully used Gore’s poor choice in consultants against Gore. As noted by Maureen Dowd on October 25, 2000 near the eve of the election and nearly a year after the first murmurings of Wolf’s influence, W is able to paint Gore as an emasculated slave of soothsayers:
And W. is still milking the flap over Naomi Wolf's alpha-male advice to Mr. Gore, the spectacle of a woman instructing a man how to be a man.

At the Al Smith dinner, Mr. Bush joked that he had run into a woman coming off the elevator at the Waldorf, "I think her name is Naomi or something like that," who had suggested that he wear more earth tones, less white tie.

"Can you imagine a grown man," he asked to the roar of the crowd, "paying $15,000 for somebody to tell you what to wear?"
If anything, Dubya owes Dick Morris for handing him this character defining faux pas.

Let’s recap. Time Magazine reports that Gore pays Wolf fifteen grand a month for consulting, which may or may not include fashion advice. Maureen Dowd comments on the kerfuffle and makes a handful of off-hand references to “earth-tones” in the context of nearly a hundred columns and over 80,000 words. That hardly qualifies as relentless harping.

Gore ran the most incompetent election campaign by an incumbent vice-president since Nixon in ’64 and lost in the closest election ever. Dowd didn’t hire Wolf. And whatever Gore paid for her wisdom, it seemed to have backfired fatally. Let's start blaming the naked emperor for listening to the fashion advice (metaphorical or actual) of ridiculous consultants and not blame the commenter in the crowd that sees through the pretense.

Democrats seem to like to kill the messenger when it's the principal that is the problem. So quit blaming Dowd for noticing the hole Gore dug himself into.

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