Standing Up for Gore

Comedian Bob Somerby feels the media aren't giving the vice president or the issues a fair shake, so he is coming, very seriously, to the candidate's defense.

February 22, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Waiting in the Green Room for his five-minute appearance on one of Fox News Channel's political chat shows, Bob Somerby glances up at the TV as it promotes his upcoming spot: "Al Gore's college friend says he's not a liar."

"College friend?" Somerby mutters. He prefers the label "press critic." Oh well, he shrugs in resignation. He knows that's his cachet, his calling card, these days.

Back at Harvard in the late '60s, back when they both had far more hair and spontaneity, Somerby and Gore were indeed friends -- suitemates, in fact, along with actor Tommy Lee Jones. They went on double-dates, played touch football, debated what to do about the draft.

But these days, the Baltimore schoolteacher turned stand-up comedian has refashioned himself once again as an ombudsman of the presidential campaign -- a self-appointed one, make no mistake. And if there's confusion about his role -- about whether he's one of the bevy of Gore defenders on the airwaves these days or, as he insists, an objective press critic -- it's because much of his recent criticism of the press is criticism of the coverage of Gore.

"I think the Gore coverage has been outrageous," Somerby says in one of his milder jabs. "The negative coverage of Gore has been the most striking story of the campaign. I think the work is astonishingly bad. I think these people are just imbeciles."

Somerby, 52, known to much of Baltimore as a stand-up comedian who ran the Charm City Comedy Club in the mid-1980s, has become a sort of James Carville (minus the sound-bites, Cajun drawl and Republican wife) of the Gore campaign.

Without a trace of the humor one might expect from a guy who's made a living getting laughs on everything from cereal to Kierkegaard, he calls reporters when he feels their stories are unfair or inaccurate, writes elaborate letters to the editor, appears on radio and cable news talk shows.

And, putting his comedy career on the back-burner for now, he spends his days pulling together a decidedly non-humorous Web site called "The Daily Howler," in which he dissects media reports about the presidential campaign with vicious sarcasm, unvarnished contempt and, at times, a valid point.

Although he occasionally criticizes coverage of the other three major presidential candidates -- and peppers his columns with all-purpose grenades against what he calls the "hapless," "clueless" and "noxious" celebrity press corps or "CelebCorps" -- Somerby unsheathes his longest knives for those writing about his college buddy.

He rails against pieces asserting that Gore was a product of an elite Washington upbringing, pointing to the vice president's summers on the Tennessee farm cleaning out hog parlors and feeding livestock. He disputes reports that Gore has a habit of exaggerating his role, insisting the vice president really was, in part, the model for the protagonist in Erich Segal's "Love Story," as he once claimed, and noting that Gore was misquoted when describing his involvement in uncovering the Love Canal hazardous waste site.

Recently, Somerby lambasted journalists for citing Gore's choice of polo shirts and sweaters on the stump as evidence of a campaign makeover.

"The press corps still hasn't bothered to explain the Gore-Bradley health plan debate," Somerby wrote in a Valentine's Day dispatch about the clothes. "But they have thoroughly spun and dissembled on this. Citizens should be repelled and disgusted. These, by the way, are the same concerned people who just can't stand the way Gore spins and lies."

Call this the unauthorized Gore campaign.

The early years

When Somerby started his vociferous defense of Gore about a year ago, he called the campaign to make sure Gore had no objections. He had none, but neither has he asked his college roomie to hit the campaign trail for him.

Somerby and Gore shared a suite of rooms with six others, including Tommy Lee Jones, during all but their first year of college. The two were never soulmates, says Somerby. But they were close enough to double-date (Gore with Tipper, Somerby with Tipper's college roommate) and, with Jones, put on a show at a coffee shop at Wellesley College in honor of Somerby's grandfather Rufus, a traveling showman.

As Somerby recalls (and he's got the playbill to prove it), Gore played the medicine man, picking up a frayed tweed suit at the local Goodwill and bottling a magic elixir. But this being college, Gore and Jones sampled the bottled brew on the way to the show and, says Somerby, "got quite drunk."

At show time, the confused ladies of Wellesley watched as a melancholic Gore took the stage and told tales of his childhood in Tennessee, followed by Jones who regaled the crowd with embellished stories of his Texas youth.

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