In his thoughtful new book, All the Truth Is Out, journalist Matt Bai says he can pinpoint the exact moment when the rules of politics changed, and “the nation and its media took a hard turn toward abject triviality.”
For Bai that moment came Saturday, May 2, 1987, when reporters from the Miami Herald — who had put the Democratic presidential front-runner Gary Hart under surveillance because of rumors (and an anonymous tip) about his cheating on his wife — cornered the candidate in an alley near his Washington town house and grilled him about his relationship with a pretty young blonde seen entering his house.
Eight days later, The Herald published a 7,000-plus-word, front-page piece reconstructing the events leading up to, and including, those Saturday night developments. The article would create a media firestorm — the kind with satellite trucks and herds of jostling reporters that would soon become ubiquitous — and lead to a circus-like news conference in New Hampshire, where a Washington Post reporter asked Hart what was then considered a shocking question: “Have you ever committed adultery?”
Five days after the Herald article, Hart withdrew from the race, his political career effectively over. In the public mind, the defining image would be a photo of Hart wearing a boat’s “Monkey Business Crew” T-shirt, sitting on a pier in the Bahamas with Donna Rice (the woman seen with him by the Miami Herald reporters) perched on his lap.
The spectacular collapse of Hart’s campaign was recorded in Richard Ben Cramer’s book What It Takes (1992), a classic campaign chronicle written with extraordinary verve and intimate, you-are-there details. But Bai, who admires Cramer as “one of the greatest nonfiction writers of this or any age,” wants to examine how the media feeding frenzy, which led to Hart’s fall, became a pivot point in American politics, forever altering the relationship between politicians and the press.
Increasingly, Bai observes, politicians “would retreat behind iron walls of bland rhetoric,” obsessed with optics and protected by consultants, while political journalism would become increasingly concerned “with exposing lies and unearthing character flaws, sexual or not.” There would be less focus on policy and ideas, and fewer contexts for mistakes and misunderstandings.
All of which, Bai goes on, “probably has some bearing on why, more than a quarter-century after Hart disappeared from political life, both our elected leaders and our political media have fallen so far in the esteem of voters who judge both to be smaller than the country deserves.”
Bai, a national political columnist for Yahoo News and a former political correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, writes in buoyant, vivid prose, and All the Truth Is Out gives the reader a visceral appreciation of how our political discourse has changed in the past two and a half decades, and how those changes reflect broader cultural and social shifts.
The book is not without its problems. There are times when the author’s high regard for Hart lapses into fan-boy adulation. Bai says he found Hart to be “probably the flat-out smartest politician I had ever met.”
The other odd thing about this book is that Bai postpones a serious comparison of Hart and Bill Clinton (which cannot help leaping into the reader’s mind from the very first page) until late in the volume, arguing that Clinton — in dealing with the Monica Lewinsky scandal — “knew exactly what to expect” and “had a better sense of how to navigate it — or, more precisely, how not to.”
Many of the attributes Bai praises in Hart mirror Clintonian qualities touted by the former president’s supporters — most notably, a gift for connecting “politics and culture and theology and history and technology seamlessly and all at once.” He also describes Hart as “the young, forward-thinking alternative to his party’s aging liberal establishment” in terms that make him sound uncannily like a harbinger of Clinton, who would evince a centrist “third way,” breaking with Democratic Party orthodoxy.
Crash and Burn
Why did Hart’s political career crash and burn, while Bill Clinton survived the Monica Lewinsky follies to become one of America’s most popular politicians?
Bai does a deft job here of parsing the dynamics between personality and politics, noting that Hart could be stubborn and arrogant — traits that did not serve him well with either the public or the press.
In the years since the Hart scandal, much has been written about the blurring of lines between news and entertainment and even more has been written about what Clinton has called “the politics of personal destruction.” Perhaps the Gary Hart story is more a point on a curve than an actual hinge moment. In these pages, Bai adroitly shows us how an array of forces was converging to change the dynamics of political coverage — most notably, a post-Watergate eagerness on the part of reporters to expose politicians’ secrets; satellite technology and cable news that would put politics on a 24/7 cycle; and a growing impulse in popular culture “toward gossip and ridicule.”
“What you can see now, some 25 years on,” he writes, “is that a series of powerful, external forces in the society were colliding by the late 1980s, and this was creating a dangerous vortex on the edge of our politics. Hart didn’t create that vortex. He was, rather, the first to wander into its path.”
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