This article originally appeared on Slate.
There are many reasons modern presidential campaigns are so dreadful. The cable-news appetite for conflict and gaffes, the perpetual outrage of ideologues, the superficiality of the candidates' positions, the torrents of money that pay for non-stop political advertisements--the most witless form of political communication there is. Public apathy should be included on this list, but given the above litany, who can blame anyone for tuning out?
And so it is a perfect time for All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, Matt Bai's book about the collapse of Gary Hart's 1987 presidential campaign. That's the moment, Bai argues, that the presidential-campaign train skipped the tracks and whistled into the ravine. From that time on, only a new breed of craven politician could survive a press gauntlet that had become focused on entertainment rather than issues.
In the spring of '87, Hart, the two-term senator from Colorado, was considered a favorite for the Democratic nomination. But in early May, the Miami Herald reported that he had been spending time with Donna Rice, a 29-year-old actress and model who wasn't his wife. The news seemed to corroborate longstanding rumors about Hart's extra-marital affairs. A five-day media feeding frenzy followed, including a press conference where Hart was asked if he had committed adultery. Hart then learned that the Washington Post was preparing a story about his affair with a lobbyist, and he withdrew from the race. After the disclosure, a famous picture emerged of Rice sitting on Hart's lap, drinks in hand. The candidate wears a shirt with the name of the boat on which they took an overnight cruise: Monkey Business.
Bai considers Hart "as sincere, patriotic, and thoughtful a man as I haveencountered in American politics," and he wonders what kind of a system could discard a man of such quality so quickly for such trivial reasons. His book feels at times like a cri de coeur about the presidential campaign process, a process in which many of the big players have lost sight of what matters most. I recognize the feeling. During the last campaign, I made my own book-length attempt to explain how our presidential campaigns had gone off track and offered a theory about what the press, the voters, and the candidates could do to improve the conversation.
But Bai doesn't just make an argument: He tells the juicy Hart story all over again, right down to the oil-stained alley in which reporters cornered the candidate and interrogated him about the blonde in his apartment. It's a story he tells well, with lots of patient, rich reporting and real sympathy for its main character. And watching the author try to wrestle with what's in bounds and what's out of bounds echoes what reporters were trying to do at the time.
Bai's central claim is that the reporters covering Hart got the balance way out of whack. The alley where they cornered him after staking out his apartment to see if Rice spent the night is ground zero. The press no longer covered issues but became more interested in tabloid pursuits. Individual reporters wanted to become the next Woodward or Bernstein. They justified the whole business by claiming they were looking into "character," an arrogant pursuit that put the press in the role of scold and moral judge. According to Bai, the "very purpose of political journalism" was "redefined." And it was a point of no return.
But Bai's thesis downplays a less venal explanation for what drove reporters overboard: They thought they were doing their job.
Character was a big issue in the '87 race because a combination of history and Democrats--including Hart himself--had made it one. Presidents of both parties had lied about Vietnam. Nixon's lies about Watergate had gotten him kicked out of office. "In 1972 the American people had their worst fears confirmed about the lengths to which corrupt men will go to preserver power," Hart wrote in Right From the Start, his book about that year's presidential race. Saving the country from such corrupt men became a key topic of political debates and a key Democratic Party talking point. That's why Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign pledge, "I won't lie to you," worked. In 1984, Mondale had used vague character claims in his race against Hart in the presidential race, and in 1987, the issue of honesty was on the table again, as voters wondered whether Reagan had lied about the arms-for-hostages swap that became known as the Iran Contra affair.
Voters couldn't just take a politician's word for it or pore over his white papers. They needed to examine his character. Nixon had campaigned on getting out of Vietnam, after all.
The precedent for the personal becoming political was one with which Hart was familiar. He had been George McGovern's campaign manager. He had watched the campaign crumble after reports emerged that McGovern's running mate, Thomas Eagleton, had been hospitalized for mental health treatment. Hart's account of the flap in Right From the Start often sounds like Bai's description of what happened to Hart himself 15 years later. The Eagleton story started with an anonymous tip, as the Hart story did. It became, as Hart describes it, "the hottest news story in years." As the campaign scrambled to find answers, Hart says "this had never happened before; no one knew the rules." But that's not exactly true: The Eagleton flap echoes what George Romney went through in '67 after saying that he had been "brainwashed" about Vietnam. Eagleton lashed out at the press, as Hart would later do. But ultimately he resigned. In Hart's view, the episode destroyed McGovern's chance at the presidency. It makes no sense that a presidential candidate should be written off after such an episode. But those were the blunt rules of the politics of the personal.
Campaigns have always narrowed complex people down to little moments. That happens, in part, because voters key in on the kind of personal details that are the most immediately familiar to them. In retrospect, some of the critical turning points in campaigns seem ridiculous. Was Muskie really hurt in New Hampshire because he seemed to cry? Did Nixon really save his reputation in 1952 by talking about his wife's cloth coat? Did Ford really lose the Texas primary to Reagan because he ate a tamale with the husk still on? Carter admitted that he "lusted in his heart" in 1976, but that couldn't possibly have been important to anyone.
The chance for a personal trait to define a candidate beyond all reason was well in place before Hart's troubles. Indeed, the lingering fallout from Ted Kennedy's 1969 car accident at Chappaquiddick, which killed his date Mary Jo Kopechne, was one of the reasons Kennedy did not run--and that Hart was thus a frontrunner--in 1987.
What changed in Hart's case was that the hunt into the personal started to include investigations into sexual indiscretions--and that such hunts now included staking out the candidate in his apartment. Wilbur Mills' affair with a stripper had ended his career in 1974, but that was because a drunken Mills had crashed his car into the Tidal Basin, not because the press had set up a sobriety test. In 1980, the Union Leader in New Hampshire single-handedly destroyed Philip Crane's presidential chances by reporting rumors of his infidelity--three years later, Crane would be caught having an affair with a congressional page--but that newspaper's publisher was likely angry that Crane was running against fellow conservative Ronald Reagan.
Still, in the Hart episode, reporters went a little further down a well-worn road--they didn't blaze a new trail. And how exactly the press went as far as it did is complex in other ways. Hart famously said, "Follow me around. I don't care. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'd be very bored." As Bai notes, that quote came out at the same time as the Miami Herald story about Rice, so no journalist could claim they were simply taking up the candidate on his challenge. Still, Hart had been telling reporters on and off the record for months that there was nothing to sordid claims about his past. When there was suddenly evidence he was fooling around in real time, it's likely that reporters felt duped and let him have it in extra measure as retribution for trying to hoodwink them.
It's possible, then, that the media's failure in the Hart matter was like Hart's admitted adultery: a regrettable episode of excess for which some context is required before making a sweeping judgment--especially since, unlike Hart, the press was motivated at least in some fashion by a sense of duty. The Miami Herald's Tom Fiedler, who broke the Hart story, doesn't come off well in Bai's book. But a week before Fiedler got the anonymous tip about Rice, he wrote a long piece about the propriety of investigating a politician's sex life. That piece suggests he wasn't racing to examine personal character, or he was at least conflicted about doing so.
If Bai's thesis were true--if all the rules of political journalism were changed and privacy obliterated by a new and impossibly narrow definition of character--we'd expect every candidate to be forced to answer the Kinsey survey. But, in part because the press realized that it had gone too far in the Hart and Clinton years, plenty of stories in the years since that should have had tabloid appeal didn't cause feeding frenzies. The rethinking started almost immediately. The Post never ran the story about Hart's relationship with the lobbyist even though he re-joined the presidential race several months after he dropped out.
The governor of New York got damning coverage when he was linked to a prostitution ring--but the reporters weren't in the alley, the FBI was. Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain were all admitted adulterers when they ran for president. They weren't pressed terribly hard during their campaigns about what that said about their character. What little coverage there was of their romantic lives came and went quickly without any satellite trucks on their lawns. Erik Wemple remembers how news organizations chose not to dig into allegations about Bob Dole's private life. Reporters covering Gingrich knew he was having an affair while pushing for Clinton's impeachment--and they didn't write about it. Some reporters say they knew about John Edwards' affair while it was going on. It didn't come to light until afterward.
That's not to say the press hasn'tnoticeably mutated, but it's for other reasons. The mutations--the rise of 24-hour cable news, social media, and hyper-partisanship--weren't really a factor in Hart's case. Cable news, which really blossomed after Hart, thrives by keeping viewers on the boil, arguing over the latest controversy or buzzy development. There's plenty to cover because partisans are in a state of perpetual outrage whether there is good reason to be or not. The fight is the thing and everything is a fight. Unlike in '87, there's not even a flawed journalistic precept to justify a lot of current coverage--anything related to Donald Trump, for example. Other calorie-free moments: a Mitt Romney aide using the term "Etch a Sketch,"which gave birth to hours of news and analysis; a tweet about Ann Romney by a Democratic strategist--not affiliated with any campaign--which was extensively discussed. A cable news producer once woke me up to find out if I'd come in to talk about what it meant that a John McCain supporter had referred to Hillary Clinton as a "bitch" in a conversation with him. And these are just the post-Hart changes in the press. Other big changes in the system that give us our current disappointments include everything from the rise of campaign strategists to the flood of special-interest money.
Since Hart's fall, Bai writes, "the measure of a leader became his hunger for the game, his talent for dazzling crowds." Americans, says Bai, have come "to confuse actual leadership with the capacity to endure and entertain." Such confusion does occur, but it has been occurring for quite some time. It's been that way by increasing degrees since it became accepted for candidates to campaign for themselves. That was a century ago. H.L. Mencken made a career out of lampooning politicians who only played to the crowd. He died three decades before anyone had heard of Donna Rice.
Presidential campaigns have always been as much or more about who a candidate is than what they say, but it's a tricky thing to evaluate a presidential candidate, because successful presidential characteristics always have a negative side lingering nearby. Self-confidence can become hubris, focus can become insularity. Almost all great presidents were complex and contained traits that would disqualify them in today's frantic world. Lincoln had severe bouts of crippling depression. FDR lied often and was a needy adulterer. George Washington could be an unhinged hothead. Oh, and Richard Nixon had a clean private life. Bai's important call for perspective is a reminder to all of us in the press and the electorate to recognize the complexity of the human condition, whether we're casting aside candidates because they wear a funny helmet in a tank or because they once committed adultery. Whether that would have helped Hart become president or not, it might have kept him from exile.