Like many aspirants to the presidency, former Sen. Gary Hart saw himself in epic terms — as a "transformational figure" in American politics, Matt Bai reports in his book recounting the collapse of Hart's 1988 bid for the presidency.
Bai appears to agree. His book "All the Truth Is Out" — the title comes from a poem by William Butler Yeats on a man ennobled by defeat — takes a finely detailed account of Hart's downfall and wraps it in the trappings of classical tragedy. It's an odd fit.
For those who have forgotten Hart entirely or have never known his story (a group that likely includes most Americans younger than 45): The senator from Colorado lost the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination to Walter F. Mondale. After Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan in a landslide, Hart emerged as a clear favorite for his party's 1988 nomination, the candidate of new ideas for a new generation of Democrats.
Then it all fell apart. Weeks after Hart announced his candidacy in April 1987, reporters from the Miami Herald staked out Hart's townhouse near the Capitol, acting on a tip that remained anonymous until Bai tracked down the source for this book. They saw Hart enter with a beautiful young woman, later identified as Donna Rice, and wrote a story that brought to the surface years of rumors about the married Hart's affairs with other women. Within five days, Hart had quit the race.
A few months later, he tried to rejoin the fray, meeting widespread ridicule, capped by a devastating David Letterman jibe: "In, out, in, out — isn't that what got him in trouble in the first place?" Hart never recovered.
Bai, a Yahoo News columnist and former political correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, tells the story with details that only great reporting can provide. His interviews with former campaign aides vividly depict life amid a media frenzy. Interviews with the key reporters illuminate the debates in major newsrooms over the propriety of the Herald's stakeout and the relevance of sexual misconduct to a presidential campaign.
In a fascinating bit, Bai reports that Hart was saved from financial ruin by none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, who used his position as head of the Soviet Union to steer business to Hart's legal practice, repaying a friendship.
And Rice herself comes across as a woman who endured public humiliation with dignity, then rebuilt her life.
Had Bai written about only that, he would have produced an excellent yarn for those who love American politics.
Bai, however, sees more in the story. Hart's saga, he insists, marked a transformational moment at which "the very purpose of political journalism … [was] redefined" and American politics descended into a vortex of trivialization that warped the very conception of presidential leadership.
Ever after, Bai says, "the measure of a leader became his hunger for the game, his talent for dazzling crowds." Americans, he said, "came to confuse actual leadership with the capacity to endure and entertain."
Unfortunately, Hart's tale is too slight a vessel to carry such freight. Bai's reporting cannot fail to impress; his larger thesis does not.
Yes, as Bai says, political reporters in the 1960s and 1970s had far more access to candidates. Today's overscripted politicians stay ever more distant from anyone who might ask them questions. Undoubtedly, the public has lost as a result.
Hart's downfall marked a milestone on that path, but it was hardly the prime mover. The rise of instant communication and the democratization of the media ended the power of a few reporters and editors to quash stories they viewed as trivial or improper. That process, however, began before 1988 and would have continued even if Hart had never met Rice.
Moreover, Bai has a weak case in arguing that forcing candidates to reveal more of their private lives has chased strong leaders from the field. Does anyone really believe that the four presidents before Hart's second run — Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan — were indisputably better than those who followed — the two George Bushes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama?
Bai also vastly overstates the case in portraying Hart as a candidate who almost certainly would have won the presidency but for the scandal. Hart clearly led the Democratic field in spring 1987, but the GOP coalition that Reagan had put together remained formidable. Perhaps Hart would have proved a tougher opponent for Vice President George H.W. Bush than the eventual Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, but that's at best an arguable point.
Finally, Hart's downfall, while it occasioned much hand-wringing at the time, did not mark some sudden fall from a previous state of media grace. What Clinton famously labeled the "politics of personal destruction" did not begin in 1988.
It is true that in the three preceding decades, politicians, including John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, had benefited from a conspiracy of silence on the part of reporters and editors about their sexual predations. But the "Mad Men" era marked an exception in U.S. history. As far back as the founding generation, Alexander Hamilton's affair with a married woman helped force him from public office. In 1884, the chant of "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" — designed to spread a newspaper story about the illegitimate child of Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland — became a key part of the Republican presidential campaign.
Personal scandal has played a role in American politics because voters reasonably believe that high-minded speeches about issues do not suffice to judge a candidate. Not only do some candidates slip out of campaign promises, but even the most honest ones cannot foresee the issues they will face once elected. Character does count. And while sex surely does not define it, voters do take lessons from how a person handles crises.
Bai asks why Hart could not survive the scandal the way other men, like Clinton, did. He answers in part that Hart refused to stoop to explain behavior that he believed was none of the public's business. In that, Bai sees a mark of true character — a man who held "tightly to principle, whatever the cost."
Voters instead interpreted Hart's behavior as arrogance and, laughing, moved on.
Lauter is The Times' Washington bureau chief.
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