DENVER — Back in 1987, as the country was on the verge of its next presidential election, a Colorado senator named Gary Hart was the all-but-certain Democratic nominee.
“He was Hillary Clinton,” said Matt Bai, whose new book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, re-frames the story of Hart’s sudden and stunning downfall over the course of one week that began with reporters confronting the candidate in an alley behind his Washington, DC home about charges of adultery with the model Donna Rice.
“He is the most important Democrat in the country and he is pinned against a brick wall in the alley behind his house, dressed in a hoodie, and being peppered by four reporters with questions: ‘Who is the woman in your house? Have you had sex with this woman?’ — an unprecedented confrontation,” Bai recounts. “And in this oil-stained alley, the ground of politics and political journalism really began to shift forever.”
Four days later in New Hampshire, a mob of reporters confronted Hart about the Miami Herald’s story based on its reporters’ confrontation in the alley. One reporter asked Hart, point-blank, if he’d committed adultery. A day later, he was out of the race.
Hart never answered that question and — spoiler alert — he never does in Bai’s book because the author, ultimately, decides that it’s not only was it a question that should have been asked, it certainly doesn’t need to be now.
Bai, a long-time political writer for the New York Times magazine who is now the national political columnist for Yahoo! News, laments the Hart scandal as a watershed in American politics, the turning point when a post-Watergate media began to shift its focus away from a candidates’ views toward exposing their character — “the politics of personal destruction” as former President Bill Clinton, who would survive a similar sex scandal just five years later, famously called it.
“It’s not just about sex,” Bai said during a Sunday morning conversation on #COpolitics: From The Source.
“It’s about the ethos of political journalism changing from the illumination or world views and ideas and thematics and how to communicate them to a discussion about what makes you a hypocrite, what makes you a fraud — if we can take you down, it’s the highest calling of our industry.”
Some, including Tom Fiedler, the journalist who confronted Hart, have taken issue with Bai’s critique, arguing that Hart was clearly guilty of marital infidelity — he’d twice separated from his wife, Lee, prior to the 1987 campaign — and asking how consequential a fact has to be for a journalist to investigate and report on it.
We asked Bai the same question.
“Let’s get in a time machine and ask FDR and Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy if they every cheated on their wives, and if they evade or the question or lie, let’s disqualify them from the presidency,” Bai said. “Who’s going to lead us through World War Two? Who’s going to handle the Cuban Missile Crisis? Who’s going to do the Great Society?
“Lies may not be inconsequential, but they’re not all equally consequential,” he continued. In fact, truthful people tell untruths in their life, moral people do immoral things; and all I’m suggesting is there is a context to a person’s character.
“There is an entire public record, there’s an accumulation of one’s life work and you can’t boil a person’s life or career down to a single moment that may in fact be inconsequential in the larger scheme of things.”