Matt Bai has written a fine book about the last days of the Gary Hart presidential campaign in 1987-88. I’d recommend it to you without reservation. “All The Truth Is Out” has been billed as a description of the moment when politics changed forever; its subtitle is “The Week Politics Went Tabloid.” Few moments in presidential campaign history prior to the “Monkey Business” episode have been as tawdry or tabloid. Hart made the crossover permanent; presidential campaigns from here forward were covered both by CNN and Hollywood Tonight.
Much has been made of whether this precisely was the moment of the pivot to this kind of tabloid culture. Tom Fiedler, as conflicted of an opinion-maker as you could find on this, says, no, we’ve always been like this. As one of the guys camped out in front of Hart’s house in 1987, Fiedler has every reason to say it was just part of the natural evolution of media coverage. In his Politico essay, which could have been subtitled, “It Wasn’t My Fault,” he talks about the candidates throughout history who were exposed in scandal.
But I think Bai rightly describes it as an consequential pivot, if for no other reason that prior to 1987, reporters would give a candidate a wide berth on personal behavior (drunkenness, adultery, swearing, smoking, etc.). It’s hard to believe that ANY reporter today would just decide not to report if he saw a lady or man leaving the room of a national candidate these days. But before then, it was a bit of a judgment call. In one of the book’s best few pages, Bai describes a moment when Paul Taylor (who, by the way has written a book about generations that looks quite good) asks the question in a room full of reporters if Hart had ever committed adultery. Bai demonstrates his significant talent as a writer in these pages. You can hear a pin drop in the room, and you can feel the tectonic plates of politics shift as the words drip out of Taylor’s mouth. (Ben Bradlee’s reaction, according to the book, is one of astonishment: “You were the one who asked that question? Sheee-yit!” Among other things we learn is that book is that Ben Bradlee apparently spoke like Senator Clay Davis.) I may or may not have gasped as I read about the press conference. It felt like watching a car crash. It undoubtedly feels like a moment when something changed. For all those out there who are quibbling over whether this was or wasn’t a moment, that we are still talking about it at all, nearly 30 years later, is proof that it was indeed significant.
That said, the debate over whether this was the moment where things changed is really not the best part of the book. It’s Bai’s thoughtful look at Gary Hart as a person, as a leader, and how his loss in 1988 may really have been our loss.
Few remember how much of a frontrunner Hart was in 1987. And few remember what a fascinating and insightful thought leader he was. If you’ve read anything about presidential politics in the 70s or 80s, you came across Gary Hart. He was on the campaign team for McGovern that won the convention in 1972. He ran in 1984 and four years later, when he wound up one of the subjects of the Richard Ben Cramer treatment in his epic book “What it Takes,” which has been mentioned on the pages of this blog many, many times. (Appropriately, Bai, who had been a friend of Cramer’s prior to his death, gives a nod to the greatest chronicler of presidential campaigns in this book’s introduction.) Hart’s campaigns were responsible for motivating and inspiring a number of people who went on to be significant contributors to our country and our politics, including Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, and Share Our Strength founder Billy Shore. It’s difficult not to find the story of Hart’s career and legacy fascinating.
As we learn more about Hart in the book, the feeling of dread increases. Because the media, and maybe even more so us, likely did wrong by Gary Hart. And we’re worse off because of it.
Out of necessity, Gary Hart pulled the plug on his presidential campaign within days of getting caught with Donna Rice. But perhaps it was out of honor or character, as Bai suggests eloquently in the final few pages of the book. Hart knew there would be more revelations, more damage done to those involved, and a ugly spectacle ahead. He may have even known that he could have gotten past it all if he had done the apology tour that is now rote in every crisis playbook in America. But he refused as a matter of principle, forever, to say anything more than he had ever said about Rice or any other affair for that matter. And then he went into a sort-of forced isolation.
The great and unfortunate irony that Bai offers is that Hart, long known as someone who thought seriously about the future and how America should be prepared for what was to come, found himself stuck, unceremoniously, in America’s past. 1988 to be more precise. One can’t read this book without feeling like Hart stuck to principle and deserved more credit for doing so. Instead he got banishment.
As Bai puts it:
The most likely explanation, when you come down to it, is that we ridiculed Hart because he embarrassed us. …On some unconscious level, perhaps, we needed to blame Hart for having come along and created this new obsession with character flaws and tabloid scandals. That way we never had to cringe at the meaningless, destructive brand of politics we had created. …And in our need to dismiss Hart, to consign him to some purgatory for the politically lost, not only had we failed to reckon with the larger forces at work in the culture, but we had also denied ourselves whatever service the man might have rendered.
The final conversation Hart and Bai have is at a booth at The Dubliner in Washington, D.C. (I can attest it is a good place for a deep conversation.) Reading it, I wished to have been a fly on the wall. In the conversation, Hart reveals he still has an ability to clearly articulate the complex challenges that face our country. He may have been weird, but he is also wise. From Bai’s book:
One of the core problems, as Hart saw it, is that even the best and boldest political leaders no longer believe they can make complex ideas understood through a media obsessed with personalities and scandals. And if you couldn’t utilize the machinery of persuasion, then it was hard to do anything but talk to the people who already agreed with you. “The genius of democracy, in my mind, is the ability of an individual to sense the temper and the mood of an electorate and to respond to it and to help shape it,” Hart told me. “And once that’s gone, one a leader loses confidence in his ability to shape and mold, in a positive sense, public opinions and attitudes, there is no leadership.”
This is a smart book, a mirror to ourselves and our politics. Who are we kidding folks? 2016 is upon us. This book should be required reading for all the junkies out there, poised to obsess over every little issue of the next campaign.
Miscellaneous: If you’re worried this is a rehash of a story you know too well, it’s not. Bai breaks some new ground here, discovering who actually tipped off Fiedler in 1987, breaking down of the timing of the “follow me around quote,” and telling the story of the campaign urging the candidate’s plane to depart “on orders of the secret service.” One other anecdote among many worth mentioning: Bill Dixon’s steadfast commitment never to return to Washington, D.C. after this incident permanently tarnished his opinion of the place. Maybe he’s the smartest of them all.
Thanks for reading.