Posted: May 29, 2015
A review of All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, by Matt Bai
ollow me around,” Gary Hart told a reporter in 1987, in an attempt to quell rumors of infidelity. “I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.”
The rest is history. The press did as Hart requested and found him cavorting with a gorgeous young model named Donna Rice. By the time pictures of her sitting on his lap appeared—on a boat felicitously christened “Monkey Business”—Hart was forced into political exile.
It’s a great cautionary tale about hubris that to this day makes Washington operatives smile or shake their heads. It’s also not entirely true, according to former New York Times Magazine writer Matt Bai. In All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, Bai meticulously recounts the media’s role in the fall of the Democratic Party’s frontrunner for the 1988 presidential nomination. On the same morning the “follow me around” challenge appeared in the New York Times, the Miami Herald published an investigation into Hart’s relationship with Rice. The Herald hadn’t waited for permission to snoop on his nocturnal wanderings, and the pictures weren’t part of the equation until an associate of Rice’s sold them to a tabloid months after Hart had suspended his campaign.
Bai has two goals with his book: the first is to rehabilitate Gary Hart’s reputation and paint him as a victim of media excess; the second, in discussing how the changing media landscape of the early ’80s helped to bring Hart down, is to diagnose the serious problems with the celebrity-obsessed and tabloid-influenced political coverage of today. Lamenting the current state of political journalism, where politicians “retreat behind iron walls of bland rhetoric, heavily guarded by cynical consultants,” and journalists keep an “incessant focus on granular data and emerging demographics…constantly predicting winners and losers,” Bai points to Hart’s campaign as the moment when unfavorable forces began spiraling out of control. Ultimately, Bai is much more successful as a media critic than as a judge of political character, and his failure to see the connection between pernicious modern media trends and the media’s warped view of public morality is a glaring flaw in an otherwise insightful, interesting book.
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Bai’s love for the former U.S. senator from Colorado is pronounced. “Hart’s gift was to connect politics and culture and theology and history and technology seamlessly and all at once—to draw from all available data points (extemporaneously, it seemed) a larger picture of where everything was headed,” he writes. He claims Hart could have won the Cold War simply by being elected, praises his “agenda that neatly presaged the two decades of political debate that followed,” and writes that he feels sorrier for the country than for Hart over his demise. Bai’s love is overwrought—but not infectious. In fact, the litany of details about Hart’s political and personal style confirms that Hart’s critics were right to find him deeply odd and arrogant.
Bai dismisses as trivialities that Hart made his family change their name from Hartpence, claimed to be younger than he was, and was a serial philanderer. Noting Hart’s 26 years of unwavering silence about precisely what happened with Rice, Bai praises his “fierce conviction that private affairs had no place in the public arena.” There’s “a way to describe a man who holds that tightly to principle, whatever the cost. The word is character.” Others might not be so moved to conflate what is at best moral aloofness with moral excellence.
Americans get few opportunities to see candidates for president display the crucial decision-making skills they seek in an executive. Bai is skeptical of the value of the evidence Hart’s lies supplied, favorably quoting former Jimmy Carter speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg: “The fact that a person will lie in the context of adultery proves nothing about his general propensity to lie.” Likewise, Bai scoffs at reporters for saying they didn’t care about the sex so much as about how Hart’s behavior reflected a lack of stability, steadiness, or the judgment necessary to be president.
But had Hart shown self-restraint, self-respect, and loyalty to the people in his life prior to the Rice affair, he might have quickly dealt with the scandal. Instead, he unraveled the moment anyone expressed an interest in it. Voters saw an undisciplined man whose selfishness and desire for short-term benefits might cause him to throw all sorts of principles to the side.
A review of Hart’s political career shows many policy papers—on everything from reindustrializing America to reforming the military—but few political victories. Hart won only two races for office, including his 1980 reelection to the Senate by a margin of under 0.5% of the vote; before that he managed George McGovern’s terrific 1972 presidential loss, one of the most lopsided defeats in history. (In so doing, he may have planted the seeds of his own ruin by changing the Democratic nomination process to empower Democratic voters in primary elections, thus prioritizing the vetting of candidates by the media rather than party bosses who were known to overlook indiscretions.)
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It’s a shame Bai tells his story of media excess through such an unsympathetic character, because his critiques of political journalism are often right on target. Some