09/30/2014 03:36 pm ET Updated Oct 03, 2014

Matt Bai: Gary Hart Media Frenzy Had ‘Profound Reverberations On Our Politics'

NEW YORK -- When The New York Times Magazine recently published an excerpt from Matt Bai’s newly released book on Gary Hart’s media-fueled downfall, political prognosticators argued Bai had gotten something wrong: The Democratic contender was unlikely to ever win the 1988 election against Republican George. H.W. Bush, they said, tabloid scandal or not.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Bai didn’t dispute the idea that he'd oversold Hart's chances. But he thinks the analysis misses his broader point and validates Hart’s prediction that politics would devolve into a spectator sport.

“If that doesn’t prove the man right, I don’t know what does,” Bai said. “You write an entire book on the premise that we’ve turned politics into a high-stakes game and immediately people turn it into a game. I don’t care who would have won. That’s not the point. Maybe he would have gone on to win, maybe he wouldn’t have. It’s not Vegas. It’s real life.”

Reporters didn't suddenly start caring about who's up and who's down in politics in April 1987. But Bai argues in the book, All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, that Hart’s unraveling over allegations of infidelity marked a distinct shift in how candidates are covered and helped usher in a modern scandal culture whereby any minor misstep or misstatement immediately rises to the level of Watergate.

Bai, a Yahoo News columnist and former Times Magazine writer, argues that the political press has repeatedly failed to use good judgment to determine what matters more, like ideas, and less, like infidelity. He admits he once believed political reporters should provide every bit of information about a candidate and let the voters decide if it's relevant. But now Bai says that journalists who give equal weight to the trivial and consequential aren't doing their job.

“There is no newspaper or website in the world that can put every story, in equal measure, on the front page or the homepage,” Bai said. “Every day we make decisions about what matters and what doesn’t. Why is it only when we get to the subject of scandal and sensationalism, suddenly [we] have a moral obligation to abdicate that responsibility and give the voter every last shred of evidence? It’s not consistent with the role, with everything else we know about journalism.”

Bai may not care whether Hart could have won the presidency, but he clearly thinks the candidate got a bum deal.

"I think that moment had profound reverberations on our politics and profound consequences for an exceptional public servant,” said Bai, who profiled Hart in 2002 for the Times Magazine and had hoped to expand on a story he'd been “obsessed" with over the years.

The political press long ignored the marital infidelities of presidents and presidential candidates, and certainly hadn't been expected to go to the lengths reporters did in covering such rumors in spring 1987. Several Miami Herald staked out Hart's home and a Washington Post reporter asked him publicly if he was an adulterer.

It’s not that Hart was the most egregious philanderer in the history of American politics. Bai writes that social and technological forces helped conspire against him, from feminism chipping away at the “Mad Men” culture of the previous generation to TV networks gaining the capacity to quickly dispatch satellite trucks to a politician’s home –- a now-familiar sight in any national scandal.

Journalism was changing, too. The fabled “Boys on the Bus,” who once enjoyed more chummy relations with political figures on the campaign trail, were being pushed aside by a new generation of reporters. These scribes admired Woodward and Bernstein and saw taking down an untrustworthy political figure, as they did with Richard Nixon, as the ultimate prize.

Bai suggests that the Miami Herald reporters who pursued the Hart infidelity rumors had had Watergate on their minds. Tom Fiedler, then a political reporter for the Miami Herald, backed into the Hart allegations by writing a piece examining whether the subject was worthy subject of media coverage –- and of course, covering it in the process. After publication, Fiedler received a call from an anonymous tipster. Bai reveals the tipster to be Dana Weems, who linked Hart to a friend of hers, the model and aspiring actress Donna Rice.

An image of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap, while the smiling politician donned a shirt reading “Monkey Business Crew,” became synonymous with the scandal. That famous photo, however, didn't surface until after Hart had already withdrawn from the race.

The Herald, in search of evidence, followed Weems’ tip that Hart was meeting with Rice at his home in Washington. Investigative reporter Jim McGee staked out the premises and reported back to his editors that he'd seen Hart with a “stunning” blonde. The next night, several Herald reporters tried acting inconspicuous outside Hart’s home as Rice and others were ushered out the back door. The candidate, dressed in a hoodie and with no handlers present, approached the journalists’ car, prompting an exchange the author sees as pivotal in American politics.

“There was no precedent for any reporter accosting a presidential candidate outside his home, demanding the details of what he was doing inside it,” Bai writes. (The stakeout seems ripe for a cinematic retelling, and indeed, Bai told HuffPost he’s working on a screenplay for a feature film.)

The Herald’s front-page story the next day, in which Hart denied any impropriety, sparked a national media frenzy and led to the rapid collapse of Hart's political future.

In All The Truth Is Out, Bai looks at the rationale journalists often use to justify reporting on the private lives of politicians. There’s competition, of course, with reporters feeling pressure to confirm rumors already “out there” in the political ether before another outlet swoops in. And there are loftier justifications, such as the argument that private details are essential to understanding a candidate’s character and may also reveal hypocrisy.

Bai isn’t an absolutist when it comes to covering the private lives of politicians. He reported on John Edwards, who spoke to him in 2004 about how those who father children out of wedlock need to take care of them. But as the National Enquirer revealed four years later, Edwards secretly had a child with a woman who was not his wife. “That, to me, is an obvious case where private behavior turned out to be not only relevant, but legitimately hypocritical,” Bai said.

He takes issue with Fiedler’s suggestion that Hart's infidelity was relevant because it signaled that he didn’t meet the “high ethical standards” he was campaigning on. Bai argues that Hart’s talk of ethics wasn’t related to personal matters, but to the Reagan administration and ongoing Iran-Contra scandal.

In the book, Bai does some myth-busting about how the Hart reporting actually took shape. The story has become a part of journalism lore, remembered as a case of an arrogant politician bringing a scandal upon himself by specifically challenging the press to uncover it. That's likely because The Herald mentioned in its initial report how Hart had told The New York Times that reporters should "follow me around" to see how boring his life really is.

But that Times interview, which The Herald had been provided in advance of its publication, wasn't the impetus for the newspaper's decision to stake out Hart's house. Bai writes that Fiedler read the Times profile en route to Washington on Saturday to meet McGee, who had already been at Hart's place the previous night.

“I think we, as an industry, told ourselves a story over time,” Bai said. “I think that story enabled reporters to avoid some very uncomfortable questions about why Hart was subjected to a level of scrutiny and an incursion into privacy that no presidential candidate prior to that had endured from anyone, let along from some of the leading papers in the country.”

Four years later, Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas and a Democratic presidential contender, became enmeshed in a similar tabloid scandal. But unlike Hart, who even today doesn’t feel he owes anyone an explanation of what he did privately, Clinton appeared on “60 Minutes” with his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and tackled the scandal head on. He would go on to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency.

Bai says that after Hart, the press began judging a politician by "how well you can evade and obfuscate -- by how you avoid our traps.” Bill Clinton's ability to do just that, Bai said, is what made him “the most talented politician of his age."

"Anybody who can convince the public to let them live another day becomes the statesman," Bai said. "And anybody who, like Hart, stands on principle, and doesn’t want to lie about it or explain his innermost psychological motivations or the details of his marriage, gets driven out of the business."