It was several years ago when Gary Hart asked me what I thought of then-New York Times Magazine chief political writer Matt Bai. I didn't know Bai, but did know of him as a straight-shooting substantive journalist, part of the East Coast network of journalists styling itself the national press corps, but not a captive of it.
Now Bai has produced a book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, excerpted in the Times Sunday Magazine's cover story, which demolishes the comfortable media canards around the destruction of the former senator's front-running candidacy for president in 1987.
The storyline has long been that Hart challenged the press to follow him around and, in the post-Watergate spirit of enterprising investigative journalism, the press did just that, fearlessly uncovering, well, er, what? Some sort of Hart friendship with a fetching Phi Beta Kappa and recent Miss South Carolina named Donna Ruce. Armed with this momentous information, the media then righteously proceeded to to tear Hart to pieces in a feeding frenzy, thus saving the Republic from...
In 1987, Senator Gary Hart's frontrunning candidacy for president was consumed by a media firestorm. Much of what you think you know about that is wrong.
Bai not only demolishes the mythology and flat-out lies about the press rising to a Hart challenge, which did not exist, by practicing enterprise journalism, which did not take place. The press was never challenged by Hart and their "enterprise" consisted of following spoon-fed directions from an unknown anonymous source.
Bai goes on to define this character assassination of a likely future president of the United States as the critical turning point in the devolution of the American political media.
"In 1987, Gary Hart was poised to become president. An unprecedented collision of media, politics and sex brought down his campaign - and took us all with it ..."
"The [Miami] Herald published a front-page reconstruction of the events leading up to and including that Saturday night.
"Written by [investigative reporter Jim] McGee, [political reporter Tom] Fiedler and [McGee's editor, James] Savage, the 7,000-plus-word [reconstruction was published a week after the news story. It's striking how much The Herald's account of its investigation consciously imitates, in its clinical voice and staccato cadence, Woodward and Bernstein's 'All the President's Men.' ('McGee rushed toward a pay telephone a block away to call editors in Miami. It was 9:33 p.m.')
"Clearly, the reporters and editors at The Herald thought themselves to be reconstructing a scandal of similar proportions, the kind of thing that would lead to Pulitzers and movie deals. The solemn tone suggests that Fiedler and his colleagues imagined themselves to be the only ones standing between America and another menacing, immoral president. You might think Hart had been caught bludgeoning a beautiful young woman to death, rather than taking her to dinner." ...
"About 8:40 p.m. Saturday, Hart and [Donna] Rice left the house and emerged into the adjacent alleyway, heading for the senator's car. ... It was then that Hart noticed things were amiss. The first reporter he spotted in the side alley was McGee, a 200-pound man who for some reason had decided to make himself inconspicuous by donning sunglasses and a hooded parka. At night. In May." ...
"As an industry, we aspired chiefly to show politicians for the impossibly flawed human beings they are: a single-minded pursuit that reduced complex careers to isolated transgressions. As the former senator Bob Kerrey, who has acknowledged participating in an atrocity as a soldier in Vietnam, told me once, "We're not the worst thing we've ever done in our lives, and there's a tendency to think that we are." That quote, I thought, should have been posted on the wall of every newsroom in the country, just to remind us that it was true."
After these seven days in May, political reportage was dominated by gotcha games and horse race coverage. That intellectual Hart, one of the most substantively prepared political figures in memory, should be the first and biggest sacrifice on the altar of the new triviality is just one of those delicious ironies of history, I suppose.
Aside from answering Hart's questions about Bai, I've had no involvement in the book, just as I've had no involvement in biographies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown. Unlike Hart's old friend Warren Beatty, whose Peter Biskind-penned bio I did cooperate with extensively, these are potential future topics. (Not that Beatty would not be a very interesting biographical topic. And not that Biskind's bio, though interesting, didn't disappoint in several key respects, not the least of which was its preposterous estimate of Beatty's sex partners. Master procrastinator Beatty would just be too difficult to pin down fora proper bio in this particular lifetime.)
Bai's result -- I've only read the Times cover story so far -- is strong and compelling. It reminds me why I find the topic so infuriating, 27 years on.
Not that Hart is entirely blameless, of course. The stakes were high. I wish he'd been more cautious about the people who knew his movements.
And as a fellow Navy guy, I found it disconcerting that Hart would set sail from Miami to Bimini on a vessel called Monkey Business.
Yet, in the big picture, these are quibbles. The new focus trivialized politics, elevating soap opera in favor of substance, encouraging ignorance in the media.
History reveals that we would have been deprive of outstanding presidents with some great accomplishments, from Thomas Jefferson himself in the distant past down through Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and, Vietnam notwithstanding, Lyndon Johnson. I was an am sure that Hart could have been an outstanding president. I had taken his measure early on.
Flash back to early 1983. Hart is a prominent U.S. senator, but largely unknown in the country. It's easy for him to walk down a long airport terminal, as he and I had just done in San Francisco International, without anyone recognizing him. That would change. And how. But at this moment, superstar-like fame lies more than a hear in the future.
After a few events that day in the City by the Bay, Hart had a big hole in his schedule for down time before picking things up again in the early evening. And, since he had something of a reputation as a ladies' man, I was curious. So, after he not unexpectedly turned down all my offers of assistance for the afternoon, including just being in the general neighborhood if he needed anything, I tailed him.
It was very interesting.
Hart went to several bookstores, demonstrating a range of mostly highbrow literary and historical interests. He stopped for Irish coffee at a place which then claimed to have invented the drink. (It did not.) He walked along San Francisco Bay. He did not meet a woman, or flirt with women, though he showed a subtle interest in a few. He was right on time meeting back up with me at the hotel. And that night, over drinks after his successful evening presentation, he gave me an extremely impressive tour d'horizon of the geopolitical scene which plays to this day.
Hart was, in short, very much a class act. He's a brilliant intellectual and compelling political figure, as I discussed in my review of his memoir in 2010.
If on another occasion, tailing him yielded a different result, it would not have mattered. He was clearly well within the historical bounds of acceptable real world behavior for a serious political figure and statesman. If anything, he was on the gentlemanly end of the acceptable spectrum. Which is to say, he made some other rather revered presidents of the the past century look like Caligula.
What Bai's very well done Times cover story doesn't make entirely clear is that Hart's association with Rice didn't shoot down his front-running candidacy. For the Miami Herald's investigative reporters -- who had proved unable to tail former Miss South Carolina Rice from they play all flew in on from Miami through Washington's rather compact National Airport -- failed also to establish that Rice had stayed the night in Hart's Washington home.
Without an anonymous source spoon feeding them information every step of the way, these reporters were nowhere. So it fell to another media outlet to deliver the terminal blows. Again, relying entirely on spoon fed intelligence from an anonymous source.
A few days lair, at a raucous press conference in New Hampshire, Washington Post chief political writer Paul Taylor asked Hart if he had ever committed adultery. At last, the new dingbat scarlet letter was revealed. Hart wasn't happy with the question.
Later, Taylor told Hart's traveling staff that the Post had the goods on Har twitch regard to the new sex police standard. A naturally anonymous person had come by the Post to drop off detailed surveillance reports on Hart which seemed to point to a Hart relationship with a woman in the capital. Not long after, Hart returned to Denver, where -- as I stood 10 yards away wondering what the hell had just happened to American politics -- he ended his candidacy.
The following spring I was in Washington where I went by the Post to see Paul Taylor. He showed me where the Hart dossier had been dropped "over the transom" as we made our way to breakfast.
Taylor, a thoughtful and friendly guy, clearly had misgivings about his role in the destruction of Hart's candidacy and potential presidency. He agreed that the new situation was prone to manipulation and resultant media hysteria. He and the Post had been Pavlovianly prodded into action against Hart just as readily as the clowns at the Miami Herald by unknown sources with strikingly detailed confidential information. Reporters at neither outlet even knew who their immediate tipsters were, even at the most superficial level of supposed concerned citizen or mischievous busybody, much less whether their sources were witting or unwitting cutouts for others.
Taylor agreed that it had created a potential banana republic situation. Not unlike, say, the Nixon plan against the Democratic Party uncovered by the Post during Watergate. In an irony of history, the Post, instrumental in unmaking one Republican president, was proving instrumental in making another.
Not long after, Taylor quit the Post and to pursue a series of good works.
As for Gary Hart, he struggled. He and I had breakfast on the first day of the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta that he should have dominated. The party had moved on, disastrously as it happened, to Michael Dukakis, the technocrat liberal governor of Massachusetts. He only knew how to turn in a liberal stronghold quite unlike Hart's Colorado, a classic Western swing state. Unlike Hart, Dukakis knew nothing about the military or foreign policy, and was thus unable to engage George Bush I on the national security and intelligence issues in which Hart specialized and on which Bush was vulnerable in the wake of the Iran/Contra scandal.
Before becoming Ronald Reagan's vice president, Bush was best known as the CIA director who came in to reassure Agency conservatives in the wake of reforms pushed by the Church Committee. On which Hart had served. Despite his ties, Bush claimed not to know about Iran/Contra, a massive CIA disaster, but was involved in trying to cover it up.
WHEN HART WALKED INTO THAT ALLEY near his home to confront the journos staking him out, he walked into a waking nightmare. Whether he walked back out again is another matter.
None of it had happened before, but it was clearly the new order of things. To me, it felt like a parallel universe.
Yet the mind adapts. What Hart experienced as waking nightmare became the new normal. A new normal unit unlike a particularly sniggering and vicious form of junior high school.
Bill Clinton, a figure more problematic than Hart, learned from what Hart did and did not do. But even with his adroitness, much of Clinton's second term as president was disrupted by the furor over some oral sex.
In 2002 and 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger -- a man about whom there were more than a few stories -- asked me about the Hart experience. I felt that virtually everything short of rape and physical abuse was survivable. Perhaps even a child out of wedlock.
That's one side of the ramifications of those seven days in May 1987. Another is the loss of Hart's potentially outstanding presidency. And there is more. For unless Hart's Yale Law classmate Governor Jerry Brown contrives to become president in 2016, theirs looks like the first generation in American history not to produce a president of the United States.