Matt Bai has written a wonderful book about political reporting entitled All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid. The central claim of the book is that the reporting about Presidential candidate Gary Hart marked a fundamental change in political reporting. According to the Boston Globe, Bai shows that the reporting was bad for Hart and bad for democratic life.
I think Bai is torn on the question (he does an excellent job of reporting both sides). In the end, however, he regrets the tabloid turn, and though he has great admiration for Hart, he pulls no punches in reporting about his weaknesses.
Gary Hart you may remember was the front runner for the Democratic nomination and a strong favorite to win the Presidency in 1988. He led George H.W. Bush by 13 points and only 11% of the electorate was undecided. Moreover, he was a brilliant candidate, able “to connect politics and culture and theology and history and technology seamlessly and all at once – to draw from all available date points (extemporaneously it seemed) a larger picture of where everything was headed.” Bai, p. 11. Anyone who was politically conscious in the late 1980’s knows that Gary Hart had challenged reporters to follow him if they thought he was fooling around on his wife and was caught in an affair with a model named Donna Rice, a former Miss South Carolina. At the time, it was widely believed that Hart must have had a self-destructive impulse to dare reporters to prove he was involved in an extramarital affair.
It turns out this rendition conceals the decision of reporters to introduce tabloid processes and tabloid substance into Presidential reporting. First, Gary Hart did not dare reporters to follow him. Hart thought his promiscuity was a private matter – something for he and his wife to discuss (their relationship was often rocky), but it was not and should not be a public matter. This had been the understanding of the press for many years. The affairs, for example, of FDR, JFK, and LBJ were well known, but the press did not regard them to be relevant. Hart thought that any attention to such matters would cheapen and trivialize public discourse. So when E.J. Dionne asked him about his reputation for promiscuity, Hart sarcastically asked why reporters did not follow him around to find out. His question was intended and understood by Dionne to be a reductio ad absurdum. Hart never invited and never expected reporters to stake out his town house in Washington. Reporters simply did not do such a thing.
But, reporters for the Miami Herald did stake out his town house and saw Donna Rice enter and did not see her leave. The mythology is that the Herald reporters felt entitled to do this because Hart dared them to do so. But E.J. Dionne’s report of his interview had not been published at the time of the stakeout, so the notion that Hart’s dare (which wasn’t a dare anyway) justified the stakeout was fictitious. In addition, the stakeout was bungled. The reporters did not watch the back door (!) and Hart contended that Rice had not spent the night and had left by the back door. Indeed, there is some doubt whether Hart and Rice ever slept together (they both deny it). This is not to say that Gary Hart never committed an act of infidelity. There is every reason to believe he was no better on this score than FDR, JFK, and LBJ.
But reports of his infidelity knocked him out of the Presidential race and, as Bai reports, we are now treated to political tabloid reporting, a phenomenon compunded by the reluctance of candidates to having any serious unscripted conversation with a reporter like E.J. Dionne, and the 24 hour pictorial news cycle.
Are the sexual proclivities of a Presidential candidate fair game? Certainly, many voters would not want to vote for a person who cheats on his wife. And the feminist recognition that the personal is the political may have influenced reporters to report on these matters in a way that they had not in earlier times.
Nonetheless, as Hart has maintained when reporters hide out in bushes, photographers peek in windows, and helicopters swarm over roofs – all to determine who is sleeping with whom and to confront the spouse with a demand for comment, our political discourse and reportorial environment has become harassing and sordid.