How The Gary Hart Affair Changed Political Reporting

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In 1987, Gary Hart, then a senator from Colorado, was way ahead in the presidential polls — until reports of adultery derailed his campaign for the White House.

In May of that year, he stepped to a microphone and announced that he was pulling out of the race for president. He talked about his decision — and what he described as a seismic and destructive shift in the way reporters covered national politics.

"We're all going to have to seriously question our system for selecting our national leaders that reduces the press of this nation to hunters, and presidential candidates to being hunted," Hart said. "That has reporters in bushes, false and inaccurate stories printed, photographers peaking in our windows, swarms of helicopters hovering over our roof and my very strong wife in tears because she can't get into her house at night without being harassed."

The Gary Hart affair was "an unprecedented collision of media, politics and sex," says political reporter Matt Bai. Before that moment, he argues, journalists pretty much stayed out of politicians' private lives. But Bai says that changed with Gary Hart — and damaged political journalism and our political culture.


Matt Bai, national political columnist for Yahoo News and author of "All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid." He tweets @mattbai.


On the story and the character of Gary Hart:
Matt Bai:
"It’s a story about events that are kind of either misremembered or forgotten or kind of fascinating or gripping, I hope, with really fascinating characters...Hart was...the Hillary Clinton of his day. He was 20-odd points ahead of the next couple Democrats in line, and they weren’t even running. He was double digits ahead of George H. W. Bush who was then the sitting vice president. He had come from almost nowhere to very nearly snatch the nomination in 1984 from Walter Mondale, the former vice president. Were it not for the brand new super delegates, which we’ve since heard from again, he probably would have had that nomination."

On Gary Hart as the presumed nominee:
"He’s already thinking very hard about governing and what his agenda will be. And so, you know, you come to this moment...where he is backed up against this brick wall, next to the townhouse where he lives in Washington, surrounded by reporters and they’re asking him, ‘Who’s this woman in your house and have you had sex with her?’ And this is a big moment in American politics and journalism.”

On what Gary Hart is doing now:
“He’s actually now just been named the special envoy for Secretary Kerry to Northern Ireland, so he’s very much active. He’s a brilliant guy. Hart had his flaws. He could be arrogant, he could be intolerant of people he thought intellectually less sophisticated than himself. He’d been separated from his wife a number of times and was well known to have an active social life in Washington at that time, and perhaps after. But from my perspective — and I’ve met an awful lot of politicians in just about every presidential campaign in the modern era...he’s probably the flat-out smartest politician I’ve ever met.”

On the scandal in relation to American journalism:
“The ground of politics really shifts and the thing explodes in a way that no political scandal has to that time, because you have so much happening in this culture, not the least of which is this birth of satellite television and a much more entertainment-based and celebrity-based politics. And he’s out of the race in five days after being asked in front of a packed press conference for the first time in history, ‘Have you ever committed adultery?’...It’s not about sex, it’s not even about private lives. It’s about the culture of journalism shifting in that moment. The ethos of Watergate becoming this much larger thing where, for a new generation of journalists, the whole pursuit of political journalism was the pursuit of hypocrisy, was the pursuit of the flaw...Our job was to find out what you were lying about and let the voters know.”

On how the moment became a scandal:
“I don’t think Hart created that moment, I don’t think the Miami Herald created that moment. I think there were so many things that were churning in the culture that were inevitably going to lead to a change in the way we treated politicians, thought about politics, what we consider to be political talent and political issues. All of these things were creating a political vortex and someone was going to walk into it.”

On journalists' career ambition:
"You have changing attitudes about adultery on the left. After feminism, you have changing attitudes about morality on the right with the rise of the moral majority and the Reagan forces. And you have the birth of the satellite, which is brand new in 1987. CNN is brand new, suddenly these flyaway dishes, the trucks that can go anywhere and cover any kind of news. And this really changes the definition of what a story is...So, the whole business of news — and political news in particular — is becoming more like an unfolding narrative, more like a televised event.”

On how Gary Hart changed the way we think about political candidates:
“These are not sort of cut-and-dry issues, but I think on balance our obsession with personality, celebrity, character — which is the word that sort of runs throughout all of these issues — you know, detracted from our interest in world views, in ideas and agendas. And when you change the focus of the politics in your political coverage, from these world views to the more personal aspects around character, you create an almost unendurable process that drums a lot of people out of politics that have something to contribute, that keeps a lot of people out of politics that are not going to subject their families to that kind of invasiveness...When you’re not asking questions about agendas and ideas and when you’re only asking about lives and character, you make it possible for people to get into the process who want to be famous and want to be rich but maybe don’t know anything about running the country.”

On infidelity in the presidency:
“Tom [Fiedler] wrote a piece in Politico when the book came out, and his central line at the end of the piece — he said, ‘Look, the real question is why didn’t we subject Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy to this level of scrutiny?’...I wrote a response and I said...we can do that, we can go back in a time machine and ask Kennedy and Johnson and Roosevelt to account for this and they’ll probably lie...and we can toss them out as morally insufficient and then we can figure out some other way to get through the Great Depression and WWII and the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Great Society and we can have 25 terms of the Carter administration. But I don’t think that’s where most Americans want to go.”

On the comparison between Clinton and Gary Hart:
“The difference between Clinton and Hart is not a couple of years. It’s not that they’re intellectually different — they’re both intellectual giants, they have a very similar platform, in fact. The difference is that Clinton will do, say, anything to evade the traps. He’s an incredibly skillful manipulator of the process. He’ll subject his family to an entirely different level of scrutiny. He will bring his wife in front of the cameras, he will emote and tear up and as we found out later in his presidency, he will lie if he has to. That’s the kind of politician who can survive in this kind of environment, and Gary Hart is not.”

On journalists and judgment:
“I think we’re very conflicted about this as a culture...It really comes down to judgment. The position of some journalists would be it’s not our job to judge, it’s actually our job just to compile the dossier, we give it to the public. We won’t exercise judgment...Well, that’s just not journalism. In fact, we make decisions every day...We decide what goes on the front page, the bottom of the front page...Well, we do have a role to play, and exercising judgment is not intrusion, it’s actually our job."


Radio Boston: How Far Should Journalists Go When Probing The Private Lives Of Political Candidates?

  • "The story transfixed the nation, not only because of the lurid details of a journalistic sting, sex and denials. But also, as Tom Fiedler reminds us, because of who Gary Hart was — and how close the handsome senator from Colorado came to being president."

The New York Times Magazine: How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics

  • "As anyone alive during the 1980s knows, Hart, the first serious presidential contender of the 1960s generation, was taken down and eternally humiliated by a scandal, a suspected affair with a beautiful blonde whose name, Donna Rice, had entered the cultural lexicon, along with the yacht — Monkey Business — near which she had been photographed on his lap."

Radio Boston: How Far Should Journalists Go When Probing The Private Lives Of Political Candidates?

  • "I think what our role is, is to deliver information as honestly and as ethically as we possibly can, even when that information is uncomfortable and awkward."

This article was originally published on November 06, 2014.

This segment aired on November 6, 2014.


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