'All The Truth Is Out' Examines How Political Journalism Went Tabloid
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off today. Decades ago, American presidents could carry on extramarital affairs secure in the knowledge that journalists of their day regarded such things as off-limits in their reporting. Today, politicians understand their private lives are fair game in media coverage and that a revelation on an obscure website can do quick and serious damage to their careers. A critical juncture in the transformation of political coverage was the 1987 scandal that destroyed the career of Colorado Senator Gary Hart. According to our guest, political writer Matt Bai, Hart was by far the leading contender for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, when in the course of a week, revelations of his relationship with a young woman named Donna Rice touched off a media frenzy that sunk his campaign.
What befell Heart in that spring of 1987 was swift, spiraling and irreversible by rights, as instantly ruinous and blackening as the fiercest hurricane. It washed away any sense of proportion or doubt. It blew away decades of precedent in a matter of hours. In his new book, Bai re-examines the Hart scandal, reconstructing the events with fresh interviews of the participants and raising questions about what's become of political journalism in America. Matt Bai spent many years as a political correspondent for The New York Times magazine. He's now the national political columnist for Yahoo! News. His new book is called " All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid."
Well, Matt Bai, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write that when you met Gary Hart, you went and visited him in 2002 - years after the scandal - that he struck you as probably the flat-out smartest politician you had ever met. What are some of the things that struck you as prescient in that 2002 interview?
MATT BAI: Well, you know, just to step back for a second, I saw an item in a - in The New York Times I think - I was writing for The New York Times magazine, I was relatively new there. And there was an item that Gary Hart was considering another presidential run for 2004. And I thought, wow, that's bizarre. Why would someone who'd been through that kind of ordeal want to reenter the arena and do it again? So the magazine editors thought it was a great idea. I did go out there, and I met him, and I wrote a piece.
And, you know, when I say he was the flat-out smartest politician I've met, I mean his ability to connect all kinds of different strands in politics and society sort of all at once. He talked on that trip about what he felt would be a coming deep recession or depression in America, which in 2002 was something, you know, no one - this is the end of 2002, early 2003 - no one was thinking that way. He talked about what a disaster the invasion of Iraq would be, not just in terms of having a military presence there over the longer term, but it would do to exacerbate the problems of terrorism which, you know, I think we're seeing today in Syria and in Iraq. So his ability to extrapolate lessons from that and tie them together, I think, is what made him such a compelling figure at the dawn of a new sort of digital and post-Cold War age in the mid to late 1980s. And it still resonates today, I think, if you talk with him.
DAVIES: The 2002 piece you wrote probably had less about that than the strangeness of a guy whose career ended in scandal making a comeback, right?
BAI: It did, you know. I've read that piece about 1,200 times, and, you know, it was a true piece and a good piece, and the magazine liked it a lot. But I repeated a lot of the - what I would later come to see as myths about the Hart scandal. I didn't really make any deeper connections with what had happened in 1987. I really just talked about his thinking about reentering politics and what that would mean for him and whether there was any real chance he could be successful. And it haunted me, really, for years afterward because I felt that the more I thought about what Hart had experienced - who he was, how smart he was - and the more I compared it to what I was seeing covering presidential campaigns - in 2004, midterms in 2006 and the presidential in 2008 - the more and more he began to occupy my thoughts. And I began to think that there was a connection to the political era I was inhabiting that no one had really bothered to think about and explore.
DAVIES: So you spent a lot of time reviewing the events of 1987 in advance of the '88 presidential campaign - talked to all the players that would talk to you nowadays. So let's go over some of this. Historically before 1987, what were the standards employed by journalists in covering politicians' private lives?
BAI: Well, it's too facile to say private lives were never an issue in politics or in presidential politics. You certainly can't say the character wasn't an issue; we always cared about these things. But by and large, if you're looking at the 20th century politics, let's say, and even going back before then, the personal lives or private or marital transgressions of national candidates became germane to the debate only when they burst out into the open and affected your political standing. So if you look at someone like Nelson Rockefeller, who in the 1960s divorced his wife, married a much younger staffer - it was quite scandalous, particularly in the Republican Party - that affected his standing with Republican voters. It was a political story, and it was covered - Chappaquiddick, of course, we all know, Ted Kennedy's marital troubles, his wife's issues - all of these things were covered in the context of political standing and how it affected your campaign.
What we didn't have were journalists going out and sort of playing detective or private investigator and trying to bring into the public arena what were considered private behaviors that were generally off-limits. So that, you know, in the case of, say, a Franklin Roosevelt, a John Kennedy, a Lyndon Johnson - all of whom we now know were not angels in their private lives by the standards most of us have for our marriages - but not of that was considered news. Even later after it was understood that John Kennedy had not only had extramarital affairs, but associations in terms of the mafia and a mafia mistress that, you know, that were really - I would consider quite reckless, and I think most people would. Most of that was treated as something separate from his presidency; he still gets very high marks as a president.
DAVIES: And in addition to the media not going out and, you know, staking out people's apartments, there were things that they knew that they just left out of coverage. You have a remarkable story of Lyndon Johnson telling some reporters - I forget, maybe it's as he's beginning the campaign - that, you know, you're going to see some ladies I bring into these hotel rooms.
DAVIES: And everybody understood that's not part of our coverage.
BAI: Right, he says, I want the same courtesy that you gave President Kennedy. I think he calls him Jack actually, and he gets the same courtesy.
DAVIES: All right, so tell us a little bit about Gary Hart as the 1988 presidential campaign approaches. Who was he? What was his place in American politics?
BAI: I mean, Hart was an extremely compelling figure in the mid-1980s. He was really the first of the '60s generation - the activist, reformist generation to reach the pinnacle of national politics. He's George McGovern's campaign manager at 30. He was involved in the post-McGovern reforms of the party. He gets elected to the Senate just two years after that campaign in 1974, and he becomes instantly a very compelling figure in the Senate because a lot of people expected to be this knee-jerk liberal. But he comes in. He masters military reform. He got very interested in how you reform the military to fight new kinds of conflicts. He's the first national candidate to really talk a lot about what comes after the industrial economy transforming to an information-based economy, what comes after the Cold War. He talks about the Cold War ending imminently and what will come next. He talks about the rise of stateless extremism in much of the world that we're dealing with now. And, you know, by 1984 - he runs for president in '84; no one gives him any chance. He comes out of nowhere to win New Hampshire; it becomes a two-man race with he and Walter Mondale, the former vice president, and Hart goes on to win every state west of the Mississippi and come about as close as you can come and not get the nomination; were it not for the superdelegate system I think he would have had it. We'll never know for sure. But the superdelegates really were the firewall in that campaign. So by 1987 he is the presumed nominee of the Democratic Party, and in fact there are - you know, he's polling double digits ahead of the next two people and the next two people - who were Mario Cuomo and Lei Acuco (ph), were not even running for president and did not run.
DAVIES: And you note that as he prepared for the 1988 campaign he did policy research and developed campaign platforms that were kind of unprecedented in their kind of scope and thoroughness. It's interesting that although he was a champ in what some might call the liberal wing of the party he really was culturally of another age, and this kind of affected his perceptions of the media. Tell us about that.
BAI: Yes, I mean, Hart was seen. And he himself I think fosters this view as the leader of this sort of '60s generation of Democrats. Not so much liberal as reformist and new. And, you know, and Clintonism sort of grows directly out of Hart's platform. But the critical difference I talk about in the book is that Hart was actually born in 1936, he's about 10 years before the baby boom. And you say, well, 10 years, you know, you can cut it a whole bunch of ways, but it actually makes a huge difference culturally. He's born in Kansas, in the years after the depression - actually born during the depression and grows up in the years after the depression, and inherits a series of traits that we would associate with the sort of dustbowl after the depression. He's very reticent, does not share his emotions, isn't very soft promotional, believes in boundaries of privacy. Of course for the boomers - the true boomers - many of whom worked for Hart, but even more significantly many of whom were just starting to cover politics at that point in time. Of course it's a very different sensibility. They really came of age in the '60s and there of course we know the cliches about the boomer generation, but they are very self-referential and reflective and like to know themselves and like to express emotions. And, you know, they were into a different kind of music then he was, they were into a different kind of literature than he was. So, you know, there is a bit of a culture clash in that the reporters - the new, younger reporters on the bus and the plane expect Hart to be their leader, to be just like them. And in fact he behaves more like their dads. He's really from a different era of American life.
DAVIES: So we have this guy running for president with great prospects and views private life is private, doesn't want to talk about his personal life or his feelings. And, you know, we were saying that historically journalists had left a lot of people's private lives out of bounds in their coverage. But you note that journalism itself had begun to change, and the examination of, you know, private conduct and character was more a part of their focus. Why?
BAI: Well, there's just a bunch of forces coming together by the mid-1980s that are really fascinating and that, you know, Neil Postman got into a bit in his classic book "Amusing Ourselves To Death," which I reference a lot in the book. But, you know, it really goes back to Watergate. So the nation is still reeling in a sense from the effects of Watergate, which really injects this new focus on personal morality into our politics, right? How could a guy so petty, so dishonest, have risen to this level and how do we prevent it from happening again, right? And then there's changing social attitudes in both parties, really, both sides of the ideological spectrum about private behavior. Adultery in particular because you have now the women's liberation movement has happened, there's this debate over the equal rights amendment. Suddenly, you know, the sort of "Mad Men" era trysts over lunch, which everybody used to wink and nod at it isn't so funny anymore. Liberals really care about it, women really care about it and you have, you know, these kind of moral majority conservative forces that have empowered Ronald Regan and they really care about it. So there's a difference in changing societal attitudes about adultery generally, and then you have some profound changes in the nation's media; post-Watergate there is a real just idolatry for Woodward and Bernstein. And all the younger reporters coming in really see it as their great calling to find a scandal, to expose someone, to have that kind of fame and that kind of notoriety. And that's a very different factor, and you have technological change in the media, so satellite dishes are brand new. 1988 will be the first campaign where everyone has them, that means you can broadcast from anywhere at any time. And that creates a lot more of a pull towards soap operas, entertainment-type coverage of politics because now you can go live all day long. You're spending a lot of money to keep a satellite someplace. You want to be able to report every little turn in a story and you want to keep people in their seats. So you have these new kinds of scandals like that year if your listeners remember the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker story of the preacher accused of rape, and the wife who's standing by him and crying with the mascara running down her face on "Nightline." It was Ted Koppel's most-watched interview to that point. And, you know, stories that wouldn't necessarily by traditional standards have that much significance, but that suddenly have become a kind of hybrid of tabloid, and tabloid and serious news. And all of that is churning in the culture at exactly at the moment when Hart really takes the leadership of the Democratic Party and begin steaming toward the nomination.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Matt Bai. He's the national political columnist for Yahoo! News and he's been covering national politics for many years. His new book about the Gary Hart scandal and its effect on politics is called "All The Truth Is Out." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is political reporter Matt Bai. His new book about the Gary Hart scandal is called "All The Truth Is Out." So as the 1988 presidential campaign approaches, we have this remarkable candidate who doesn't quite get that the media focus on character is changing. Let's talk about the scandal itself. The events that would overtake Hart's campaign began with a sailing trip, which was unknown to anybody for many weeks. Tell us about that.
BAI: Yes. He goes to Turnberry Isle, near Miami. And on a chartered yacht there, famously known as "Monkey Business," he meets a couple of women. He meets - he meets Donna Rice, who he's actually met before but he doesn't remember. She's a model and aspiring actress and also a pharmaceutical saleswoman. And he and his pal who's with him invite her and her friend to come on a sort of cruise to Bimini. The story that Hart has always told is that it was not supposed to be an overnight trip. They were just supposed to go to Bimini and come back, but customs closed and they got stuck there. There's a whole argument about this - but in any event, they take the cruise, they come back. He stays in touch with her for a couple of weeks from the road and phone calls and all of this happening sort of concurrent with the announcement of his long-awaited announcement of his presidential campaign.
DAVIES: And up to this point, had suspicions or rumors of Gary Hart's, you know, relationships with women been in the media at all?
BAI: Well, they're starting to bleed into the media because he's about to announce the campaign. And then he goes out and announces in this very dramatic, lonely announcement speech in Red Rocks Park near his home outside Denver. And it's now starting to bleed into the media. Newsweek magazine does a piece in which they reference a kind of zipper problem. They kind of use a quote from a former aide to Hart. And that opens the floodgates for everybody to start asking. And soon the announcement itself is overtaken by all of these questions. Senator, are you going to answer questions about your personal life? All of this takes Hart quite aback. He's not expecting it. And he basically maintains the line that, you know, my life is boring, you'll have to trust me on it. But look, you know, this isn't - this isn't anybody's business. It's not what the voters care about. And these allegations are all very nonspecific and I'm not going to talk about them. It's nobody's business.
DAVIES: So the discussion of his, quote, "womanizing" is sort of around the fringes of coverage. And there's this reporter, Tom Fiedler of the Miami Herald, who writes something about this and then gets a call. Tell us that part of it.
BAI: Yeah, Tom was a great political reporter and a great journalist - still is. And he writes a piece in the Herald - the Miami Herald - basically saying, you know, look, if you've got something on Hart, go ahead and write it if it pertains to his integrity. Tom's not opposed to bringing his personal life into the campaign, but he says, you know, all of this innuendo, all of this vague innuendo about him being a playboy, you know, isn't really fair to him. And he writes this piece in the Miami Herald and then his phone rings at his desk. And a woman's on the line and she says, you know, these rumors you're writing about, well, I happen to know they're true and I have evidence. And thus begins the unraveling of Gary Hart.
DAVIES: Yeah, so what does she tell him? What happens?
BAI: Well, she tells him that her friend - she doesn't name Donna Rice - but she tells him that she has a friend, that she's seen Hart once, that she's going to see him again in Washington, that she has pictures of the two of them together, that the woman can't stop talking about how she can't wait to see this Gary again and how much she likes him. And she tells them when she'll be in Washington, and she even says to Fiedler why don't you go get a seat on the plane next to her? You can follow her. And the Herald ultimately decides to send first Jim McGee, its top investigative reporter, and then Fiedler and someone else from Miami and someone else from the D.C. bureau. They end up sending about five people to the house and actually stage a stakeout, where they position themselves in front of the house, disguise themselves and ultimately see Hart inside with his woman, see them come and go. They contend that she stays the night because they don't see her leave, although there's some question about a backdoor and whether it was watched or not watched. And so there they are in rental cars outside Hart's house trying to catch him in the act, as it were.
DAVIES: Now, what's remarkable about this is we have a woman flying from Miami to Washington to visit Hart. You have a bunch of reporters mostly in Miami, and there's this decision to do something that I suppose - I don't know if anybody's ever done - we're going to go and we're going to stakeout the apartment of a presidential candidate. You went and talked to all these folks later. Did they - I don't know, did they ruminate over this? Were they troubled by this decision at all?
BAI: It's remarkable. And, you know, what's also remarkable, Dave, is that the Miami Herald soon after would create a really tremendous historical record in a very long 7,000-plus-word reconstruct of all the events. And not once in that reconstruct do they say we sat down and argued and turned over the notion of, you know, did we have a right to do this and should we do this? It wasn't even - it wasn't even really an issue. And, you know, different reporters have different levels of being conflicted about this over the years. Tom Fiedler is not conflicted. He's always believed they did the right thing. And Tom's - Tom's reasoning really has to do with Hart's statement when he announced his campaign in Red Rocks and he said he would hold himself - and he believed all candidates - should hold themselves to a higher moral standard. And in this - in this speech, the Herald found what it thought to be the core hypocrisy of his campaign, which - of course Hart was talking about Iran Contra, he was talking about the Reagan administration and its governing policies.
DAVIES: Public corruption really, right?
BAI: Public corruption, absolutely. But to the Herald reporters, that statement that he would be a moral person meant that he - he would not lie about anything. And that catching him in the lie was the means of proving hypocrisy.
DAVIES: Matt Bai's book about the Gary Hart scandal is called "All The Truth Is Out." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Matt Bai, the national political columnist for Yahoo! News, who has a new book about the 1987 scandal that ended the presidential candidacy of Colorado Senator Gary Hart. A media frenzy focused on the relationship between Hart, who was married, and a young woman named Donna Rice. When we left off, Bai was talking about the weekend Rice was seeing Hart at his Washington townhouse and several reporters from The Miami Herald were working outside, hoping to document an extramarital affair. Eventually Hart figures out there are these guys that are not very good at surveilling people without looking like they're not surveilling people. He figures this out and there's actually a meeting behind his alley. Tell us about that.
BAI: He gets rid of Donna Rice. He says to his pal take her home, everybody leaves but him. They leave out the back door, and then he leads them on this chase. He put on a sweatshirt and he goes to make sure he's being followed and he kind of walks around the neighborhood, drives first then walks; walks through a park. I mean, I don't think he's thinking particularly clearly, he's just thinking like a cornered man. And they do follow him and ultimately they come around, they're following him, they come around the corner in the alley and bang there is the presumed nominee - the front runner of the Democratic Party, the most important Democratic politician in America. He is standing in a white hoodie in the oil stained alley behind his house and he says, can I help you gentlemen? And what ensues is this, you know, several minute interrogation by several reporters of the candidate in the alley about his sex life.
DAVIES: Hart has this confrontation. It's clear these people are looking into his relationship with this woman, and regard it as something that they can write about. The campaign goes into frantic damage control and events unfold. So The Miami Herald writes a story the following Sunday, a long story, what does it say?
BAI: Well, The Herald does a long story. It's "Heart Linked To Miami Woman." And they describe having seen this woman go into his house and not having left Friday night and how the two of them then were seen entering and leaving. And they go through their debate in the alley, where Hart basically keeps saying to them, you know, I'm not going to answer these questions, and I don't have to produce anybody. This is none of your business - right? - which is pretty much the stance he'll take for the next 20 odd years. And then at the end of their story there's this funny thing, and they raised it with him in the alley, too. There's at the end of the story it says Hart told, you know, this comes after Hart told The New York Times that reporters should put a tail on him and follow him around. And that is the first inkling as far as the public is concerned, and it simultaneously appears in that day's New York Times. It's the first inkling that this idea of a challenge, this follow me around quote is going to follow Hart around, in fact, for basically the rest of his life.
DAVIES: Right. And this is something that people misremember and it matters a lot. I mean, the way people remember it was Hart challenged reporters, look, I'm - my life is clean. Follow me around; put a tail in me, you'll be bored. In fact, he had said that in an interview weeks before, and it had not become public until that weekend. And most importantly The Miami-Herald reporters who decided to stake at his townhouse did not know he had uttered that challenge.
BAI: Yeah. It's a big deal. I mean, they only found out halfway through the surveillance. Tom Fiedler's on a plane from Miami to Washington. He opens the advance copy of The New York Times magazine which, you know, at that time we're talking pre-Internet, was nowhere in the public realm. The advance copies went to media only. And he sees that quote. Hart gets very frustrated and he says to E.J. Dionne, you know what, put a tail on me, follow me around. E.J. will tell you to this day, I mean, E.J. doesn't really take sides in this dispute, but he will tell you that he did not consider it a challenge and Hart certainly did not consider it a literal challenge. It was more out of frustration, and he was basically saying, look, I get that people care about this. And, you know, E.J. interpreted it as Hart saying, you know, I'm going to clean up my act. I'm not going to let people have anything to hang this on. But regardless of what he meant, he says the quote to E.J. and The Herald picks up on it. And when the use it in their story - and I have to believe knowingly - what they've done is insulate themselves. Not just in that moment, but for many years after. The story becomes Hart challenged the media to tail him, therefore he brought this on himself. It's a classic tale - a classic tale of hubris, right? He issues the challenge, violates his own rule and gets caught. And what it really enables The Herald and the larger media establishment to do is to avoid very uncomfortable questions about why it is that Hart would be subject to this level of pursuit and scrutiny that really no presidential candidate in history before him certainly in modern history and history anyone could remember had been subject to? And it's an important question.
DAVIES: So it's wrong to say that Hart challenged the media to follow him, and they did. On the other hand, he knew he was embarking upon a presidential campaign and, you know, to go off on a sailing trip - whether it was for lunch or overnight with this young model and then to have her at his apartment certainly doesn't seem like the smartest decision, does it?
BAI: No, it doesn't. And he said that, you know, very soon afterward. And has said it many times through the years when he's, you know, on the occasions where he's talked about this. That he made a terrible mistake and he's lived with it for a very long time and has very deep guilt about it. He put himself in a compromising situation. There was at least the appearance of impropriety. He knew this was of interest to people. And I can't, you know, as I say in the book you can't know why he did that. I mean, there are a lot of explanations - psychological and otherwise. But the one thing is, you know, people have always said, well, he was self-destructive. He didn't really want to be president because if he really wanted to be president he wouldn't have done anything so stupid. And that I really don't think is the case. I really came to believe that was not the case, because Hart wanted very badly to be president. He believed he was the best person to be president. It was his life's ambition. He also believed very deeply that no one was entitled to that information, and that no one would go searching for that information. And I think he wrestled very deeply with this issue of whether he could serve the country and maintain a semblance of his privacy and his remove, which were very important to him. So I think he was struggling with that issue, but I do not think he was self-destructive in the sense that he ever believed it would end the way that it did.
DAVIES: Matt Bai is the national political columnist for Yahoo! News. His new book is called "All The Truth Is Out." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with political writer Matt Bai. His new book "All The Truth Is Out" is about the 1987 scandal that ended the presidential campaign of Colorado Senator Gary Hart. So after the Miami Herald writes this story, you know, "Hart Linked To Florida Woman," he knows he has a problem. But we're in uncharted territory here. No one's ever quite faced this and how did the campaign react and what happened when he tried to go out and resume campaigning for president?
BAI: Well, the campaign instantly tries to assail the Herald as being snoops and, you know, as crossing an ethical boundary. And it becomes sort of the Herald against Hart. And it's not clear which way the media's going to go. And Hart goes to New York and gives a speech to the newspaper - oddly, if you believe it or not because that's the way this thing was - he was scheduled to give a speech to the newspaper publishers. So he goes to New York to give this speech and he issues a pretty rousing defense of himself. And he basically says to the newspaper publishers, you've got a choice to make and you can't countenance this kind of reporting. This is not what our politics and our government is about. You can't let your papers and your money be used this way.
DAVIES: Essentially, he wanted to make this the mainstream media against the renegade Herald that had crossed a boundary.
BAI: Exactly, to isolate the Herald. And it doesn't work because a couple things have happened at that point. For all of the reasons I talked about in terms of the culture post-Watergate, you know, the publishers are apt to see personal hypocrisy much differently than they used to. They also are apt to defend one of their own. They've gone through this period where the media's been, you know, basically at warfare with the Nixon administration. They had a very rocky relationship with the Reagan administration, so they rally around their own. And they're also under tremendous amount of pressure because for the first time, the tabloid media is really now making an incursion into politics. "A Current Affair," which is a brand new show, shows up at Hart's cabin as part of this mob that basically barricades his wife in their home in Colorado so she can't even leave because this is before anyone knows how to do crowd control. This was not a part of politics. Tabloid photographers are literally hurling themselves onto the windows of his car in New York, and they chase him up Park Avenue when he tries to leave that ballroom. So there's so much intense pressure now in the political media to compete with the tabloid media and to own this story, that, you know, that it really is impossible I think in retrospect for all of them to turn back. They really end up following in the Herald's footsteps and chasing this story, even as conflicted as a lot of them were.
DAVIES: And Hart decides he's going to proceed with his campaign and trust voters to discern that this isn't what matters. And, you know, it's fascinating when you describe these events because I mean, I've covered a fair number of presidential candidates visits now, and they're all carefully crowd controlled. I mean, if a candidate is going to stroll down, like, an open-air market; in fact, there will be, like, a line of security people. The candidate will have a microphone so that he can - his presumably spontaneous interactions can be heard, but you can't get close to the candidate. It was different then and Hart had to try campaign amidst a maelstrom.
BAI: It's a kind of craziness the political world has never seen because now you have the tabloid photographers in New Hampshire leaping over bushes and cars, and you've got political reporters whose attitude is, you know, they've always been pretty genteel. And they have a set of rules, but their attitude is hey, this is our turf. This is New Hampshire. This is a presidential campaign. We're not, you know, we're not ceding the picture and the story to you. And so they're now jumping over bushes and pushing people aside. Hart, surrounded by two or three very kind, sweet aides who are not prepared for this kind of thing, you know, they really aren't, they're lovely people. I know them, but you know, they were just getting run over and he was getting run over. And there's a story he tells that affected him very deeply of watching - there's a 4 or 5-year-old boy nearby, and the crush of cameras goes with him everywhere. He can't move, he can't talk about anything but, you know, getting - but having to deflect these scandal questions. And the little boy starts to fall. He's falling to the ground. Hart sees this a few feet away and he can't - he can't move. He's kind of pinned down. And he sees a photographer he knows in front of him, a Newsweek photographer, and he says to him help me, help me and - because he's losing his balance trying to get to this kid. And all he sees in front of him is flash, flash, flash, the pop of the bulbs in his face. And he, you know, literally loses his balance and falls. And that's, you know, to him that was sort of this moment he never forgot because it was a moment where he turned to the kind of journalist he'd known all along and said, you know, please restore some sanity. And the sanity was gone in that moment.
DAVIES: There was a news conference he had, was it in New Hanover?
BAI: In Hanover, New Hampshire, yeah, where Dartmouth is, yeah.
DAVIES: Yeah, and where Paul Taylor, who was then at The Washington Post, asks a long-remembered question. You want to tell us about that?
BAI: Yeah, and this is the other really fascinating turn in the story. So The Washington Post now at the behest of Ben Bradley, the hero of Watergate, has evidence of another affair that had been going on some time ago in the recent past. And their plan is to confront Hart part with this. But the thing is, Hart still hasn't said he's ever been - that he's never been unfaithful to his wife. All he's said is that he's going to be a moral person, right? So Paul Taylor, who was a star reporter for The Washington Post, one of the really up-and-coming political reporters in America at that time, goes to the news conference with the idea of, you know, really catching Hart in this lie. And he's very angry at Hart too for the speech in New York because he feels that the attack on the media was unwarranted. He goes to New Hampshire. And this is - again, just to paint the scene. This is a crazy scene. It's boiling hot, they have no idea how to set something like this up. There's no crowd control. There's literally an aide on all fours as a human barrier to keep the reporters from overrunning Hart. And Taylor gets up and says - they have an exchange in which Taylor asks him if he's a moral person. And he says yes, I am. He says do you consider adultery a moral? And Hart says I guess I do. And Taylor says Senator, have you ever committed adultery? And there's a - anybody who was in that room will tell you - I think anybody I've ever talked to who was in that room will tell you how stunned they were by that question. They remember it. They remember standing there. No presidential candidate had heard it asked publically like that, and this on national television, have you ever cheated on your wife? And it was a really pivotal moment in American politics.
DAVIES: When you spoke to Hart later and for this book, did he recount these moments? Did he tell you what he was thinking in that news conference?
BAI: He did, he did. You know, he's more comfortable talking about some of it than other parts, but we did talk about this. And he says, you know, the first thing that goes through his mind is he's looking at all of these reporters who he's known, who covered him in 1984, some of whom had very well-known affairs. Some of whom were, you know, having adulterous affairs on the campaign trail that he had been well aware of. And he's thinking I can't believe the hypocrisy. He's looking at their faces looking at him and he's thinking, really? You know, you're going to ask about this? And then his second thought is what is the biblical definition of adultery? Because Hart is raised in a very strict church, he goes to a Bible college. So he's thinking well, what is the biblical definition of adultery and how do I answer this question? And he ultimately says to Taylor, when he finally goes through this process and opens his mouth, I don't think I should have to answer that question.
DAVIES: So the campaign is essentially paralyzed by this. How long does it take before he in effect gives it up, suspends the campaign?
BAI: He's gone within 24 hours of that. You know, they go to dinner. He hears that the press has been staking out that his daughter at her college lecture hall, which upsets him very much. There's really - no one can think of a way to end this. He does one more event in New Hampshire, it's worth noting. He goes to a town hall - what we would call a town hall event - and he gets a ton of questions, none of which have to do with the scandal. All the voters ask him about policy. But it's becoming increasingly clear to the staff by that night that he's not going to be able to campaign effectively. And then Taylor shows up at the hotel where the press is staying and tells Hart's press secretary that they have evidence of this other affair, that they're going to run with the story. And Hart's aides, you know, Billy Shore, his closest aide, knocks on his door at the hotel, where Hart is staying over the border in Vermont and says to him, you know, this - you've got to talk to the press secretary, Kevin Sweeney. And he calls up Sweeney and Sweeney says this is what the Post has, this is what they're going to run. And Hart says this is never going to end, is it? And Sweeney says you would know that better than I. And Hart says let's go home. And that's what they do.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Matt Bai. He is the national political columnist for Yahoo! News. His new book about the Gary Hart scandal and its effect on media and politics is called "All The Truth Is Out." We'll continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR. >>DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Matt Bai. He's been covering national politics for many years. He's now the national political columnist for Yahoo! News and he's written a new book about the Gary Hart scandal in 1987 and its lasting impact on American politics and media coverage. It's called "All The Truth Is Out." The scandal that enveloped Gary Hart wasn't just because he'd had the affair with Donna Rice - if it was an affair, and it's not clear that it was ever consummated. That's an interesting issue that you explore in the book, but there's a view that Gary Hart suffered this because of a long pattern of philandering. And you have a very salty quote in here from Jack Germond, who was an old-school journalist who'd cover politics for decades. And he wouldn't have staked out his apartment, he says, but he tells you that - to clean up the language a bit - if Gary Hart wanted to pursue every woman he saw on the street he doesn't deserve to be president. What about the idea that in some respect that there was a standard that the media employed, and it wasn't an affair. It was a broad pattern of conduct?
BAI: Well, the problem with that - there's a couple issues with that, I think. And, look, these are complex issues, Dave, I want to be really clear about it. I'm not on a soapbox here. I see all sides of it and I wrestle with it the book, and I could've done what some of these journals did - not all maybe, but some in similar circumstances - so I do think these are easy issues. If they were it wouldn't be that interesting. First of all, you have to remember he was twice separated from his wife. They had a very difficult marriage and publically separated. So it's very hard at least to discern now, and it was probably hard then to discern what was affairs and what was a pattern of simply publically dating a lot of women that created his reputation. Because for a lot of that time he was in Washington, he was separated and within his rights to - in his marriage to go do whatever he wanted. So that pattern is a little dicey, but I also think, you know, again you have to go back and ask some very tough questions about the presidency, right? Because we know about Franklin Roosevelt, we know about John Kennedy, we know about Lyndon Johnson. Theodore White who was the most preeminent chronicler of national politics - presidential politics of the 20th century said he knew of three candidates for presidency ever covered who were not adulterous, who did not carry on adulterous relationships. So the question you have to ask is, you know, we've had great presidents who had the kind of pattern you're talking about in their private lives. We've had presidents whose records were terrible in office, but who were upright, moral people. So the question is in their private lives. So the question is does it matter? And how much does it matter? And I think, you know, what I really have taken away from this in the book is that it's not about sex, or about infidelity, it's about the scandal. It's about the notion that we, in political journalism, have propagated since that time that our job is to find the lie, is to prove the hypocrisy. And that becomes really the central guiding mission of political journalism after Hart.
DAVIES: And the lie or the scandal isn't placed in the context of someone's entire life of service.
BAI: No, and I think that's critically important. You know, Bob Kerrey said to me, and I quote him in the book, we are not the worst things we've ever done in our lives. And he's right.
DAVIES: So how did political coverage change after this?
BAI: Well, I mean, it changes almost immediately. And again it goes to my point that this is much larger than sex. And within months Joe Biden is out of the presidential race over a really hyped up scandal involving his not - in one speech not crediting part of a speech that had actually came from Neil Kinnock the Labor Leader in Britain. And he's accused basically of plagiarizing the the speech even though he's credited him many, many times in the same speech. He just misspeaks. He gets drummed out of the race. Before long you have Barney Frank, the Congressman from Massachusetts, coming out and admitting he's gay. And saying, you know, I knew this is going to become an issue in the modern environment. I might as well come out and say it. So it changes politics almost immediately. You know, I started covering politics about a decade later, and, you know, by then the entire ethos of political journalism has really changed. Because all the attention, all the kudos, is in taking someone down, is in finding hypocrisy. There's a deep distrust, I think, that goes back to Watergate with anything you're being told by a politician. And we start from the notion that there's a lie, and the question is what is the lie? And who can get to it first? And I think that's had a very toxic effect because it comes at the expense of understanding people, having the context of their full-time in public service, having the benefit of knowing what their worldview is, how it was formed, being able to give people a sense of how their politicians think, what they believe and how deeply they believe it.
DAVIES: Yeah, you know, and I think there's still a lot of really, good, balanced, fair, meaningful, insightful coverage out there. It's just - it's not the stuff that gets on the cable talk shows. That's not the stuff that makes a journalist a celebrity.
BAI: Well, and it's rare because the politicians make it rarer, because they're responding to that environment, too. I thought it was very interesting just this morning, looking at my friend Ryan Lizza at The New Yorker, who's a fabulous reporter, and he's just done a series of interviews with Rand Paul. Yeah, Rand Paul was a very unusual politician on today's scene. Whatever one thinks of him, whatever his ideology, or his readiness to be president - he is out there making an argument about his beliefs and his worldview. And he's eager to make that argument in large venues. That's very rare today. Politicians are really scared to go on the record; they're scared to sit with you, you know, when I, you know, 10, 12 years ago I could get a candidate to give me those three or four interviews. They're very hard to do now, even for a long-form venue like I had or like Ryan has. And, you know, that's because we've built this wall between our media and our politicians. We are out to get them and they are out to avoid us. And I think, you know, sometimes we get the win and sometimes they get the win, but the public always loses in my view.
DAVIES: Yeah, you know, you say that when you looked at political coverage of earlier presidential races you realized something was missing from the coverage these days, and that's the candidates themselves. Talk just a little bit more about how candidates and the political operatives who run their campaigns deal with the media now in response to this, you know, this focus on character, on scandal.
BAI: Well, I think people know how highly choreographed the process is now, and they feel it and its part of what makes them so cynical. You know, even this social media, the idea you can go around the media if you're a politician. All they're doing is sending out their press release in 140 characters, right? There's no spontaneity, there's no nuance in what we're told. Even when a politician will sit and talk with us and deliver the talking points there's never any wrestling with issues the way there once was. And it's because we'll catch them, right? We'll catch them as a flip-flop, or we'll catch them saying one thing and doing another, or we'll take the one quote out of context and the nuance won't show up. They're just deathly afraid of being caught at something, real or not, and I think, you know, we have driven some good people out of the process. We've allowed some people who don't have very strong beliefs or much knowledge to get into government at the highest level because when nobody talks to the media then it's perfectly excusable to run and never answer any questions of complexity. And I think of Sarah Palin and others when I think about this, but then I also think, you know, we don't know who hasn't entered the arena because they simply don't want to put themselves and their family through it. I mean, yes we have politicians now who've recovered from scandal. We've proven you can be pretty resilient as a politician. You know, we have politicians who braved the process. But what normal person do you know, Dave, who wants to, you know, who wants the prize so much that they're willing to share every aspect of their private life, that they're willing to put their family through sharing every aspect of their private life and that they don't have anything in their private life - or anything they've ever done that would disqualify them, because they've been so cautious and so careful their entire lives to construct an argument for becoming president? Is that really the kind of leader we need? I think it's an important question.
DAVIES: Matt Bai, thanks so much.
BAI: Oh, thrilled to do it. Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Matt Bai is national political columnist for Yahoo! News. His new book about the Gary Hart scandal is called "All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.