EXCERPT: “If Nixon’s resignation created the character culture in American politics, then Hart’s undoing marked the moment when political reporters ceased to care about almost anything else. By the 1990s, the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods. If post-Hart political journalism had a motto, it would be: “We know you’re a fraud somehow. Our job is to prove it.”
EXCERPT: “They [journalists] never had to grapple with the complex issues of why Hart was subject to a kind of invasive, personal scrutiny no major candidate before him had endured, or to consider where that shift in the political culture had led us. Hart had, after all, given the media no choice in the matter.”
By MATT BAI
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. When they talked about him now in Washington, Hart was invariably described as a brilliant and serious man, perhaps the most visionary political mind of his generation, an old-school statesman of the kind Washington had lost its capacity to produce. He warned of the rise of stateless terrorism and spoke of the need to convert the industrial economy into an information-and-technology-based one, at a time when few politicians in either party had given much thought to anything beyond communism and steel. But such recollections were generally punctuated by a smirk or a sad shake of the head. Hardly a modern scandal passed, whether it involved a politician or an athlete or an entertainer, that didn’t evoke inevitable comparisons to Hart among reflective commentators. In popular culture, Gary Hart would forever be that archetypal antihero of presidential politics: the iconic adulterer.
The rest of the world was finished with Gary Hart, but I couldn’t get his story out of my mind, which was why I ended up standing alongside him at Red Rocks on that summer day, like an archaeologist searching for shards of a lost political age. I had come to believe that we couldn’t really understand the dispiriting state of our politics — and of our political journalism — without first understanding what transpired during that surreal and frenetic week in April nearly 30 years ago.
The Hart episode is almost universally remembered as a tale of classic hubris. A Kennedy-like figure on a fast track to the presidency defies the media to find anything nonexemplary in his personal life, even as he carries on an affair with a woman half his age and poses for pictures with her, and naturally he gets caught and humiliated. How could he not have known this would happen? How could such a smart guy have been that stupid?
Of course, you could reasonably have asked that same question of the three most important political figures of Hart’s lifetime, all Democratic presidents thought of as towering successes. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were adulterers, before and during their presidencies, and we can safely assume they had plenty of company. In his 1978 memoir, Theodore White, the most prolific and influential chronicler of presidential politics in the last half of the 20th century, wrote that he was “reasonably sure” that of all the candidates he had covered, only three — Harry Truman, George Romney and Jimmy Carter — hadn’t enjoyed the pleasure of “casual partners.” He and his colleagues considered those affairs irrelevant.
By the late 1980s, however, a series of powerful, external forces in the society were colliding, creating a dangerous vortex on the edge of our politics. Hart didn’t create that vortex. He was, rather, the first to wander into its path.
The nation was still feeling the residual effects of Watergate, which 13 years earlier led to the first resignation of a sitting president. Richard Nixon’s fall was shocking, not least because it was more personal than political, a result of instability and pettiness rather than pure ideology. And for this reason Watergate, along with the deception over what was really happening in Vietnam, had injected into presidential politics a new focus on private morality.
Social mores were changing, too. For most of the 20th century, adultery as a practice — at least for men — was rarely discussed but widely accepted. Kennedy and Johnson governed during the era that “Mad Men” would later portray, when the powerful man’s meaningless tryst with a secretary was no less common than the three-martini lunch. Twenty years later, however, social forces unleashed by the tumult of the 1960s were rising up to contest this view. Feminism and the “women’s lib” movement had transformed expectations for a woman’s role in marriage, just as the civil rights movement had changed prevailing attitudes toward African-Americans.
Hart said this in an annoyed and sarcastic sort of way, in an obvious attempt to make a point. He was “serious” about the sentiment, all right, but only to the extent that a man who had been twice separated from his wife and dated other women over the years — with the full knowledge of his friends in the press corps and without having seen a single word written about it at the time — could have been serious about such a thing. Hart might as well have been suggesting that Martians beam down and run his campaign, for all the chance he thought there was that any reporter would actually resort to stalking him. Dionne certainly didn’t take the comment literally, though he suspected others might. “He did not think of it as a challenge,” Dionne would recall many years later. “And at the time, I did not think of it as a challenge.”
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As it happened, Dionne’s cover story was set to appear Sunday, May 3, the same day the Herald published its front-page exposé. No one at The Herald had a clue that Hart had issued any “challenge” on the previous Monday when Fiedler heard from his anonymous tipster or when he continued to chase the story during the week or when McGee flew off to Washington and began prowling outside the townhouse on Friday night. All of this they did on their own, without any prodding from Hart.
In those days before the Internet, however, The Times circulated printed copies of its magazine to other news media a few days early, so editors and producers could pick out anything that might be newsworthy and publicize it in their own weekend editions or Sunday shows. And so it was that when Fiedler boarded his flight to Washington Saturday morning, eager to join the stakeout, he brought with him the advance copy of Dionne’s story, which had been sent to The Herald. Somewhere above the Atlantic seaboard, anyone sitting next to Fiedler would probably have seen him jolt upward in his seat as if suddenly receiving an electric shock. There it was, staring up at him from the page — Hart explicitly inviting him and his colleagues to do exactly the kind of surveillance they had undertaken the night before.
The discovery of Hart’s supposed challenge, which the Herald reporters took from the advance copy of The Times Magazine on Saturday night and inserted at the end of their Sunday blockbuster — so that the two articles, referring to the same quote, appeared on newsstands simultaneously — probably eased any reservations the editors in Miami might have had about pushing the story into print before they had a chance to identify Rice and try to talk to her. Soon enough, as The Herald would put it in their longer reconstruction a week later, Gary Hart would be seen as “the gifted hero who had taunted the press to ‘follow me around.’ ” Everyone would know that Hart had goaded the press into hiding outside his townhouse and tracking his movements. So what if The Herald reporters hadn’t even known about it when they put Hart under surveillance? Hart’s quote appeared to justify The Herald’s extraordinary investigation, and that’s all that mattered.
The difference here is far more than a technicality. Even when insiders and historians recall the Hart episode now, they recall it the same way: Hart issued his infamous challenge to reporters, telling them to follow him around if they didn’t believe him, and then The Herald took him up on it. Inexplicably, people believe, Hart set his own trap and then allowed himself to become ensnared in it. (When I spoke to Dana Weems, she repeatedly insisted to me that she had only called The Herald after reading Hart’s “follow me around” quote, which was obviously impossible.)
And this version of events conveniently enabled The Herald’s reporters and editors to completely sidestep some important and uncomfortable questions. As long as it was Hart, and not The Herald, who set the whole thing in motion, then it was he and not they who suddenly moved the boundaries between private and political lives.
They never had to grapple with the complex issues of why Hart was subject to a kind of invasive, personal scrutiny no major candidate before him had endured, or to consider where that shift in the political culture had led us. Hart had, after all, given the media no choice in the matter.
If Nixon’s resignation created the character culture in American politics, then Hart’s undoing marked the moment when political reporters ceased to care about almost anything else. By the 1990s, the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods. If post-Hart political journalism had a motto, it would be: “We know you’re a fraud somehow. Our job is to prove it.”
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Gary Hart announces his candidacy for the Democratic nomination in 1987 at Red Rocks Park in Colorado with his wife, Lee, center, and daughter, Andrea. Credit Ed Andrieski/Associated Press