Monday, December 21, 2015

Book Review: "All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid" by Matt Bai

In his 2014 book "All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid," journalist Matt Bai seeks to make two central points.  The first is that the media crossed a Rubicon-like line when it unfairly delved into Gary Hart's personal life in 1987 and uncovered a sex scandal that derailed his second bid for the Presidency of the United States, trivializing and sensationalizing American politics from then on. The second point is that Hart was a formidable prospect for the U.S. Presidency whose ideas and policy proposals would have rescued the Democratic Party from increasing irrelevance and would have kept the country from going off on the wrong track had he, and not the senior George Bush, succeeded Ronald Reagan as President. Bai makes the case for the former argument, but I finished this book not really convinced of the latter one.  In fact, I still have great doubts about it.
Bai builds up a strong case for how reporters in the seventies and eighties, becoming more cynical toward politicians, began purposely looking for flaws in even the most accomplished candidates for office.  Armed with journalism degrees and a desire to emulate Watergate heroes Woodward and Bernstein, a new generation of reporters came to Washington looking for juicier stories about scandal as the media at large became more trivial and less nuanced when it came to covering public affairs.  Bai shows how the cynicism among such reporters built up through the 1980s and then was unleashed on that fateful week in May 1987 like a hurricane.  And Gary Hart, running for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, found himself in the center of the storm.  
Bai dissects and deconstructs the Miami Herald's stakeout of Hart's Washington townhouse when he had as a guest a woman not his wife, whom he had earlier joined on a private cruise to Bimini with.  Acting on an anonymous tip (the tipster's identity is revealed here), hoping to take the smallest proof of the woman's presence at the townhouse as evidence of an affair, reporters for the Herald practically trapped Hart in his house and forced a confrontation with the candidate.  Soon the entire media establishment was making an example of Hart, hounding him for details about his association with the woman and cavalierly dismissing his policy proposals. Within a week, he was out of the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination contest, despite maintaining a lead in early polls.  In the course of revisiting the story, Bai talks with the journalists involved - E.J. Dionne, who had interviewed Hart for a pivotal New York Times Magazine profile, Miami Herald reporter/editor Tom Fiedler, and Paul Taylor, the reporter who asked Hart point-blank if he had ever committed adultery (a question Hart refused to answer at the time) - and vividly brings this painful, humiliating behavior of the press to life as if it happened yesterday. 
But Bai comes up short in rehabilitating the reputation of Hart, whom he interviewed extensively for this book, as a vital and engaging politician.  Hart's intellect is undeniable, but he still comes across as rather self-centered and egotistical, which, I would argue, was what ultimately turned voters off to him and exposed him as being temperamentally unfit for the Presidency.  At one point, Hart blames himself for allowing the older George Bush to become President and pave the way for his son to assume the Presidency in 2001 and start a war with Iraq, as if he were the only one who could have stopped it.  Hart's own campaign withdrawal statement from May 8, 1987, which I call his "Anger and Defiance" speech (for his line, "I'm not a beaten man, but I am an angry and defiant man"), was such an ill-considered and self-absolving attack on the press that the fact that he was unfairly taken down on an issue - his womanizing - that shouldn't have been relevant to his ability to govern doesn't excuse it.  Ironically, his handling of being hounded is what ultimately caused his fall and made him unelectable.  But Bai doesn't consider that, and he doesn't offer any arguments that would make me think differently.
I did, however, come away from "All The Truth Is Out" with a greater respect for Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, who volunteered for the 1984 Hart campaign and became one of Hart's most trusted lieutenants.  This is my favorite item in the book: When Hart withdrew from the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination contest in the spring of 1987, O'Malley, like so many betrayed Hart supporters, could have abandoned him.  Instead, he remained loyal to his mentor, joining him when Hart got back into the 1988 campaign in December 1987 and driving Hart personally in his sixteen-year-old Pontiac, a car that was a far cry from the limousines Hart must have gotten used to when he was the next President of the United States.  Whatever I think of Hart, I have to respect someone like O'Malley for sticking by him through the worst of his ordeal.
No, this book did not make me reconsider Hart anew, but it did make me realize just how insubstantial political journalism in America has become and how it's no different from entertainment news.  The earliest example of how the "tabloidification" of public-affairs news, as  I personally recall, came on the night of  May 8, 1987, when Hart's first withdrawal from the 1988 presidential campaign was the lead story on . . . "Entertainment Tonight." It was a surreal moment: Mary Hart was reporting on Gary Hart.

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