Friday, May 5, 2017

Hart Failure

"I was a [Gary] Hart supporter.  I'm a Hart supporter because he f**ks.  Do you know what I mean?" - Jack Nicholson
"Life is a comedy . . . written by a sadistic comedy writer." - Woody Allen
It's been three decades since Gary Hart, former Democratic U.S. Senator from Colorado, went from being the soon-to-be forty-first President of the United States to being an political outcast.  We all know what happened; he took a boat ride to Bimini with a woman not his wife and two other people in late March 1987, and the revelation came out after the Miami Herald staked him out in his Washington townhouse in early May 1987 and found the woman in question - and the two other people from the Bimini cruise - in there with him.  Considered a savior of the then (and now) moribund Democratic Party when he announced his candidacy for the party's 1988 presidential nomination, Hart went from messiah to pariah a week after the sex scandal broke.  Many people believe that being caught with another woman caused his downfall, while others point to the bitter withdrawal speech he made when he ended his candidacy less than a month after declaring it.  I, on the other hand, think that Hart sealed his fate when he addressed a convention of newspaper publishers at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York thirty years ago today.
Hart's speech before the convention had been previously scheduled, and he'd planned to take advantage of such an influential audience to flesh out his policy proposals - those "new ideas" we'd kept hearing so much about.  Hart had also hoped to get in solid with the press, who never seemed to like him all that much.  But the Miami Herald's reporting on his dalliance with another woman while his wife was back in Colorado irked him, as it interfered with his ability to get his message out.  It also happened to call his judgment into question, as Hart had long before been accused of being a womanizer.  So on Tuesday, May 5, 1987, Hart, in his first public appearance since the scandal broke, preceded his prepared speech by denying that he'd spent the night with the woman in question (I don't mention her name when I bring up the Hart sex scandal, as I prefer to protect the innocent), explaining that she had in fact left his townhouse through a back door, and lashing out at the reporters of the Miami Herald for staking out his townhouse and reporting that he had spent the night with another woman.  Hart was careful to single out the Herald's reporters while lauding the commendable work the rest of the press did, saying he had no problem with the media overall.   But the notoriously private Hart was visibly peeved when he said that the Miami Herald's story was "written by reporters who, by their own admission, undertook a spotty surveillance, who reached inaccurate conclusions based on incomplete facts, and who, after publishing a false story, now concede they may have gotten it wrong."
Then Hart (above, at the newspaper publishers' convention) addressed the story itself, saying in a carefully worded statement that, while he made a mistake by "putting myself in circumstances that could be misconstrued. . .. That goes without saying" (gee, ya think?), he "absolutely did not" do anything immoral.  So satisfied, Hart then made it clear that he wanted to move on and went into his prepared speech.
Hart, in fact, had made two mistakes - both of them fatal.  First, though he was careful to attack only the Miami Herald reporters who had staked out his townhouse and not the press in general, he failed to realize, as Matt Bai explained in his book about the Hart scandal, "All the Truth Is Out," that reporters show solidarity with any reporters attacked by a politician.  As Bai wrote, reporters are like NATO member countries - they consider an attack on one of them to be an attack on all.
Hart's second mistake, a mistake Bai failed to grasp, was the tone of finality he used in his denial of having done anything "immoral."  By emphatically denying charges of impropriety and then making it clear that he didn't want to talk about it before going to his speech, Hart was telling reporters that he considered the matter closed and was putting it behind him.  Wrong, wrong, dead wrong!  When a public figure does something ethically dubious, be it in public life or private life,  it is up to the news media to report the indiscretion and let people make up their own minds as to whether or not it's something that should cause concern.  It is not for the public figure in question to dismiss the indiscretion out of hand and move on to other topics.  In those immediate moments before he gave his speech, Gary Hart showed arrogance, contempt for the press, and a desire to shape a narrative to his own benefit.  Yes, the issue of whether or not Hart was a womanizer was silly and meaningless.  But it wasn't what he did or didn't do that sank him; it's how he handled the issue.     
Hart should have known he dug the hole he was in even deeper when Richard Capen, the publisher of the Miami Herald, offered a rebuttal in the question-and-answer session that followed Hart's speech.  "He's an announced candidate for President of the United States, and he's a man who knows full well that womanizing had been an issue in his past," Capen said.  "We stand by the essential correctness of our story." Capen conceded that while it was possible that someone could have left Hart's house through a back door, he added that, ''clearly, at minimum, there was an appearance of impropriety."
So what did Capen think of Hart's policy proposals?  He didn't.  No one in the room thought anything of them.  Because after Hart told the press how to do its job, no one really cared what Hart was proposing.  Indeed, the question-and-answer session part of his appearance was devoted to questions about the sex issue and his Washington townhouse, not about taxes or spending, and Hart's answers were evasive and furtive.  (It was at this point that Hart addressed the Bimini trip and dismissed it by saying it was made "in open daylight," with no effort to conceal it.)  News reports on Hart's appearance at the convention didn't even mention the policy speech - not even the New York Times' report.     
Oh yeah, after Hart left that convention with his tail between his legs, the reporters who were there to cover it learned the name of the yacht Hart and his traveling companions used for their Bimini cruise - the Monkey Business.
And Hart's carefully worded denial of wrongdoing turned out not to be so carefully worded.  He only set himself up for a gotcha question the next day from Paul Taylor of the Washington Post at a campaign appearance in New Hampshire.  Hart had said he did nothing immoral.  This led Taylor to ask Hart if he thought adultery was immoral.  Hart said yes.  Then came the follow-up question from Taylor that changed American political journalism: "Have you ever committed adultery?"
"Uh," Hart sheepishly replied, "I do not have to answer that question."
And then came more reports of Hart's womanizing, questions of his judgment and lack of common sense - including a column from pundit William Raspberry, who said that Hart's lack of common sense overruled his keen intelligence - and finally, his withdrawal from the Democratic presidential campaign (pictured below) with a nine-minute statement that excoriated the press and left no doubt of his arrogance and his superiority complex, as he sought to "shift the blame for his downfall," as humor writer Paul Slansky put it, "from his own rampant libido to those who reported on it."  His lashing out at the press for not covering his candidacy fairly and his self-absolution of all blame for his rapid fall so deeply echoed Richard Nixon's famous "Last Press Conference" of 1962 that Nixon himself wrote Hart to tell him that he "handled a difficult situation uncommonly well."
No one outside Hart's family agreed with Nixon's assessment.  Even pundits who were appalled at the Miami Herald's journalistic conduct and its exploitation of tabloid-ready subject matter like a sex scandal didn't agree with Nixon's assessment.     
Hart, by the way, replied to Nixon, explaining that the gist of his withdrawal statement was his desire that Americans ''focus national attention away from what is temporal, sensational, and irrelevant to the real challenges confronting our nation and our world.'' 
"In other words," the New York Times later opined, "what's really important are the issues, but the media is focused on irrelevancies, like Gary Hart's veracity and character."
The flaws in Hart's character came out in how he handled the adversity of the sex scandal.  He thought he could control the narrative and move away from an embarrassing topic in the conversation, and he just couldn't handle the fact that he had no control at all over what the media were going to report about him . . . and when he wanted to proceed with his presidential campaign on his own terms, the media would . . . not . . . let him.  Life sucks when you can't make the world bend to your will, doesn't it?  Ask Donald Trump.
Hart's attitude not only destroyed his own political career (though he did return to the 1988 Democratic presidential campaign in December 1987 for, as it turned out, three months), it all but crippled the Democrats.  Left in 1988 with no viable presidential candidates with anything resembling national standing, the party crossed its fingers and ended up nominating for President Michael Dukakis, an honorable man who turned out not to be ready for prime time when he went against Republican presidential nominee George Bush, then the most beatable Republican nominee for President since Barry Goldwater.  Hart has since become a minor figure in history, an unknown cipher to the young people who were born in the late eighties and early nineties and who backed Bernie Sanders in 2016.  However, there is a whole generation of Americans who remember Hart as the guy who f**ked.
And on that fateful Tuesday at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, he f**ked . . . in public.  

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