I attended a great talk last night with Matt Bai, author of All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid. The national political columnist for Yahoo News, Bai previously was the chief political correspondent for the New York Times Magazine where he covered three presidential campaigns.
His latest book covers the 1987 Gary Hart scandal, when the political career of this leading Democratic candidate “came crashing down in a blaze of flashbulbs, the birth of 24-hour news cycles, tabloid speculation, and late-night farce” as tails of his “womanizing” swept tabloids and mainstream press alike.
Bai argues that the Hart affair “marked a crucial turning point in the ethos of political media,” a point when candidates’ ‘character’ began to draw more fixation than their political experience.”
As the scandal grew in intensity, advisors told Hart to apologize, to be contrite in the face of overwhelming public opinion.
He did not.
As the Chicago Tribune reported in May 1987, “A defiant Gary Hart dropped out of the race for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination on Friday, delivering an angry speech that blamed news media attention on his personal life for making his candidacy ‘intolerable.'”
The article continues, quoting Hart’s speech:
I say to my children and other frustrated, angry young people: I’m angry, too. I’ve made some mistakes. I said I would, because I’m human. And I did–maybe big mistakes, but not bad mistakes.
I refuse to submit my friends, my family and innocent people and myself to further rumors and gossip. It`s simply an intolerable situation,
I believe I would have been a successful candidate. I know that I would have been a very good president, particularly for these times. But apparently now we`ll never know.
We all better do something to make this system work or we’re all going to be soon rephrasing Jefferson to say, ‘I tremble for my country when I think we may in fact get the kind of leaders we deserve.'”
A journalist by training, Bai says his work is to tell an interesting story – not necessarily to present a specific argument. But the story of Gary Hart and the clash of political coverage and celebrity culture raises some interesting questions.
As Bai commented last night, ‘character’ has always been a consideration for political candidates, and it should be to some degree. The question is what should that character look like? How should it be judged?
That is to say, in the face of such intense media scrutiny, would you rather have a candidate who would drop out of the race – or choose to not enter politics – putting his family and friends before his political ambitions?
Or would you rather have the candidate who will say anything, do anything, be anything, to get elected?
Because in the political celebrity media environment, that’s the candidate we’re going to get. And perhaps we should tremble, for that is the candidate we deserve.