First, there was the decorated war hero, Cabinet secretary, all-round economic genius and husband whose presidential aspirations collided with a published report that he was paying off a married woman to keep silent about their torrid affair.
Then there was the rising political star, the governor of the nation’s largest state, a lover of food, wine and young women—or at least one young woman, who bore him a son without benefit of marriage. When he received his party’s nomination for president, an astonished clergyman wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune: “It seems to me,” the letter said, “that a leading question ought to be: do the American people want a common libertine for their president?”
And now we are being asked to reconsider the case of the charismatic western senator who was racing toward a slam-dunk nomination and likely the White House until a newspaper report of his reckless affair with a vivacious party girl ended it all.
Most Americans would be stumped to name the first two of these political figures. But they probably know the third as Gary Hart—the Colorado senator whose candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination derailed in 1987 when the Miami Herald learned of his extramarital affair, confronted him in a dark alley on a Saturday night and published the results of its investigation in the following morning’s edition atop Page One.
The story touched off a firestorm—fueled not only by the mainstream media closely covering his campaign, but also by the tabloids, which clambered to run salacious photos of the “other woman,” Donna Rice, and the aptly named yacht, “Monkey Business,” where one of Hart’s dalliances occurred. Five days after the Herald story broke, Hart withdrew from the race. Left behind were questions touching on subjects ranging from journalistic ethics to the place of adultery in American politics.
Left behind, that is, until now. Hart’s story re-emerged Sept. 18 in the New York Times Magazine in a cover article by political writer Matt Bai headlined “How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics.” The scandal is explored in even greater length in Bai’s book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, which was published this week.
The Gary Hart scandal certainly merits discussing, even at this distance. It’s about sex and politics and journalistic ethics. It makes us wonder: What’s fair game for reporters and how much do voters care—or deserve—to know? These questions are important. But they are also timeless—and have been debated long before and long after Hart’s fall from grace. What Bai calls the week that changed politics forever, I guess I’d call just another week, albeit a dramatic one, in Washington.
Bai’s premise is that the Herald article marked a turning point in American politics—the moment at which the ostensibly deferential ways of the news media were discarded and replaced by a sensationalistic, predatory, “gotcha” style of journalism focused on candidates’ character over the substance of their views. The newspaper’s own report of that confrontation between its reporters and the cornered candidate, according to Bai, “captures, in agonizing detail, the very moment when the walls between the public and private lives of candidates, between politics and celebrity, came tumbling down forever.”
It’s an interesting premise, but one that I think doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
First, a disclosure: I cannot be objective in writing here about the magazine article or the book, although I am a great admirer of Bai’s talents as a journalist and a writer. Objectivity demands both distance and perspective, which I forfeited by being one of the Herald reporters who confronted Hart that night and who wrote that front-page story. But even in this subjective position, I think I can lean on what I learned during my 36 years as a journalist to offer a different take on the case of Gary Hart than that put forward by Matt Bai.
Tom Fiedler is the former executive editor of the Miami Herald and currently the dean of Boston University’s College of Communication.