The presidential aspirations of former U.S. Senator Gary Hart of Colorado were destroyed by a sex scandal back in 1987. But Author Matt Bai says that wasn’t the only casualty. Bai is a former chief political correspondent for the New York Times Magazine and a native of Trumbull, Connecticut. In his new book he says the Gary Hart sex scandal led to the decline of journalistic ethics and the rise of tabloid reporting. Book critic Joan Baum has this review.
It’s an odd title – “All the Truth is Out” – but in taking it for his inquiry into the Gary Hart scandal, which cost front-runner Hart his party’s nomination, the political correspondent Matt Bai nailed an ironic fact about Hart’s affair with Donna Rice. May 2, 1987 may have been, as Bai’s subtitle puts it, “The Week Politics Went Tabloid,” but the truth never did and still has not all come out.
As Bai a bit grudingly but admiringly concedes, Hart still refuses to answer the question, “did you ever commit adultery?” The title, “All the Truth is Out” comes from the opening line of a poem by William Butler Yeats which Hart had memorized. The narrator of the poem encourages a friend who has been defeated by shameless lies to “exult in secret.” As the poem puts it, one who is bred to honor can endure against falsehood. The irony is that Hart by all accounts, except his own, did not tell the truth. But in facing off the media that hounded him, Bai suggests, Hart acquired a quarter century later, “character,” the last word of the book.
Though seen at the time of his candidacy as a loner, aloof, arrogant, and “weird,” 77-year old Gary Hart still keeps to his fierce conviction that private affairs do not belong in public. Even though he allowed himself to be interviewed by Bai, he remained silent on the subject of relationships with women other than his wife. He also remained committed to ideas he felt would have been good for the country and the world.
Bai’s book, five years in the making, is not a revisiting of Gary Hart’s behavior, intriguing as questions continue to be- why was this “flat-out smartest guy in politics” so reckless, so defiant? What the book essentially is, is a critically fair and at times exciting account of the decline of high-minded reporting.
Bai corrects errors made out of ignorance and malice, particularly misrepresentations of the sequence of events that led to Hart’s downfall. And he includes himself in the indictment. As he persuasively shows, “the week politics went tabloid” was when “the finest political journalists of a generation surrendered all at once to the idea that politics had become a form of celebrity-driven entertainment.”
Most news shows now are just that– shows. Nothing is off limits anymore. Sleuthing after monkey business, once overlooked, is now the name of a game that puts sensationalism before responsible reporting. The result, Bai argues, has deeply hurt the country. Yes, Hart was at fault, and he hurt people close to him, but the country was likely hurt as well in being deprived of an intelligent campaigner, and in yielding to a low standard of journalism.
All the truth is Out is compelling, timely and cautionary. But in this age of frenzied social media, are we listening?