Does the name Gary Hart ring a bell? Back in 1987 he was a serous presidential candidate when a few reporters from the Miami Herald took investigative journalism to a new low from which it has only descended further over the years. Matt Bai, a reporter for the New York Times, reviewed the Hart saga in an extended article in the Times’ Sunday Magazine several weeks ago. It was compelling reading.
Hart, for those who don’t recall, was a U.S. Senator from Colorado who had cut his teeth politically as a top campaign aide to George McGovern in the 1972 presidential campaign. McGovern lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon that year (carrying only one state), but Hart came out of the campaign unscathed and was recognized as a policy wonk, long before Bill Clinton made that characterization fashionable.
He was elected to the Senate in 1974 and quickly established himself as an ambitious young Democrat with expertise in foreign policy and defense spending. By 1984, he had built a base of support that led him to make a run for the presidential nomination. The Democrats instead gave the nod to former VP Walter Mondale, who also lost 49 states in Ronald Reagan’s re-election that year. But, again, Hart emerged unscathed, and by 1987, he was generally regarded as the front runner for the nomination in a likely race against Reagan’s VP, George Bush. And, in fact, polls taken that spring had Hart beating Bush handily (recall that the Iran-Contra affair had sullied the reputation of Reagan and everyone in his administration).
At the age of 50, Hart was in his political prime, and his image as a serious thinker, with just a touch of the JFK charisma, seemed to have him destined for the nomination and, to the extent anything can be certain in politics, election as the country’s president.
Rumors at the time had Hart engaged in extra-marital activity. No one seemed particularly perturbed about that possibility. After all, John Kennedy had been suspected of having any number of “liaisons” (perhaps even to include one with Marilyn Monroe), and F.D.R.’s marriage was also presumed to have included dalliances of a similar stripe. So, too, were Dwight Eisenhower’s and Lyndon Johnson’s to add just a few to what could be a long list. The point is that those rumors were never the subject of serious journalism and had never been covered in investigative reporting.
But Hart’s was. It didn’t help, certainly, that he had issued a challenge to another Times reporter (E.J. Dionne, to whom he had said, “Follow me around. I don’t care.”). And Hart was brazen about his licentious behavior, happily allowing himself to be photographed with 29-year-old model Donna Rice sitting on his lap while the two were on a yacht named Monkey Business.
The Miami Herald then decided to jump on the “story.” Sullying the journalistic methods and goals of Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who had uncovered the Watergate scandal, the Herald literally camped out at Hart’s DC apartment and documented the comings and goings of him and Ms. Rice. When confronted with the “evidence” by the reporters, Hart was initially evasive and then foolishly defiant. The Herald, not about to be put off by Hart’s intransigence, published its account, and within a week, Hart dropped out of the race, his poll support having been cut in half by the Herald’s reports. Although he half-heartedly attempted to resurrect his campaign in a few primaries, he was a non-factor at the convention and never ran for elective office again.
Now you may say that Hart cooked his own goose, but it was the media (the Miami Herald in particular) that made a story out of what in the past would have been ignored as “not newsworthy.” And in reporting what they had uncovered, the Herald reporters introduced a new form of journalism to American politics. I call it “gotcha journalism,” and in the years since Hart’s demise, it has become a niche specialty that has changed the way we are primed to look at our candidates. (Interestingly, polls taken immediately after Hart withdrew his candidacy found that nearly two-thirds of Americans thought the media had treated him unfairly, and over half said marital infidelity should not be a factor in assessing a presidential candidate.)
When we elect presidents (or Senators or Governors or any public officials) what are we looking for? Does it matter whether the candidate is faithful to his (or her) spouse? Should it? My guess is that most Americans when pressed would still say “no.” Bill Clinton left office with popularity ratings that indicated he could have been elected to a third term were the Constitution not a bar to his candidacy.
On one level, we don’t care what our public servants do in their private lives. And, yet, on another level, we do. When Anthony Weiner, an otherwise bright and impressive former Congressman from New York, insists on texting photos of his private parts to women other than his wife, we cringe and think less of him. But should we know about those texts? Should our media feel compelled to report about them? Do we want our public servants to be so microscopically scrutinized?
How much of the thirst for that kind of journalism relates to the baser instincts we, as a society, have allowed to flourish in the years since Hart’s downfall? I don’t condone Hart (or Clinton or JFK or FDR or anyone else, public servant or private citizen) for betraying marital vows. I honor my commitment to my wife out of respect for the vows we made to each other 36 years ago. I think less of friends who have not maintained the same commitment. But I don’t reject them as human beings or deny their worth in whatever area of expertise or productive activity they may be engaged.
I was disgusted by Clinton’s outrageous actions with Monica Lewinsky, but, given the opportunity, I would have voted for him again, because I think he would have continued to chart the course for the country I wanted. Gotcha journalism got Clinton; it got Anthony Weiner; it got Gary Hart. I wish it hadn’t.
In the end, it is certainly true that we get the government we deserve. It is also true, however, that we get the media coverage of that government that we, implicitly, endorse.