A new look at a scandal that changed American politics.
In 2002, former New York Times Magazine chief political correspondent Bai (The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, 2007) wrote an article about Gary Hart’s 1987 presidential bid, a campaign that ended with the media’s splashy coverage of Hart’s apparent adultery. The author arrived “at the same psychoanalytical conclusion on which a lot of Hart’s contemporaries had settled back then—that Hart had to have harbored some self-destructive impulse to begin with,” risking his reputation by getting involved with “some model.” Now, more than a decade later, Bai takes a far different view of the episode: “It was the story that changed all the rules” for journalists covering politicians; “the moment when the worlds of public service and tabloid entertainment…finally collided.” The author argues that the Watergate scandal “left the entire country feeling duped and betrayed”; political reporters wondered how Nixon, “a man whose corruption and pettiness were so self-evident,” could have won two presidential elections. Suspicion came to focus on candidate Hart because of his widely known womanizing and his aloof and detached manner. For this book, Bai interviewed Hart, as well as reporters and editors involved in publicizing the alleged affair. The Washington Post reporter who aggressively pursued the story told Bai that he had felt “relieved, then triumphant” when Hart withdrew from the presidential race. The way he saw it, writes the author, “he and his colleagues had managed to protect the nation from another rogue and liar.” As Bai sees it, however, the nation lost “one of the great political minds of his time.” Hart’s attempt at another run failed, and until recently, he was marginalized from politics.
Hart once said that obsessive scrutiny of sex as an indicator of character would give America the politicians it deserved. In this probing narrative, Bai comes to another dismal conclusion: It would give America the news coverage it deserved—entertainment-driven, dominated by shallow pundits, and bereft of intellect and ideas.