ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In May 1987, Sen. Gary Hart stepped up to a microphone and pulled out of the race for president. Hart spoke not only about his decision, but about a sea change he perceived in how the media covered national politics.
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GARY HART: I guess I’ve become some kind of a rare bird – some extraordinary creature that has to be dissected by those who analyze politics to find out what makes them tick.
SIEGEL: That that sort of dissection of candidates is no longer rare. NPR commentator and former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel has this review of a new book that tells the story of Gary Hart’s downfall and how it resonates today.
TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when the issue of a candidate’s marital infidelity simply didn’t come up in a political campaign and – believe it or not – wasn’t addressed by the media. Times have changed. And Matt Bai, who is an experienced political reporter, believes he can pinpoint almost precisely when that change took place. It was 1987, and the odds on favorite to win the nomination of the Democratic Party as its candidate for president was Gary Hart.
Hart, for those of you too young to remember, was the tall, lean, handsome, super smart senator from Colorado. Hart was way ahead in the polls until reports of adultery surfaced. Later, the National Enquirer published a happy snapshot of the senator with an attractive young women on his lap. Sen. Hart was married, but not to the woman on his lap. It didn’t help that the two of them had just taken an overnight cruise on a boat called Monkey Business.
Prior to 1987, the establishment media didn’t touch that kind of story. This time, for reasons that Matt Bai covers in great detail, was different. Even before the photographs surfaced, Hart withdrew from the campaign. Bai clearly likes and admires Hart. His book resonates for regret for what might’ve been and disdain for what has happened to the world of politics and journalism.
Three and a half months after shutting down his presidential run, Sen. Hart reconsidered and appeared with me on Nightline prior to re-entering the campaign. Although the issue of adultery had forced Hart out of the race, he had never addressed it directly. This time, he did. In response to my question, Hart conceded cheating on his wife.
He would not, he said, get into specifics. I have been made to make a declaration here that I think is unprecedented in American political history, he said, and I regret it. That question should never have been asked, and I shouldn’t have to answer it. I don’t believe that Sen. Hart intended that as a personal reproach. He was simply observing that the floodgates were now open, for good or ill issues that had previously been treated as private family matters were now fair game for the world at large.
Matt Bai has written an important and compassionate book about the downfall of a gifted and fundamentally decent politician. All of us have reason to regret the cheapening and coarsening of the American political process and the journalism that reports on it. A politician’s personal behavior is certainly a relevant factor to consider. But if, as is often the case these days, it obscures all other important issues, it’ll drive legions of highly competent men and women out of politics. Matt Bai reminds us that the loss of people like Gary Hart is a high price to pay.
SIEGEL: The book by Matt Bai is called “All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid.” Our review was by NPR commentator Ted Koppel.
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