Monday, October 13, 2014

Book Review - All The Truth Is Out

Matt Bai has written an indispensable meditation on modern political journalism that directs far more of its bite and vitriol at his own journalistic brethren than the book's ostensible focus, Gary Hart, the one-time Colorado Senator and two-time candidate for President who was brought low by a sex scandal during his second run for that office in 1987. All The Truth Is Out neatly captures a moment in our modern political history when journalists reporting on national leaders began what has become an inexorable shift from substance to flash, policy to personality, while largely abdicating its role as fact checker and explainer in favor of an obsessive drive for some odd combination of Woodward and Bernstein notoriety and minor cable television news celebrity. 

As Bai shows, that Hart became the poster child for this phenomenon was not all that surprising. Hart's fondness for women was well-known all the way back to his role as George McGovern's campaign manager in 1972, but as Bai discusses, that era, when reporters and those they reported on had a tacit agreement that in exchange for candidate access there was a "code of the road" that kept such dalliances out of the paper was waning as the 1980s dawned. Younger reporters weened on the cinematic drama of Nixon's downfall coming at the hands of a couple of Washington Post Metro reporters re-imagined the role of "reporter" in our political life. 

Of course, Hart is hardly blameless. Had he not chased women, there would not have been anything for reporters to cover. A man who was the front runner for the Democratic nomination in 1988 and who led then-Vice President George H.W. Bush unquestionably engaged in dicey behavior; however, as the tale is unspooled, the seaminess of the entire affair becomes clear and the media's role becomes less valorous. Reporters from the Miami Herald tipped by one of Donna Rice's friends about her liaisons with Hart staked out his D.C. townhouse, observing his comings and goings before confronting him in an alley over the woman they saw enter his home. In an era before crisis communications, Hart's stumbling replies and the subsequent media horde that descended on his family home in Colorado was sui generis and much of what was done during those few days was ad-libbed and unplanned. The coup d'grace is applied by the Washington Post's Paul Taylor, burned in missing the initial scoop, asks Hart directly at a press conference if he has committed adultery. In Bai's telling, the hush in the room suggests a rubicon being crossed, but Hart's answer was ultimately beside the point. Had he not dropped out of the race, the Post was prepared to expose another affair he had with a D.C. socialite. 

The whole episode may seem pedestrian by today's media standards, but the questions Bai raises are important ones. Is it fair for a public official's entire career and reputation to be re-defined by a single incident? Does that conduct disqualify him or her from ever entering the public arena ever again? And what is the media's responsibility in all of this? Obviously, we have had many chances to ponder these (and other) questions in the intervening years, but the results are rather arbitrary. David Vitter's name was found in a madam's black book, yet he remains in office. Eliot Spitzer paid for sex, and he was forced from office. Anthony Weiner did not even technically engage in sexual conduct but became a laughingstock, while Scott DesJarlais cheated on his wife and encouraged his paramour to have an abortion, yet he is still a member of Congress. 

The dive toward a lowest common denominator reached its nadir (or apex, depending on your point of view) 11 years after Hart's campaign imploded when President Clinton was impeached. And while reporters gorged like hogs on the salacious details of Clinton's affair, the American people were well ahead of the curve in terms of putting the President's admittedly reprehensible behavior in its proper place. While Clinton's personal popularity plummeted, his performance as President was viewed favorably and his party won seats in the 1998 off-year election - a rarity for Presidents in their sixth year in office. 

But the memory hole is an odd one. As recently as this past week's Time magazine, in discussing U.S. relations with Iran, noted "several American Presidents have been burned by trusting Iranian 'moderates.' Ronald Reagan wound up with the Iran-Contra scandal." (emphasis mine) Note the passive voice about a scandal that was breaking at the same time as Gary Hart's. As if an affirmative decision from within the White House to violate federal law and, but for some selective "memory lapses" by Reagan, would have legitimately opened the door for impeachment, was somehow foisted on an unsuspecting President. And that is the problem that Bai so acutely diagnoses. If anything from the violation of federal law to an advance staffer's hiring of a prostitute are all equivalent "-Gate" level scandals, it is impossible to provide the context or sense of proportionality that is woefully missing in today's political discourse. 

And Bai's observation about context is particularly acute. The half-life of a candidate's qualification for office has gone from whether he lied about cheating on his wife (Gary Hart - 1987) to having the host of Meet the Press question whether a candidate for Senate is disqualified from that office because she would not share who she voted for for President in 2012 (Chuck Todd speaking about Alison Lundergran Grimes - 2014). This reductio ad absurdum is not demanded by the populace, it's an affirmative decision on the part of the media to turn national politics into precisely the tabloid clown car that erased the distinction between the National Enquirer on the one hand, and the Miami Herald and Washington Post on the other, yet all of whom got their hands dirty ferreting out the hidden sex lives of Presidential candidates. And while the media crowned itself the moral arbiters of our time, as Bai points out, even as Hart was walking away from the campaign, he did so in front of many reporters who he (Hart) knew had engaged in precisely the same type of conduct he was forced out of the race for.

But the media has created a fail safe way of handling these issues that absolves them of any responsibility or accountability. The trap the media set with Hart is one they would use over and over again - arguing that the indiscretion was not the disqualifying fact, it was the lying about the indiscretion that was the true crime. Of course, this convenient tautology puts a candidate in an impossible situation - honesty would be condemned, but lying would sic the hounds until the truth emerged. In the balance, an entire career, in Hart's case, was reduced to a photo of a twenty-something sitting on his lap in front of a boat called the Monkey Business while ignoring the more than decade's worth of service Hart had provided as a campaign manager to George McGovern and a widely respected U.S. Senator. Bai argues persuasively that the nation was a poorer place for this trade off. While Hart's conduct may have precluded him from becoming President, he was shunned from polite D.C. society and thus, from valuable contributions he may have made to our nation's discourse. 

Indeed, the portrayal of Gary Hart is largely sympathetic - that of a man with a preternatural sense of the big issues that have animated our world but ostracized because he happened to come along at a time when the tabloid and political streams crossed. As Bai notes, the upshot of the Hart "scandal" was a pack mentality that turned every political reporter into "amateur private investigators and psychotherapists" constantly digging for dirt on people whose hypocrisy was presumed, the only question being how it would be exposed. Lost in this monomaniacal desire to expose politicians as inherently fraudulent was both the context and nuance that would separate a high crime from a misdemeanor. 

When the media dismisses all of this by saying we elect the people we deserve, they are engaging in a convenient trope that is too cute by half. The record low approval rating of Congress and the general malaise (to borrow from Jimmy Carter) in our nation suggests that we are not a people who thinks our political leaders reflect our views. While majorities support things like background checks for gun purchases or taxing the wealthy to pay down the debt and deficit, heavily gerrymandered Congressional districts ensure these things never come to pass. The impact of the media's interest in turning every Presidential contest into a horse race that ignores policy was seen to devastating effect in 2000 - Al Gore rightly predicted that the massive tax cuts George W. Bush wanted to enact would blow a hole in our budget (and it did), but Gore was mocked because of the type of clothes he wore and the vaunted "lock box" he wanted to put all that surplus money into (imagine where our budget and debt levels would be had we listened to the then-Vice President). But because Bush was deemed a "regular guy" (never mind his blue blood roots and Ivy League education), all that "fuzzy math" was subsumed in the media grinder that conflated authenticity with competence. 

And things have only gotten worse. As the media searches for any whiff of scandal, politicians create an ever more impermeable bubble around themselves to avoid "gaffes" or moments of honesty the media claim will humanize, not destroy, them. In the balance, these two groups have talked past one another. Reporters on the 2012 campaign trail amused themselves with pithy tweets about poorly stocked filing centers and delayed departures while the candidates utilized their own YouTube channels to get their messages past the media "filter." The loser in all of this is the public, because at a time when we have access to more information than at any time in history, the media's default to wall-to-wall scandal coverage when, say, is "glitchy," evaporates when the problem is solved and more than 8 million people use it to get health insurance. 

As Jeff Zucker, the President of CNN Worldwide recently said, "Chaos is good for CNN." But that is a maxim that all the media has absorbed. But in its endless chase for ratings, the media has confused the corporate bottom line with the public service it is supposed to serve. Suggesting that their reporting is simply giving people what they want is also true of everything from junk food to alcohol, but we all know those things are not good for you either. What All The Truth Is Out identifies is the point in time when things changed, and unquestionably for the worse. 

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