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How a presidential candidate’s personal life changed political journalism

When did the more intimate -- and sometimes sordid -- aspects of the personal lives of politicians become fair game for reporters? Matt Bai of Yahoo News says it was back in 1987, when presidential candidate Gary Hart’s extramarital dalliance was made public. Bai joins Gwen Ifill to discuss his new book, "All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid."

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Sex, drugs and politics, it's all fair game now for reporters covering public officials, but it wasn't always.

    Matt Bai, national political columnist for Yahoo News, pinpoints the exact moment when he says it all changed, back in 1987, when a presidential candidate's extramarital dalliance was made public.

    His book is "All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid."

    Matt Bai joins us now.

    So, does the Gary Hart episode, who we're talking about, 1987, did it change politics, or did it change journalism, or both?

  • MATT BAI, Yahoo News:

    I think it changed both.

    I mean, it's not like you flip a switch and one moment is all one way and one moment is all the next. But there are moments where great change takes place very quickly. And I think there were a lot of things churning in the culture in the mid-1980s and around 1987, things that were changing the media, things that were changing the society. The echoes of Watergate had started — you know, were still reverberating.

    And I think, in that moment, decisions were made to treat a presidential candidate very differently from the way we had ever treated one before.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You mentioned echoes of Watergate, which is generally considered to be a good thing, those kinds of echoes, at least for journalism, and sometimes — and also for politics.

    But did this change — following Gary Hart, exposing his weakest moment, did it change politics or journalism for better or for worse?

  • MATT BAI:

    Well, I would argue for worse.

    But that doesn't mean to say that everything that came before was great, because I think there was a certain coziness and clubbiness probably prior to that — that some of the younger journalists were right to question.

    But I think after Hart, the guiding ethos of political journalism really begins to shift inexorably away from the elimination of ideas and world views and agendas and more toward exposing the lie. We know there's a lie. We know there's hypocrisy. And hypocrisy is now very broadly defined. Our job is to find out what it is.

    And it creates a focus on scandal. And what it does, it reduces — it reduces character and fitness to, you know, very narrowly defined moments in a person's life. As Bob Kerrey said to me when I was researching the book, he said, you know, we're not the worst things we have ever done in our lives. There's a tendency to think that we are.

    And I think that the problem with so much modern political journalism is that we do reduce everyone to the worst moment of their lives.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But when you talk about character, 1988, that presidential year, was the first time I ever covered a presidential campaign. And for my entire time, seven campaigns since, I remember character as being a central part of the narrative of who a candidate is and how voters make their decisions. Is that not legitimate?

  • MATT BAI:

    It is. And character has always been part of politics and had been around Nixon and became especially important after Watergate.

    The question is in what context do you define a person's character, because it encompasses a lot of things. Do they duck votes? Do they lie to their constituents? Is there corruption? All of these things are all a part of public character and private character as well.

    What I think the shift that begins with Hart is to define character and disqualify someone on the basis of it by one instance or even a pattern of personal behavior that may or may not be relevant or may or may not be large in terms of the whole.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    In Gary Hart's case, it was being caught on a weekend cruise to Bimini with a model, pharmaceutical saleswoman named Donna Rice. And he was exposed by The Miami Herald, and then the one-two punch was delivered by The Washington Post, which asked him whether he thought adultery was something which presidential candidates shouldn't engage in.

    You talked to Gary Hart, 20 hours' worth of interviews for this book. How does he reflect on that now?

  • MATT BAI:

    I think it's extremely difficult and has been very difficult for Hart.

    And I'll tell you, Gwen, what moved to write the book is not so much the animating themes about privacy and politics, because it's not a manifesto by any means. It's a story.

    And what motivated me was this gripping, unbelievable story, first of the fall, right, as you point out, with four reporters backing the presumed nominee of the Democratic Party up against a brick wall in an oil-stained alley, right, while he's wearing a white hoodie, peppering him with questions about his personal life, the news conference in New Hampshire where Paul Taylor asked him this question he's never been asked, no candidate has ever been asked before: Have you cheated on your wife? Have you committed adultery?

    But then, the years after, which for me is very important, it's this period you're asking about, right, where he goes into exile, basically. He's stigmatized. He wants to serve in some capacity. He wants to come back into public life.

    But because he's the first, because of what a national joke he became in that moment, it's exceedingly hard for him to overcome. He carries around in those years a lot of guilt for people he let down, but — just by putting himself in that situation, but he also carries around a sense of real unfairness, because he sees so many other politicians, Bill Clinton not least, you know, move past scandal and succeed.

    And he's not really willing to do the kinds of things we expect a politician to do to rehabilitate his image in the modern era, and to go on the tour, the Oprah interview, whatever it is. And, to me, that's just a gripping, compelling, human story that really transcends politics.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Some of these guys survived it. I think of David Vitter, the senator from Louisiana.

  • MATT BAI:

    Sure.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    He got caught up in a scandal, but he is still serving in the Senate. Did something change that allowed that to happen?

  • MATT BAI:

    Well, I think so.

    I mean, you will have some people who argue that that is the success story, right? The good news is, we have learned to work through all this. And now you can go out and do whatever you want, and the public is a little desensitized.

    I think it's actually deeper and a little more troubling than that. I think what we did was change the definition of political leadership and the definition of fitness. I think we drove away a lot of people who didn't want to serve because that process was unendurable. And we reward people who will do anything, subject their family to anything, share any emotion, tell any lie to evade the traps and find their way into office.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Final question: Did the reporters who were central to this — you mentioned Paul Taylor, but also Tom Fiedler from The Miami Herald, Jim McGee, do they look back on their role on this and say, I have some regrets?

  • MATT BAI:

    Well, I spoke to Tom and Paul and to others involved.

    There are varying levels of conflict, but all of them, I think, are — you know, feel satisfied with what they have done, you know, generally stand behind the decisions they made then.

    And I sympathize. I mean, I'm not indicting them, because I think, in that moment, any of us could have made the same decision. I wasn't there. All of us in our careers face difficult choices. What I do have a problem with is, I think a lot of it was misremembered.

    As you know from reading the book, that there were — there is a lot of mythology around this that people have wrong. And I think it is the responsibility, both of the journalists who were there, but of those of us who came later, to stand up and say, not only do we have the record wrong on this in a lot of ways, but we failed to grapple with the ramifications of it, and we need to do that as an industry.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I find it an interesting read and probably a cautionary tale. And it should be assigned in journalism classes as well.

  • MATT BAI:

    I would be happy if it was, every journalism class.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I'll bet you would be.

    Matt Bai, the author of "All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid," thank you.

  • MATT BAI:

    Thank you, Gwen. I appreciate it.

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