ALL THE TRUTH IS OUT: THE WEEK POLITICS WENT TABLOID
By Matt Bai
Any good history book looks in two directions. Most obviously it looks back, and makes a claim for why its subject marks a significant historical moment. For Matt Bai the undoing of Gary Hart’s bid to become the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party in the lead-up to the 1988 election because of his dalliance with Donna Rice was one such moment, despite its not being that well remembered today.
Politics was changing, and the way politics was being covered in the media. CNN and Fox were just getting started, “the advance guard of the communications revolution.” “Character,” however loosely defined, was becoming an issue that had to be addressed, and entertainment (or tabloid) values were in the driver’s seat. Watergate had been a game changer, taking down a sitting president, but Hart’s scandal would mark “another step down in the cascade that was carrying political journalism into dark and unexplored waters.” One reporter’s decision to ask Hart a question about adultery is described as a step so momentous it “it would shock the political world and forever shift the boundaries of campaign journalism.” So 1987 was a watershed.
But historical moments exist on a continuum. “The week politics went tabloid” didn’t come entirely out of left field. Throughout the book Bai comes back to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) as his North Star on the nature of this great transformation, and Postman was extrapolating from trends already well advanced in the culture. Of perhaps more interest to us today, however, is the way historical moments also allow us better insight into current events, helping to answer the question of How did we get here?
The gorilla in the room here is Donald Trump. Bai’s book was published in 2014 and so Trump isn’t mentioned, being just a minor television personality at the time. But Bai’s analysis of where political trends were taking us gave us a stark warning of what was to come:
There had been plenty of “horse race” journalism before the 1980s, stories about who was likely to win which primaries and all of that, but the candidates themselves were discussed mostly for their arguments and strategies, rather than for their skills as evaders and salesmen. In the Age of Show Business, however, the measure of a leader became his hunger for the game, his talent for dazzling crowds, his deftness at surviving an unreasonably brutal and small-minded process. We openly admired roguish candidates who could dexterously deflect assaults on their character – from their adversaries, and from us – and disdained those who thought themselves above it. We set traps and then marveled at those who could escape them with Houdini-like grace, which is why Clinton came to be known, almost universally, as the most talented statesman of the age, despite having achieved relatively little of his governing agenda. In short, we came to confuse actual leadership with the capacity to endure, and to entertain.
But wait, there’s more! Afraid of intense media scrutiny, candidates would learn from the Hart scandal to play it safe, becoming scripted and anodyne while insulating themselves from the press by teams of handlers. This would make any display of authenticity gold. John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” would be an early example, thrilling reporters starved for “any contact with candidates that felt even remotely genuine” and unfolding “like a political reality show in the age before reality programming became commonplace.” And so to The Apprentice.
At the same time, a cult of celebrity would develop that “overwhelmed any discussion of intellect and experience among politicians” and further erased the boundaries between public service and entertainment. Sarah Palin was the precursor to Trumpism here, bringing “stagecraft and stardom” to the campaign trail and absolutely nothing else. Such were the lessons to be learned.
All the Truth Is Out is a readable and informative account of this signature moment, though I think it does oversell that moment in a perfectly understandable effort by the author to build up its importance. I can understand being sympathetic toward Hart, but I think Bai goes too far in building him up as a lost leader.
In a couple of places I found my own memory of the events corrected. It’s a popular misunderstanding, for example, that the surveillance of Hart was a response to the challenge he made to the press to “follow me around.” In fact, his townhouse was already being staked out. It’s also the case that the famous photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap, she in a short dress and he in a Monkey Business t-shirt, only became public after Hart had dropped out of the primaries.
These are essential points but they aren’t the main takeaways, which have to do with the downward spiral of American politics and political journalism that has brought us to the present point. I know a lot of people who don’t bother with books like this precisely because they are thought to be only timely. With perspective, however, they are much more than that.
Review first published online November 23, 2019.