Hart/Rice affair didn’t ruin politics

SCANDAL: The disclosure in 1987 that Sen. Gary Hart was having an affair with Donna Rice doomed his presidential hopes.
SCANDAL: The disclosure in 1987 that Sen. Gary Hart was having an affair with Donna Rice doomed his presidential hopes. AP

Sen. Gary Hart’s fall in 1987, after the Miami Herald exposed the Democratic presidential candidate’s affair, forever changed the way the media covers politicians’ personal scandals.

Everyone knows that. Over the weekend, though, journalists Matt Bai and Frank Bruni, along with Hart himself, made larger claims about the historical significance of the story.

Bai has a new book on Hart’s scandal and its aftermath, an excerpt from which just ran in the New York Times Magazine. Hart suggests that without the scandal he would have beaten George H. W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election. That would have kept Bush’s son from ever getting near the Oval Office, and kept the United States out of Iraq after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Bai buys this theory. He shouldn’t. As my colleague Jonathan Bernstein points out, Republicans were likely to win the 1988 election even if Hart had been the nominee.

The rest of Hart’s contention requires impossible leaps of imagination. Would a President Hart have rolled back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, as Bush the elder did over the opposition of most Democrats? If he had not, what would the Middle East have looked like subsequently? It’s absurd to offer any answer confidently.

Bai also argues that the Hart scandal changed political journalism for the worse — a view for which I have some sympathy. But he exaggerates the consequences of this change. “If Nixon’s resignation created the character culture in American politics, then Hart’s undoing marked the moment when political reporters ceased to care about almost anything else.” Reporters obsessed about exposing candidates’ flaws, and politicians responded by becoming more guarded and less interesting. The new standards of reporting “drove a lot of potential candidates with complex ideas away from the process, and it made it easier for a lot of candidates who knew nothing about policy to breeze into national office.”

Frank Bruni, in his New York Times column, echoed and amplified Bai. He cited a memo from the campaign of Michelle Nunn, who’s running as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate from Georgia, recommending that she strike a position on Israel that would win her financial support from Jews. Bruni adds, “Ah, the heartfelt conviction that animates today’s candidate!”

Let’s get a grip. Candidates have been taking politically expedient positions as long as there have been candidates. Does Bruni think that every politician who voted for Prohibition favored it in his heart?

The presidential cycle right after the one where Hart imploded was won by a candidate who was famous for having complex ideas about policy: Bill Clinton. Discussion of candidates’ personal characteristics has always jostled for space with policy debates. Barry Goldwater had to fend off claims that he was nuts; reporters talked about Ronald Reagan’s age, and made him talk about it, too.

And the press has not, in fact, always concentrated on exposing candidates’ personal flaws: John Edwards was able to get the vice presidential nomination in 2004, make a credible run for president in 2008 and get a fair amount of positive press coverage in both campaigns. If not for the National Enquirer, which exposed details of his extramarital affair long before the establishment press caught on, the full dimensions of his sleaziness might never have been known.

In general, candidates don’t avoid policy detail because they worry about the adversarial press; they avoid it because they would rather be all things to all people.

Bai makes a real contribution to our understanding of the Hart episode. He clears up the widely believed myth — which I had previously accepted — that what led to Hart’s exposure was his challenging the press to follow him around. Bai’s theory that the story explains everything that’s wrong with contemporary politics, though, neither hangs together nor fits the facts.

Bloomberg View