Matt Bai, born two months before Richard Nixon was elected president, drifted into political writing for the same reason campaign reporters of my generation — considerably older but, as “All the Truth Is Out’’ shows, not considerably wiser — were drawn to our craft: “the idea that you actually got to know the minds of the public servants you were writing about.’’ We got the last sip of that cup. By the time we passed it to Bai and his fellow travelers on the campaign plane, it was dry — and cracked.
“[M]ost of the time,’’ Bai writes in an introspective book that is set in another era but offers insights into ours, “we had no real access, and we really didn’t know anything about the candidates personally you couldn’t have learned from browsing their websites or watching speeches on YouTube.’’ That’s too bad. He missed tons of fun, and some very searching conversations on planes, buses, and the crowded back seats of staff cars. Presumably he got the same lousy box lunches we did.
He’s still at this game — the very choice of that word is a demonstration of my own shallowness — but he’s also full of regrets, mostly because he thinks he missed the Golden Age. At the same time he is possessed of a vital insight: that the issues Gary Hart stressed in the 1980s, such as terrorism and energy, are the issues of his time as well. And in looking back on the political firestorm that engulfed Hart in 1987, he discovered what most of us then never knew or forgot: that Hart wasn’t driven from the presidential race but instead walked away from it.
“I’m not a beaten man,’’ he said at the time, and, in examining my old clippings, I see that I had neither the wit nor the intelligence to include this riff in my report for my paper, The Wall Street Journal. “I’m an angry and defiant man.’’
Steeped in politics from his experience on the commission that redrew the Democratic Party rules, as campaign manager for George McGovern’s 1972 campaign and as an intellectually adventurous senator from Colorado, Hart emerged into the broad American consciousness as the cerebral outsider with the devilish twinkle in his eyes who won the New Hampshire primary in 1984, when he defeated former Vice President Walter F. Mondale with an intoxicating “new ideas’’ campaign.
He didn’t prevail that year but was the prohibitive favorite the next time. But he knew there was a contradiction at the heart of his 1988 campaign: He was instinctively an insurgent, and insurgents aren’t supposed to be frontrunners. He calculated that the best way to address that conundrum was to follow his other instinct, which was to run a campaign that held the totems of campaigning in contempt.
Bai’s book describes that 1988 campaign, but it is not a campaign book. It focuses instead on a larger issue and lesson, which is how American politics — first warped in 1960 by Theodore White’s “The Making of a President,” an examination of what happened inside a campaign — was further distorted by a new generation of reporters’ examinations of what happened inside a candidate’s head, or inside his bedroom, or inside his marriage.
Before long, of course, a candidate’s inner life and inner thoughts would become matters of public conversation, beginning with the question a Washington Post reporter, Paul Taylor, hurled at Hart at Dartmouth’s Hanover Inn after the Miami Herald reported the candidate had spent the night with a young woman: “Have you ever committed adultery?’’
But in asking a presidential candidate about immorality, newspaper reporters were implicitly raising questions about their own professional morality, questions we on the campaign plane and others in newsrooms across the country still find exceedingly disquieting and remain largely unanswered.
This book — the title comes from a W.B. Yeats poem — raises these questions again, at a time when newspapers are often regarded in eclipse; when cool people don’t give a hoot about what newspapers have to say; and when Bai, a former Boston Globe reporter, feels the need to explain that the editorial page of The New York Times “carried a tremendous amount of influence in 1987.’’
But this question persists, as Bill Clinton and John Edwards and many others can affirm: Does private sexual comportment offer vital insights into public civic comportment?
Bai examines this question with a mix of historical research, contemporary reporting, and smart reflection. As a first-hand witness, I didn’t learn much that I didn’t know in 1987, but the key to this volume is Bai’s thoughtful examination of the big questions that were left unanswered then and hang uneasily in the political atmosphere in now.
I was the Journal’s lead political writer when this question, as ancient as the time of the Greeks, was raised in Hart’s case. Albert R. Hunt Jr., the paper’s Washington bureau chief, and I discussed the episode that Sunday morning, and he happily bought my argument that the paper should not write about it; it wasn’t our sort of story. It was a high-minded luxury that we could not afford to continue even for one more day, as the Hart campaign spiraled into chaos.
Bai says what is obvious — that the Donna Rice furor irreparably hurt Hart — but he also says what is less obvious, and very wise: that it hurt us all. “Hart served to remind us,’’ he writes, “of the decisions we had collectively made, the moment when the nation and its media took a hard turn toward abject triviality.’’
The result is a political class more scripted and less spontaneous, more cautious and less authentic. I believe my generation of political reporters knew the candidates — and their characters, which was supposed to be what the Hart episode was all about — pretty well. Bai suggests his doesn’t.
That may matter, and it may not, for it was my generation of reporters that ruined it all for his. But the content, context, and conduct of our politics does matter, and who can argue that our politics is better today than it was when that fateful weekend in 1987 began? Bai can’t, and I can’t either.David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.