All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid
By Matt Bai
Alfred A. Knopf
Matt Bai’s elegant new book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, borrows its title from the opening line of a W.B. Yeats poem that Gary Hart committed to memory and recited to Martin O’Malley, now governor of Maryland.
The narrator of the poem, “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,” counsels a man who is “honor bred . . . to a harder thing than triumph” that his challenge is to “be secret and exult” in the face of shameless lies. Hart, then in the last throes of his twice-aborted 1988 presidential campaign, identified.
Bai’s title embodies the wry humor and empathy that make All the Truth Is Out such a compelling read. One obvious irony is that “all the truth” about Hart—whose campaign dissolved in 1987 following charges of adultery with a model-actress-pharmaceutical rep named Donna Rice—still isn’t known. Apart from the principals, no one can pinpoint what transpired between Rice and Hart, although it was clearly more than either admitted at the time.
But this “truth” is the most trivial of concerns, its pursuit a blemish on the careers of the reporters who sought it through physical and verbal ambushes, Bai believes. The truth Bai is after is something larger and more substantial. Bai argues that Hart’s fall unleashed what President Bill Clinton would later call “the politics of personal destruction,” and that the fixation of the media on the ill-defined “character issue” constituted a tragedy for the entire country.
“Hart’s humiliation,” Bai writes, “had been the first in a seemingly endless parade of exaggerated scandals and public floggings, the harbinger of an age when the threat of instant destruction would mute any thoughtful debate . . . .” Meanwhile, “a series of more genuine tests of character for a nation and its leaders—challenges posed by industrial collapse, the digital revolution, energy crises, and stateless terrorism—went unmet, with tragic consequences.”
How exactly did Hart—campaign manager to George McGovern, political visionary, progenitor of “New Ideas,” Atari Democrat—come to be derailed from what seemed to have been his destiny? Bai, the national political columnist for Yahoo News, speculates on the cultural and technological forces at work. He thrillingly reconstructs the debacle itself. Finally, he reexamines that charged political moment from a contemporary perspective, drawing on the reflections of Hart, Rice, Hart’s campaign aides, and the reporters involved.
Bai indicts not just the burgeoning culture of celebrity and its preoccupation with sexual peccadilloes, but technological changes that include the rise of videotaping, the fax, and the laptop computer. There were other factors, too, specific to the media, which had ignored the adulterous adventures of both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Before Hart, but not long before, Bai reminds us, there was Watergate, fueling the profession’s self-regard and its growing bloodlust for the (Pulitzer-worthy) takedown.
And Hart had a target on his back: He had twice been separated from his wife, Lee, and had dated other women during those separations (and perhaps not only then). Rumors were in the air, he was the frontrunner, and the press pack found him “weird” and standoffish.
In reconstructing the ensuing cataclysm, Bai draws heavily on the late Richard Ben Cramer’s masterly tome about the 1988 presidential race, What it Takes. Like a great modernist novelist, a James Joyce of New Journalism, Cramer told the story of the campaign from deep inside each candidate’s psyche. He captured Hart in all his infuriating self-righteousness as he was hounded by an increasingly rabid press corps.
But Bai also uses Cramer to make a larger point—that, after the 1988 campaign, candidates would increasingly shield themselves from unguarded moments with reporters. What it Takes, Bai writes, was “a bridge between the last moment, when generations of politicians had trusted most journalists and aspired to be understood, and the next, when they would retreat behind iron walls of bland rhetoric, heavily guarded by cynical consultants.” Cramer, Bai suggests, spawned a legion of (flawed) imitators whose obsession with unflattering revelations ironically made true intimacy impossible.
This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR with the headline, "Original sin."