The Foxhole: Matt Bai on Gary Hart, tabloid politics, and America’s ‘Aha!’ moment

Matt Bai is a sharp and likable guy, a seasoned reporter with an open face and ears that are always wide open: Like all good reporters, Bai – the national political columnist for Yahoo News, formerly a longtime political correspondent for the New York Times Magazine – is a very good listener.

Yet even Bai, whose status among the top tier of modern political reporters has earned him a measure of direct access to the people he covers, is haunted by the idea that modern campaigns have slipped out of reach for even the best reporters. They are too tightly controlled, from the candidate on down to the lowliest intern, and Bai is left “watching campaigns but feeling like there’s this distance, feeling like people are always afraid of you, felling like you can’t get at the ideas.”

“You grow up reading these books,” Bai said in a recent visit to “The Foxhole,” “reading [Richard Ben Cramer’s] ‘What It Takes,’ reading [Hunter S. Thompson’s] ‘Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail’ [’72], feeling like what you want, if you want to be a journalist, is to be in the front row of history, to see and explain it to people, and experience it. And the reality has been, for most us, very different….You do have the sense that some real sense of who [politicians] are as human beings, and their worldviews and what they believe, and where they came to believe it, gets lost now because of the environment.”

All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid” (Knopf, September 2014), a book Bai spent five years researching and writing, identifies the moment when it became unmistakably clear to politicians and their campaign staffs that they could no longer afford to be open with reporters. This was the Gary Hart scandal of 1987, when the career of the senator from Colorado – a ruggedly handsome, Kennedy-esque figure then making a credible run for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination – imploded in a sex scandal: Hart’s affair with a twenty-eight-year-old former model and Miss South Carolina named Donna Rice. Their relationship was captured in an infamous photograph of them cuddling along a pier in Miami, not far from a boat where they were to spend time, named – of all things – “Monkey Business.”

“Cultural changes happen, you know, gradually,” said Bai. “There’s not a switch that gets flipped and it’s one way one day and one way the next. But I think you can point to this moment where it manifested itself. You can say, you know, in 1987 there’s this moment where everybody went ‘Aha! Now we’re there. This is where we are now.’ And that was Gary Hart’s moment, and I think it had tremendous reverberations.

Seven years after publishing a conventional profile of Hart – in which Bai depicted him as a visionary politician who doomed himself to obscurity, the most able man of his generation never to have become president – the writer, stimulated in part by Hart’s displeasure with the story, began to revisit the man and his scandal. “I began to think differently about that moment and about him. And then when I began to ask questions and poke around in the history of that scandal, I found that it wasn’t at all the way we thought we remembered it,” Bai told me. “There were some really significant differences between what was accepted wisdom about that moment and what actually happened. And I became kind of obsessed with it, as a reporter does.”

Since his presidential ambitions evaporated, Hart had only written cursorily about the affair and not spoken publicly about it. He cooperated with Bai, however, granting him extensive interviews and working patiently to sift through evidence the reporter-turned-historian had developed. The problems Bai discovered with the official mythology of the Hart scandal involved such critical and seemingly settled matters as the taunt Hart issued to reporters, effectively daring them to follow him around; the origins of the Miami Herald reporting that ultimately undid the senator; and the circumstances surrounding the release of the infamous “Monkey Business” photo.

Still, one of the key questions Bai sought to answer remained: How could Hart have imagined, by the spring of 1987, that he was still living in the Kennedy era, when the news media routinely ignored or glossed over the personal transgressions of presidential candidates? In Bai’s eyes, the answer resided in Hart’s Coloradan roots, his experiences in politics right up through the weeks preceding his defenestration, and the presence, all around him, of reporters and peers whom he couldn’t imagine making an issue of his private life and character.

BAI: He can be made to believe that somebody might write that story but he can’t for the life of him imagine that somebody’s going to go searching for the evidence. To him, that’s like thinking that aliens are going to beam down.

ROSEN: It’s just inconceivable, in his experience and ken, that this kind of attention would be paid to that kind of matter.

BAI: It is, especially since the older guys who he’d known in the press corps for years – close friends who knew all about his extracurricular activities and with whom he’d had dinner and drinks, you know, weekly – you know, they’re still there! I mean, they’re still on the campaign. So even though you have this younger generation of reporters coming in, you have this, you know, post-Watergate generation that’s just arriving on the trail with a very different sensibility, to Hart it all feels more or less the same as it was. And I think you have to have some sympathy for a person caught in a moment like that.

“In every moment, if you cover politics long enough – and it’s not just politics, anywhere in the culture – in any moment, somebody gets caught in-between the currents of social change,” Bai added. “Somebody ends up with a foot in one place and a foot in the other; there’s always somebody.”

James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show “The Foxhole.”