I have been strangely obsessed with the audiobook of Barton Swaim’s The Speechwriter this year, listening to it (or bits of it) over and over again at bedtime. The relaxed cadences of narrator Jonathan Yen help me sleep. Swaim’s memoir is funny and thoughtful and easy to dip in and out of, perfect for insomniac nights. But I think what really draws me back is the moral ambiguity in his portrait of his own job and of his boss, Mark Sanford, whose embroilment in a sex scandal Swaim recounts. Every time I listen to the book, I consider their actions differently, because Swaim neither lets them off the hook nor imposes a simple judgement. (To be clear, Swaim didn’t do anything scandalous, but he did do things he felt uncomfortable about, like write letters to the editor for Sanford supporters to sign).
This same ambiguity marks Matt Bai’s depiction of Gary Hart in All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, which recounts not just the way exposure of his relationship with Donna Rice destroyed Hart’s political career, but the way–in Bai’s view, at least–it destroyed political journalism, changing it from an intellectual exercise in explaining a candidate’s views to the tabloid pursuit of a candidate’s worst secrets.
If that thesis sounds a bit extreme, well, I think it is. As a well-trained post-modernist, I’m suspicious of master narratives, and the idea that one incident changed journalism forever isn’t fully convincing. Bai’s argument is sometimes more nuanced than his subtitle suggests: there was, he says, a “vortex” forming in the late 80s, as post-Watergate mistrust of politicians came together with the birth of cable news and new technologies like video-tape and satellite that made live television reporting far easier. If Hart hadn’t been sucked into this vortex, Bai writes, someone else soon would have been (hi, Bill Clinton!).
The 1988 election was the first one I was old enough to vote in, and that made this book particularly interesting to me. I remember these events well–though like most Americans, I also remember them wrong: the infamous photo of Hart wearing a T-shirt reading “Monkey Business Crew,” Rice seated on his lap, didn’t emerge until weeks after the story first broke. Bai’s account of these events is detailed and gripping, and clearly relies on precisely the kind of reporting he says political reporters can’t do anymore–gaining a lot of people’s trust and getting them to talk frankly to him (he talks to Hart, Rice, former aides, and lots of political reporters, including those who broke the story). He tells us about how reporters broke the story–and how they debated the decision to do so–and how the Harts and Rice had their lives upended by the subsequent uproar. There are vivid pictures here of Lee Hart escaping her besieged Colorado cabin on the floor of an aide’s car and Rice being swarmed when she steps out of her lawyer’s office to use the restroom.
A lot of the reporters he talks to agree with Bai that the Hart story marked a watershed in political reporting, but I’m not the only reader to wonder whether it was really so pure before that week, or whether we were so much better off when politicians and those who covered them had a “gentlemen’s agreement” not to discuss certain facts. One of Bai’s touchstones in the book is Richard Ben Cramer’s much-praised What It Takes (oh man, I probably have to read that now, and unlike Bai’s book it’s over 1000 pages). Surely much political coverage didn’t rise to that standard. His other touchstone is Neil Postman’s jeremiad Amusing Ourselves to Death, which I think shares with Bai’s book a tendency to overstate things.
A lot in this book is persuasive, though, and if you’re interested in politics and media it’s well worth reading. I don’t think you can pay any attention to the current presidential campaign without realizing Bai is spot on when he talks about the consequences when press and politicians are trying to “outwit and outflank” each other. This combativeness
made it hard for any thoughtful politician to offer arguments that might be considered nuanced or controversial. And, just as consequential, the post-Hart climate made it much easier for candidates who weren’t especially thoughtful–who didn’t have any complex understanding of governance, or even much affinity for it–to gain national prominence.
Bai made me share his regret at what the country lost when it rejected Hart’s service in all but the most modest forms (unlike Swaim, who could not make me mourn Vice President Sanford). There’s a deeply moving scene near the end of the book where Hart recounts the parable of the talents, and clearly sees himself as the servant who has failed to make use of the talents his master gave him, and may be called to account for that failing.
Bai thinks character matters, but suggests that in the age of a tabloid-style focus on scandals, our understanding of character is far too narrow. We focus on flaws, mistakes, and sins at the expense of understanding the whole person; “We’re not the worst thing we’ve ever done in our lives,” he quotes Bob Kerrey as saying. And he argues, too, that we aren’t good at distinguishing between character flaws or misdeeds that affect how someone would govern, and those that don’t. (Does lying about adultery mean someone is a habitual liar on other matters, for instance?). On those points, this engaging book reaffirmed my beliefs. We may not have fallen from a golden age of political journalism the week the Hart-Rice story broke, but we could sure be doing better than we are right now, when drivel fills the gaping news hole.