All the Truth Is Out, by Matt Bai

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.


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8 Responses to All the Truth Is Out, by Matt Bai

  1. Kaetrin says:

    Your thoughts about Bai’s book reminded me of a podcast I listened to a year or two ago with an Australian economist (George Megalogenes) who, when he speaks, is very understandable to non-economists (although I found his book a bit too dense when I borrowed it from the library – it was a bit of a snoozefest so I didn’t finish much of it). He was saying how the political climate has changed (media and technology intersecting to make it all about the “sound bite”) from what it was in the 70s and 80s or even before then.

    Not so much that it was a golden age where no-one every did anything wrong (as if) but that politics tended to be a long game then, where politicians had a generational view and a vision for their consituency whereas these days, it is about getting elected, and, once elected, getting re-elected. Bipartisanship is not often a vote-winner unfortunately and populist policies tend to dominate.

    I remember he specifically cited a time in the 70s when the leaders of the two major parties got together behind closed doors and agreed that Australia needed more immigration and decided to accept Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees who were escaping Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot (respectively). They presented a united front to the general public and, in effect, were a kind of joint father-figure, hand-holding nervous and xenophobic Australians who may have worried about the labour market or communism or something else.

    Now, we have both major parties with a policy of locking up refugees and, to one degree or another (all bad), denying basic human rights to people seeking asylum, because these policies are (I’m ashamed to say) vote-winners here. Whitlam and Fraser could have taken that tack in the 70s (it wasn’t that far away from the “white Australia policy” after all) but they chose what was best for the country and did not fall prey to those arguments. Unfortunately, I just can’t imagine that happening now.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think the era of the sound bite is definitely part of the problem. Everything you say is recorded (which of course didn’t used to be true) and circulated, so politicians don’t want to say anything unscripted. (Sometimes I think social media will make this happen for regular people, too. We’ll all be using talking points). This came up in Barton Swaim’s book too–one of the things he talks about is how politicians are expected to talk way too much, about too many things; no one could possibly have opinions on everything they are asked about. (He compared the number of public speeches Nixon gave vs. Clinton and the difference was enormous–like, over 100 times more for Clinton). So of course they have to have vague, pre-approved talking points for everything.

      One thing I’ve really noticed living next door to my homeland is how much the endless election cycle and the huge amount of money in campaigning effects things. Here in Canada there really are times when the government is governing, not running for re-election. Although there are also things like ads informing us about government programs that are really, clearly, promotional even though they are pretending not to be, outside of election cycles. Maybe that’s part of why I can enjoy a book like this rather than just being depressed by it; I have some distance.

      • Kaetrin says:

        At the moment we have an only-slightly-ironic twitter account called “whoisPM” and every 10 minutes or so it tweets to tell us the name of the current Prime Minister:

        It's November 18, 2015 at 02:01PM and the current Australian Prime Minister is Malcolm Turnbull.— The Australian PM is (@WhoIsPM) November 18, 2015

        We’ve had 5 PMs in 4 years! (and they’ve all be crap IMO). Argh.

  2. Sunita says:

    What a great post. This is the kind of book I can’t read because despite being a political scientist I’m not a political junkie, but I like hearing what thoughtful people who aren’t mired in the trenches think.

    Like you, I think Bai’s effort to make this a watershed is way overblown (based on your description of it and other reviews). I also think he fell in love with his subject, which is understandable (at the time, Hart was very much a One of Us candidate for progressives/liberals). But it takes a lot more than brilliance to be a good president (or a good anything except maybe theoretical scientist); Bill Clinton is super smart but that’s just one arrow in his quiver. And Hart was someone voters could respect, but not necessarily like or trust. His aloofness wasn’t just about privacy, or it didn’t come across that way; it also conveyed a sense of superiority, which is fatal for a politician who has to appeal across the political spectrum. At least that’s how I remember him, and I was favorably disposed.

    Kaetrin is right, I think, that in the 1970s politics was a long game. But there were plenty of mediocre, non-substantive candidates in the 19th and 20th centuries. And it is not at all clear to me that the Gentlemen’s agreement of the pre-Hart era was a good one. Sure, we avoided talking about irrelevant privacy issues, but we also pretended that JFK didn’t do wildly inappropriate things (by political and probably security standards) and that private acts had no public ramifications whatsoever. The severity of Eisenhower’s heart attack was kept from the nation, but there were any number of important policy decisions being made. I don’t want to go back to those days.

    • Kaetrin says:

      Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could find a happy medium? 🙂

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you! I found the book really engaging reading and it raised all kinds of fascinating questions–some intentionally, some not. Like you, I read a bunch of other reviews, because it provoked interesting ones and people argued back.

      As I was reading I did think that his view of Hart, though not totally uncritical, was rather hagiographic. And it’s easy to feel nostalgia for someone who never got to be president–we don’t know if he really would have governed successfully, and his desire to be seen as an outsider in his own party, among other things, might well have hampered his attempts.

      I was at Bryn Mawr when all this happened, and what I remember is that we tended to take Gloria Steinem’s view of it (I swear I read this in a review, but now can’t find it), that no politician would be able to get away with exploiting a woman like that again. I DO think the gentleman’s agreement sometimes came at women’s expense, though as you say it was also over other things like health. But at this point I’d say Hart’s relationships look way less exploitative than, say, Clinton’s with Monica Lewinsky, who was so much younger and essentially an employee. I think my feelings about what matters in terms of character have changed a lot, though I certainly wouldn’t say sexual conduct is always a purely private matter that tells us nothing about how someone would govern. I do think Bai is right in pointing out a logical flaw in journalists’ arguments about this: that the behavior might not be an issue, but covering it up/handling the scandal is–so they break the non-story of an affair and then justify it because how the person handles the revelation is a story.

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