As he announced his reentry into the Democratic presidential race yesterday, former Colorado senator Gary Hart said he wants "to let the people decide" the merits of his candidacy.
It was a veiled slap at the news media, which, according to Hart, have been trivializing this year's presidential campaign, neglecting issues to tout the horse race and confusing peccadilloes with a candidate's "genuine character."
"Obviously, the media is the filter," said former Hart pollster Paul Maslin, who is now advising presidential candidate Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.). "I'm sure Hart is prepared for a barrage of questions about his personal life, and that he will intend to confront those questions with a sole focus on issues and ideas. . . .
"I think what he would like to do is pit himself against the press, the political establishment, the consultants and the insiders -- all those people he believes have trivial or self-interested concerns that get between his pure message and the American people," Maslin added.
Yet, Maslin said, Hart used the media to perfection yesterday, scheduling his announcement "right in time for the midday news" and attracting live coverage from three of four television networks.
The candidate, who also ran in 1984, has delivered a detailed critique of this year's campaign coverage in recent weeks, as has Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who challenged President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
In a speech Nov. 11 speech at Yale University, Hart decried "a culture which treats politics like a sport and lumps political figures with soap opera characters." He complained of a "media filter" that "resists complexity, strategic thought and genuine character."
"This year's buzz word is 'character,' " he said, "and character is defined as everything a candidate lacks or every mistake a candidate has made . . . . In the occasionally exciting prying into a candidate's minutes and hours," Hart asked, "are we not obscuring in the years of a lifetime the undramatic acts of courage, fortitude and determination that reveal true character?"
He asserted that "journalistic standards are eroding. . . by the blurring of the distinction between the serious and the sensationalist press." And he asked: "is it any wonder that an age of television 'sound bites' produces bite-sized policies?"
The candidates, said Kennedy in a Nov. 30 speech at Harvard, "are out there in the vortex of onrushing events, captive to the imperative of minting a 30-second sound bite, gaining a headline, winning the battle of quotable quotes." Opinion polls, Kennedy added, "have become the quintessential pseudo-events of the pre-primary campaign."
Journalists and a media analyst interviewed last week found some faults in coverage thus far but generally defended it, citing the proliferation of debates and the amount of newspaper coverage as evidence that interested voters are getting a full view of the campaign.
"One could almost sentence a person who makes a speech like that to have to read The New York Times and The Washington Post cover to cover every day," said media analyst Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"This campaign has been characterized by so much candidate exposure, one debate after another, that the charge that the candidates are being trivialized doesn't stick," said PBS commentator Roger Mudd. "Even the candidates themselves are tired of explaining their views on the issues."
Still, Linda Wertheimer of National Public Radio said, "You can't get a gun and say to the voter, 'Now you sit down and watch that thing!' "
Some expressed misgivings about the tendency of the media to overdo things, as exhibited in the case of Hart and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who took himself out of the race last September following allegations of plagiarism.
"I think everything we do is characterized by excess," Mudd said. "I don't think anybody denies that."
As for the overall "character issue," Hess pointed out that "we have a fixed-term system. We elect a president for four years, and there's no way to get rid of him except to impeach him." The exploration of character, he said, "tells us how people deal in crisis."
Hess cited Hart's behavior during coverage of his relationship with model Donna Rice as a particularly illuminating example of dealing in crisis. "We learned more from that experience than anything else about whether we wanted Gary Hart to be president."