Matt Bai has a fascinating piece in the New York Times magazine based on this simple but profound idea: Ever since the unmasking of Colorado Sen. Gary Hart as an adulter in 1987, political journalists have become obsessed in extremis with proving the men and women running for president are not-so-good people. (That's a slight oversimplification but not much of one.)
Here's the key paragraph in Bai's piece, which is an excerpt from a forthcoming book titled “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid”:
As an industry, we aspired chiefly to show politicians for the impossibly flawed human beings they are: a single-minded pursuit that reduced complex careers to isolated transgressions. As the former senator Bob Kerrey, who has acknowledged participating in an atrocity as a soldier in Vietnam, told me once, “We’re not the worst thing we’ve ever done in our lives, and there’s a tendency to think that we are.” That quote, I thought, should have been posted on the wall of every newsroom in the country, just to remind us that it was true.
Bob Kerrey -- and, by extension, Matt Bai -- are absolutely right. No politician should be covered solely through the lens of the worst/most embarrassing thing they've ever done. (If that was the case for me, I'd be "Mouthpiece Theater" and nothing else. Trust me, I get it. More on that later.) But, that doesn't mean that the focus on the personal is completely misguided or corrosive to politics, journalism or both.
Bai makes reference in the piece to "What It Takes", Richard Ben Cramer's magnum opus on the 1988 campaign -- in which Ben Cramer details the rise and fall of Hart. I had the unique opportunity to spend some time with Richard -- I wrote about it as a chapter of "The Gospel According to The Fix" -- and pick his brain about his approach both to "What It Takes" and to writing about politicians and politics more generally.
Richard, who passed away in January 2013, believed intensely in answering one simple question: Who were these people, really, before they became the sort of person who would run for president? His reporting technique to accomplish that task was to go as personal -- and as deep -- as he could on people like Hart, then Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and then Kansas Sen. Bob Dole among others. While most reporters were talking to the press secretary or the campaign manager, Richard went to the candidate's hometown. He sat in the living rooms where these men grew up. He talked to their mothers, their brothers, the long-forgotten best friends of their youth. He wasn't looking for Hart's "Monkey Business" scandal; what he was doing was trying to understand what made these people -- who had the audacity to put themselves forward as the single best person in the country to represent it -- tick.
What Richard did -- and he was doing it amid the Hart collapse that Matt Bai writes so eloquently about -- was radically different than what constituted campaign reporting at the time. For it, he -- and the book -- was pilloried by colleagues. As the years went on, however, Richard's book became viewed by the next generation of political reporters -- including me -- as a masterpiece. It was an attempt to understand the life experiences -- successes and failures -- that shaped these people, under the belief that grasping those experiences told the public far more about what sort of president they would be than simply consuming the reams of press releases, canned statements and speeches that the candidates and their campaigns were shoveling.
To be clear, Matt is not arguing a return to that world of reporting. Rather, his argument is that the pendulum that was once heavily tipped in the direction of never writing about a candidate's personal life (JFK being the prime example) has swung too far in the other direction. He writes:
If Nixon’s resignation created the character culture in American politics, then Hart’s undoing marked the moment when political reporters ceased to care about almost anything else. By the 1990s, the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods. If post-Hart political journalism had a motto, it would be: “We know you’re a fraud somehow. Our job is to prove it.”
I would agree with him wholeheartedly that the "gotcha" culture -- particularly when combined with the voraciousness of the 24-hour-news-cycle -- has turned some political coverage into treating any slip/gaffe/misstatement as THE NEXT BIG THING. There is a tendency to assume that there are only mountains and no molehills anymore in political coverage.
That said, I think that the focus on the personal -- even the over-focus on it -- is better than where political journalism was before Gary Hart. Why? Because the intense focus on understanding who these people really are -- and comparing that to the image they and their campaign are putting out -- matters when tasked with educating the public about the critically important choice of who will lead the country.
Do the foibles that are uncovered get more coverage than the successes? Yes. But, that's been true for a very long time. Leo Tolstoy, way back in 1877, wrote “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" as his opening lines of Anna Karenina. It was true then, it's true now. Human nature makes us care more about the stumbles than the successes. And, I would argue, we learn more about ourselves and those we would choose to lead us by how they handled stumbles and/or how they handled themselves when no one was looking (or they thought no one was looking) than we do from their/our public successes.
Again, not to make this all about me, but here's the third paragraph (out of three) of my Wikipedia page: "Cillizza and Dana Milbank appeared in a series of humor videos called 'Mouthpiece Theater', which appeared on the website of The Washington Post. An outcry followed a video in which, during a discussion of the White House Beer Summit they chose new brands for a number of people, including 'Mad Bitch Beer' for Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both men apologized for the video and the series was canceled."
Do I wish that wasn't in there? Sure. But I did it -- and I learned from it. And I would hope that when people look at the full breadth of what I've written and said, they think I am a someone worthy of reading and trusting on politics. Same goes for our politicians. Focusing on their good and their bad is about understanding them as people -- and humanizing them for voters. I believe that's a tremendously valuable job for political reporters to keep doing.