Matt Bai’s New York Times Magazine cover story revisiting the Gary Hart Monkey Business scandal of 1987 makes for some fascinating reading. Bai’s reportage is thorough. He reveals the identity of the woman who originally tipped off the Miami Herald to Hart’s multiple liaisons with Donna Rice. Bai also points out that, in point of fact, the Herald did not investigate Hart’s personal behavior because of Hart’s public dare to “follow me around.”
The problem with the cover story isn’t the “what happened?” part, it’s the “why should we care?” part. First, Bai suggests that it altered history, because “Hart was as close to a lock for the nomination — and likely the presidency — as any challenger of the modern era.” But that’s a bad counterfactual. Contra Bai, the odds were against Hart winning the 1988 election, as both Jonathan Bernstein and the Monkey Cage’s Andrew Gelman have already observed. We don’t need to belabor the point here.
Second, Bai argues that the Hart scandal moved the goalposts of the permissible bounds of inquiry by the media — to the detriment of reporting about presidential campaigns:
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.”
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.
Bai is clearly correct about the greater media focus on the personal over the policy, but as The Fix’s Chris Cillizza pointed out, this isn’t an altogether bad thing either. Indeed, while this impulse might have produced more scandal or gaffe-based reporting, it also produced Richard Ben Cramer’s magisterial “What It Takes.” So there’s no need to dwell on this debate either.
No, it’s Bai’s most grandiose claim about Why Gary Hart Matters that I want to focus on, because it’s his big takeaway and it’s spectacularly wrong:
Predictably, politicians responded to all this with a determination to give us nothing that might aid in the hunt to expose them, even if it meant obscuring the convictions and contradictions that made them actual human beings. Each side retreated to its respective camp, where they strategized about how to outwit and outflank the other, occasionally to their own benefit but rarely to the voters’. Maybe this made our media a sharper guardian of the public interest against liars and hypocrites. But it also made it hard for any thoughtful politician to offer arguments that might be considered nuanced or controversial. It drove a lot of potential candidates with complex ideas away from the process, and it made it easier for a lot of candidates who knew nothing about policy to breeze into national office, because there was no expectation that a candidate was going to say anything of substance anyway.
That’s absolutely correct, because in the very next presidential election, the country elected Bill Clinton, a man completely devoid of policy nuance or personal complexi— hey, wait a minute, that guy was bulletproof.
Bai conflates personal peccadilloes with policy nuance and philosophical complexity in his article. But even if one wishes to conflate them, his assertion doesn’t hold. In the 25 years after Gary Hart’s downfall, the roster of presidential candidates that would qualify as serious or “game-changing” candidates include Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, Howard Dean. John Kerry, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney. Now I get that maybe one person on that list kinda sorta “knew nothing about policy to breeze into national office,” One can certainly debate their historical legacy as candidates or presidents. What one can’t do, however, is claim that they lacked nuance, controversy or, dare I say, complexity.
Hart’s downfall undoubtedly changed the way that the media covered presidential races. I don’t think it seriously raised the barrier to entry for possible presidential candidates, however, and it certainly didn’t homogenize the roster of viable presidential candidates.
One can go even further and argue that another 1987 political event changed American politics far more than the Gary Hart business — the ill-fated nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. That nomination was derailed by a combination of Democratic Party senators bound and determined not to let Ronald Reagan replace a moderate with a conservative on the bench, and Bork’s extensive paper trail, which gave Democrats the ammunition to paint Bork as an extremist on the bench. As Joe Nocera noted a few years ago:
The Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics. For years afterward, conservatives seethed at the “systematic demonization” of Bork, recalls Clint Bolick, a longtime conservative legal activist. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution coined the angry verb “to bork,” which meant to destroy a nominee by whatever means necessary. When Republicans borked the Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright less than two years later, there wasn’t a trace of remorse, not after what the Democrats had done to Bork. The anger between Democrats and Republicans, the unwillingness to work together, the profound mistrust — the line from Bork to today’s ugly politics is a straight one.
The line is a bit more crooked than Nocera suggests, but nevertheless, the Bork nomination was indeed a watershed moment in politics. The conventional wisdom is that it made it harder to get Supreme Court nominees with well-established and far-from-center ideologies through the Senate. And, for once, the political science on this question offers some decent support to that conventional wisdom.
Bai argues that Hart’s fall produced a generation of boring, simplistic presidential candidates. But I’d wager that the Bork nomination had a more homogenizing effect on Supreme Court nominees than Hart’s fall from grace had on presidential politics.
Am I missing anything?