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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics - For most of the 20th century, adultery as a practice — at least for men — was rarely discussed but widely accepted. Kennedy and Johnson governed during the era that “Mad Men” would later portray, when the powerful man’s meaningless tryst with a secretary was no less common than the three-martini lunch. (The timing: This comes after I have watched The Roosevelts for the past seven evenings, and enjoyed a second of it.)


From The New York Times:

As anyone alive during the 1980s knows, Hart, the first serious presidential contender of the 1960s generation, was taken down and eternally humiliated by a scandal, a suspected affair with a beautiful blonde whose name, Donna Rice, had entered the cultural lexicon, along with the yacht — Monkey Business — near which she had been photographed on his lap. . .  In popular culture, Gary Hart would forever be that archetypal antihero of presidential politics: the iconic adulterer.

The Hart episode is almost universally remembered as a tale of classic hubris. A Kennedy-like figure on a fast track to the presidency defies the media to find anything nonexemplary in his personal life, even as he carries on an affair with a woman half his age and poses for pictures with her, and naturally he gets caught and humiliated. How could he not have known this would happen? How could such a smart guy have been that stupid?

Of course, you could reasonably have asked that same question of the three most important political figures of Hart’s lifetime, all Democratic presidents thought of as towering successes. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were adulterers, before and during their presidencies, and we can safely assume they had plenty of company. In his 1978 memoir, Theodore White, the most prolific and influential chronicler of presidential politics in the last half of the 20th century, wrote that he was “reasonably sure” that of all the candidates he had covered, only three — Harry Truman, George Romney and Jimmy Carter — hadn’t enjoyed the pleasure of “casual partners.” He and his colleagues considered those affairs irrelevant.
 
By the late 1980s, however, a series of powerful, external forces in the society were colliding, creating a dangerous vortex on the edge of our politics. Hart didn’t create that vortex. He was, rather, the first to wander into its path.
 
The nation was still feeling the residual effects of Watergate, which 13 years earlier led to the first resignation of a sitting president. Richard Nixon’s fall was shocking, not least because it was more personal than political, a result of instability and pettiness rather than pure ideology. And for this reason Watergate, along with the deception over what was really happening in Vietnam, had injected into presidential politics a new focus on private morality.
 
Social mores were changing, too. For most of the 20th century, adultery as a practice — at least for men — was rarely discussed but widely accepted. Kennedy and Johnson governed during the era that “Mad Men” would later portray, when the powerful man’s meaningless tryst with a secretary was no less common than the three-martini lunch. Twenty years later, however, social forces unleashed by the tumult of the 1960s were rising up to contest this view. Feminism and the “women’s lib” movement had transformed expectations for a woman’s role in marriage, just as the civil rights movement had changed prevailing attitudes toward African-Americans.
As America continued to debate the Equal Rights Amendment for women into the 1980s, younger liberals — the same permissive generation that ushered in the sexual revolution and free love — were suddenly apt to see adultery as a kind of political betrayal, and one that needed to be exposed. “This is the last time a candidate will be able to treat women as bimbos,” is how the feminist Betty Friedan put it after Hart’s withdrawal. (If only she’d known.)
 
Perhaps most salient, though, the nation’s news media were changing in profound ways. When giants like White came up through the news business in the postwar years, the surest path to success was to gain the trust of politicians and infiltrate their world. Proximity to power and the information and insight derived from having it was the currency of the trade. By the 1980s, however, Watergate and television had combined to awaken an entirely new kind of career ambition. If you were an aspiring journalist born in the 1950s, when the baby boom was in full swing, then you entered the business at almost exactly the moment when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post — portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the cinematic version of their first book, “All the President’s Men” — were becoming not just the most celebrated reporters of their day but very likely the wealthiest and most famous journalists in American history (with the possible exception of Walter Cronkite). And what made Woodward and Bernstein so iconic wasn’t proximity, but scandal. They had actually managed to take down a mendacious American president, and in doing so they came to symbolize the hope and heroism of a new generation.
 
It would be hard to overstate the impact this had, especially on younger reporters. If you were one of the new breed of middle-class, Ivy League-educated baby boomers who had decided to change the world through journalism, then there was simply no one you could want to become more than Woodward or Bernstein, which is to say, there was no greater calling than to expose the lies of a politician, no matter how inconsequential those lies might turn out to be or in how dark a place they might be lurking.
 
The [Miami] published a front-page reconstruction of the events leading up to and including that Saturday night. Written by McGee, Fiedler and Savage, the 7,000-plus-word article — Moby-Dick-like proportions by the standards of daily journalism — is remarkable reading. First, it’s striking how much The Herald’s account of its investigation consciously imitates, in its clinical voice and staccato cadence, Woodward and Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men.” (“McGee rushed toward a pay telephone a block away to call editors in Miami. It was 9:33 p.m.”) Clearly, the reporters and editors at The Herald thought themselves to be reconstructing a scandal of similar proportions, the kind of thing that would lead to Pulitzers and movie deals. The solemn tone of the piece suggests that Fiedler and his colleagues imagined themselves to be the only ones standing between America and another menacing, immoral president; reading it, you might think Hart had been caught bludgeoning a beautiful young woman to death, rather than taking her to dinner.
 
The other fascinating thing about The Herald’s reconstruction is that it captures, in agonizing detail, the very moment when the walls between the public and private lives of candidates, between politics and celebrity, came tumbling down forever.
 
The next morning, on May 3, The Herald reporters published a front-page article about Hart’s purported affair. At the end, they referred to a statement in which Hart challenged reporters interested in his personal life to follow him. Hart couldn’t have known it at the time, but his words — “follow me around” — would shadow him for the rest of his days. They would bury everything else he had ever said in public life.
 
In the history of Washington scandal, only a few quotes — “I am not a crook,” “I did not have sex with that woman” — have become as synonymous with a politician. In truth, though, Hart never issued any challenge to The Miami Herald’s reporters, or to anybody else, really. The words were spoken weeks earlier to E. J. Dionne Jr., who was then the top political reporter for The New York Times and was writing a profile for this magazine. Dionne discussed a broad range of topics with Hart and then reluctantly turned to the rumors of affairs. Hart was exasperated and he finally told Dionne: “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.”
 
Hart said this in an annoyed and sarcastic sort of way, in an obvious attempt to make a point. He was “serious” about the sentiment, all right, but only to the extent that a man who had been twice separated from his wife and dated other women over the years — with the full knowledge of his friends in the press corps and without having seen a single word written about it at the time — could have been serious about such a thing. Hart might as well have been suggesting that Martians beam down and run his campaign, for all the chance he thought there was that any reporter would actually resort to stalking him. Dionne certainly didn’t take the comment literally, though he suspected others might. “He did not think of it as a challenge,” Dionne would recall many years later. “And at the time, I did not think of it as a challenge.”
 
As it happened, Dionne’s cover story was set to appear Sunday, May 3, the same day the Herald published its front-page exposé. No one at The Herald had a clue that Hart had issued any “challenge” on the previous Monday when Fiedler heard from his anonymous tipster or when he continued to chase the story during the week or when McGee flew off to Washington and began prowling outside the townhouse on Friday night. All of this they did on their own, without any prodding from Hart.
 
In those days before the Internet, however, The Times circulated printed copies of its magazine to other news media a few days early, so editors and producers could pick out anything that might be newsworthy and publicize it in their own weekend editions or Sunday shows. And so it was that when Fiedler boarded his flight to Washington Saturday morning, eager to join the stakeout, he brought with him the advance copy of Dionne’s story, which had been sent to The Herald. Somewhere above the Atlantic seaboard, anyone sitting next to Fiedler would probably have seen him jolt upward in his seat as if suddenly receiving an electric shock. There it was, staring up at him from the page — Hart explicitly inviting him and his colleagues to do exactly the kind of surveillance they had undertaken the night before.
 
The discovery of Hart’s supposed challenge, which the Herald reporters took from the advance copy of The Times Magazine on Saturday night and inserted at the end of their Sunday blockbuster — so that the two articles, referring to the same quote, appeared on newsstands simultaneously — probably eased any reservations the editors in Miami might have had about pushing the story into print before they had a chance to identify Rice and try to talk to her. Soon enough, as The Herald would put it in their longer reconstruction a week later, Gary Hart would be seen as “the gifted hero who had taunted the press to ‘follow me around.’ ” Everyone would know that Hart had goaded the press into hiding outside his townhouse and tracking his movements. So what if The Herald reporters hadn’t even known about it when they put Hart under surveillance? Hart’s quote appeared to justify The Herald’s extraordinary investigation, and that’s all that mattered.
 
The difference here is far more than a technicality. Even when insiders and historians recall the Hart episode now, they recall it the same way: Hart issued his infamous challenge to reporters, telling them to follow him around if they didn’t believe him, and then The Herald took him up on it. Inexplicably, people believe, Hart set his own trap and then allowed himself to become ensnared in it.
 
And this version of events conveniently enabled The Herald’s reporters and editors to completely sidestep some important and uncomfortable questions. As long as it was Hart, and not The Herald, who set the whole thing in motion, then it was he and not they who suddenly moved the boundaries between private and political lives. They never had to grapple with the complex issues of why Hart was subject to a kind of invasive, personal scrutiny no major candidate before him had endured, or to consider where that shift in the political culture had led us. Hart had, after all, given the media no choice in the matter.
 
In the days after the Herald story, Hart continued on to New Hampshire, where photographers and political reporters, who until then had always observed some sense of decorum, shoved one another aside and leapt over shrubs in an effort to get near the wounded candidate. It was there, at a carnival-like news conference on Wednesday, May 6, that Paul Taylor, a star reporter for The Washington Post, publicly asked Hart the question that no presidential candidate in America to that point had ever been asked, let alone from one of the country’s most admired newspapers: “Have you ever committed adultery?”
 
The most enduring image of that time, of course, is the infamous photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap, which Armandt snapped on a crowded dock in Bimini during that overnight cruise and later sold to The National Enquirer. In it, Rice is wearing a short white dress; Hart is wearing a “Monkey Business crew” T-shirt, along with a startled, crooked grin. Most people who lived through the event, and some who covered it, will tell you that the photo is what provided irrefutable evidence of the affair and drove Hart from the race. But the photo didn’t surface until nearly three weeks after Hart suspended his candidacy. It was a final indignity, to be sure, but it had nothing to do with his decision to quit. [This phone, that is above this post, came from the Web, not this story in the NYT Magazine. Who of my generation does not recall seeing it? I did not remember it surfaced later as just noted.]
 
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.
 
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.
 
Gary Hart, meanwhile  . . . 
 
“Well, at the very least, George W. Bush wouldn’t have been president,” Hart said ruefully. This sounded a little narcissistic, but it was, in fact, a hard premise to refute. Had Hart bested George H. W. Bush in 1988, as he was well on his way to doing, it’s difficult to imagine that Bush’s aimless eldest son would have somehow ascended from nowhere to become governor of Texas and then president within 12 years’ time.
 
“And we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq,” Hart went on. “And a lot of people would be alive who are dead.” A brief silence surrounded us. Hart sighed loudly, as if literally deflating. “You have to live with that, you know?”

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