With completely brilliant, albeit serendipitous timing, I finished reading Richard Ben Cramer's "What it Takes" when this book arrived. That it startsWith completely brilliant, albeit serendipitous timing, I finished reading Richard Ben Cramer's "What it Takes" when this book arrived. That it starts out with a section entitled "What it Took" and references that book and author Matt Bai's interviews with him made it just a perfect transition.
Bai looks at Gary Hart's 1988 presidential campaign and the fateful week that ended it as political journalist waded into uncharted waters resulting in the collision of politics and entertainment. (Indeed, he narrows it down to a specific moment when Joe Trippi addresses the press).
Bai calls Hart the "flat-out smartest politician I've met" and cites several important examples of Hart prescience and his ability to "see around corners": the recession long before anyone was talking about it; what a horrible mistake a war in Iraq would be and the longer term repercussions of exacerbating terrorism and stateless extremism.
The general details of that week are well known, course. The Miami Herald, acting on a tip, staked out Hart's DC townhouse and saw Hart enter with a woman not his wife, later to be identified as Donna Rice. As Bai describes it: “the finest political journalists of a generation surrendered all at once to the idea that politics had become another form of celebrity-driven entertainment, while simultaneously disdaining the kind of reporting that such a thirst for entertainment made necessary." Bai recounts how candidates used to think out loud about policy issues, something no candidate could ever do now. Every word, every nuance has to be carefully considered down to taking a drink of water (fascinating anecdote about that).
The book also gives lie to some myths that have been widely accepted as truth. Conventional wisdom is that Hart asked for it, by daring the press to "follow me around...". The truth is, the Miami Herald could not have accepted that dare because it wasn't made until AFTER they had surrounded his home on their almost laughably inept stakeout. The press had become determined to seek out flaws in candidates and expose them
That Hart and Rice both denied an affair seemed inconsequential. By today's standards the whole episode seems almost quaint. And yet, why was Hart thereafter forever sidelined from political life, defined only by that small slice of time in a complex and compelling political career, particularly when compared to what came after: Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer, for example?
I liked Bai's follow-up interviews with many of the players in the saga- journalists, staffers, etc. - and found interesting their retrospective views on how it unfolded. The interviews with Hart were also fascinating. I absolutely loved the last chapter.
I was left with a lingering sense of what had been lost, what might have been different for our country if Gary Hart had not been sidelined and been allowed a voice in the national political discussion (even if he didn't win the primary or presidency). Hart is not blameless, and Bai doesn't present him as such, but the bigger issue is that our national obsession with "abject triviality" and treating candidates like Kardashians comes at immense cost to all of us.
The Donald Trump GOP candidacy seems to depressingly confirm Bai's premise: the circus has come to town and most candidates will perform in a carefully calculated act designed to say as little specifically as possible, and many Americans will clap delightedly at the spectacle while breathlessly waiting for the next "scandal", true or not, to the detriment of us all....more