All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid

by Matt Bai

(Knopf Doubleday, $26.95, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Matt Bai, a native of Trumbull, covered three presidential campaigns when he was chief political correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, and this year he became the national political columnist for Yahoo News. He began his career at The Boston Globe and then wrote for Newsweek. His “The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics,” was a New York Times notable book of 2007. Bai often appears on the Sunday morning political analysis shows, such as “Meet the Press” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”  He also played himself last year on “House of Cards” on Netflix and is now co-writing a screenplay for a limited series for FX on the disappearance and murder of Chandra Levy, a Congressional intern.

What is this book about?

Monkey business, you might say. By that, I mean the unfortunately named yacht on which aspiring Democratic presidential contender Gary Hart was photographed with a model named Donna Rice, leading to a press frenzy that sank his candidacy. Bai’s contention is that the l’affaire de Hart was a major turning point in how politicians would be covered, changing things dramatically (and not for the good of the country.)  This was the moment, he says, when personal lives (and peccadillos) became public fare and a tabloid mentality infected even the most staid media.  He also makes the case that Hart had far more to offer than people realized. That point is debatable, but Bai’s larger analysis of how political reporting has changed is prescient and profound.

Why you’ll like it:

I wrote this the day before the 2014 elections, and you are reading it the week after. But no matter what the outcome of those elections were, and whether you agree with Bai’s contention that Gary Hart deserved better from the press and the American electorate, this is a book with plenty of valuable insights on how debased politics have become  in the U.S., and the far-from-admirable role the media has played. Even if you’ve had your fill of politics this year, this book offers you thought-provoking information and interpretation by an author who really knows the territory.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Political columnist Bai (The Argument) makes a persuasive case for reexamining the career of presidential candidate Gary Hart, whose downfall in the wake of speculation about an extramarital affair, he argues, marks a turning point in the deterioration of American political journalism and democracy. Bai analyzes the forces coalescing around the scandal that brought down the Democratic frontrunner in May 1987, and captures those frenzied days in a masterfully written account. The possibility that a candidate might be lying about his sex life was not usually relevant, given the close relationship between major news outlets and politicians, but much had changed, especially given Watergate’s influence on a generation of reporters. By the time allegations of adultery met Hart’s campaign in New Hampshire, two previously separate streams, the tabloid press and political journalism, joined forces. The result has been “an unbridgeable divide… between our candidates and our media” and an accompanying lack of substance and transparency in the political process. Based on extensive interviews with reporters and campaign insiders, including Hart and Donna Rice (the then 29-year-old model photographed sitting on his lap), Bai appraises Hart the politician, political visionary, and high-minded yet obstinately private man, and asks what the country might have lost with his foreshortened career. This first-rate work of political journalism will fan embers long thought to have gone out

“In the tradition of his friend Richard Ben Cramer, Matt Bai astonishes us by delving deeply into a story and thus overturning our views about how the press should cover politics. This fascinating and deeply significant tale shows how the rules of American politics and journalism were upended for the worse by the frenzied coverage of Gary Hart’s personal life. The soot still darkens our political process,” says biographer Walter Isaacson, author of “Steve Jobs.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A new look at a scandal that changed American politics. In 2002,   York Times Magazine chief political correspondent Bai wrote an article about Gary Hart’s 1987 presidential bid, a campaign that ended with the media’s splashy coverage of Hart’s apparent adultery. The author arrived “at the same psychoanalytical conclusion on which a lot of Hart’s contemporaries had settled back then—that Hart had to have harbored some self-destructive impulse to begin with,” risking his reputation by getting involved with “some model.” Now, more than a decade later, Bai takes a far different view of the episode: “It was the story that changed all the rules” for journalists covering politicians; “the moment when the worlds of public service and tabloid entertainment…finally collided.” The author argues that the Watergate scandal “left the entire country feeling duped and betrayed”; political reporters wondered how Nixon, “a man whose corruption and pettiness were so self-evident,” could have won two presidential elections. Suspicion came to focus on candidate Hart because of his widely known womanizing and his aloof and detached manner. For this book, Bai interviewed Hart, as well as reporters and editors involved in publicizing the alleged affair. The Washington Post reporter who aggressively pursued the story told Bai that he had felt “relieved, then triumphant” when Hart withdrew from the presidential race. The way he saw it, writes the author, “he and his colleagues had managed to protect the nation from another rogue and liar.” As Bai sees it, however, the nation lost “one of the great political minds of his time.” Hart’s attempt at another run failed, and until recently, he was marginalized from politics. Hart once said that obsessive scrutiny of sex as an indicator of character would give America the politicians it deserved. In this probing narrative, Bai comes to another dismal conclusion: It would give America the news coverage it deserved—entertainment-driven, dominated by shallow pundits, and bereft of intellect and ideas.”

“Bai doesn’t just make an argument: He tells the juicy Hart story all over again, right down to the oil-stained alley in which reporters cornered the candidate and interrogated him about the blonde in his apartment.…Bai’s important call for perspective is a reminder to all of us in the press and the electorate to recognize the complexity of the human condition, whether we’re casting aside candidates because they wear a funny helmet in a tank or because they once committed adultery,” says Slate.

The Boston Globe says:  “An introspective book that is set in another era but offers insights into ours…Bai says what is obvious—that the Donna Rice furor irreparably hurt Hart—but he also says what is less obvious, and very wise: that it hurt us all.”

 When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch have copies of Bai’s book.

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