Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Monkey Business

Matt Bai has written a book.  But you can save yourself some money and get the gist of it from the article.

Bai argues - somewhat persuasively - that Gary Hart's famous implosion in 1987 represents a sea change in American political reporting and therefore of American politics as a whole.  He traces the impulse to catch Hart in his infidelity back to Watergate.  It was Watergate, he argues, that made the personal morality of politicians a legitimate target of investigative reporting.

Journalists - wanting the fame and money of Woodward and Bernstein - became obsessed with sniffing out ANYTHING that might be scandalous.  Interestingly, Bai disproves the narrative that Hart challenged reporters to dig up dirt and that's why the Rice scandal broke.  The Miami Herald had the story before the "follow me" quote appeared.

So, the Hart story reaffirms two flaws that we tend to associate with the political journalism class.  First, their sense of their own moral importance and second, their reliance on post hoc narratives.  Bill Clinton committed a crime.  Al Gore sighed.  At one point, Bai points out a significant error on the lead reporter's own online biography, and it takes the guy a year to change it.  But, yeah, they are trustworthy and politicians are all dogs.

I had been a Hart fan in the '80s.  To me, he seemed a fresh voice in a party that was lost in the Reagan wilderness. Smart, gifted with foresight and ruggedly charismatic, Hart seemed a bracing change from the Hollywood Regency of the Reagan years.  Today, we'd likely decry him as a DLC DINO, but for that moment in time, what the Democratic Party needed was a response to Reagan.  When Hart went down in flames, we would have to wait another four years before we found that response.

Hart's fall happened at the same time as Iran Contra, and yet the difference in coverage is profound.  Hart's story was salacious, and the press could hold aloft Hart's scalp.  In Iran Contra, we had actual law breaking that we know could have been traced to Vice President and President.

But the complexity of Iran Contra proved impenetrable to both reporters and public alike.  Arguably, Iran Contra was a more serious constitutional breach than Watergate.  And yet the press became obsessed with biography and "scandal" at the expense of covering policy.  While they certainly covered Iran Contra, in the end, they allowed the Tower Commission's white-wash to stand as a definitive account.  In many ways, they gave the lame duck Reagan exactly the same break that they denied Clinton a decade later.

When Gary Hart went down in flames, we lost more than preventing the first Bush Administration - and Clarence Thomas - we lost the thread of political journalism.

The article ends with the poignancy of Hart reflecting that if he had beaten the elder Bush in 1988, there would have also been no second Bush Administration either.  No Iraq, no Abu Ghraib, no Michael Brown.

Perhaps, with the advent of the internet and the debacle of the Bush years, we are beginning to return to realizing that what a politician does is more important than who they fuck.  I doubt it, but change is often hard to observe when you're in the middle of it.

Our ideas are better.  But if we allow personality to become the metric on which people decide who their leaders are, we are disadvantaged by the ability of bullshit to trump meaning.

x-posted at Booman

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