“Think about this,” said Matt Bai to a rapt audience of students, faculty, and members of the Tufts community. “You get to this place where you have the presumed nominee of the Democratic party—he’s in a white hoodie, it’s late at night—he is backed up against a brick wall behind his townhouse with four reporters saying: ‘Who is that woman in your house? How long have you known her? Did you have sex with that woman?’ I think in that alley, in my view, the grounds of politics and political journalism really shifted forever.”
That’s how Bai describes the historic predicament faced in 1987 by Gary Hart, whose promising presidential run, brilliant political career, and complicated personal life came tumbling down when relentless journalists uncovered his extramarital affair. That saga, and its troubling ramifications that reverberate in today’s media and political environments, is the topic of Bai’s latest book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, which he discussed earlier this month during a compelling talk at Tufts University—his alma mater—as part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series.
Bai, the National Political Columnist for Yahoo! News and former Chief Political Correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, first wrote about Hart for the latter publication more than a decade ago. In the years since, he was troubled by the sense that there was more to tell about Hart’s fall from grace. “As a writer … you hate the feeling that you’ve left some level unexcavated; that there’s some deeper point to the story that you’ve missed,” he said.
That feeling led him to write All the Truth Is Out, a deeper exploration of how the Hart scandal helped give rise to the “tabloidization” of political media and its profound consequences.
“After the Hart scandal, the prime directive, the guiding ethos, of political journalism, shifts from trying to understand your worldviews, your ideas and your agendas—where you come from intellectually—to trying to figure out where the flaw is,” said Bai. “The idea was, and still is: ‘we know you’re a liar, we know you’re a hypocrite, and it’s our job to figure out how and present that to the voters,’” he said. “We have created a culture without context, without the totality of a person’s public service, or life, or devotion, or honesty, that basically defines you as the worst thing you’ve ever done, or at least the worst thing you’ve done lately. And in doing so … you keep good people out of public life, but you make it awfully easy for people to go through the process on character, and celebrity, and narrative without ever telling you what they believe and maybe having no business running the country.”
Bai, also a member of the Tisch College Board of Advisors, ended his talk with an engaging Q&A session in which he touched on everything from his own experiences interviewing politicians to the appeal of shows like House of Cards, in which he made a cameo appearance.