All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid

Matt Bai writes in this 2014 book:

In his 1978 memoir, Theodore White, the most prolific and influential chronicler of presidential politics in the last half of the twentieth century, made John Kennedy and most of the other candidates he’d known sound like the Rolling Stones gathering up groupies on a North American tour.

“What was later written about Kennedy and women bothered White but little,” he wrote. “He knew that Kennedy loved his wife—but that Kennedy, the politician, exuded that musk odor of power which acts as an aphrodisiac to many women. White was reasonably sure that only three presidential candidates he had ever met had denied themselves the pleasures invited by that aphrodisiac—Harry Truman, George Romney and Jimmy Carter. He was reasonably sure that all the others he had met had, at one time or another, on the campaign trail, accepted casual partners.” (Yes, White wrote his memoir in the reportorial third-person voice, and he used terms like “musk odor.” It was a different time.)

Just after the Hart scandal broke in 1987, The New York Times’s R. W. “Johnny” Apple, the preeminent political writer of his day, wrote a piece in which he tried to explain how disconnected the moment was from what had come before. Apple described what was probably a fairly typical experience for reporters covering the Kennedy White House:

In early 1963, for example, a fledgling reporter for this newspaper was assigned to patrol the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel while President Kennedy was visiting New York City. The reporter’s job was to observe the comings and goings of politicians, but what he saw was the comings and going of a prominent actress, so that was what he reported to his editor. “No story there,” said the editor, and the matter was dropped.

It was this very understanding between politicians and chroniclers—that just because something was sleazy didn’t make it a story—that emboldened presidents and presidential candidates to keep reporters close when it came to the more weighty business of governing. There was little reason to fear being ambushed on the personal front while trying to make oneself accessible on the political front. In a 2012 letter to The New Yorker, Hal Wingo, who was a Life correspondent in the early 1960s, recalled spending New Year’s Eve 1963 with the newly inaugurated Lyndon Johnson and a group of other reporters. Johnson put his hand on Wingo’s knee and said, “One more thing, boys. You may see me coming in and out of a few women’s bedrooms while I am in the White House, but just remember, that is none of your business.” They remembered, and they complied.

No one should pretend that character wasn’t always a part of politics, of course, and there were times when private lives became genuine political issues. When Nelson Rockefeller, New York’s governor and a Republican presidential hopeful, divorced his wife of thirty-one years in 1962, and then married a staff member, “Happy,” who was eighteen years his junior and the mother of four small children, the story became inseparable from Rocky’s political prospects. You couldn’t do a credible job of covering the Republican schism in those years without delving at least somewhat into Rockefeller’s private life. When a lit-up Teddy Kennedy drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, off Martha’s Vineyard, in 1969, killing twenty-eight-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, Kennedy’s private recklessness became a relevant and enduring political story; no politician, let alone a newspaper editor, would seriously have argued otherwise. When Thomas Eagleton, shortly after joining George McGovern on the Democratic ticket in 1972, was revealed to have undergone shock treatment for depression, his temperament became a legitimate news story, along with the fact that he had neglected to mention it.

But reporters didn’t go looking for a politician’s private transgressions; they covered such things only when they rose to the level of political relevance.

* It was well known around Washington, or at least well accepted, that Hart liked women, and that not all the women he liked were his wife. After all, Gary and Lee Hart had fallen in love and married as kids, in the confines of a strict church where even dancing was prohibited. It wasn’t just that Hart had never played the field before marriage; he’d never even stepped onto it. And so here he was, young and famous and sturdily good-looking, powerful in a city where power was everything, and friends knew that he and Lee—as so often happens with college sweethearts—had matured into different people, that she spent long periods back in Denver with the two kids, that she could drive him absolutely crazy at times. Twice he and Lee quietly agreed to separate for months at a time, and during one of those separations Hart had even moved in with his pal Bob Woodward and slept on the couch—at least when he wasn’t gone for nights at a time. No one in Woodward’s newsroom, or anyone else for that matter, ever thought to ask for details or to write a word about it. Why would they? Whose business was it, anyway?

* It had started, everyone would later agree, with Howard Fineman, who was Newsweek’s top young political writer. The newsweeklies—Time, Newsweek, and to a lesser extent U.S. News & World Report—were still a huge deal in 1987, and they prided themselves on getting to what Newsweek editors called the zeitgeist of a story, as opposed to its more restrictive set of facts. Newspaper reporters, back then, were almost always tethered to the format of “objective” coverage—the who, what, when, where, and why, with little of the analytical voice that later generations would take for granted. For that kind of analysis, you generally had to read one of the glossy “newsmags,” whose editors didn’t mind veering widely into the lane of speculation. There was nothing a Newsweek writer liked better than getting out in front of a story (and generating “buzz” for the magazine) by writing what all the daily guys knew to be obvious but couldn’t actually say.

And so it made sense that it was Fineman, a sharp and competitive reporter, who went where others on the bus were dying to go, and whose editors let him. “The Harts’ marriage has been a long but precarious one,” he wrote in his story that would be on newsstands when Hart made his announcement at Red Rocks, “and he has been haunted by rumors of womanizing. Friends contend that his dating has been confined to marital separations—he and Lee have had two—nonetheless many political observers expect the rumors to emerge as a campaign issue.” Having thus liberally sprinkled the kerosene, Fineman lit the match with a quote from John McEvoy, who had been one of Hart’s senior aides in the 1984 campaign: “He’s always in jeopardy of having the sex issue raised if he can’t keep his pants on.”
What Fineman’s story did, more than anything, was to open the door for everyone else. Stories of Hart’s “womanizing”—a strange word, which made him sound as if he were running through random women and then discarding them on the side of the highway, rather than having squired around some of the better known socialites in Washington—were no longer “out there”; now they were in print, and by the arcane logic of political journalism, that meant they had been legitimized as a campaign issue. And so what happened next is that every reporter who scored a sit-down with Hart in the hours after his announcement, on what was supposed to be a triumphant cross-country tour, kept asking him about the long-standing rumors of his unspecified affairs, which in fact had been just as long-standing and unspecified the week before, but were only now—thanks to Newsweek—considered to have met the definition of news.

When it got back to Hart that operatives for some of his rivals had been calling reporters in the days leading up to his announcement to fan the flame (what would happen to the party if this stuff came out after he was nominated, when it was too late to get someone else onto the ballot?), Hart couldn’t manage to contain his aggravation. “All I know is what reporters tell me,” Hart seethed in an interview with a Time correspondent aboard the plane. “If it’s true that other campaigns are spreading rumors, I think it’s an issue.”

This mini-outburst constituted, as Cramer would later put it, a “fatal mistake.” If Newsweek had made it okay for the reporters to interrogate Hart about his legendary infidelity, then Hart’s quote had now made it okay for them to write their own stories on the subject. A candidate accusing rival campaigns of defaming him was a story any day of the week, no matter what the issue—that the issue here was sex, rather than, say, a proposal to tax foreign oil, only made it irresistible.

* The dinosaurs on the trail, the ones who started as copy boys and learned to write on the job, were mostly “know it when you see it” types—as in, you know a story when you see one, and you know something’s horseshit when it’s horseshit, and you don’t need a graduate seminar to figure it out. But Fiedler, who was forty-one at the time, was one of these younger, more professional reporters—the kind who learned the business in a classroom and called himself a “journalist.” Fiedler was a guy who thought there should be rules about when something was news and when it wasn’t, codes of ethics that governed the behavior of responsible and objective journalists, just as there were in any licensed profession. And he thought it raised some serious issues, this trafficking in sheer rumor about Hart’s sex life.

Specifically, Fiedler objected to the kind of innuendo that bled through the New York Post’s piece: “whispers” and “rumors” and “wagging tongues.” If you have the evidence, then by all means produce it, Fiedler thought. But it didn’t seem ethical for reporters to pass along gossip to their readers like some high school cheerleader giggling with her friends.

Fiedler’s piece on April 27 had run under the headline SEX LIVES BECOME AN ISSUE FOR PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFULS. The piece was a classic of the “news analysis” genre that enabled daily reporters to stray, though not very far, from the constraints of your basic news story. Fiedler opened with an anecdote about Hart wandering to the back of the plane during the announcement tour, to face the reporters who were demanding he refute the rumors about affairs. “Anybody want to talk about ideas?” Hart had asked them, sardonically. (They didn’t.)

“This vignette may tell us something about Gary Hart, a man with an opaque past,” Fiedler wrote. He went on to list a series of “real and serious” questions related to media ethics that he felt the Hart case had raised:

Is it responsible for the media to report damaging rumors if they can’t be substantiated? Or should the media withhold publication until they have solid evidence of infidelity?

Even if sexual advances can be proven, do the media have a legitimate interest in a candidate’s private sex life, assuming it doesn’t interfere with doing the job?

Finally, to go back to Hart’s question, can’t the media stick to analyzing his ideas?

As was (and is) the style with such news analysis pieces, Fiedler didn’t actually endeavor to answer these questions. “In a harsh light, the media reports themselves are rumor mongering, pure and simple,” he wrote. And yet, he consulted with some professors who suggested that now that such rumors were “out there,” reporters had a duty, really, to investigate them. “You aren’t protecting the people of Miami by refusing to report the rumor,” Bruce Swain, a journalism professor at the University of Georgia, assured Fiedler. The analysis ended with a quote from Hart himself. “No one has suggested what you do about vague, unfounded, and unproved rumors,” Hart said in an interview. “I think people are going to get tired of the question.”

* Eight days later, the Herald would publish its front-page reconstruction of the events leading up to and including that Saturday night. Written by McGee, Fiedler, and Savage, the 7,500-plus-word piece—Moby-Dick–type proportions by the standards of a front page—is remarkable reading, for a couple of reasons. 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.” And so on.) Clearly, the reporters and editors at the Herald believed 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 believed 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. In a sense, the scene that transpired between Hart and his inquisitors in the alley on Saturday night, which at least two of the Herald reporters transcribed in real time, was the antithesis of Johnny Apple watching silently as the famous starlet ascended to President Kennedy’s suite, or Lyndon Johnson joking with reporters about the women he planned to entertain. Even in the dispassionate tone of the Herald’s narrative, you can hear how chaotic and combative it was, how charged with emotion and pounding hearts.

“Good evening, Senator,” McGee began, recovering from his shock at seeing Hart standing in front of him. “I’m a reporter from the Miami Herald. We’d like to talk to you.” As the Herald relayed it: “Hart said nothing. He held his arms around his midsection and leaned forward slightly with his back against the brick wall.” McGee said they wanted to ask him about the young woman staying in his house.

* Looking back years later, Fiedler would recall Hart’s besieged posture, the way he leaned back defensively, as if expecting to be punched. And he would remember his own sense of disbelief. “It was one of those things where I thought, how did I end up here?” Fiedler told me. “At that point, I was considering myself a pretty serious political writer, the kind of writer who grappled with issues of important public policy. And here I am, almost in a disguise, following a tip where I’m not really quite sure it’s all going to come together, and knowing that the story I would write would be kind of a scandal sheet story. Which was so not only out of character, but it was out of my own sense of who I was and what I was doing.”

And yet, for all that, Fiedler felt compelled to be there; he recalled no doubt about that. Hart’s hypocrisy, the falseness of his moral posturing, was a vital political story, which the Herald had now been tracking for six days. Staking out the townhouse, however unseemly, was the only way for Fiedler to confirm everything he’d been told by the anonymous caller, and this confirmation was something he owed the public—and Hart. “Seeing them together at that point and confronting Senator Hart over it, it just seemed as if it were something we were almost obligated to do,” Fiedler recalled. “As odd and surreal as it felt, it just seemed to us that we had to do it.”

In fact, Fiedler would always remember that his overriding emotion in that alley was anger. He shouldn’t have had to be there, asking about such tawdry details of a man’s private life. He was a respected chronicler of national politics, for Christ’s sake. It was Hart who had set all this in motion, who had dragged Fiedler and the others into the dirt and muck of tabloid journalism, by refusing to tell the truth about who he was. It was Hart who had disappointed and debased Fiedler, not the other way around.

“I think I felt I’d been deceived all this time,” Fiedler would remember. “And suddenly here it is, and the allegations I was probably hoping would be disproved were turning out to be true. That this is the guy who only a few weeks before had stood up in front of the world—and, in a sense me, because I was there with the press corps—and talked about ethics, and said he wanted to be held to the highest standards and said he was going to run a campaign that exemplified all that. And here I am in an alley, late on a Saturday night, confronting him about a relationship that just seemed completely sordid. And I kind of felt angry about being in that position. I felt stuck, because I was going to end up doing a story that I maybe hoped I wouldn’t do.”

* In those days before the Internet, however, the Times circulated hard copies of its magazine to other 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 that 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 current to his brain. 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 infamous quote, which the Herald reporters stealthily lifted 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, carrying the same quote, appeared on newsstands simultaneously—probably negated any reservations the editors in Miami might have had about pushing the story into print. By morning, everyone who read the Times 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? At a glance, Hart’s quote appeared to justify the Herald’s extraordinary investigation, and that’s all that mattered.

* I mentioned to Fiedler that I had Googled him recently and been sent to his biographical page on the BU website. And this is what it said: “In 1987, after presidential hopeful Gary Hart told journalists asking about marital infidelity to follow him around, Fiedler and other Herald reporters took him up on the challenge and exposed Hart’s campaign-killing affair with a Miami model.” Why did his own webpage explicitly repeat something he knew to be untrue?

Fiedler recoiled in his seat and winced. He looked mortified. “You know what? I didn’t know that,” he said. “Honestly. I’m serious.” He stared at me for another beat, stunned. “Wow.” I knew he meant it. When I visited the same site a month or so later, I was surprised to find that Fiedler hadn’t changed a word.

* So in Denver, Sweeney and the others started pushing back with the other reporters who were calling in a mad frenzy. Not only should the Herald never have been spying in the first place, they said, but this so-called surveillance was a joke. Someone needed to ask these guys why they hadn’t been watching the blessed back door.

The two-pronged assault on the Herald story was as much for the benefit of the reporters—and their editors—as it was for their readers. In order to contain the damage, Hart’s team knew, they needed to isolate the Herald, to make sure it became an outlier among reputable news organizations. After years of changing cultural attitudes about adultery and privacy, after more than a decade of considering Watergate’s lessons when it came to the fitness of candidates, after months of building innuendo about Hart’s flawed character, the Herald had at last taken political journalism into what had previously been tabloid territory. But on this question of whether presidential candidates should be given the same treatment as a Jim Bakker or a Fawn Hall, the soap opera stars of nightly newscasts in the spring of 1987, the rest of the media still hung in the balance.

Fiedler had made his choice. Now his colleagues on the campaign bus needed to make theirs.

* FOR MOST OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, information in America was controlled and disseminated by a select group of elite institutions. By the end of the 1970s, if you lived in a typical American city, you read about national events in your local paper (if you were lucky, you had a choice between two), or perhaps in the copy of Time or Newsweek that arrived in the mailbox every Tuesday. Any other newspaper would have to be purchased, probably a day late, at the out-of-town newsstand. The locally owned newspaper—whose status as a paragon of civic virtue would be mythologized by journalists and media critics in later years, after faceless conglomerates had gobbled up most of the American media—exercised as much of a monopoly over information in some cities as the power company had over transformers and wires. Thus was it possible, as late as 1968, for some Indiana voters to know little of the Democratic primary campaign being waged in their own state, simply because the Indianapolis Star—whose publisher, Eugene C. Pulliam, had been a Lyndon Johnson supporter—all but refused to acknowledge Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign.

The most immediate means by which information traversed regional borders was, of course, the television. But this venue, too, was limited in its offerings, and, unless a network made the extraordinary decision to preempt its regular programming, not all that immediate. In big cities, you could watch the local news at six and then choose from three nightly newscasts, aired at the same time every night by the same three networks. But if a story unfolding elsewhere in the country hadn’t appeared in your morning paper, and if it didn’t rate a mention that night by one of the three somber-sounding anchormen who spoke from the pixelated ether like gods from some distant civilization, then it essentially didn’t exist, as far as you knew.

* The first technological innovation to erode the dominance of institutional media, however, and the one that made its impact felt almost immediately during that tumultuous first week of May 1987, had nothing to do with television. It was the series of clicks, whirs, and beeps known as the fax machine.

Faxes had been proliferating, commercially, since the early 1980s, but it had only been in recent years—since the 1984 campaign, in fact—that Japanese manufacturers had managed to make them small and inexpensive enough for your average office, and even for some homes. “From office workers to rock stars, more and more people are answering yes to the question, Do you have a fax?” Time reported in August 1987. “Once considered too bulky and costly to be practical, fax machines have shrunk to half the size of personal computers and dropped sharply in price, to less than $1,000 for one model.” According to Time, it cost $14 to send a one-page letter through an overnight carrier but only 50 cents to fax it instantly through your phone line. Sharp had even introduced a model that could double as an ordinary phone.

The implications of this, for news and politics, were enormous. In 1987, a Republican operative named Doug Bailey teamed up with a Democratic strategist, Roger Craver, to create something called The Hotline—a nonideological compendium of political news from the various papers around the country, plus some polling and late-night political jokes, faxed directly to subscribers every morning.

* And then there was the Woodward issue to consider. The way Woodward always told the story, yes, Hart had crashed at his place during his first separation from Lee, but it’s not like they were acting out the Odd Couple or something; Hart was over at a girlfriend’s most of the time and basically used Woodward’s place as a forwarding address. After some weeks of this, Woodward grew uneasy and asked his buddy Gary to camp elsewhere, and that was the extent of it. Still, if everyone in Bradlee’s office knew this story, that meant that half of Capitol Hill did, too. And if the Post ignored the constant gossip about Hart, and it later came to light that he was still fooling around, then the paper might face allegations that it essentially took a pass in order to spare Woodward’s buddy—and perhaps even Woodward himself—any embarrassment.

It was Broder, the voice of experience and wisdom, who formulated a compromise. The Post would shortly be in the process of compiling its in-depth profiles of all the candidates, which by that time was a quadrennial rite. There was no need, Broder suggested, for the Post to start hunting around in every candidate’s sex life just because the issue was swirling around Hart. What they needed to do was commence their exhaustive reporting on Hart’s profile and see what came up. If the reporter assigned to the piece decided there was any troubling pattern of behavior when it came to women, something that called Hart’s judgment or stability into question, they could figure out how to deal with it then.

“In ways that I thought were very inappropriate, the fact that he had a womanizing problem was becoming part of who he was as a candidate and now the front-runner coming into this next presidential campaign,” Taylor reflected when we talked many years later. “I was very uncomfortable with that. And at the Post, we said, You know, we’re not going to go there, and it’s irresponsible to present it that way. It’s rumormongering. But we can’t close our eyes to the fact that that’s part of the world we know very well—the journalists, the candidates, the consultants, the opponents, Hart’s own staff. It’s all part of their world. It’s real, in that sense. It may well make its way into becoming part of this thing. So let’s see what there is.”

As it happened, the reporter assigned to do the Hart profile, the talented David Maraniss, was at that point wrapping up another assignment. He was just turning his sights on Hart when the Herald story hit.

There was an assumption inherent in the Post’s deliberations, which was that the Post, along with a handful of other elite news organizations, would be the ones who got to decide whether Hart’s personal life should be an issue of national prominence or not. That’s pretty much how it had worked, to that point, in political journalism. If the Post or the Times or The Wall Street Journal—or, to a lesser extent, the three broadcast networks, who tended to follow the lead of the major print outlets—didn’t think a story rose to the level of serious news, then it remained a regional story or an unreported rumor. Bradlee had every reason to be deliberate before reaching a determination on Hart’s “pattern of behavior,” because he and a small group of other editors ultimately set the agenda for everyone else, no matter what a less influential paper like the Herald had to say about it.

* Alarmed by Lee’s panicked calls to headquarters, John Emerson grabbed Joe Trippi, the deputy political director, and gave him an instant (if dubious) promotion: chief of staff to the candidate’s wife. Trippi’s job was to secure the premises and, ultimately, to get Lee out of Troublesome Gulch without her being chased down the mountain by careening camera trucks. Thus it’s fair to say that Trippi, who was thirty at the time, became the first campaign operative in American history to personally confront the collision of politics and tabloid media and the sudden mobilization of a satellite-wielding army.

Trippi would forever remember being accosted by a guy, as he tried to get through the front gate, who identified himself as a reporter for A Current Affair. The syndicated show, hosted by the gossipy Maury Povich, had started airing a year earlier. Trippi, whose mind was on his candidate’s alleged adultery—and who, like most political operatives, had never heard of anything called A Current Affair—was incredulous. “You mean they have an entire show for that now?” he stammered.

* If anybody swept up in this whole fiasco should have understood how to navigate the rabid, explosive culture of celebrity media, you would think it would have been Donna Rice. She had dated Don Henley and Prince Albert of Monaco, had appeared on numerous soap operas and TV dramas, including Miami Vice and the outrageously popular Dallas. She was represented by agents in New York and Miami. If you were writing the purely fictional account of the Hart scandal, you might imagine Rice in the mold of Nicole Kidman’s character in the movie To Die For—gorgeous and manipulative, lusting for stardom, indifferent to how she got there or who got trampled in the process.

In reality, Rice was, as she described herself, a “typical Southern girl”—a former Miss South Carolina and head cheerleader, yes, but also a magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of South Carolina, with a major in biology and a minor in business, and her district’s top saleswoman of Wyeth products. She felt swept away by Hart, despite only having known him for a few weeks, and the last thing she wanted was to hurt his campaign, about which she knew almost nothing. When the reporters started congregating at Broadhurst’s townhouse, Rice repeatedly begged to talk to Hart, who was the only one in the bunch she trusted. She wanted to tell him that she hadn’t had anything to do with tipping off the Herald, and then she wanted to go home.

* In short order, the Herald’s fifty-one-year-old publisher, Dick Capen, rose from the audience to speak. (Capen, a staunch Republican and social conservative, would later be made ambassador to Spain by George H. W. Bush, which did little to quiet the conspiracy theories among Hart loyalists.) “The issue is not the Miami Herald,” Capen said. “It’s Gary Hart’s judgment.” The utter disrespect in this one line was hard to miss. Capen was talking about “Gary Hart”—not “Senator Hart”—as if he weren’t even in the room. He meant not to counter Hart’s speech so much as to hijack it altogether.

“He’s an announced candidate for president of the United States, and he’s a man who knows full well that womanizing had been an issue in his past,” Capen went on. “We stand by the essential correctness of our story. It’s possible that, at some point along the way, someone could have moved out of the alley door of his house. But the fact of the matter remains that our story reported on Donna Rice, who he met in Aspen, who he subsequently met in Dade County—he acknowledged that he telephoned her on a number of occasions. It is a fact that two married men whose spouses were out of town spent a considerable amount of time with these people. It is also true that our reporters saw him and Donna Rice leaving his townhouse on at least three separate occasions.”

Capen’s soliloquy was remarkable for a couple of reasons. He had now plainly admitted what Fiedler had written, obliquely, the day before—that Bill Dixon was right, and that the Herald’s reporters actually had no way of knowing whether Rice had stayed in the townhouse Friday night or not, because they hadn’t watched the back door. But Capen had also asserted, for the first time, that it didn’t actually matter, because what mattered was precisely the reverse of what the Herald had written—that, in fact, Rice had been seen leaving the house on several occasions, and it was this, and not her having stayed inside the house with him, that constituted the truly damning evidence. And Hart must have understood, at that point, that he had chosen a field of play on which he couldn’t possibly win. Whether Rice had stayed in his townhouse or hadn’t, the conclusion was apparently going to be the same.

* That night, his name made all the evening news shows and then he appeared live, along with his Herald colleague Jim McGee, on ABC’s Nightline, hosted by Ted Koppel. (The Hart story led the half hour program, followed by a segment on the opening of the Iran-contra hearings.) As he had in the ballroom, Fiedler nervously presented himself as a disinterested reporter who was simply following the story where it led, doing what any reporter would do when tasked with the responsibility of vetting candidates and their character. But Koppel, one of the toughest and most respected newsmen in America, showed little patience for this routine. In fact, he seemed rather disgusted by the entire story.

When Fiedler flippantly tried to dismiss a question about the back door of the townhouse—“If we are conceding that we are not as good as the F.B.I. in conducting a surveillance, I don’t think we have any problem agreeing to that,” Fiedler joked—Koppel abruptly cut him off.

“Well, hold on,” the anchor huffed. “That’s kind of cute, but that’s not the point. The point is, did she spend the night with him or didn’t she spend the night with him? And if, in fact, she left, let’s say a half hour after she got there, which is what she claims, then she would not have spent the night with him.” Koppel wasn’t finished—he also hammered Fiedler about his casual and repeated reference to the supposed “relationship” between Hart and Rice. Decades later, Fiedler would describe this first appearance on national television as one of the worst moments of his life.

* Then Wilson looked up at the mounted TV in the terminal, which wasn’t tuned to ABC and Koppel, but rather to NBC and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Just as the power of a single advertising line—“Where’s the beef?”—would probably elude modern media consumers, so, too, might today’s fans of Conan O’Brien or Jon Stewart have a hard time understanding the cultural power Carson still possessed in 1987, almost twenty-five years after he took over the show from Jack Paar. In the age of three networks, before ubiquitous cable or the Internet, Carson effectively owned America’s last waking moments, after the local newscasts at eleven. Koppel, whose show had quickly become one of the most successful news programs in American history, couldn’t begin to compete with Carson when it came to the number of viewers or the sheer power to shape public perception.

So there was Carson, coming out to do the monologue everyone would be talking about tomorrow in the office, before moving on to the night’s interviews with George C. Scott and a gymnast named Kristie Phillips. And this is how he started: “By the way, before the monologue begins, if Gary Hart is watching, you might want to hit the ‘mute’ button on your remote control.

“I really don’t need a monologue tonight,” Carson said. “I think I’ll just bring out and read the front pages of the newspapers around the country. It is getting so wild that people standing in supermarkets are rushing out to buy regular newspapers.

“Now, we have a lot of people here in the studio. Can I ask a favor of you? I am going to ask you tonight to leave by the front entrance because I don’t want anyone saying we’ve spent the night together.”

* While Fiedler sparred with Koppel on one channel and Carson bitingly ridiculed Hart on the other, the phone rang in Paul Taylor’s Manhattan hotel room. The Post’s political editor, Ann Devroy, was on the line, and filled in her star reporter on the strange things that had been transpiring back in Washington.

In the days after the Herald broke its story, the Post, like other major papers, had been deluged with anonymous tips of all kinds. One stood out. It was an envelope that contained a private investigator’s report. Someone had hired the investigator to tail Hart. And so, on a Saturday in December 1986, days after Hart and Doug Wilson returned from Moscow, the private eye had followed Hart as he gave the Democratic response to Reagan’s weekly radio address in a Virginia studio, then to his townhouse and a bookstore, and then finally to the home of a woman who was a well-known lobbyist in town. Hart had apparently spent the night with this woman, who was rumored to have been involved with him on and off for many years, going back to his separations from Lee.

Who sent the envelope, or why, wasn’t known. (Bizarrely, Dixon had heard, and campaign aides always believed, that one of Hart’s colleagues in the Senate, Maryland’s Joe Tydings, had hired the investigator because he feared that Hart was sleeping with his then wife, who was a close friend of Lee’s and worked for her on the campaign. Tydings denied it at the time.) But it was exactly what editors at the Post needed in order to reestablish the rightful order of things—the break that might transfer ownership of the entire story over to the nation’s most storied political paper. Of course Bradlee knew the woman in the photos personally (or at least he knew someone who knew her), and he even volunteered to confront her and get the truth. The Post was waiting on Bradlee’s confirmation, and in the meantime Devroy wanted to make sure that Taylor was staying close to Hart, in case he needed to get a quick response from the candidate.

* And that’s when Paul Taylor hit him with The Question. He spoke hoarsely but intensely, almost in a whisper, his voice quavering with the gravity of what he was about to do. He spoke at unusual length for a reporter in such a setting, as if he and Hart were having another philosophical conversation in the back of a car, rather than a terse exchange in a packed and sweat-soaked banquet room.

“Senator, in your remarks yesterday you raised the issue of morality, and you raised the issue of truthfulness,” Taylor began. “Let me ask you what you mean when you talk about morality, and let me be very specific. I have a series of questions about it.”

If this prelude alarmed Hart, he didn’t object.

“When you said you did nothing immoral,” Taylor went on, “did you mean that you had no sexual relationship with Donna Rice last weekend or at any other time that you were with her?”

“That is correct,” Hart replied, unflinching. “That’s correct.”

Taylor took his time, with lawyerly skill. “Do you believe that adultery is immoral?” he asked next.

“Yes,” Hart said immediately. He must have been sensing the danger at that point, aware that he was being outflanked but unsure of how to head it off. And then Taylor just came out with it.

“Have you ever committed adultery?” he rasped, while reporters gaped, and while the campaign aides standing off to the side looked at each other in amazement.

Almost three decades later, it sounds like a plausible political inquiry, if not a routine one. Have you ever committed adultery? What would you do if your wife was raped? How did it feel when your child was killed? But in the context of 1987, to Hart and his aides and to the older reporters in the room who would always remember it as a watershed moment, Taylor might as well have asked him to disrobe right there and submit to a cavity search. No reporter had ever asked a presidential candidate that kind of personal, sexual, broad question. Campaign aides had guessed that someone might, but hearing it was still a surreal experience.

Hart froze. You could see it in his eyes, the sudden loss of focus. You could hear it in the room—a long silence that sounded like the end of something, several blank seconds that lingered like a month, during which all his life’s ambitions and grand ideas seemed to flutter away. Sweeney had actually warned him, aboard the plane to New Hampshire, when they were rehearsing an exchange the way candidates and aides often do, that someone might ask him the question. Hart’s reply then had been a terse and outraged, “I don’t have to answer that!” That was perfect, as far as Sweeney was concerned—that was exactly the right response. But somehow, in the moment, Hart’s self-righteousness and fluency deserted him. He retreated, instead, into the recesses of his mind.

In those several seconds, Hart, the former divinity student, began to mull the biblical definition of adultery. Was it, as the Old Testament said, limited to intercourse when one party was married? Or could it be, as Jesus taught, a lusting in the heart? Did it count if you were separated? Or if it didn’t amount to intercourse at all? Could there be a simple answer to this question?

“Ahh,” Hart finally stammered. “I do not think that’s a fair question.”

“Well,” Taylor retorted, “it seems to me the question of morality—”

“You can get into some very fine distinctions,” Hart said.

“—was introduced by you.”

“That’s right, that’s right,” Hart said, stalling.

“And it’s incumbent upon us to know what your definition of morality is,” Taylor pressed.

“Well, it includes adultery.”

“So that you believe adultery is immoral.”

“Yes, I do,” Hart said again. And so Taylor returned to his original question.

“Have you ever committed adultery?”

Here’s what Hart would always remember: looking up at the faces of reporters, twisted with disdain and sanctimony, and seeing in his mind a flash of images from the 1984 campaign. He happened to know, thanks to the inevitable gossip among campaign aides, who in this crowd had hooked up with whom. Even decades later, Hart still wouldn’t say which of the journalists he had in mind—their sex lives, he still believed, should remain private, just like his. But casual, ill-advised “campaign sex” was rampant in those days (even more so than in the still boozy campaigns I covered later), and some of the reporters involved were, inevitably, married. Hart saw some of them now, awaiting his response to Taylor’s question, these reporters who dared to call him a hypocrite.

“I do not know—I’m not going to get into a theological definition of what constitutes adultery,” he said. “In some people’s minds it’s people being married and having relationships with other people, so …”

Taylor wasn’t through. He had the floor, having jolted most of his colleagues into silence, and he had Hart on the defensive. They weren’t in the back of Hart’s limo anymore.

“Can I ask you,” Taylor said, “whether you and your wife have an understanding about whether or not you can have relationships, you can have sexual encounters with—”

“My inclination is to say no, you can’t ask me that question,” Hart said. It was too late for that, however, and he knew it. “But the answer is no, we don’t have any such understanding. We have an understanding of faithfulness, fidelity, and loyalty.”

* When at last he arrived at the hotel where the campaign and press were staying, he saw Sweeney sitting at the bar with three other reporters, one of whom was Bill Peterson, a colleague of Taylor’s from the Post. Taylor described himself as “delighted” to see Peterson. He wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of confronting Hart in his hotel room alone, and instantly hatched a plan for them to double-team the candidate.

The problem was that Peterson, about five years older than Taylor and one of the best liked and most admired journalists on the trail, wanted nothing to do with this escapade. As Taylor summed up Peterson’s objections, “He thought the hour was late, the tip was weak and the story was sleazy.” Taylor and Peterson argued a bit in the lobby and “agreed to disagree.” Taylor, who was by this point nearly hyperventilating with nerves, headed back into the bar, alone, to grab Sweeney and tell him that he needed to see the candidate immediately.

In his own retelling of the event, Taylor didn’t mention his colleague again. But according to Cramer’s account in What It Takes, Peterson and Taylor had one more significant exchange. Taylor had just sat down with Sweeney, and was trying to marshal his breathing so he could explain the situation to the press secretary, when Peterson burst back into the lobby and tried once more to stop him. “We’re not doing this,” Peterson said, according to Cramer’s account. “Paul, you don’t have to do this. You don’t … have … to do this.”

“Bill,” Taylor replied with finality, “there’s just a lot of pressure.” (Peterson died of cancer three years later, at forty-seven. His own recollection of this event was never written.)

At last, Taylor told Sweeney that the Post had evidence of another affair and he needed to see Hart. After hearing the details, Sweeney deflated; he had been with Hart on the day that was the subject of the investigator’s report, but he’d had no idea where Hart had gone after dropping him off at home. Sweeney repaired to his room, ostensibly to see what he could do about arranging an interview for Taylor. It wasn’t until hours later, around midnight, when Taylor confronted him again, that Sweeney finally revealed to Taylor that Hart wasn’t actually in the hotel. The Harts, it turned out, wanted to be nowhere near the press and had been quietly rerouted to a hotel across the border in Vermont. Taylor would have to wait until morning, at least.

What Taylor didn’t yet know was that, in those intervening hours, a crestfallen Sweeney had called John Emerson in Denver, and Emerson had called (of course) Billy Shore in Vermont, and Shore had taken the long walk down to Hart’s door at the hotel—it was one of those two-tiered, motor-inn type structures. Shore apologized and told Hart he really needed to call Sweeney right away, and once they were on the phone, Sweeney told Hart the details of what the Post had.

“This isn’t going to end, is it?” Hart asked.

“You would know better than I would,” Sweeney said coldly.

“Let’s go home” was all Hart could say. He had concluded that he would never be able to survive another revelation, would never be able to keep campaigning or raise the money he needed. But almost as much as this, both Hart and his aides would later say, he was increasingly distraught by the idea that all the women he had known, some romantically but most not, would soon find their own private lives exposed in the pages of papers as notable as the Post. Hart told me that he had already gotten a note from a woman he had seen during his separation from Lee; she wanted him to know that if the reporters came knocking at her door, she would kill herself.

* Upon his retirement from the Post, about four years after the Hart episode, Bradlee granted a lengthy interview to the British journalist David Frost. (Like Bradlee, Frost had become famous in America for his connection to Watergate; he managed to force an apology out of Nixon during a series of sit-downs with the disgraced former president in 1977, which later became the basis for the play and movie titled Frost/Nixon.) The hour-long, edited interview with Bradlee, conducted in stateroom-type armchairs at the editor’s home in Georgetown, was part of a public television series called Talking with David Frost, and like a lot of taped shows that didn’t cry out for digital conversion, it’s long since disappeared from most archives. I was able to view it one day in a back room of the Library of Congress, wearing bulbous earphones attached to a suitcase-size, push-button videotape-editing machine that looked as if it hadn’t been manufactured since 1984. Lines of horizontal static buzzed across the screen, bringing back distant memories of Betamax and rabbit-ear antennas.

Several minutes into the interview, Frost asked the silver-haired Bradlee to name his most significant failures in a quarter century of running the Post. “There were plenty of mistakes,” Bradlee shrugged. Frost tried the question another way.

“Is there anybody,” he asked, “you feel is right to have a grudge against the Post in the last twenty-six years? A rightful grudge?”

“That we have really ruined without cause?” Bradlee asked. Frost nodded. Bradlee seemed to hesitate.

“Well. Gary Hart thinks that. He really is sore at us.” He then added, quickly, “I don’t think with reason,” although the mere fact that he had chosen to bring up Hart, with no prodding and with twenty-six years of material from which to choose, suggests that Bradlee had some conflicting thoughts about this. Having raised the subject, Bradlee then seemed eager to move on, but Frost was intrigued and wouldn’t let it drop.

“Do you think the lines you drew on a politician’s personal life, that you drew them about right over Gary Hart? And since?”

“Yeah, I don’t think we made a mistake in that,” Bradlee said. He allowed that a politician’s private life might not, by itself, have much to do with the public business, “but if you lie about it, I think it’s public domain.”

“So the crime is getting found out?” Frost asked dubiously.

“Yeah,” Bradlee replied.

Frost was an excellent interviewer, and he let this answer echo for a moment, in all its hollowness. And then at last Bradlee seemed to open up a bit. In doing so, he offered what was probably the clearest window into what he and his colleagues at the Post had come to accept during that frenzied week in 1987.

“I’ll tell you what makes this argument hard,” he said. “It’s that someone’s gonna do it. You can get on your ethical perch and make Solomonic judgments, and then some little paper’s gonna run it. And then the AP’s gonna run it. And then you don’t run it, because you made the original decision not to run it. Then someone will write a story about how you refused to do it, even though the AP has done it. And then it’s on television that the Post yesterday refused to name …”

Bradlee’s voice trailed off, and he waved his arm in disgust. “It takes it out of your hands,” he said finally, “and you end up looking silly.”

In other words, Bradlee, the most influential and recognized editor of his generation, had been forced to accept that a behemoth like The Washington Post could no longer decide what was and wasn’t a story for the rest of the media world. Now those decisions were made for him, and all the Post or anyone else could do was try to keep up.

* Where the journalism establishment ultimately netted out on the decisions made in 1987 is probably best illustrated by the career arcs of those who found themselves caught up in the moment. Tom Fiedler wasn’t immediately feted the way Woodward and Bernstein were by his sanctimonious colleagues, and after he read Rosenthal’s comments, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to make the jump to The New York Times—something he had been seriously discussing with the paper’s Miami bureau chief. But Fiedler did get his Pulitzer a few years later, for his part in an impressive investigation into an extremist cult. He went on to become both editorial page editor and executive editor of the Herald and then, after his retirement, a leading academic, oft quoted on journalistic ethics and integrity, well liked and well respected.

Among Fiedler’s colleagues on the stakeout, Jim McGee moved on to become a top investigative reporter for The Washington Post (and later a senior investigator for a congressional committee on homeland security), while Doug Clifton later became the top editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. E. J. Dionne ended up an op-ed columnist for the Post and one of the most admired liberal theorists in Washington. Howard Fineman, who set the whole thing in motion by reporting rumors of Hart’s affairs, became not just the last of Newsweek’s great political writers (before moving on to The Huffington Post) but one of the most ubiquitous pundits on cable TV. Just about everyone who had any role, integral or passing, in taking Hart down went on to scale the heights of national and political journalism.

Everyone, that is, except Paul Taylor. He emerged from the Hart scandal and the 1988 election as a famous and sought-after correspondent, clear heir to the Post’s storied political franchise. He would never cover a campaign again.

* Trippi told me that almost exactly a year after Hart left the race the first time, he got a frantic call from one of his closest friends, Tom Pappas, with whom he had worked as a kid on Ted Kennedy’s 1980 campaign. Pappas was now chief of staff to Roy Dyson, a Maryland congressman, who was being investigated by the Federal Election Commission for campaign spending violations. Pappas, it turned out, had received a six-figure consulting fee from Dyson’s campaign and failed to disclose it. But what had Pappas so distraught, the reason he had called Trippi for help, had nothing to do with money. He said The Washington Post was preparing to run a story that Sunday saying he was gay. Trippi had been dealing with reporters for years and was known to have good, mutually respectful relationships with them. He called one of the reporters working on the story and tried to talk him out of running it.

“Sunday morning, I’m shooting commercials in West Virginia for a gubernatorial candidate, when the front page of The Washington Post …” At this, Trippi’s voice suddenly caught, and to my surprise, he started to weep right there in the bar. “… When the front page of The Washington Post says he’s gay.…”

That story, which I later retrieved, was actually more complicated than Trippi remembered. The piece was ostensibly about Pappas’s strange and demanding behavior toward male aides, like one he had allegedly fired just for leaving a party. The reporters never actually came out and said Pappas was gay, but the subtext was clear. They mentioned, for instance, that Pappas was divorced and that his boss was single, and that Pappas often stayed with the congressman at his house.

“Killed himself,” Trippi told me then, choking on those two words after all these years. “Jumped out of a twenty-four-floor building. He jumped. He was in New York.” In fact, I would later learn, Pappas had hurled himself from a window at the Helmsley Palace Hotel near Grand Central Station minutes after hearing about the story. Trippi got the news from one of the Post reporters, who tracked him down that Sunday morning. “The question was not, How did I like the story or you know, something like that,” Trippi said. “It was: I need to ask you some questions for a story we’re doing for Monday. Today Tom Pappas threw himself out of a building and killed himself. What do you have to say?” He shook his head in disbelief. “That was the press.”

Trippi swigged from his Miller Lite and rubbed his eyes clear. “It just kills me, every time I even remember that guy,” he said. “I just don’t understand it. Even if it was true, it wasn’t fucking front-page news. We were just going through this whole thing where the personal stuff just wasn’t out of bounds anymore. The Hart thing just unleashed this really crazy period.”

* Sometime around 1990, Tom Fiedler spoke about media ethics at a panel in Little Rock, where state legislators happened to be meeting. Afterward, an aide to Governor Clinton approached and asked Fiedler to spend some time with the governor. In a suite at the Excelsior Hotel (the same hotel where Clinton would later be accused of having sexually harassed a woman named Paula Jones), Clinton questioned Fiedler about where he and his fellow reporters would draw the line on extramarital affairs. Was it news, he wanted to know, if a presidential candidate had cheated on his wife in the past, but wasn’t doing it currently? (Fiedler thought not.) What was the media’s statute of limitations likely to be? Fiedler found himself in the uncomfortable position of being consulted as an expert on the new category of sex scandal—which, of course, he was.

Later, Fiedler, like many others, would consider Clinton’s career in national politics proof that the Hart episode had not, in fact, led to an era where imperfections of character would overwhelm everything else. Fiedler had maintained all along that it wasn’t the reporter’s job to decide which aspects of a candidate’s life or persona were relevant to his abilities and which weren’t; those decisions were best left to the voters, who would ultimately be able to work through these disclosures and put them in context. As Fiedler saw it, in the case of marital infidelity, the voters had taken four years to process what had happened with Hart, and by 1992 they had decided that simply having cheated on your wife (and even having lied about it) was not, by itself, a disqualifying factor for a presidential candidate. Hart was the first, and perhaps he was treated more harshly because of it, but America had not become the place he warned of in his acid farewell, where politics existed only as treacherous sport. Rather, we had quickly evolved into a more forgiving society with a more complex notion of character.

There was a lot of validity in this. In the years after Clinton won not one but two terms in the White House, the list of politicians who would manage to rebound from sex scandals that made Hart’s look quaint grew almost as long as the list of those who hadn’t. Americans became desensitized to scandalous revelation, whether it involved sex or drug use or cheating on a college exam. You could disappoint us, certainly, but we were now a very hard country to shock.

And when politicians didn’t rebound, you could generally make a pretty good case that their moral transgressions were worth our knowing about. Did Eliot Spitzer deserve to be New York’s governor—and a moralizing one, at that—after it was revealed that he had routinely rendezvoused with hookers while traveling on the taxpayers’ bill? Should we not have cared that Anthony Weiner, the brash candidate for mayor of New York, was “sexting” young women, even after he had been drummed out of Congress for it and had promised to get the habit under control? It was reasonable to suggest that this hinted at some deeper compulsion or insecurity that was not unrelated to—and, in fact, was probably central to—his craving for public validation.

* And that’s when Donna Rice rediscovered Jesus—not in the eyes of a mountain lion, but in the hiss of a cassette tape. Actually, it was her mother and her grandmother who first put the idea in her head, who told her she “needed to get right with God.” Then a friend from high school, a girl she hadn’t talked to in years, sent her a package through her family. The note said she didn’t know if all this stuff she was reading was true, or what had happened to the Donna Rice she knew. But it didn’t matter, because it was never too late to ask forgiveness and change your life; she enclosed a tape of herself singing songs they had sung together in a Christian youth group many years earlier. The way Rice would later explain it, the Lord worked his miracle through that tape. He made sure, also, to steer her into the company of other devout Christians who had no agenda, other than to take her in and heal her.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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