Today we talk to Matt Bai, author of All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid. The book centers on Gary Hart’s 1987 sex scandal that destroyed his political ambitions, and how it was a turning point in how the media cover politics, emphasizing quote character issues, over political experience.
Dave Davies: Historically, before 1987 [and the Gary Hart sex scandal], what were the standards employed by journalists in covering politician’s private lives?
Matt Bai: It’s too facile to say that private lives were never in issue in politics or presidential politics. You certainly can’t say that character wasn’t an issue, we always cared about these things. But by and large, if you’re looking at 20th century politics, let’s say, and even going back before then, the personal lives or private or marital transgressions of national candidates became germane to the debate only when they burst out into the open and affected your political standing. So if you look at someone like Nelson Rockefeller, who in the 1960s divorced his wife, married a much younger staffer, it was quite scandalous, particularly in the Republican Party—that affected his standing with republican voters, it was a political story and it was covered. Chappaquiddick, of course, we all know. Ted Kennedy’s marital troubles, his wife’s issues, all of those things were covered in the context of political standing and how it affected your campaign.
What we didn’t have were journalists going out and playing detective or playing private investigator and trying to bring into the public arena what were considered private behaviors that were generally off-limits. So that in the case of say a Franklin Roosevelt, a John Kennedy, a Lyndon Johnson, all of whom we now know were not angels in their private lives, by the standards most of us have for our marriages, but none of that was considered news. Even later when it was understood that John Kennedy had not only extramarital affairs but associations in terms of the mafia and a mafia mistress, that were really, I would consider quite reckless and I think most people would—most of that was treated as something separate from his presidency. He still gets very high marks as a president.
Photo: Marilyn Monroe and JFK, via JKFlibrary.org
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