Thursday, March 31, 2016


Matt Bai wrote a book a while back in which he argued that the 1987 Gary Hart sex scandal was a foretaste of everything that's wrong with politics today. It's a simple, clever idea -- but that doesn't mean it's right. In a Yahoo Politics column today, he revisits the idea -- and, naturally, tries to draw a line from Hart to Donald Trump:
If you’re tired of hearing Donald Trump go on about his ratings and polls, if you’re mystified by the Twitter War of the Candidates’ Wives, if you can’t understand why Wolf Blitzer interviews a former contestant on “The Apprentice” as if she were a political authority, then I’ve got a video you really need to watch.

The video I’m showing you here, courtesy of C-Span’s archive, is of a presidential candidate speaking in 1987, at a moment of tectonic upheaval in our politics and media.

... the guy who really predicted all of this was Gary Hart....

[In 1987,] his [presidential] campaign unraveled in the space of five surreal days, during which reporters from the Miami Herald hid outside Hart’s home in order to catch him spending time with a younger woman. Hart found himself undone by the first modern political sex scandal -- the inevitable result of myriad forces that were just then reshaping the media....
Hart, Bai tells us, went on to say in his withdrawal speech that politics in America was "on the verge of becoming another form of athletic competition or sporting match." He said, “In public life, some things may be interesting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re important.” And this is apparently Bai's favorite line:
He closed by paraphrasing his idol, Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I think we may in fact get the kind of leaders we deserve.”

Whenever I talk about my book to audiences around the country, I close with those lines. Invariably, I look up to find shocked and silent voters nodding their heads, amazed at how eerily that captures our present reality.
I know how easy it is to draw that conclusion. What Mark Halperin calls "the freak show" is now ingrained in our politics. Media coverage of political campaigns focuses on many things, but rarely the issues.

But by tolerating this, are we really getting "the kind of leaders we deserve," i.e., idiots? Bai writes that "we systematically created a process perfectly suited to a manipulative, reality-TV performer like Trump (or Sarah Palin before him)."

Did we really? Look at who won the 1988 Democratic nomination after Hart dropped out: Mike Dukakis -- a very serious man. Yes, the Democratic nominee in 1992 and 1996 seemed ideally suited to a scandal-obsessed culture -- but he was also a serious man with serious political ideas. The Democrats went on to nominate Al Gore and John Kerry -- also serious men. And Barack Obama may carry himself like a rock star at times, but he's serious, too. So are the two Democrats contending for the nomination this year. Even though one of these candidates has been the object of endless scandal talk, she's running on issues, as is her opponent.

So this political culture may be debased, but it doesn't have to elevate Palins and Trumps. In fact, I'd say it's elevating shallow, ill-informed candidates disproportionately on the Republican side. (See, for example, the last Republican president, or the president Hart hoped to succeed.)

Are we getting media coverage of politics that's dumbed down? Yes. Does that make us crave dumbed-down candidates? On the Democratic side, apparently not. On the Republican side? Yeah, sometimes. Which may say more about Republicans than about the freak show.


StringOnAStick said...

These guys just can't stand not making every observation into a bothsiderism, pox on both houses, even when one house has a cold and the other has bubonic plague.

Also, every time I see some pundit write" Whenever I talk about my book to audiences..." my Pretentious Twat alarm goes off.

Victor said...

The GOP is the Cro-Magnon party.
The Dem's offer either Neanderthal's or Homo Sapiens.*

* Please remember, that new research has shown the it might be that Neanderthal were at least as smart and capable - if not more so - than we Homo Sapiens!

The "Southern Strategy," of Goldwater and especially Nixon, and Reagan welcoming the Manichean "Christian" Evangelicals into the GOP, sealed the "Teh Stooooopid" and ignorant deal.

AllieG said...

Matt Bai is the master of Beltway idiocy. Always has been. I'm an old reporter, and believe me, there's nothing stupider or more dangerous than trying to fit every new story into the model of the first big story you covered.
I'd still be trying to fit reality into Nancy and Tanya.

Feud Turgidson said...

I'm pretty close to AllieG on Bai. He's a turd-gatherer, somewhere between Robert Woodward picking up inside pure feces by actually occupying the colons of major turd producers, and Mark Halperin, who's more a dung beetle, rolling up turdlets of dropped scat into balls and rolling them away to savour. Like both Woodward and Halperin, Bai was born to the life, he specifically targeted a career in palace stool in his college and early work years, and works constantly to ingratiate himself with major turd producers. I liken Bai to ox peckers and other birds that feed on the detritus of large mammals and lizards, their ear wax, their dandruff, skin lice, blood from their open wounds, and bits of turd about their anuses and cloacas.

There's a story emptywheel tells about briefly encountering and talking with Bai at a Netroots convention, and him later portraying her as some hippy Peppermint Patty. I get pissed when poopeaters like Bai go after true journalist like Marcy Wheeler. Fuck him.