We don’t think that’s how it works: In yesterday’s Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley reviewed Matt Bai’s new book about the Hart campaign.
That’s right—about the Gary Hart campaign! In 1987!
Twenty-seven years later, Bai is arguing that this is where the modern bullroar in the reporting of White House campaigns got its start.
In this modern journalistic bullroar, the nations’ reporters thrash about, trying to examine some candidate’s “character,” or at least pretending to do so.
Bai’s thesis doesn’t seem entirely wrong. During Campaign 1988, the press corps registered two major scalps. They got Candidate Hart on an adultery charge and Candidate Biden for plagiarism.
Because we happened to know him in college, we can tell you something about a third candidate in that 1988 campaign. Some reporters were trying very hard to get Candidate Gore for youthful drug use, and on an additional count from his youth.
We got many phone calls on these matters, from one reporter in particular. (We don’t remember who it was. Based on the published record, we could take a guess.) At the time, we were struck by how much the reporters wanted to get that third scalp and, if you really have to know it, but how poorly conceived their drug jihad was.
They were eager to get that third scalp! But in one fairly obvious way, we remember being struck by how dumb their questions were.
This wasn’t exactly the start of this candidate-hunting crap. Way back in 1972, they got the scalp of Candidate Muskie on a “character” rap. By the way:
Can we possibly notice that all these scalps came from one of the two major parties? We don’t know if there’s a reason for that. But we were struck by this passage from Yardley’s thoroughly worthwhile review:
YARDLEY (10/12/14): It happens that though I was not in any way involved in The Post’s coverage of Hart and have never met [reporter] Paul Taylor, I did devote part of a weekly column I wrote in those days to Hart’s case. I said that “in Washington, and wherever else two or more politicians may gather, he who does not get caught has ‘character’ and he who gets caught has none.” That seems to me as true today as it was then. The persecutorial media that so alarms Bai has no real interest in “character” and oceans of interest in sex and sensation. This unfortunately at times has involved what is known as the “mainstream” media, but the contributions of People and US Weekly and the National Enquirer and, especially, the Daily Mail Online and all those bloggers madly typing away have only intensified things. Probably the political climate would be a lot healthier and the political discussion a lot more constructive if the media would simply obey that most basic of biblical injunctions: He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.To us, that passage seems to suggest that the press corps stages its jihads against candidates in a way which is dumb and unwise, but which is also “nonpartisan.” Simply put, the jihad starts when one of the hopefuls gets caught.
We don’t think that’s necessarily the way this syndrome works. The historical record seems fairly clear:
Decisions are often made in advance about which candidates have “character.” The jihads proceed, or get suppressed, on the basis of those prejudgments. It isn’t true that the jihads begin at the point when someone gets “caught.”
That passage by Yardley conveys a certain sense of the way these candidate jihads work. We think he’s offering an idealized portrait of the way the press corps works, as opposed to The Way We Are.
Tomorrow: Final points concerning two favorites of the analysts, their uncles Boehlert and Drum