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Matt Bai on Herald's Gary Hart Investigation: "It Was Shocking Then and ... It's Shocking Now"

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In 1987, the Miami Herald turned a presidential race on its head. A team of reporters, acting on a tip, staged an elaborate stake-out of Democratic frontrunner Gary Hart at his Washington townhouse. Their reporting led to an investigation alleging that Hart had been carrying on an affair with a Miami woman named Donna Rice; within weeks Hart resigned.

To Matt Bai, Yahoo News' national political correspondent, that moment wasn't just a seminal piece of local journalism lore. In his new book, All the Truth Is Out, Bai argues the Herald's piece marked the moment American political coverage made a hard turn away from substance and into 24-hour scandal mongering.

Riptide caught up with Bai before his appearance this weekend at the Miami Book Fair International to talk about the Herald's original story, how he cracked the case of who tipped the paper off 27 years ago and his hopes for political journalism in the future.

New Times: Did you set out to solve the mystery of who tipped off the Miami Herald about Gary Hart's affair with Donna Rice? And once you found the answer -- a Hollywood clothing designer named Dana Weems -- were you suprised at how quickly she opened up to you?

Matt Bai: Well, the original story was one that I mostly knew from memory, like everyone else. And when I last wrote about Gary Hart in 2003, I repeated some of that repeated received wisdom. When I dove back into the story, some of that turned out to be not as accurate as I'd like it to be. So I got very curious about that whole moment and what it meant. And it wasn't until I went back that I realized how much I thought I knew about the case wasn't right.

But re-telling that part of the story itself is less than half the book. So I was not intending to stage any long manhunt for the original tipster. It wasn't at top of my list for reporting, nor did I think it was likely to yield anything new. As a reporter, though, I started talking to sources and it was like dominoes falling. I realized, this is something I should at least try to look into. After that, it wasn't actually that hard. After a couple phone calls, it was easy to find Dana Weems today, living in Hollywood. I don't think anyone had asked her about Gary Hart in 27 years, when she was asked if she was the source and denied it. She said to me that she was surprised the secret had lasted as long as it had. Sometimes with benefit of time, people realize they did want to talk about it after all.

But you also realized that the public memory about Gary Hart challenging the Herald to "Follow me" and sparking this whole thing was also not exactly accurate. That quote wasn't published in the Post until the same day the Herald's investigation ran.

The thing about that, this is the amazing thing, I didn't discover anything there that hasn't always been part of the public record. The Herald wrote the story 27 years ago, and they didn't lie. They said as much in their initial story. It's just that in the public's mind, it got instantly miscast and misremembered. No one purposely created that confusion. It just somehow in that moment, when media were more concentrated and the culture was a lot less fragmented, it just became became true. And there was some human nature there. If it was Hart who invited a change in the boundaries by challenging the paper, then it was Hart who created the new dynamic. We never had to reckon with it. It's not that anyone lied, it's more that we used it as a crutch to avoid more difficult questions.

(Editor's note: Since we interviewed Bai, there's been a vigorous debate over this point in his reporting. The New York Times has since issuing a correction, and former Herald staffers have demanded more retractions from the paper of record, including a dispute over whether Weems had earlier been outed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Bai has defended his reporting. Catch up on all the back and forth here.)

The Herald, like every other daily, has been hard hit by layoffs in recent years. Given the smaller size of the paper, would a tip like that be so aggressively followed in the first place in today's media market?

I don't know, because other than the National Enquirer following John Edwards, I can't think of another newspaper putting a candidate under covert surveillance at any time. It was shocking then and I think it's shocking now. I asked a colleague who was working at the time to re-read my book for accuracy and perspective and he said, 'I'm reading your book and I lived through all of this, and while I'm reading this, I still can't believe they're doing this.' Even now, it's shocking and I don't know that resources really have anything to do with that. It was a decision of taste and ethics, not resources.

Tom Fiedler, one of the Herald reporters at the center of your story, has criticized your book, saying it's central premise that the scandal moved journalism toward gotcha-style reporting "doesn't stand up to scrutiny." He points to past coverage of scandals dating to Grover Cleveland and argues that catching a presidential candidate in a lie is always newsworthy. How do you respond to the critique?

I actually wrote my own response to Tom's column. I have a lot of respect for Tom, but I think he's dug in on this story because it defined a lot of his career. I think his position is fairly extreme. I think if he was coming at it objectively and not as someone who was taking part in the story, he wouldn't have taken such an extreme position on it.

First of all, he says the Hart scandal didn't change anything because go back to Grover Cleveland and you'll find the same stories about the candidates' sex lives, and then he says the real question is why didn't we ask other presidents like FDR and JFK. Well, let's assume we did. Let's build a time machine and ask all those other presidents, Roosevelt and Kennedy and Johnson about their sex lives and see them obfuscate and the public decide they're not sufficient to hold office. Then we can find some other way to get through the Depression and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The only alternative is having 25 straight terms of the Carter administration. But really, I think very few Americans subscribe to the view that would be better. The absurdity should be evident to Tom.

Has writing this critique of modern American political coverage changed the way you cover politics for Yahoo?

I don't think this process significantly changed my work because I was always pretty fortunate in that for 11 years at New York Times Magazine and now at Yahoo, I could always do pretty in-depth work. That's because the sensibility is really about big ideas and we wouldn't have done a lot of shallower stories on day-to-day horse race news. As a columnist, I've tried to keep the big picture in my columns and not get into the granular stuff. So I don't think it changed my work, but it changed how I see the stories out there every day. It caused me to try to figure out where I was on a lot of the tensions in my business.

I have started to write a little more openly and sharply about the way we've covered stories and the larger meaning of our coverage. I've never been a media critic and I've been very resistant to write about media and about my colleagues. I probably came to a point where I've been doing this long enough and doing deeply about it that now I feel like I can give that perspective.

Why stay in political journalism given what you have seen first-hand about how difficult it is to tell real stories in this over-managed age? Is there still room for real journalism?

There were a lot of reasons I took a break from magazine work and one definitely was the frustration of spending a majority of my time trying to cajole and bully and navigate and just get the access you need to do the story. You had to be a political strategist to get the politicians to cooperate on trying to understand their world views. I wasn't a stranger to that, but I always operated on the idea that if you were interested in the subjects of campaigns and ideas, you'd get more access ultimately and more time than the average profiler. But that was increasingly not the case. It has changed. It has become more difficult and campaigns have become much more timid and much more afraid to let you delve into candidates.

That's one thing that drew me into this story. A lot of people thought it was a strange direction to go in, to write about Gary Hart. But I wanted people to understand how hard it was to become to do substantive, useful political journalism. That's the biggest challenge I faced in doing this book was getting people to put their skepticism aside and to reconsider a character they haven't heard of or thought about in years. I don't read political books usually because they're mostly terrible. I spend all my time reading literary nonfiction and that's what I tried to write. It just happens be about politics.

So before I let you go, I have to ask you a horse-race question that Gary Hart would hate. How do you see the political fortunes of our two native sons -- Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush -- playing out from here?

I think they're both very compelling characters and I think it's an interesting story actually to see how they'll play off each other. The two of them are a fascinating pair. You have the mentor and the disciple and they're eying each other carefully as they consider a presidential run. Jeb may get too much attention and Rubio too little. I think he's an evolving politician and but really intriguing and talented. Until we know their decisions, though, it's hard to assess what they'll really bring to the field. I'd still be surprisd if Jeb runs. It's going to be an awfully tough and divisive battle and as someone who has been through politics and has now built a different life, I'm not sure.

I think everything Marco Rubio does suggests he's seriously considering a run. But I'm very much an outlier in the Washington journalism world in the sense that I like the fact that we all find out who wins at same time, when the votes are counted. The prediction business to me is just spinning wheels.

Matt Bai speaks at the Miami Book Fair International on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. in the Chapman Conference Center (Building 3, 2nd Floor, Room 3210)

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