"When you have a process that treats candidates like entertainers, you will inevitably get entertainers as your candidates:" An Interview With Matt Bai

Matt Bai

Matt Bai

In 1987, Senator Gary Hart from Colorado was the man to beat for the Democratic presidential nomination. His runner-up finish in 1984 to Walter Mondale cemented his front runner status in the next cycle. He was principled, prescient, and eloquent, and his first place status was unquestioned — until scandal erupted shortly after he launched his presidential campaign. In a now-famous line, Hart dared the press to dig into his personal life. The media’s subsequent reporting doomed his campaign, and he withdrew less than a month after he entered the race.

Yahoo! News reporter Matt Bai wrote about Hart’s 1987 campaign in his 2014 book All The Truth Is Out. Bai argues that Hart’s campaign was a turning point for the relationship between the media and politicians. What was once an area with defined boundaries was now open. Certain aspects of a politician’s personal life that used to be off limits for the press — like extramarital affairs — were now fair game. And, as Bai argues, the controversy surrounding Gary Hart made politics “go tabloid,” which has had long term ramifications in the media and political landscape.

All The Truth Is Out was recently adapted into the film The Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart. It was released November 8th.

Tell me about your background. When did you know you wanted to be a journalist and what drew you to politics?

I grew up in Trumbull, Connecticut, which is a town outside Bridgeport, the city where both my parents grew up. It’s funny — someone just reached out from Trumbull High and asked me, as part of a series of questions, what my dream job had been in high school, and honestly I don’t know. I probably wanted to run a newspaper back then. I always knew I’d be a writer, and I was always drawn to politics. I saw my first campaign headquarters when I was probably 10 and worked summers for a couple of mayors as a kid. So I guess the answer is I always had an idea of what I hoped to do, although at some point I saw the foolishness in wanting to run anything and just aspired to write. I certainly didn’t imagine doing screenwriting until much more recently.

Your 2014 book All The Truth Is Out argues that the way Gary Hart's 1987 presidential campaign unraveled permanently changed the relationship between the media and politicians. The Hart affair was when "politics went tabloid," as you put it. When did you first realize that the Hart campaign meant something larger than his presidential ambitions? Can politics ever be "normal" again?

I don’t know when I put that together. I met Senator Hart in 2003, when I was a new writer at the New York Times Magazine, and I thought about his story on and off for years after. When a story grabs you and won’t let go, it just happens — you don’t always know why. But I was covering presidential campaigns for the magazine and at some point I started to connect Hart’s moment to a process that seemed to have gone off the rails and become impossibly trivial. I probably decided to write the book sometime in 2008, but even then it was more of a journey to understand something — I didn’t know where it would end. Which is always the best way to write anything. 

By the way, we’ve now retitled the book “The Front Runner,” to go with the film, which is kind of weird for me. I see it in airports and have to remember that it’s my book!

I don’t think there’s any objective “normal” in politics. There’s always change and evolution, and it has to be channelled in constructive ways. I do think we can have outsiders and celebrity candidates without losing our sense of self or abandoning all pretense of rational governing. It can be a positive force in our politics. But I think it helps to know how we got to where we are.

If Gary Hart's campaign represented a permanent shift in politics and media, what do you think are the effects of Donald Trump's 2016 campaign? Did Trump's campaign alter the media-politics landscape once again? 

Trump isn’t the cause of anything in our politics; he’s the effect. What began with Hart in 1987, for a whole bunch of societal reasons I get into in the book, is that politics and celebrity collided, and suddenly we started to treat our candidates more like entertainers. And when you have a process that treats candidates like entertainers, you will inevitably get entertainers as your candidates. We need to understand the Trump phenomenon as an echo of that explosion 30 years ago, not the Big Bang itself.

How would you characterize the media landscape in 2018? Is the media more sensationalist than it should be? Do any of the older styles of journalist-politician relationships still exist? 

I don’t even know how to think about the media as a single entity. It’s so diverse and so dynamic right now. We have some of the best journalism we’re ever seen, and some that’s completely without substance or value, in my view. I guess I’d say to a younger journalist — because I feel old now — that the diverse landscape affords you the opportunity to make a lot of choices about the kind of stories you want to tell in your career. You get to choose. You get to matter in whatever way you want — maybe not every day, but over the long haul. And we have to take that responsibility seriously.

As for political journalism, I’ve never argued that we want to go back to a time when the candidates and the reporters were all chummy white guys. We don’t. But it helps to really know the people you cover, so you can cover them in some context. And I think that opportunity still exists. Not always, but often.

All the Truth is Out is now the movie The Front Runner starring Hugh Jackman as Hart. When were you first approached about turning the book into a movie? What do you want the audience to take away from the film?

Thanks for asking about the film! My buddy Jay Carson and I actually started writing a screenplay right around the time I was finishing up the book. Jay was a longtime political operative and was just then getting into screenwriting. Eventually the writer-director Jason Reitman called me, because he’d read the book, and the three of us hooked up and wrote together. Which was one of the best and most fun creative experiences of my life. Jason got Hugh on board, which turned out to be magical, because Hugh is just one of the best people you’ll ever meet and he’s brilliant in the role.

I’m just really proud of “The Front Runner” — we all are. It doesn’t hammer you with a message you’re supposed to take away. It tells the story of that moment from a bunch of different perspectives — Hart’s, the aides, the women caught up in it, the reporters — and lets you decide where to come down. We want people to leave the theater discussing and debating, and they do. It’s a movie that makes you think, rather than telling you what to think. And it’s funny and suspenseful and human and complicated. I hope people will see it and decide for themselves.

Thumbnail image credit: Robyn Twomey