Let’s stipulate that Gary Hart himself bears the brunt of blame for what hap-pened to him. Arrogant, isolated, and confused about his own aims, Hart walked out on the ledge. But the fact that a man’s self-destructive urges force him onto the ledge does not mean the press has a moral duty to push him off. The whole tawdry affair leaves a very bad smell, and it is hard to say who is more tainted by it-Hart, or his assassins in the press. So a plague on both their houses, and some reflections on press behavior and what this mess may portend for the future.
Rationalization #1. We are told that the “character issue” justified the Miami Her-ald’s low-rent stakeout, etc. We are reminded that Hart changed his name twenty-odd years ago and shaved a year off his age. And of course, he had not paid those old campaign debts from 1984. But do these matters really justify the stakeout? After all, the “character issue” can quickly be raised about anyone. And if American politics is to be lifted to a new moral plane, what a paradox that journalists, bless their chaste, milk-drinking souls, should be the ones to stiffen the old moral fiber.
Rationalization #2. The press had a patriotic duty to expose Hart. (This argument was advanced both on “Nightline” and at a local forum sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists.) According to this line of defense, the press has a duty to ferret | out morally unsound candidates before they get into office, where they could become the pawns of domestic and foreign enemies who might learn of their sins and blackmail them. Imagine the scene in the Miami newsroom:
“Gee, Bob, I feel kinda bad about this. I mean, spyin’ on a candidate, skulkin’ around his house. . .”
“Me too. Fred. But we gotta! What if the KGB got ahold of this? Now let’s go.” (Exit, to the sound of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”)
Rationalization #3. Hart “challenged” the press to follow him, so it’s really his fault. The candidate’s original “dare” to the New York Times has been distorted into a schoolboy’s taunt (nyah, nyah), which it was not. But even had it been, it’s easy to imagine countless situations in which a dare would not justify a story, especially when it means spying on private citizens. (Ms. Rice and Hart’s other friends, recall, are not running for office.) And besides, the Miami vice hunters were not reacting to any challenge; they were already outside Hart’s door when the Times story hit the street, so this ex post facto logic won’t wash. The “I dare ya” rationalization has also given birth to a mutant strain of argument that says it was okay to topple Hart because, after all, the guy loved danger too much to be president. These critics then trot out something Hart reportedly said a while back, after a white water rafting trip, about loving that kind of thing, or whatever. So? Danger comes with the territory for a president, as Ike, FDR, LBJ, and all the rest have learned. If you’re allergic to danger, you shouldn’t seek to preside over a massive nuclear arsenal.
The point here is not to bash the press, which is always damned when it does and ignored when it doesn’t-as witness the Walker Railey scandal. The Dallas press has been slow to follow where rumor leads on this one, and properly so, while Newsweek has raided our back yard with several provocative stories. But the local press shouldn’t expect hosannas of gratitude from the public for this restraint.
No, the point is that the press has awesome power in American life-in this case, the power to abruptly redraw the political map and, in all likelihood, ensure that a Republican will sit in the White House until at least 1992. In our system, the press has become an unofficial but permanent opposition party with a vital role to play in making public officials accountable to the voters. That vast power must be carefully guarded and prudently used; if it is squandered on Enquir-er-style fishing expeditions that cater to titillation over substance, the whole process will be weakened.
And there are other serious ramifications to the Hart matter. The press has shown that it is quite capable of setting the agenda in a presidential campaign-for who had ever heard of Hart’s “womanizing” beyond the press and a few campaign insiders? The average voter in Dallas, Pensacola, and Winston-Salem was never preoccupied with the love life of a candidate who. after all, took 1,200 delegates to the 1984 Democratic convention. “Womanizing” became an issue only because the press made it an issue, and that raises serious questions. What happened to the idea that an official’s private life was private until there was solid evidence that the private life was affecting performance in office? FDR and JFK, we are told, had their dalliances. No doubt this disqualified them for the priesthood, but there is no evidence that their illicit relationships hampered their handling of domestic and foreign policy.
As far as we know, Richard Nixon has never committed adultery, but that does not argue for another Nixon presidency. Unless we are pushing puritanism or celibacy, there is no reason to focus solely on a candidate’s sexual transgressions. Let’s not limit the moral scorekeeping to violators of the Seventh Commandment.
Then there is the feminist critique, which holds that a male politician may be-must be-judged by his relationship to the other gender. The argument has merit. Still, even setting aside Lee Hart”s own defense of her husband, we are entitled to ask for evidence that Hart, as senator or as candidate, discriminated against women or voted against their interests. But there is no such proof In fact. Hart hired a woman as his campaign manager and a woman as his pollster-a record no other candidate can match.
At the journalists’ forum 1 attended, the majority seemed to believe that the media’s new role as morals cop and scolding great-aunt will serve the public good. I doubt it. Our system of trial-by-primary already discourages many good people from seeking the highest office. And under the old. more lax moral rules for candidates, we got precious few Lincolns, Wilsons, and Roose-velts. We should not expect hordes of talented, dedicated people to flock into public service under this moral New Deal. It’s more likely that we will see an increase in human blanks, bland creatures willing to erase all the nuances of their characters to suit 51 percent of the voters in Peoria. It would be absurd to equate philandering with imagination, high intelligence, or bold leadership. But it’s worth noting that Gerald Ford was never accused of any of these.