Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Review: All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Matt Bai

I was starting high school when Gary Hart ran for president in 1987. I don't remember much about it. But I was very interested in the author's thesis that this was the moment when news started to become infotainment and stopped being particularly helpful to citizens. The import of moments like this are often only apparent in retrospect. I'm sure no one at the time foresaw how the Monkey Business scandal was going to affect politics. Sure, people figured that it would have an affect, but most people wrongly assumed that it meant that politicians with any skeletons in their closets, particularly of a sexual nature, could never run for office ever again (hello, Bill Clinton!)

Instead, Bai comes to the conclusion that the big change in this moment was that we stopped considering the substance of the politician and only considered their character. In fact he compares Barack Obama's lack of much political experience to Sarah Palin's (although he acknowledges that the similarity ends there.) The lack of substance is a scary thing (hello Palin!) and he believes the strength of character bit is overplayed. I agree on the first point but not on the second. In fact, he doesn't seem to believe it himself, ending the book by pointing out that Hart could have reentered politics numerous times, had he only changed his story and apologized. Instead, he stood by his story and never faltered (that nothing sexual happened with Donna Rice), despite the harm that caused to his career and aspirations, and Bai calls that evidence of good character. I agree, but if Bai's just been telling us for hundreds of pages how insignificant the whole "character" thing is in politics, then why in the end approve of Hart's character? It's true that other politicians who were serial cheaters (F. Roosevelt, Kennedy) did great things politically, and politicians who did reprehensible things (T. Kennedy) went to to achieve much in the world of politics, but just as Bai argues that a slip-up in one's personal life shouldn't end one's political aspirations, the obverse is also true. Just because a person does good things for the country doesn't mean they're not an awful person (Nixon). But Bai seems to yearn for the pre-Hart days when journalists winked at politician's sexual dalliances and other personal problems and wrote lengthy, thought-out pieces about international world views and the like. That ship has sailed. And not entirely for the worse. Bai admits that not much dirt was ever found on Obama, and that some personal problems are indicative of issues the politician has with decision-making, risk-taking, and prioritizing. Yet he yearns nonetheless.

This was a fascinating analysis and look back, but I for one am glad we no longer live in a time when politicians can do horrible things and journalists look the other way. Yes, personal lives are fair game now, and you don't have to think it's fair, but I do. Yes, we might never have another introverted president, and that is a shame, but I think that overall, the greater transparency works out. While on the one hand, I don't really care who a president is screwing (if his wife doesn't care) so long as  he isn't the screwing the country, on the other hand I do want to know he is screwing around and have the choice on election day to make that call. Some relationships are complicated (helloooooo Clintons!) and that's their business, but the rest of us have a right to know as much as is reasonable (and I argue that decisions made at home are indicative of decision-making in the office, and therefore are fair game) when we decide who to elect.

I checked this book out of the library.

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