When it comes to election year, reporters often focus on scandals, digging up dirt from the politicians’ pasts and painting them in a grimy image. Many times, we think our leaders should be “angels,” perfect in every aspect of character. However, the founders of the United States anticipated that the rulers of our country would not be perfect and would have faults, just like the rest of us.
This topic came into conversation in a New York Times article last month. On Sept. 18, The New York Times published an interview between reporter Matt Bai and former U.S. senator Gary Hart. Bai and Hart discussed how the press’s exposure of Hart’s marital infidelities led to the end of his presidential prospects, and perhaps altered the trajectory of American history.
Here’s the background story: The 1988 election was approaching, and the Democratic Party was looking to win its first presidential election since 1976. Colorado Sen. Gary Hart was a compelling choice, and in April of 1987, he announced that he would run for the presidency.
Less than one month after his announcement, Hart’s hopes for ever winning were shattered. On May 3, 1987, reporters at The Miami Herald published a story detailing a possible affair between the senator and a young woman named Donna Rice. The next month, the tabloid National Enquirer published a photo of Hart on a yacht, with Rice on his lap. His career in politics was over.
Hart’s story was a turning point in the relationship between politicians and the press, as far as privacy is concerned. Bai wrote the following:
“By the 1990s, the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods. If post-Hart political journalism had a motto, it would be: ‘We know you’re a fraud somehow. Our job is to prove it.’”
Ten years after Hart’s political demise, the nation was rocked by yet another political sex scandal with President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
However, a different scandal also unfolded in Washington in 1998 and received far less attention. In October of that year, Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler Magazine, offered $1 million to anyone who could prove that they had had a sexual relationship with a member of Congress. As a result, it was revealed that Republican Robert Livingston had had an extramarital affair many years prior to 1998.
When the news of Livingston’s past infidelities became public, the congressman, and soon-to-be Speaker, took to the floor of the U.S. House, offered his resignation, and encouraged the President of the United States to do the same.
In a rare demonstration of bipartisanship, Democratic minority leader Richard Gephardt called on Livingston to stay in office. Rep. Gephardt alluded to James Madison’s “Federalist #51,” and said, “Our founding fathers created a system of government of men, not of angels.” Livingston was not swayed, however, and gave up the opportunity to serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives. The same day that Livingston announced his resignation, the House impeached President Clinton.
I am not trying to defend the actions of Hart, or Clinton, or Livingston. But, when a scandalous photograph has the power to undermine a presidential candidacy, or when a professional pornographer can buy the ruin of a would-be House Speaker, there is reason for concern.