Doug Clifton: Miami Herald was right to pursue tip about Gary Hart dalliance

If you haven’t yet heard about political writer Matt Bai’s book on the failed presidential hopes of Gary Hart, you will. Bai, once political editor for the New York Times’ Sunday magazine and current political editor for Yahoo, asserts that one week in 1987 forever changed politics in America.

Bai is on the interview circuit advancing the argument that The Miami Herald’s ethically dubious reporting of Gary Hart’s adulterous behavior launched that change. He’s already appeared on CNN, NPR, the PBS News Hour and too many others to recount.

“All the Truth is Out – The Week Politics Went Tabloid,” is enjoying good reviews and Bai is enjoying softball interviews. His book got a drum-roll launch with the cover of the Times’ Sunday magazine, nice advance notice by any definition.

According to Bai, “the week” began with the weekend stake out of Hart’s Capitol Hill townhouse by a team of Herald journalists. One of them, Tom Fiedler, The Herald’s respected political writer at the time, got a call from a woman responding to a Fiedler story whose gist was this: Hart was being accused unfairly of adulterous behavior without proof.

The caller said the rumors were true and gave Fiedler precise information about when and where Hart would meet an attractive Miami woman for a romantic weekend. Fiedler conferred with Investigations Editor Jim Savage and investigative reporter Jim McGee and Savage decided it was worth checking out.

McGee caught an early evening flight to Washington, leaving without knowing Hart’s address. At that point, I became a footnote to history. By Bai’s lights a much bigger bit of history that I’d ever imagined. (Politics changed forever?).

Having just moved from Miami, where I was a deputy managing editor, to the Knight Ridder Washington bureau as news editor, The Herald asked me to locate Hart’s address and give it to McGee when he arrived.

My move north was so recent my family was still back in Miami and I was alone in our new house with a box of corn flakes and a bottle of Scotch. A social evening with McGee — I had every instinct this tip would come to naught — sounded like a good deal.

Gary Hart, the beautiful blond from Miami on his arm, upset those plans. For the next 12 or so hours, McGee and I watched the townhouse. We were joined Saturday morning by Fiedler and Savage and I went home to my corn flakes before rejoining them later in the day.

So much for the background and on to Bai’s sweeping conclusions:

— Hart was a dead lock for the Democratic nomination.

— He was almost equally a dead lock in the general election.

— That had Hart been elected, the Iraq war would never have been fought and thousands would not have lost their lives.

— The Herald rushed willy-nilly into a Keystone Kops adventure fueled by stars-in-the-eyes ambition.

— That this pursuit of embarrassing personal information on politicians was a new inexcusable low.

— The stakeout was morally unacceptable.

Reasonable people can debate these conclusions ad nauseum.

Who can say what might have come out in the rough and tumble of a presidential campaign? The Washington Post was ready to report on a different extramarital affair, for instance.

When Hart tried to reignite his campaign, he was trounced in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The Herald team of Savage, McGee and Fiedler were already stars in their own right.

History is filled with examples of press exposure of embarrassing personal details. Think Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Grover Cleveland, all of them exposed, and Kennedy and Johnson, who were not.

Are personal matters off limits? Had the press done its job, the voters would have known that JFK was intimate with the girlfriend of Chicago’s crime boss. Would they have wanted to know that bit of his bio?

And what was the public policy issue of Hart’s dalliance with Donna Rice? William Broadhurst, a lawyer, oil millionaire, lobbyist and good-time buddy of Gary Hart, suddenly would have had Oval Office access.

Finally, what’s a reporter to do?

A tip comes over the transom. Be at a given place at a given time and witness a newsworthy transaction. Do you hang up and forget it? Or do you check it out? The Herald checked it out. I wonder what Matt Bai would have done?

Doug Clifton is the former editor of The Miami Herald and the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Fort Lauderdale. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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