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I Don't Have To Answer That

Friday, January 29, 2016 - 11:00 PM

(Photo Credit: Getty Images/Getty)

Roosevelt, Kennedy, Eisenhower … they all got a pass. But today we peer back at the moment when poking into the private lives of political figures became standard practice.

In 1987, Gary Hart was a young charismatic Democrat, poised to win his party’s nomination and possibly the presidency. Many of us know the story of what happened next, and even if you don’t, it’s a familiar tale. But at the time, politicians and political reporters found themselves in uncharted territory. With help from author Matt Bai, we look at how the events of that May shaped the way we cover politics, and expanded our sense of what's appropriate when it comes to judging a candidate.  

Produced by Simon Adler

Special Thanks to Joe Trippi


Matt Bai, Tom Fiedler, Cokie Roberts, Lesley Stahl and Kevin Sweeney


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Comments [40]

john.smith from uk

good article

Feb. 20 2018 01:52 AM
E. Mullins from Monterey, CA

You guys link the shift toward peering into candidates' personal lives as a direct consequence of Watergate, though parts of the piece show that Gary Hart was also the battleground of the "culture wars" of the 80s, catching it from both sides: women who weren't going to let his belittling behavior slide as well as the Christian right calling for a moral America. I think Nixon is not the only cause of this shift in policy. Great piece!

May. 04 2017 05:23 PM

I think it is troubling that Nixon is portrayed as paranoid and mentally ill in this piece when Hillary Clinton has erased so much more information than he, and she is considered an intelligent well adjusted person. I am not a Nixon fan, nor even a republican, but I think that what he is accused of is very mild for what the candidates do today. I think that Hart taunted the media, and that is the true reason that he was exposed.

Mar. 28 2016 11:41 AM
Samir from Bahrain

You failed to correctly address the history of Gary Hart. He was not simply caught cheating on his wife. He screamed at the press and brazenly challenged them to catch him breaking his marriage vows, claiming he never did, and they got a hilarious picture of him and dropped the hammer. The fact that he was on a boat called The Monkey Business made the story all the more delicious. As for Eisenhower, you also slander him. Unlike the well-documented adultery of JFK and Roosevelt -- in the latter's case, with his own cousin (but then, so was his wife), there is only speculation about one woman where even she doesn't allege intercourse. If you're going to do history, do the hard work of getting your facts straight.

Mar. 21 2016 07:37 AM
dwk from chennai

How did citizen kane have such a scene back in tge 40s if reporting on the affairs of candidates only started in the 80s,was welles being prescient?

Mar. 06 2016 12:52 PM

How did citizen kane have such a scene back in tge 40s if reporting on the affairs of candidates only started in the 80s,was welles being pr

Mar. 06 2016 12:50 PM
Max from San Diego, CA

Thanks for this story.

As a first generation immigrant from China, I was puzzled by the arguments by European leaders, in the 90's, about the American political culture during the Clinton-lewinsky scandal. The argument was that, it was a completely private affair and had nothing to do with whether Bill Clinton was a good president or not. Listening to this story had completed the missing link for American political evolution from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton where the character of president/candidate is equally important as, if not more than, the policies they are advocating for. This is a fantastic piece of education for American history. Thank you RadioLab!

Mar. 01 2016 01:53 AM
Eric C. Jacobson from Los Angeles, CA

SKL from MD: Far from missing "the entire point of the podcast", I believe I correctly understood it to be a rehash (in the guise of a "think piece") of what the producers plainly regard as Hart's self-induced "downfall". The gratuitous inclusion of Cokie Roberts' (fact-free) rumor-mongering attests to that.

Had the producers been more ambitious and delved into the story in greater depth (perhaps expanding it into a multi-part re-investigation/non-fiction drama that are now in vogue) they could have gone beyond the POVs of Matt Bai and the other nominally "pro-Hart" sources for the piece, which are fine as far they go, but nevertheless quite limited.

For example, in the concluding page of his book Bai sees the main index of Gary Hart's (overall outstanding) personal character Hart's steadfast assertion of his obviously "better view" position in (what I call) his "flame war" with disreputable mainstream journalists such as the Washington Post's Paul Taylor, and Tom Fiedler and the infamous Miami Herald gang, regarding the zone of privacy due presidential candidates.

Bai carefully reviews the bidding of Hart’s imbroglio with the conservative press and media establishment and (without using the precise phrase) concludes that journalists had (unconscionably) replaced Hart's real political identity with a doppelgänger (a fake double) that unjustly forced Hart to endure a consequent 27 year sentence in American political exile. This is easily seen by comparing the last piece of normal journalism about Hart and his supporters in April 1987 ( with the despicable defamatory coverage during those Seven days in May 1987 – which got even worse following Hart's (terribly unfortunate) suspension of his campaign.

As I have commented elsewhere, there are not really even two sides to that "flame war": no one of any discernment can now dispute the superior wisdom of Canada's utter repudiation of American mainstream journalism's plunge into the privacy-disrespecting tabloid gutter. See here:

Partially because I participated in parts of the saga in real time (see the link here:, I found myself choking up while reading Bai’s last chapter and reflecting again on the magnitude of harm that Hart's absence since 1987 has caused our nation and world. But where Bai ends his book by describing Hart’s steadfast adherence to the better view in the "flame war" as the key indication of Hart’s good character, I would have ended the book a little differently, extolling Hart’s commitment to our country’s ideals.

To slightly tweak Mr. Bai’s ending (with Bai’s words in quotes): “There is a way to describe a man” who is unbought and unbossed, who evinces over a lifetime an unflagging devotion to the common good, and “who holds tightly to principle, whatever the cost. The word is character.”

Feb. 24 2016 06:53 PM
SKL from MD

Eric Jacobson-
I think you missed the entire point of the podcast. Your entire comment is debating whether or not Hart committed adultery, and may I say you're quite the theorist.

But the point of the podcast was to show the point in time where the focus of political journalism shifted with just one story, whether right or wrong. Do you argue that? How can you? The point is that the times have changed, and so has journalism, and so have we. In 1985, there would have been no one commenting on websites and Facebook arguing back and forth about whether a podcast was well done or completely misrepresented. Times change.

To Radiolab- I love science and technology (science person here), but I definitely appreciate learning these things too. That's what being a well rounded person is all about! Very interesting!! Love you guys!!


Feb. 22 2016 10:19 PM

Wow, thanks for this- I thought then it was a RW plot (I was touring mtns in a camper at the time) and it was: Rice's informer roommate worked for the RNC and may have set up the whole affair, and Rice is now a RW anti-abortion campaigner. Shocked at Bai's flexible morals, but he
sure got a great career out of it, huh. I produced an 8 hour documentary about the 84 campaign, going to DC, filming his young booming operation run by 20 yo college kids taking in $1 million/day- then real money (presaging Deans + Obamas), and even doing some media advice and commercials for him (I was won over).

Where was Bai when the incredible lies were peddled to start the Iraq War, which killed maybe 1 million, and killed, wounded, + damaged 300K Americans. This was just when the RW echo chamber started with AM radio becoming a swamp of hate talk radio; Clinton being frantically pursued for 6 years and $120 million until they found Monica, and winner AL Gore being cheated out of the Presidency after being slandered for months as a liar by a hateful press, as dimwit GB2 was lauded as personable and friendly.

More salient facts- Hart had been separated from his wife for periods of up to a year, I never heard any woman's complaint of ill treatment ever, and have questioned the imperious doyen Cokie, who fancies she IS Washington. Hart produced several hugely respected reports, including the Hart-Rudman Report in 2001 about OBL terrorism that Bush completely ignored, and was the genius campaign manager that got stodgy George McGovern nominated. Like the unfairly trashed Howard Dean in 2004, America lost a great political talent in Hart. Bai sounds like a nasty little nerd too- don't buy his book.

Here's my 10 min TV report from '84

Feb. 21 2016 11:09 PM

It has never ceased to amaze me that the feminists who claimed to want to be equal to men refused to believe that DRH had a serious job that she could perform for the campaign as a fund-raiser.  If so, why shouldn't she meet Hart in DC?   Oh, she was attractive, therefore there must have been some hanky-panky.  How sexist is that? (As for Bimini, once anyone boards a cruise ship, the captain is in charge of where it goes and how long it stays anywhere.) The feminists should have been DRH's chief defenders.  The fact is that the "scandal" didn't hurt GH so much in the polls.  He was already tied with Dukakis in NH before the story hit.  It didn't hurt him that much there.  What the Herald and Washington Post did was to screw up his fund raising which affected his ability to run his campaign.  

As for Cokie Roberts allegations, it shows how defenseless against casual slander public figures are under prevailing American law.  Even if Hart were litigious, which he isn't the need to prove "actual malice" makes any defamation suit in the U.S. almost impossible.  Roberts could just say that is how she remembers things now and her lawyer would argue that if her mind is getting fuzzy then there was no malice on her part. Her repetition of non-fact-checked disparaging tropes about Hart is predictable coming from an inside the beltway prima donna of Establishment media. Roberts is the daughter of Congressman Hale Boggs, who served on the Warren Commission, and she is sister of D.C. lobbyist Tommy Boggs, who thought Hart was “weird” for refusing to accept his checks. Roberts is nothing more than a guardian of DC insider privilege. 

The piece did have a few glaring errors.  Hart was not a powerful politician at the time.  He was out of office at the time and really did not have the patronage like a senior senator or the governor of a big state. He clearly ran as an outsider.  Fiedler saying that the rest of the commandos needed to come because McGee didn't know what Hart looked like is preposterous.  How could McGee not recognize Hart if he was such a well known politician?  Hart had led Reagan in the polls after he won the 1984 New Hampshire primary, and he was leading all candidates for president in May 1987. More BS!  Oh and the WaPo was not “ambivalent” about the issue of privacy.  It was looking for a skillful way to publish the report it had in hand about Hart without appearing too willing.  At the same time it was suppressing well known reports in D.C. about Bush, Sr., and his relationship with Jennifer Fitzgerald.

Interesting that GH says that the truth still hasn't been told yet.  All the truth is not out!

Feb. 19 2016 07:13 PM

@CAR I don't know whether he mistreated any women.

Feb. 18 2016 02:01 AM

@tbc: Considering that Hart is now over 79 years old and has been married to his wife for 57+ years, can you name a single woman who has alleged that Hart mistreated her in some way? If Hart was really using women like Kleenex shouldn't there be a blue dress somewhere to prove something? Oh, and don't say Donna Rice because she still denies that anything improper happened between her and Hart. The people she considers womanizers are Tom Fiedler, his cohorts and the Miami Herald's publisher who became part of the Bush I administration. Remember they did stalk (this is the correct word) her, even though they falsely published that they had followed Hart. How ungallant is it to put a lady through a walk of shame for discussing a job working for a presidential campaign? Now Donna Rice Hughes certainly has demonstrated that she can run an organization. She was more than competent to raise money for his campaign.

Feb. 17 2016 12:09 AM

I tried to use the thumbs-up feature and failed. Bravo Pete Stean from London, MontanaRed, Paul from CA, Bruce Ogletree and NotAPundit—both from Texas, Paul from Philly, and Walt Slazyk from d!

Hambone from Wisconsin goes down a rathole about so-called "open marriages." I step away slowly, mumbling SIWOTI.

Last Refuge and Amanda miss the point. This is the story that broke at the right time to change American politics.

Downwind, about Eric C. Jacobson from Los Angeles and "necklacing," puts is well in one word: abhorrent.

Jad and Robert, I came to this page to comment on the way you repeated the 70's term "womanizing." I wish you'd ban that word and its conjugations from your vocabulary. English already has a perfectly good word for it. Gary Hart was a philanderer.

— tbc aka tbc0 on Twitter

Feb. 15 2016 05:51 PM
Eric C. Jacobson from Los Angeles

Downwind: It appears I offended your polite "sensibilities". Too bad. Let's be clear (in a way RadioLab's report wasn't): the Miami Herald (nation) wrecking crew was NOT engaged in legitimate journalism. They stalked (term used advisedly) and alarmed the declared Democratic presidential candidate (overwhelmingly) favored to win his party's nomination, who was operating without bodyguards during weekend down-time 2+ weeks into his campaign. Having rattled Senator Hart, and even with time to cool-off and reconsider they continued in all-out "feeding frenzy" mode, like sharks do after they have drawn blood.

The Miami Herald and Washington Post started this psychological warfare, and I (unlike Hart's cowardly nebbish staffers) would have finished it in EXACTLY the manner I described. Something dramatic needed to be done to snap the offending journalists out of their mad, ultra-insolent frenzied state.

Gary Hart was martyred, but the public has since rejected tabloid journalists as morals police and self-appointed gatekeepers of who can- and who can't run for president and have their views seriously considered by the voters.

As he states in his email to RadioLab Gary Hart has had a "rich life". As the "George Baily" of American politics before and during the baleful Reagan-Bush (Sr.) era Hart earned and deserved the best during his interesting and productive post-Senate/post-"downfall" years. The more important point here though (I doubt Hart would disagree), is that the nation and its people have NOT had a "wonderful life".

Instead of quickly recovering from 2 poisonous terms of conservative Reaganism, the country drank a "kinder and gentler" version of the hemlock for a Bush (Sr.) term, followed by 2 Republican-lite terms under a triangulator-in-chief, DLC co-founder Bill Clinton. The rest is history.

An America that could have become Bedford Falls became a vice-ridden dystopian continental Pottersville instead. Just think of the nightmare dream sequence in that classic film, and the parade of horribles that occurred because "George Baily wasn't there..." Well, thanks to his character assassins, "Gary Hart wasn't there..." to stop extreme inequality, deteriorated race-relations, mass incarceration, global warming activities, etc. at home, and abroad: a new Cold war instead of a peace dividend, NATO expansion instead of dissolution, the Persian Gulf war, the Balkans war, lethal Iraq sanctions, unrecognized vulnerability to terrorism by embittered Islamic militants we recruited to eject the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, the Iraq War, and on and on.

What is scaring a few possessed power-drunk journalists straight by appearing to commence a "necklacing" compared to sparing the nation the atrocities that have ensued since May 1987? Uncivil? Perhaps, but justified. Abhorrent? Hardly. I'd have done it in a NY minute. Hart would be a distinguished ex-president today and the nation and world far more wholesome places by comparison.

Feb. 12 2016 04:31 PM
Lindsey from Illinois

I have been a radio lab listener from day one. Years ago. Science. I MISS the science. I keep listening because I am hopeful that you will eventually return to science, but I am about to give up hope and stop listening. Can you at least address the elephant in the room? Are you done with science? Will there be more science soon?

Feb. 11 2016 03:23 PM

@ Eric C. Jacobson: Your Facebook response took a wild turn against civility when you talked about 'necklacing.'

Truly abhorrent.

Feb. 10 2016 05:40 PM

Agree with Last Refuge. The premise of this episode is obviously false. At the risk of getting my historical information from pop culture...I'd guess Hamilton was the first major political figure to be put in this situation.

Feb. 10 2016 04:33 PM
Walt Slazyk from d

Jad, Robert, I really enjoy RadioLab. It always makes me think. Ignore the people who want you to talk only about science. Feel free to go anywhere your curiosity takes you. I'm happy to come along for the ride.

Feb. 08 2016 03:13 PM
Eric C. Jacobson from Los Angeles

Progressives don't call NPR "National Pentagon Radio" for nothing.

You perform a truly deplorable (fictionalized) half-hour hatchet job on Gary Hart and then tell your commenters to "be civil, and be brief".

My response, which is civil but about twice as long as you allow, is here:

Eric C. Jacobson
Public Interest Lawyer

Feb. 08 2016 12:32 AM
Paul from Philly

Loved hearing Jad and Robert present a story together. Unlike many commenters here, I don't feel that EVERY RadioLab episode needs to be about science. This was good story-telling with high production value. In other words, this is what you should expect from RadioLab. Really great to hear the true character of this podcast, especially after that terrible Cathedral episode!

Feb. 07 2016 11:18 AM
NotAPundit from Austin, TX

For me, one of the most annoying things about this episode is that it spent almost the entire time discussing the ethics of journalism, rather than discussing the ethics of cheating on your spouse and lying to the public. Gary Hart is not a hero. Gary Hart is not a martyr. Gary Hart is a man of weak morals who didn't deserve to be the protagonist of this story.

Feb. 06 2016 10:48 PM
Bruce Ogletree from Grapevine, Texas

I'm more than a little surprised that Radiolab's normally insightful analysis missed the central issue in this story, that of honesty. Many have said it's not so much the crimes of the White House Plumbers that did Nixon in as his denial of knowledge of their actions. I have to wonder what would have happened if Gary Hart had said, "Not that it's any of your business, but yes, I spent the night with this woman. Next question." Instead he lied and dissembled. With any public office, people need to know that the person they intend to vote for is indeed who they claim to be. Integrity should always be main characteristic the voter looks for.

Feb. 04 2016 08:24 PM
Jason Teets from Detroit, MI

I found the closing comment by Gary Hart to be rather poignant. In a world which is now full of clickbait headlines and lazy, hype-based reporting, I found it interesting to be reminded that there really are 3 sides to every story, with only 1 of those sides being the absolute truth.

Feb. 03 2016 12:22 PM
Jader3rd from Seattle

I learned a lot from this episode and enjoyed it. Learning about the evolution of how ones character came into politics was fascinating.

Feb. 02 2016 04:29 PM
Ashley from Austin

I really enjoyed this episode. I listen during my commute to work, and I actually had to finish the podcast during my lunch break. It's fascinating how the change in political reporting is like a rising wave that crested around Gary Clark. I guess I'm young - but I had no real idea who Gary Clark was or what his campaign meant. To me, there was not a time when a president's character wasn't in question.

Feb. 02 2016 01:27 PM
Hambone from Wisconsin

Cokie Roberts suggests that Gary Hart "used women like Kleenex". This assertion requires evidence that the women with Gary Hart wanted something more long-term or full-time than what Hart could offer. It seems insulting to assume that a woman who enters a relationship with a married man is too foolish or love-struck to accept - even wholeheartedly embrace - the parameters of the relationship.

The podcast includes tape of people using terms like "cheat" or "infidelity" in ways that assume Mr. and Mrs. Hart had agreed upon a strictly monogamous marriage. A woman who wanted some leeway to be intimate with others might very well select a husband with a similar disposition. It seems condescending to suggest that Mrs. Hart was to blind to see non-monogamous tendencies before married Mr. Hart or too foolish to select a different husband if she wanted a strictly monogamous marriage.

I'd like to hear a Radiolab episode exploring the monogamy. Lots of marriages start when people are in their late 20s and lots of people live into their early 80s. How common is it to remain strictly monogamous for 50+ years? Are strictly monogamous marriages happier or healthier than marriages that include some hint of openness?

Feb. 02 2016 11:50 AM
Mallory from New York

I really miss when this podcast was science based. It's feeling more and more like This American Life.

Feb. 02 2016 10:47 AM
gruts4t from Japan

I know you guys have probably caught a lot of flak of the "it's not science" variety for this story. I have no problem with you straying into the social realm but if you're going to do that, you have to do it better. Real political coverage would have involved giving the journalist who broke the story a much harder time; hadn't he just written a column sticking up for the principles that he ditched over the space of weekend? A useful social science issue might have been "what are principles? do they count if they've never been tested? How many other things that we think we hold dear are we willing to let go when the wind changes direction?"By the way, the answer to "when did America lose its innocence?'is "on the Mayflower"not on Monkey Business

Feb. 01 2016 06:22 PM
Paul from CA

Stop complaining people, geez. This is a great podcast. These guys work hard to produce what you hear.

Feb. 01 2016 04:54 PM
Luis Roca from Chicago, IL, USA

I find disturbing how "justifiable” is to invade a person’s personal life and destroy their entire career just for the purpose of “journalism”. Im not justifying Heart’s affair, but i disagree with the press about claiming that it was something that the public should know, which i think deep down inside is just to sell more newspapers.

Feb. 01 2016 04:38 PM
R from New York

Just want to echo other commenters here - was pretty bummed to be turning on the podcast to listen to the Hart drama and implications for journalism, which has already covered extensively and retold by other venues. Love the show, long time listener, and can't wait for more mind-blowing science listening!

Feb. 01 2016 01:16 PM

I agreed with David - somebody bumped the knob on the compressor/limiter on this one. The audio on this episode doesn't have the usual quality you guys put out.

Feb. 01 2016 10:37 AM

I disagree with Xenolith. This episode was about social science as it applies to the relationships among voters, reporters, and politicians. Relationships are rarely static. It was interesting to have Cokie Roberts' viewpoint juxtaposed with another woman reporter's, Lesley Stahl's. Both highly-qualified, successful women in their field, so their nuanced differences of opinion are quite pertinent to the discussion.

Which continues today, though perhaps the inclusion of candidates' and elected officials' private lives in the equation of character vis à vis their performance in office, once brought front and center, has become old news to jaded voters' ears and minds.

At one time, the thought of divorce in connection with a president would have been unthinkable. Richard Nixon overcame that (he was his wife Pat's second husband). Followed by Ronald Reagan, who was himself divorced. And now we're looking at candidate Donald Trump, who is on his third marriage and holding his own so far.

Voters just don't appear all that concerned anymore. The topic is raised is when an opponent wants grounds to cast doubts on his rival's character and judgement.

For whatever reasons can be teased out of our national social consciousness, things have changed.

And will continue to change, of course. It's all fodder for study. It's all revealing of the human condition.

Jan. 31 2016 07:02 PM
Ross from New York

If Hart had become President, he would have presided over a nation of people who lose maternity and paternity rights over accusations of infidelity. In America, as in the rest of the world, social moors are codified as law with tremendous human costs. And these laws are often implemented by leaders and advocates who erroneously plead innocence to the crimes they create.

Maybe this would not be the case if we did not deify the national leaders as platonic ideals of American citizenry. They are not; everyone is flawed, everyone is sculpted by personal tragedy and shame and anger. Maybe if we did not pretend American Presidents were exempt from that inconvenient fact, they would be more empathetic to the plight of others.

Jan. 31 2016 05:44 PM
Last Refuge

As usual, a well-told story...but the premise is wrong. The build for the Gary Hart story started long, long before Hart himself. You can roll back to 1948 with Big Jim Folsom in Alabama who became the subject of a paternity suit, which he settled and still won his governor's race. That story was national news.
Walter Jenkins in the LJB administration was arrested in October, 1964 for "disorderly conduct" in a YMCA restroom in DC. You might want to read those stories.
Google Wilber Mills and Fannie Fox or Wayne Hayes and Elizabeth Ray.
Back in Alabama, you can see how the Birmingham paper trailed then Lt Gov Bill Baxley (who was running for governor), staked out his movements, and exposed his affair with his now wife, Marie, a full two years before the Gary Hart story.

Jan. 31 2016 01:49 PM
Dean Moblo from Grand Rapids, Michigan

More Science, Please! I've recommended your podcast to many, describing your topics as "hard-hitting." "Political Science" is NOT real science! Thank you, have a good one

Jan. 30 2016 11:09 PM

The audio in this episode is distorted, it does nasty things to your beautiful voices!

Jan. 30 2016 07:14 PM
Pete Stean from London

This episode wasn't about politics per se - it was about the way that reporting on politics has changed, and whether journalists should take some responsibility for that change.

Jan. 30 2016 04:50 PM

Longtime radiolab fan, I never comment on the internet yet these last two radiolab episodes have forced me. I don't want to spread hate but I need to say I am highly disappointed. The last episode was all religion and this episode is all politics, two subjects which I thought this show stayed away from. We weren't treading the line between the subconscious mind, the self, and if the soul exists, we were basically praying in a hospital for a full episode and now hearing about the birth of political scandal. This is my favorite podcast, I love the show, I will continue to listen but please stick to science and technology!

Jan. 30 2016 02:36 PM

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