Are we getting the leaders we deserve?

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist

Former Sen. Gary Hart, right, announces his withdrawal from the presidential race in 1987. (Photo: AP)

If you’re tired of hearing Donald Trump go on about his ratings and polls, if you’re mystified by the Twitter War of the Candidates’ Wives, if you can’t understand why Wolf Blitzer interviews a former contestant on “The Apprentice” as if she were a political authority, then I’ve got a video you really need to watch.

The video I’m showing you here, courtesy of C-Span’s archive, is of a presidential candidate speaking in 1987, at a moment of tectonic upheaval in our politics and media. Chances are pretty good you’ve never seen it, or even heard about it, and there’s a reason for that.

Before I tell the remarkable story of that eight-minute speech, though, let’s put it in the context of our moment.

Recently, a bunch of commentators — among them the president of the United States — seem to have latched on to the idea that the media is culpable in enabling Trump’s antic march to the Republican nomination. In the New York Times, my former colleagues Nicholas Kristof and Jim Rutenberg have both written columns in the past week asking whether we, as an industry, need to be more accountable.

Regular readers of this column know that I wrote early and often on this theme, including a column last December about the destructive “symbiosis” between Trump and the media — a term very much in fashion now.

In fact, not long ago I wrote an entire book on the collision of entertainment and political journalism, called “All the Truth Is Out,” which seems to have accidentally anticipated the Trump phenomenon. I borrowed from the brilliant work of the social critic Neil Postman, whose 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” feels more relevant today than it probably did then.

But the guy who really predicted all of this was Gary Hart, the protagonist of “All the Truth Is Out.” And man, did he try to sound the alarm.

At this time in 1987, Hart was rather like the Hillary Clinton of his day, only more talented and more visionary; he had been the presumed nominee of the Democratic Party since narrowly losing in 1984, and the Gallup Poll had him beating George H.W. Bush — then the sitting vice president — by double digits. A man of staggering intellect, he was talking even then about the rise of stateless terrorism and the arrival of a high-tech economy.

But his campaign unraveled in the space of five surreal days, during which reporters from the Miami Herald hid outside Hart’s home in order to catch him spending time with a younger woman. Hart found himself undone by the first modern political sex scandal — the inevitable result of myriad forces that were just then reshaping the media, from the echoes of Watergate to the birth of the mobile satellite.

What happened next is interesting and almost entirely forgotten.

Driven from the campaign trail in New Hampshire, Hart repaired to his cabin in the Denver foothills, where he and his family were literally penned in by a fleet of satellite trucks and news choppers. His aides wrote him the kind of withdrawal statement we’ve come to expect from scandalized politicians — contrite, gracious, bland.

Hart couldn’t sleep after reading that speech. It made him want to vomit. He called his close friend Warren Beatty (who would later make the film “Bulworth,” not incidentally) and talked through what he wished he could say instead.

Then, the next morning, Hart drove the canyon road down to Denver, stepped before the national media and calmly delivered one of the most stinging and prescient indictments of an American institution you will ever see.

“In public life, some things may be interesting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re important,” Hart said, decrying a process that he said reduced reporters to hunters and candidates to the hunted.

“And then after all that, ponderous pundits wonder in mock seriousness why some of the best people in this country choose not to run for high office,” Hart went on. “Now I want those talented people who supported me to insist that this system be changed. Too much of it is just a mockery. And if it continues to destroy people’s integrity and honor, then that system will eventually destroy itself.

“Politics in this country, take it from me, is on the verge of becoming another form of athletic competition or sporting match.”

He closed by paraphrasing his idol, Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I think we may in fact get the kind of leaders we deserve.”

Whenever I talk about my book to audiences around the country, I close with those lines. Invariably, I look up to find shocked and silent voters nodding their heads, amazed at how eerily that captures our present reality.

So why haven’t you heard anything about this seminal speech? I’ll tell you why. Because within 24 hours of its delivery, despite the polls showing that the public mostly sided with Hart over the reporters, America’s elite media, led by its columnists and editorial boards, rose up in unison to mock and discredit it.

“Instead of saying goodbye with a measure of dignity, respect and introspection,” A.M. Rosenthal, the Times’ former editor, wrote on the paper’s op-ed page, “Gary Hart told us he had decided that Gary Hart was a wonderful man after all and that everybody was responsible for Gary Hart’s political demise except Gary Hart.” (Watch Hart’s speech and decide for yourself if that was the point.)

Hart’s monologue was instantly buried in an avalanche of defensiveness and moral posturing. “It wasn’t just that I was blaming the media,” Hart recalled when we talked this week. “It was that I was a bad guy, and it was good riddance to a bad politician.”

For 29 years after that moment, until I directed him to it this week, even Hart hadn’t watched that video clip. Nor did he bother to continue pressing his case, despite a stream of offers to give speeches or appear on talk shows.

“I was not put on earth to pick a fight with the media and carry it out,” he told me. “I couldn’t repeat the theme of that talk without the headline inevitably saying, ‘Hart attacks the press,’ and I just didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.

“There was no capacity for thoughtful reflection,” Hart said. “It was all me versus them.”

By the time I got into the business of political journalism in the late 1990s, 24-hour cable news — mindless, sensational, personality-obsessed — was driving the conversation. Then came the Internet, with its frenzied competition for clicks. By 2007, Politico (which does some excellent work, to be fair) was calling itself the ESPN of news, which is pretty much exactly what Hart had prophesied.

And so we systematically created a process perfectly suited to a manipulative, reality-TV performer like Trump (or Sarah Palin before him) — and just as hostile to a guy like John Kasich, who talks about governing as complicated work. We spend half of any given debate talking about poll numbers and strategies, mean tweets and sordid allegations, because the game of politics is so much more alluring than the practice of statecraft.

I asked Hart if, on a week like this one, when battery charges against Trump’s campaign manager were vying for airtime against his war with Ted Cruz over their spouses, he felt vindicated at last.

“No,” he said quickly. “No. No.” After all, he explained, no one (other than me) ever saw the need to revisit what he said all those years ago.

I raise the Hart video this week because if you read this latest flood of self-criticism, some of it from commentators who have worked in our business for decades, you might come away thinking that something transformative has just taken us by surprise. You might get the impression that a tsunami of triviality has suddenly overwhelmed our media, and we barely had time to suck in air and duck our heads.

But don’t let anyone tell you that this is all just about Trump’s suckering us, or about some convergence of recent trends we couldn’t have foreseen. It is, in fact, a generational reckoning — the failure of executives and anchors and reporters-turned-cable-personalities, many of them in our most serious news outlets, who for decades refused to confront the creeping realities of their industry, as surely as a generation of political leaders refused to confront the realities of fiscal and global instability.

Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS, did a pretty nice job of encapsulating that failure when he talked about Trump’s campaign this way last month: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

We can say, as Moonves surely would, that we were just responding to market forces beyond our control. We can say that voters, and not us, get to decide what matters and what doesn’t. We can point out that we’ve gone to great lengths to expose the depth of Trump’s ignorance and inconsistency.

What we can’t say is that we weren’t told it would happen.