Matt Bai, Tom Fiedler set sail aboard the Monkey Business

jpgPreviously published at WGBHNews.org.

It was the summer of 2009, and the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication was in town. A group of us went out to dinner at Legal Seafoods at the Pru. Among them was Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University’s College of Communication and the former executive editor of the Miami Herald.

Fiedler held us in thrall with a blow-by-blow description of his best-known story: the sinking of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign aboard the good ship Monkey Business. It was the Herald that staked out Hart’s townhouse in Washington and learned that a woman named Donna Rice had been staying with him. Hart soon dropped out of the campaign; he later re-entered it but failed to gain any traction.

Last month The New York Times Magazine published a long excerpt from a book by Times political reporter (and Boston Globe alumnus) Matt Bai arguing that the Herald’s pursuit of Hart represented something new and disturbing in American politics: Journalists in the skeptical post-Watergate era were no longer willing to give politicians a pass on any misbehavior, including their sexual peccadilloes. Perhaps the most damning part of Bai’s piece was his discovery that Fiedler, who had long cited Hart’s challenge to “follow me around” as justification, had actually not learned of that challenge until after the Herald’s stakeout.

Now Fiedler has written a strong, thoughtful article for Politico Magazine in which he responds to Bai, taking the view that a presidential candidate’s lies should not be considered “inconsequential.” Fielder’s take on the “follow me around” matter is worth quoting in full:

For Bai, much hinges on the precise timing of this quote. He claims that the Herald used the “follow me around” challenge to justify its pursuit of Hart. This was dishonest, he suggests, because we couldn’t have known about it before the stakeout — the quote appeared in the [New York] Times on May 3, the same day our story ran. What Bai doesn’t acknowledge is that we didn’t need the [E.J.] Dionne quote for justification.

A week or so before the Herald and the Times’ articles ran, in an interview with me, Hart had been similarly dismissive of the womanizing allegations, saying, “I’ve been in public life for 15 years and I think that if there was anything about my background that anybody had any information on, they would bring it forward. But they haven’t.” The Hart quote I published wasn’t as dramatic as the one Hart provided to Dionne, but its intent was the same. And it was a lie. That’s not news?

Fiedler’s purpose is not to discredit Bai. Indeed, Fiedler calls himself “a great admirer of Bai’s talents as a journalist and a writer.” But Fiedler does manage to provide a different context for why and how Hart’s downfall was covered. If you read Bai’s article, you owe it to yourself to read Fiedler’s as well.

(Disclosure: Fiedler is a friendly acquaintance and a colleague on WGBH’s “Beat the Press.”)

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George McGovern, 1922-2012

George McGovern was the only presidential candidate I ever worked for. In the fall of 1972 I was a 16-year-old junior at Middleborough (Mass.) High School and a McGovern volunteer. Mainly I made calls to supposedly undecided voters, and was informed by more than one that I was working for a “communist.”

McGovern was one of the most decent people ever to seek the presidency, and I was sorry to learn of his passing this morning. I don’t know what kind of a president he would have been — I suspect he would have made Jimmy Carter look like a decisive executive by comparison. But he had a war hero’s aversion to war, and his generous spirit would have been welcome qualities in any of the presidents elected since his failed 1972 campaign. Needless to say, he would have been vastly superior to Richard Nixon, who defeated him in that historic landslide.

In April 1978, when I was a Northeastern co-op student working at the Woonsocket (R.I.) Call, I covered a speech McGovern gave in Boston, and took the photo you see here. It would probably take me half a day to find the clip, and it wouldn’t be of much account anyway. But I had just read Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” and I remember asking McGovern if Thompson’s description of McGovern’s reasoning for dropping Thomas Eagleton from the ticket was accurate.

McGovern paused a moment, and then confirmed Thompson’s account. I thought it was a remarkable admission. Thompson had written that McGovern believed Eagleton’s mental illness was so severe that he had concluded he couldn’t run the risk of his becoming vice president — or, possibly, president. In 2005, McGovern told the New York Times: “I didn’t know a damn thing about mental illness, and neither did anyone around me.”

The last time I saw McGovern was in 1984, four years after he had been defeated for re-election to the Senate. He was running for president again and was taking part in a debate among the Democratic candidates. It might have been at Harvard, but I’m not entirely sure. It seemed that time had passed him by, and indeed he wasn’t a factor in what turned out to be a two-man race between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart.

During the debate, McGovern sharply criticized the federal government’s decision to break up the AT&T monopoly two years earlier. Even then, it seemed like an old man’s lament. With the passage of time, it became clear that the break-up unleashed technological innovation that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. McGovern’s era was over, as even liberal Democrats had moved on.

After that, McGovern faded from view. It is to Bill Clinton’s credit that he gave the former senator useful work, and awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Still, his declining years could not have been happy ones, as he lost two of his adult children following long struggles with alcohol abuse.

George McGovern was one of the great public figures of the second half of the 20th century. Simply put, he showed us all a better way. It was not his fault that we chose not to take it. And now his voice has been stilled.

Update: You’re going to see a lot of fine tributes to McGovern in the days ahead. This one, by Joe Kahn of the Boston Globe, is well worth your time.