Vetting Then and Now

The release of David Maraniss’s biography of Obama proves beyond doubt that not only is Obama a total fraud, but that the media did none of the background vetting usually done even for liberal candidates whom they otherwise like.  Contrast the treatment of Obama, for example, with what happened to Gary Hart back in 1984 when it emerged that he, too, had embroidered his resume.  From chapter 8 of The Age of Reagan:

     Presidential candidates who rise from obscurity in American politics tend to be like half-baked soufflés: they collapse just as quickly.  With success came intensified media scrutiny, and soon it emerged that Hart was . . . weird.  It turned out his given name was Hartpence; he had shortened it to Hart in college, but gave contradictory accounts of why he had done so.  He had radically changed the style of his signature well into adulthood.  And there was an odd discrepancy about his age: Hart claimed to be 46, and his campaign biography said he was born on November 28, 1937.  In fact Hart was born in 1936.  He had started using the latter date when he applied to the Virginia Bar in 1965, and had used the new date ever since.  He had studied for a divinity degree at Yale, but curiously omitted this fact from his various biographies such as Who’s Who and the Congressional Directory.  Hart’s only new ideas, one of his campaign aides quipped, were his name and his age.  While it was not apparent to voters who only saw Hart in TV, Hart made little or no eye contact with audiences; Hart’s speaking style is to look over the heads of crowds.  Rumors about his womanizing—he had been separated from his wife twice—reached the news media; the stately David Broder made an oblique reference to this gossip in a column that speculated whether Hart’s interest in feminist issues derived from his “many women friends.”

Hart’s problem, as Richard Brookhiser observed, was that “the candidate of new ideas could not afford weird behavior,” and Hart’s bizarre explanations for these biographical oddities set off a media feeding frenzy and unnerved a lot of Democrats.  “What the public held against Hart,” Ronald Steel wrote later, “was not his lack of solutions, but his lack of authenticity.”  Numerous leading media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the TV networks ran prominent features on Hart’s peculiarities.  The hypothesis must be entertained that the media, having been caught off guard by Hart’s surprise emergence, was out to exact retribution.  The New York Times and the three TV networks don’t like it when they proclaim before the first primary that Mondale is the all but certain nominee, only to have the pesky voters defy them.  Who gave Hart permission?  “His candidacy had made a fool of Washington insiders,” Time’s William A. Henry wrote; “No one, no matter how long his memory, was able to recall anything in politics to compare with the mania of exuberance about Gary Hart that swept America.  Prairie fire, Hart’s delighted partisans called it.”  (Curious that Hart’s boosters used the same catch phrase Reagan had been using for 20 years.)  The media was certain to do its best to put the fire out.

On the CBS Evening News in early March, shortly before the next round of big primaries, Dan Rather led a segment thus: “Who is this man, this Gary Hart?”  On NBC the following night, Roger Mudd asked: “How old is Gary Hart?  And why did he change his name?”  NBC wasn’t done.  Two nights later, NBC’s John Dancy offered another Hart segment that began: “Who is Gary Hart, anyway, and what does he believe?”  Tom Brokaw dismissed Hart as “this season’s hit rock-‘n’-roll single.”  Roger Mudd practically taunted Hart in an interview: “Why do you imitate John Kennedy so much?”  CBS’s Bruce Morton kept up the theme: “Gary Hart is the hottest political property around, at least this week.  But who is he?”  ABC was not left out, with Jack Smith delivering a devastating syllabus of Hart’s strangeness: “He’s even fudged the year of his birth.”  The troubled state of Hart’s marriage­—he had been separated twice from his wife—became fodder for media analysis.  The only thing missing was an analogue to Chappaquiddick.  (That would come three years later.)

If anyone in the media had actually read Obama’s books and asked questions like they did about Gary Hart. . .


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